Posts Tagged ‘reflection’

Mirroring the Light

Mirroring the Light

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

(Bahá’u’lláh: Gleanings: XXVII)

Revisiting ‘The Marriage of Self and Soul‘ triggered me into thinking there would be some value in republishing this sequence from 2009.

A Case of Mistaken Identity

Hopefully we have most of us made an attempt at the exercise at the end of the previous post.

A question left hanging in the air was concerning what we could learn about our mind from the comparison with a mirror. The easiest way to explain one of the most important implications is to say that consciousness is like the glass of the mirror and our thoughts, plans and feelings like the reflections in the glass. All too often we mistake what is reflected in the glass of our consciousness for who we are in essence.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy uses the image of the chess board to make the same point:

We mistakenly identify with the pieces, not realising we are also, perhaps more truly the board. The point is that thoughts, feelings, sensations, emotions, memories and so on are pieces: they are not you.

(A.C.T.: Page 192)

As I do also, they place great store by this aspect of the self, the one that remains the same as changing experiences flow past: they call it the observing self and believe, rather implausibly, that it derives from language. They believe that operating from the observing self enables us to unhook ourselves from disabling scripts and discover, choose to live by and enact our deepest values in spite of all the discomfort that inevitably attends upon such a commitment. Our lives become value- rather than self- or language-centred. If we do not achieve this level of understanding, in their view, we are condemned to betray our highest values because we have confused ourselves with what we are telling or have been told about ourselves.

It’s perhaps worth clarifying at this point that I am not saying that Bahá’ís believe that this ability to reflect is our soul. I do believe though that it is a pointer to or attribute of our soul. To summarise a complex argument rather simply we can say the essence of the soul is unknowable (Gleanings: LXXXII). However, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá illustrates that there is in fact something we can know with the analogy of a flower:

Its external appearance and manifest attributes are knowable; but the inner being, the underlying reality or intrinsic identity, is still beyond the ken and perception of our human powers.

(Promulgation of Universal Peace: page 421)

This suggests that while we cannot know the essence of our soul we can experience its attributes. I am personally of the view that the capacity to reflect is one of the attributes of the soul.

Directing the Mirror

‘Abdu’l-Bahá  in ‘Paris Talks‘ goes further in pointing out in what ways this power is involved in our spiritual development. He uses the image of the mirror to do so:

Reflecting Evil

Reflecting Evil

The meditative faculty is akin to the mirror; if you put it before earthly objects it will reflect them. Therefore if the spirit of man is contemplating earthly subjects he will be informed of these. . . . Therefore let us keep this faculty rightly directed — turning it to the heavenly Sun and not to earthly objects — so that we may discover the secrets of the Kingdom, and comprehend the allegories of the Bible and the mysteries of the spirit. May we indeed become mirrors reflecting the heavenly realities . .

(page 176)

From a spiritual point of view, every experience we have is only a reflection in the mirror of our souls and not reducible simply to activity of the brain which is more like a radio receiver than a computer in this process. The purpose of this mirror is to reflect divine light. We must not mistake ourselves for the earthly things we reflect: that drags us down. Neither must we mistake ourselves for God when divine light is reflected from our hearts: that way lies one of the most spiritually corrosive emotions – pride. If we are a mirror it explains why we might experience the whole universe within us — we can reflect it! It is folded within us but it is not us any more than the mirror that I look into is me.

Identity and the Core Self

Another important implication of this model is that we are in essence all mirrors. What our cultures, upbringing, current situation and ‘tribal’ loyalties, such as Everton, England or Unitarianism, have brought to the shaping of our identities is superficial and divisive: it is not who we really are no matter how desperately we hold onto it. Underneath we are all the same. Our differences, when they are creative, are to be celebrated: when they are destructive, they can and should be discarded. Our essence will not be destroyed by this: rather it will be revealed in all its glory.

It is generally agreed that it is hard, if not impossible to undertake such a process of shedding destructive identities unaided. Even those who do not embrace the idea that the soul might be involved, accept that we need a special kind of support which our culture calls psychotherapy. When the shedding of an identity is very radical, when we are proposing to strip our sense of self back to the core, most spiritual traditions recommend a guru: because Bahá’ís are encouraged not to place other human beings on that kind of pedestal, we feel we need to rely on God through prayer and other spiritual processes, all of which are designed to weaken the hold of our attachment to our lesser selves.

However we go about it in our various traditions, stripping our identifications back to this core self is perhaps the only way of achieving a true deep recognition of our common humanity which is sufficiently strong to overcome many of our long-held and much cherished prejudices. Once we have experienced this core self, however faintly, I believe also that the idea of the soul becomes a more reasonable possibility to entertain, though this experience falls short of the kind of compelling evidence that would make dogmatic scepticism seem completely ridiculous.  Reflection, in this sense, and detachment as used in many spiritual traditions, seem to be very closely related.

Ponder at all times in your hearts how ye were created. Since We have created you all from one same substance it is incumbent on you to be even as one soul, to walk with the same feet, eat with the same mouth and dwell in the same land, that from your inmost being, by your deeds and actions, the signs of oneness and the essence of detachment may be made manifest.

(Arabic Hidden Words: No. 68)

Limits of Free Will

This concept of consciousness as a mirror, whose direction of aim we can choose, also helps clarify one of the earlier issues we looked at: is our will free? We always need to specify: free to do what?

The mirror analogy helps here with one aspect of the problem. If a mirror is facing a dung heap and is in reasonably good condition, it will reflect it. That’s what mirrors do: they have no choice but to reflect what’s put before them. To a degree that’s also true of consciousness. However, we can choose which way to turn the mirror, and, if we do turn it, it will reflect something different. Of course if we have really neglected or other people have abused our mirror, it may have become so filthy it can’t reflect anything at all, rather as though it had not just been pointed at a dung heap but dropped into one. So, a double effort would be required here: we’d need to clean it and turn it the right way. Habit could, of course, have made the arm that pulls the mirror towards the world much stronger than the arm that pulls it towards the good, as we conceive it. This means that much exercise of the weaker arm will be needed before we can hold the mirror steadily towards the good. This is a choice that is still within our power though, no matter how weak the better arm may be. Spiritual disciplines help in this process.

Reflecting Higher Things

Reflecting Higher Things

Where the garden metaphor gains is in helping us understand a different but related aspect of the mind. Unlike a mirror, which is not changed by what is reflected in it, by and large, a garden is very much affected by how it is cultivated and what is sown or allowed to take root in it. This enriches the idea of the kind of choices before us and the exact way free will needs to be exercised.

This we will need to look at in more detail in the next post. In the meanwhile, we can all keep polishing.

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Mirroring the Light

Mirroring the Light

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

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

Revisiting ‘The Marriage of Self and Soul‘ triggered me into thinking there would be some value in republishing this sequence from 2009. The first three posts appeared consecutively: the last two will come out next Tuesday and Wednesday.

Is the soul a smoke and mirrors job?

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

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

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

Meditation, the first man says:

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

The second man states of meditation that it:

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

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

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

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

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

‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s words are:

[Meditation] puts man in touch with God.

A Plan in The Mind's Mirror

A Plan in The Mind’s Mirror

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

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

The Importance of Experience

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

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

A Feeling in The Mind's Mirror

A Feeling in The Mind’s Mirror

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

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

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

Separating the Mirror from its Reflections

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mirroring the Light

Mirroring the Light

A pure heart is as a mirror . . .

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

Bahá’u’lláh: The Seven Valleys (page 21) & Persian Hidden Words No. 3

Revisiting ‘The Marriage of Self and Soul‘ triggered me into thinking there would be some value in republishing this sequence from 2009. The first three posts will appear consecutively: the last two next Tuesday and Wednesday.

I want to deal with only two more complex issues. Both of them stem from our experience of what might be our soul. The two quotations from Bahá’u’lláh give us a sense of what those issues might be. These posts could go on for a while yet!

The Mirror and the Garden

The first issue is to do with how we can feel there is an infinity inside us and how that relates to the ability of our mind to watch itself. We will be talking a lot about mirrors, hearts and minds later.

The second issue is one that Dennett raises which needs to be addressed more closely than I did last time. He states that the brain is a parallel processor of great complexity and that serial consciousness is what computing people would call virtual not real: in simple terms the more complicated parallel processor underneath, which can do lots of things at once (‘Not a man, then!’ did you say?), fakes our experience of thinking one thing at a time in a time-line.

Guy Claxton deals with much the same issue by using the analogy of interconnected octopuses to describe the brain’s complexity. Both



agree, as I do (and Jonathan Haidt as well in his elephant and rider metaphor), that the brain, whether or not we have a soul, can do an awful lot of complicated things without our feeling anything at all and can go its own way in spite of us sometimes.

This is the issue that will involve us in talking about gardens as way of describing hearts and minds. We will be exploring whether the relationship between our conscious mind and the rest of our mind is rather like the relationship between gardeners and their gardens. You will have to bear, more than you usually do, with my limitations here: my hands-on experience of gardening is derived only from the deckchair.

In the end I hope to use all this to shed light on whether I have a soul and whether my will is free.

Mind and Brain

We have to get some basic stuff out of the way first before we tackle the fascinating surfaces of our mind’s mirrors and the fertile depths of our heart’s gardens.

I ended the previous post wondering what it is like to experience my soul. I hinted that there is something about our inner experience, something with which we are all very familiar, which might just be the end of a piece of string that is tied to our soul, the experience of soul in consciousness if you like.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, along with therapies like Psychosynthesis as well as Existentialist writers and millenia of meditators, have all homed in on the one same remarkable capacity of our minds. I can look into my own mind and watch it: we can reflect. I can see the contents of my consciousness passing through my mind. ‘Oh look!’ I can say to myself, ‘There’s a feeling of anger. There’s a thought about fish and chips. Oh, and there goes a plan to go shopping tomorrow.’ I think we all know what that feels like already or can at least confirm that we can do it with just a small amount of effort: we can separate our consciousness from its contents.

How do we do that though and what does it mean?

Some say it’s a by-product of language. That’s the A.C.T. explanation. “I speak therefore I can talk as though I am watching my mind.’ Others dress up their explanatory bankruptcy in fancier ways. ‘It’s an epiphenomenon of the brain’s complexity.’ Epiphenomenon means by-product. It also is used to indicate that this ability is accidental and pointless: all the really important stuff is going on underneath where the neurons are firing. ‘I’ve got more connections in my brain than atoms in the universe, so I think my mind can watch itself, ha, ha! It’s got no idea what’s going on.’

Some are more charitable. “Well, when you get complex systems you do sometimes get an emergent property that’s more than the sum of its parts.’ Consciousness and self-reflection would fall into this category. ‘My brain’s so complicated it’s better than its bits so I really can watch my mind working. More than that, my mind can change the brain as well as being affected by the brain.’

Now that really is something.

It either demonstrates an emergent property or suggests that the mind and brain might be different kinds of stuff. It really does happen as well. For instance, wiring a very antisocial late-teenager’s head (i.e. late meaning 18 or 19, but not dead yet or behind time in this case!) to a feedback machine, so he could learn how to increase the activity of the frontal lobes which control impulsive behaviour, led to more active frontal lobes. His grades improved, his crime rate slumped to zero and he stopped using drugs. That doesn’t sound like the brain was really calling all the shots to me.

The Spiritual Perspective

So, the mind can watch itself and also change the way the brain functions in significant ways. Why might that be more than an emergent property?

First of all, in the Pam Reynolds experience, which is not unique, we had, in my view, solid proof that her mind gathered and remembered information that her brain could never have gleaned or stored. It operated separately. The idea of mind/brain separation, therefore has evidence in its favour (See also Jenny Wade’s ‘Changes of Mind‘ for a full discussion of mind/brain separation in infancy and beyond). No theory connected with mind as an emergent property has ever predicted that. It goes way beyond what would have been expected.

That’s the kind of externally corroborated evidence that science likes to find but in this case prefers to ignore as what it demonstrates is held to be impossible.

More importantly though, there is the evidence of our own subjective experience. Remember the disparagement of free will? It’s an illusion, Dennett says. Such people also say that our experience of being able to look at our minds isn’t what it feels like. But why should we believe them about this any more than we should believe them when they say we do not really have free will? Is this another lamp post that needs kicking?

Who is it then that we can get in touch with when we watch ourselves? Who was there when we look back on every aspect of our lives at every period and feel we were the same self doing the watching then? Every cell in our bodies has since been changed. Is it really just a trick of language, neuronal connections or memory? Is there really no genuine constant sense of a real inner self observing all we do?

We all have to make our own decision about what that experience means. I think it is quite reasonable to say that it suggests that my mind is made of different stuff from my brain although it uses it. It is at least as reasonable to conclude that as to conclude that it’s all down to the neurons.

In another post there may be an opportunity to look at the work of Margaret Donaldson and Ken Wilber who both brilliantly advocate in their very different ways the value of subjective experience as data about reality. Many people can keep replicating the same experience by the same spiritual practices in very different cultures: that means something, they argue, about the true nature of reality. Newberg, D’Aquili and Rause have the humility to admit that even though we can pin down exactly what’s going on in the brain at the same time as these experiences, this doesn’t mean they’re not real anymore than understanding the neurobiology of colour vision proves that colour doesn’t exist. The fact that our brains turn wavelengths of light into the experience of colour does not mean there is nothing out there corresponding to the experience, even though green and 510 nanometres seem to have very little in common!

If I can carry you with me rather further now, let’s see in the next post where this possibility can take us. It is worth reminding ourselves again here that the word we use to describe this ability of the mind is ‘reflection.’ Next time we will be exploring mirrors, hearts, selves and consciousness. Not much to look forward to then.

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At the end of the previous post we left this question hanging in the air: how do we remove the obstacles that block our way down this fruitful and creative path called consultation? Can we only consult if we are completely detached? If not, which seems likely, shouldn’t we bother because it’s all too difficult? Is this becoming one of those counsels of despair, which can seem so characteristic of the spiritual life?

Perhaps, though, as we will now begin to explore, detachment is more of a process than an end-state at least in this life and it’s therefore always possible to inch a bit closer. As the saying goes, ‘strive for perfection and be content with progress.’


Peter Koestenbaum in his book ‘New Image of the Person: the Theory and Practice of Clinical Philosophy’ states that:[1]

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

By reflection, amongst other things, he means unhooking ourselves from our ideas.

An example he gives from the clinical context illustrates what he means:

. . . to resist in psychotherapy means to deny the possibility of dissociating consciousness from its object at one particular point . . . To overcome the resistance means success in expanding the field of consciousness and therewith to accrue increased flexibility . . .

But overcoming this resistance is difficult. It hurts and frightens us. How are we to do it? In therapy it is the feeling of trust and safety we develop towards the therapist that helps us begin to let go of maladaptive world views, self-concepts and opinions. If not in therapy, what else might make us feel safe enough to let go?

Amongst the prerequisites listed by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá for those who take counsel together is ‘detachment from all save God.’[2] In the Tablets written after the Kitáb-i-Aqdas Bahá’u’lláh explains what it takes to be detached:[3]

The essence of detachment is for man to turn his face towards the courts of the Lord, to enter His Presence, behold His Countenance, and stand witness before Him.

It’s fairly clear that such an awareness will entail a great deal of work on practising the presence of God. If we can maintain such a sense of His Presence then it is extremely unlikely that we would be inclined pig-headedly to bludgeon our friends, family, colleagues and neighbours into submission with our opinions.  It feels like a lifetime’s work to get to this point though.

Those who find it hard to believe in a God of any kind might be tempted to conclude that this means that consultation is not for them, and those who do believe in God may believe the bar is set too high.

I am not at all sure that any of that is true.

Not only do I resonate to the words of McGilchrist when he writes:[4] ‘no argument for, or against, the existence of God can possibly succeed.… whatever we choose to call it, there is almost certainly more here then we have words for, or can expect ever to understand using reason alone.’

In addition, my own experience of trying to master the art of reflection, in this sense of dissociating consciousness from its contents and becoming increasingly grounded in deeper levels of our being than our Western culture usually teaches us how to access, convinces me that we can all learn to be less anxiously concerned to prove that we are right. Instead, we can feel secure enough in the emptiness of letting go of our self-image and the prejudices that go with it, to truly listen to the very different perspectives that surround us, share our own sense of reality with humility and thereby find a way for all of us to enhance our understanding, lifting it to a more creative level.

Breaking Free from the Blocks

Koestenbaum catches the reality of this when he writes:[5] ‘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.’ Reflection, he says:[6] ‘. . . releases consciousness from its objects and gives us the opportunity to experience our conscious inwardness in all its purity.’ This links back to an unexpected core idea he had already presented:[7] ‘The name Western Civilisation has given to . . . the extreme inward region of consciousness is God.’

We are therefore not so far away from the words of ‘Abdu’l-Baha when He states,[8] ‘It is an axiomatic fact that while you meditate you are speaking with your own spirit. In that state of mind you put certain questions to your spirit and the spirit answers: the light breaks forth and the reality is revealed.’

‘Abdu’l-Bahá continues:[9] ‘This faculty of meditation frees man from the animal nature, discerns the reality of things, puts man in touch with God.’

It must say something important when such divergent traditions of thought converge on this one point. Why would we then deny that deep inside us is a source of wisdom it is well worth tapping?

So, by reflection He seems to mean something closely related to meditation.

We need to consider the possibility that consultation is also a process that can help us become more detached. If so, it’s goal is clearly more than simply the investigation of truth. It is a spiritual discipline in itself and leads to personal as well as group transformation. It perhaps could rightly be called a Bahá’í yoga.

Maybe now would be a good time to focus on how the two processes of meditation and consultation might work together. They may be mutually reinforcing: they may even effectively be the same thing!

Do Consultation and Meditation Reinforce Each Other?

The wine of renunciation must needs be quaffed, the lofty heights of detachment must needs be attained, and the meditation referred to in the words “One hour’s reflection is preferable to seventy years of pious worship must needs be observed, . . .’

(Bahá’u’lláh: The Kitáb-i-Íqán, page 238)

At first sight an equivalence between meditation and consultation, of the kind I am speculating about, seems unlikely. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá explains in Paris Talks:[10]

Bahá’u’lláh says there is a sign (from God) in every phenomenon: the sign of the intellect is contemplation and the sign of contemplation is silence, because it is impossible for a man to do two things it one time – he cannot both speak and meditate.

Consultation, at least in Western Europe and the United States, is not conspicuous for its silences. Have we drawn a blank?

As we have just seen, according to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, ‘while you meditate you are speaking with your own spirit. In that state of mind you put certain questions to your spirit and the spirit answers: the light breaks forth and the reality is revealed.’

Perhaps not a blank then. We are, in a sense, consulting, though with our higher Selves rather than with other people. Such inner speech seems to require an absence of outer speech, but it may nonetheless be a form of consultation. We are suspending our usual assumptions and opening ourselves up to other possibilities. He goes onto say:

The spirit of man is itself informed and strengthened during meditation; through it affairs of which man knew nothing are unfolded before his view. Through it he receives Divine inspiration, through it he receives heavenly food.

When we suspend our assumptions in this way, we receive intimations of a higher and more accurate kind. This sounds remarkably similar to the understanding achieved in consultation. It seems possible, at least in principle, to use meditation to improve our consultation skills and consultation perhaps to practise and refine our meditation. It also raises the question whether consultation, at least in the West, would benefit from more silence.

As we have already seen, consultation requires detachment, which is something that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá seems to be referring to when He says that meditation ‘frees man from the animal nature’ and ‘puts man in touch with God.’

One possible way of conceptualising detachment, or at least a result of it, is freedom from our animal nature as described here.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá wrote:[11]

Regarding the statement in The Hidden Words, that man must renounce his own self, the meaning is that he must renounce his inordinate desires, his selfish purposes and the promptings of his human self, and seek out the holy breathings of the spirit . . . . ..

Meditation, then, might help us achieve the detachment necessary for consultation. Consultation will almost certainly strengthen our ability to be detached because it requires learning how to exchange ideas without over-identifying with them, and thereby facilitate our meditation. They are clearly not unrelated disciplines sharing as they do this same outcome.

Paul Lample in Revelation and Social Reality[12] points in the same direction when he writes, ‘Reflection takes a collective form through consultation.’

We also have to be open to the views of other people when we consult and to the Bahá’í Scriptures when we meditate upon them or to the promptings of our higher self when we commune with it in meditation. So these two skills are really not all that different either: they both enhance our understanding of reality.

In the end, it’s hard to resist the conclusion that meditation will help us consult and consulting will help us meditate. It certainly seems to me that meditation and consultation, used in conjunction as the Bahá’í Faith recommends though not necessarily along with accepting a concept of God, as I explained earlier, would constitute a wrecking ball of sufficient power to bring even the most obdurate of our dividing walls crashing to the ground and pave the way for greater unity within and between us. Such a degree of unity is imperative if we are to become capable of solving the problems that currently confront us within families, towns and nations, as well as across the world as whole.

Consultation has links with justice, too complex to go into now, which add further strength to this position:[13]

To the extent that justice becomes a guiding concern of human interaction, a consultative climate is encouraged that permits options to be examined dispassionately and appropriate courses of action selected. In such a climate the perennial tendencies toward manipulation and partisanship are far less likely to deflect the decision-making process.

Paul Lample, explains further:[14]

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

I think that’s more than enough, hopefully, to convey what I’m getting at hear, though it probably won’t be the last time I come back to this topic. It keeps popping its head up.


[1]. The New Image of the Person – page 69.
[2]. Bahá’í Administration – page 21.
[3]. Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh – page 155.
[4]. The Matter with Things – page 1195.
[5]. The New Image of the Person – page 73.
[6]. Op. cit. – page 99.
[7]. Op. cit. – page 49.
[8]. Paris Talks – page 174.
[9]. Op. cit. – page 175.
[10]. Paris Talks – page 174.
[11]. Selected Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá – page 207.
[12]. Revelation and Social Reality – page 212.
[13]. The Prosperity of Humankind – from Section II.
[14]. Revelation and Social Reality – page 215.

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One hour’s reflection is worth seventy years’ pious worship.Mirror 1

Bahá’u’lláh: quoting a hadith in the Kitáb-i-Íqán

Given the recent new posts taking another look at psychosis, it seemed worthwhile republishing this sequence from several years ago.

Three Crucial Factors

There are at least three other crucial factors in the mind-work process over and above what we have dealt with in the previous posts: Reflection, Relatedness and Relativity. They are qualities that the mind-worker must have from the start. The names for these qualities are used in an existential model of mind-work. (Reflection is also a core quality of the Bahá’í spiritual process and has been discussed at length in other posts on this site, as has consultation which can be fairly described as a process of group reflection.)

Reflection, relativity and relatedness as discussed here are the antidotes to three forces of fixity – drowning, dogmatism and disowning — which I discussed in detail in the article on The Art of Reflection (there I discussed in depth collaborative conversation, a term I borrowed at the time from Anderson and Swim) in This is Madness. The forces of fixity are common when we function in survival mode. Psychotic experiences in people who need help from Mental Health Services are very threatening. Being in survival mode is therefore very much the norm for many of them. Creating a situation that feels safe is of paramount importance. Otherwise it can be very difficult to mobilise the forces of flexibility.

Reflection, Relatedness and Relativity are the core of the mind-work process. They will need some further explanation. They are what the mind-worker models and what the client can either develop further or discover how to use. If the mind-worker lacks them the process of mind-work is likely to remain locked in unproductive disputes that tend to drive the client further into his private world. The client may or may not demonstrate them at the beginning but should increasingly do so as the mind-work progresses.  The better the mind-worker models them the more likely it is that the client will begin to use them too. These qualities are what consolidate and generalise the process of change. They ensure that the process of mind-work becomes a permanently transformative one. If the client does not develop these abilities there is likely to be no real sustainable progress.

These three capacities combine with the relationship aspects in different ways – trust, containment and authenticity – each of which contributes something special and important to the therapeutic process. They may have an order of importance which is discussed later in that without Trust it may be impossible to develop Containment and without Trust and Containment Authenticity may be impossible. Eventually the client will certainly need to acquire and evince Reflection, Relatedness and Relativity, without which he will never make his own any clarity that comes from the mind-worker.

What, in the Relationship, Makes Change Possible?

The Plane of Authenticity

Clarification and Congruence (see earlier posts) are two sides of a square mind-space, so to speak, which is completed by Reflection and Relativity, two concepts which are also related. The combination constitutes what we might call Authenticity.

Let’s take reflection first. Reflection is the capacity to separate consciousness from its contents (Koestenbaum: 1979). We can step back, inspect and think about our experiences. We become capable of changing our relationship with them and altering their meanings for us. We may have been trapped in a mindset. Through using and acquiring the power of reflection, we do not then replace one “fixation” with another: we are provisional and somewhat tentative in our new commitments which remain fluid in their turn. Just as a mirror is not what it reflects we are not what we think, feel and plan but the capacity to do all those things. Knowing this and being able to act on it frees us up: we are no longer prisoners of our assumptions, models and maps.

The principal focus of reflection in mind-work is often upon our models of reality and upon the experiences which give rise to them and to which they give rise in return. This is especially true of “psychosis.” The capacity to reflect increases the flexibility of our models in the face of conflict and opens us up to new experiences: the adaptation and change that this makes possible enhances the potential usefulness of our models and their connected experiences. It is the antithesis of drowning where we are engulfed in our experiences and sink beneath them.

The ability to reflect, one part of our repertoire of tools for transformation, enables us to achieve our own clarification without depending upon another mind-worker. If a mind-worker does all the reflecting she is just giving people fish: if she can help someone discover how to reflect, she has taught him to fish. In combination with its sister quality, relativity, it becomes a powerful tool indeed. The antidote to chronic dogmatism, another of the forces of fixity, is relativity. Being dogmatic seals us off from new evidence which makes it hard to change our minds even when we are wrong.

It is not surprising that Reflection and Relativity are interconnected. By placing our models and assumptions mentally in brackets or inverted commas, which is a necessary first step towards reflecting upon them, we inevitably acknowledge, at least implicitly, that we have no monopoly on the truth, that we understand and experience the world at best imperfectly from a particular viewpoint or perspective which is only relatively true. This is not the same as saying there is no truth out there and any viewpoint is as good as any other. We refine the usefulness and accuracy of our simulations of reality partly at least through a process of comparing notes with others in consultation or, as I call it here, collaborative conversation.

We can, and as mind-workers we must, become almost as sceptical of our own position as we tend to be of other people’s.  Any other posture is unhelpfully dogmatic in this context. The extent to which I should then explicitly endorse the client’s position is still an issue of debate. Peter Chadwick, for instance, in his book Schizophrenia: a positive perspective, contends that it would not have been at all helpful to him to have staff endorse his beliefs in supernatural influences at the time he was experiencing extreme psychotic phenomena, even though he still holds those beliefs to be valid now that he is well: had they been endorsed by staff at the time he might have killed himself.

Authenticity matters because without it the clarity necessary for effective action and coping is unlikely to become possible. Client and mind-worker could well remain in a warm and sympathetic muddle that leads nowhere. As we will see in a moment though, without the warmth of an accepting relationship, authenticity and its resulting clarity can seem far too dangerous to risk.

Without a clear sense of uncertainty about absolute truth radical authenticity of the kind required here may prove impossible. An example from my own work serves to illustrate this well. A client was convinced the devil had a purpose for him. He was very concerned about whether I believed in the devil or not. He pressed me in almost every session for an answer. In the end, concerned to be congruent, I told him I did not. He broke off mindwork. I reflected on this afterwards. It became apparent to me that I had spoken from a position of dogmatic and unreflecting identification with my views about the devil. It would have been more authentic to acknowledge that, as a fellow human being struggling to make sense of the world, I couldn’t know for sure whether the devil existed or not. I could have shared with him, if he had pushed me further, that I had chosen to operate in my own life on the assumption that the devil did not exist. This would not, I think, have broken the relationship in a way that made further work I possible.

The Plane of Trust

Relativity shares a space with Relatedness. This term was chosen because it began with an ‘r’! Perhaps openness is a better word. Ernesto Spinelli (1st Edition: 1994) uses the expression “ownership.” Either way, along with Warmth, Encouragement (both discussed in earlier posts) and Relativity, it helps develop Trust, a crucial component that the client must eventually bring to the therapeutic process, and along with Empathy, Solidarity and Reflection it helps the client develop the ability to contain, rather than disown or act out, his inner experiences. The relation between Trust and Containment we will return to in a moment.

First of all we need to know what Relatedness is. Relatedness, in this context, is the capacity to consciously acknowledge and relate to what we are experiencing. It is the antidote to disowning, the last of the forces of fixity. It makes us sufficiently accessible to relationships with people and things to learn to accommodate to as well as assimilate experiences, to make appropriate adjustments to our selves or to our circumstances. If we disown parts of experience we become a prey to it, just as Ian was a prey to his repressed pain which turned into hostile or destructive voices. Anything we disown controls us while eluding our influence to change it in any way. What we are open to we can affect even though it may also affect us directly in its turn.

Trust comes first. We need to trust someone sufficiently to feel the strength flow into us from her Solidarity, to be able to know that she understands how we feel but will not therefore dump us or summon undermining and unwanted help, and to see how she feels confident enough to open up to what she feels about us and subject it to careful Reflection.  This is what gives us the opportunity to learn that we can contain our experiences and change our relationship with and understanding of them.

How do we develop Trust?

First of all, we need to feel the warmth of the mind-worker, her unwavering and unconditional valuing of us. Next, we need to sense her relativity, that she knows the incompleteness and inadequacy of her understanding and can suspend judgement and criticism indefinitely until it is really constructive to share (not impose) it. Then, we need to experience her encouragement, which unfailingly rewards our efforts to apply what we have discovered to our problems. Last but by no means least, we need to see her relatedness, her unthreatened openness to all experience, which allows us to become more aware of other dimensions of our own experience.  These things together make it possible for us to trust other people, our experience and ourselves. Without this making and sustaining change becomes almost impossible.

The Plane of Containment

This mind-space comprises empathy, solidarity (both discussed in an earlier post), relatedness and reflection. If someone is standing beside us in our struggles, giving us comfort, understanding what we are going through, and showing an open and reflective attitude to the revelations we share, it helps us to contain what might otherwise be too scary and/or disturbing to contemplate. What we cannot contain, we find it almost impossible to reflect on and process. Containment therefore plays a central role in the therapeutic process.

In our culture we are all too prone to either repression (convincing ourselves we’re not experiencing something when we are) or acting out (expressing whatever we are currently experiencing and ignoring the consequences until it is too late). Containment is the creative third way and a key to change.

An inability to contain experiences of a disturbing nature accounts for much substance abuse, self-harm and dependency on mind-altering subscription drugs. Containment is often not possible outside a set of supportive relationships of the kind I am attempting to describe.

Furthermore, if we cannot trust anyone, and perhaps least of all ourselves, we cannot contain what frightens us or threatens to overwhelm us. So perhaps without Trust there is no Containment. And without Trust and Containment, Authenticity will be impossible, I suspect. Any life-lie will seem a tempting port in the storm of life if distrust and disowning rule the mind.

In the next post I will attempt to pull this all together.

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As I explained in the first post, in Leaps of Faith, my original account of my decision to try and follow the Bahá’í path, there were at least three things I failed to do justice to:

  1. I gave an insufficiently balanced picture of the Catholic Faith – yes, it was fair to say that aspects of Catholicism played a part in feeding my scepticism which was rooted in my hospital experience (more of that in a moment), but members of that faith also later played a part in eroding that scepticism at a critical moment in my life’s trajectory: I’ll be focusing more on that in this post.
  2. my acknowledgement of the importance of Buddhism fell short of giving a full measure of my debt – that’s for the second post; and
  3. even my much stronger depiction of the role in my path towards belief of Peter Koestenbaum’s The New Image of the Person didn’t really do him justice especially now I have looked again at his anticipation of some key points in Iain McGilchrist’s model – more of that at last.

I explored my experience of Buddhism last time. Now it’s time to move onto Koestenbaum

In Leaps of Faith I wrote:

In the summer of 1982 a few months before my encounter with Robert Scrutton’s book, came my last prolonged exploration of an alternative to religion and spirituality. I read a brilliant book on existentialism by Peter Koestenbaum: The New Image of the Person: The Theory and Practice of Clinical Philosophy. It had been published in 1978.

The Nature of Reflection

My main, in fact only focus there is on his account of reflection.

Koestenbaum explains:[1]

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

By reflection he means something closely related to meditation: given my experience with Buddhist meditation this was clearly going to gain my attention.

Reflection, he says:[2]

. . . 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:[3]

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

I didn’t see at the time exactly where that would lead me, nor did I include in my Leaps of Faith account how much more PK says on this kind of issue.

Digging Deeper

It was on 3 September 1982 that I borrowed what I refer to as ‘a number of fascinating books from the Swiss Cottage library.’ The ‘most rewarding and exciting’ one was on the theory and practice of ‘clinical philosophy’ by Peter Koestenbaum. I’ve no idea what the others were.

On page 18 he outlined what seemed to me a crucial idea and one towards which I had been ineffectually groping for years: ‘by eliminating or putting out of action the assumptions implicit in the experience of being an isolated ego, the experience of surrender to the world emerges, and with it arises the sense of oneness with the universe.’

This is a good illustration of by how much I sold him short. Here he is talking about a sense of oneness. I’ve noticed it enough to make a note of it. Three months later I become a member of the Bahá’í community whose central tenet is the oneness of humanity with our connectedness to the whole of creation also emphasised. Wasn’t that likely to have primed me in some way?

Then, when I am asked, admittedly many years later, to write an account of my journey towards the Bahá’í Faith I have managed to forget such an important insight. Well, I guess my recently republished sequence on memory gives a fairly clear account of why that might have happened.

Admittedly some of the gains from his writing relate more to my past experience of Buddhism than my future encounter with the Bahá’í revelation. In early September I am recording that he writes: ‘the process of facilitating self-disclosure… is the act of permitting the discovery within oneself of what one truly is.’ Psychotherapy, he argues, limits the degree to which adult choice can free us from the constraints laid down in childhood: clinical philosophy frees us from any such limits.

I go into more detail concerning my response to that:

I cannot really express how crucially important that idea is to me. It is an important message I derived from Buddhism. I need to believe what I have just copied from his book if I am going to survive sanely. I could not bear to live on unable completely to free myself from the swaddles of my infancy and early childhood. They are grim and chaffing fetters, not dramatically but inexorably laid down, which murder by slow internal bleeding, a soul ruptured in the struggle to stay free. Only the philosophical point of view allows for the soul to heal. Whether my soul is healing because I believe that, or I believe that because my soul is healing, I do not know.

My faith in the benefits of meditation remained firm:

I believe that meditation helped me to see myself more clearly and eventually change by unhooking my identification with my defensive-competitive and romance-hungry self. I ceased to be who I thought I was and became free to be someone else if I wished. . . . There is indeed no specific and unchanging ‘I’ — only a series of choices. The freedom and delight is beyond expression. I am nothing and therefore everything!

This adds strength to the sense, about which I joked at the end of the previous post, that what I seemed to be engaged in, from my perspective, was some kind of personality transplant.

The Value of Reflection

Next I begin to engage with a deeper explanation of exactly what Koestenbaum means when he talks about the value of reflection.

He explains that the process of reduction has several levels or stages:[4]

[The first is where] there is no experienced distance between consciousness and object… we call this condition of consciousness the animal consciousness.

The first stage of stepping back, presumably the beginnings of reflection, brings you to the second level,[5] ‘eidetic or abstract consciousness’, in short the ability to think.

Next we reach “individual consciousness… the basic posture we take in daily life and its full exploration is the first goal of therapy . . . At this level consciousness thinks of itself as an individual and isolated self.’

Previous material on this blog, such as the insights I drew from Tom Oliver’s The Self Delusion, as well as all the insights from spiritual traditions including the Bahá’í Faith, combine powerfully to prick the bubble of this destructive fantasy. Unfortunately, I remain unconvinced that most mainstream therapies work along the lines that he is beginning to suggest. There are exceptions in therapies such as Psychosynthesis, also discussed on this blog, but they are still not part of the mainstream, as far as I know, in any influential sense.

Given my biases now, it will be no surprise to learn that I resonate strongly and positively to his next levels: first[6] the ‘deepened level of consciousness’ which he calls ‘the intersubjective or intimate consciousness.’ He explains more fully what he means:

Two people do not feel like two individuals in one bipolar field, where each individual consciousness is an object to the other; they feel like a combined subjective core to which a world of objects is given in common.

He uses the analogy of two space modules docking:

When they finally lock into each other, a common door is opened, their space is stretched and expanded, and a larger and communal inner space is created.

I know from my own experience of therapy, particularly as therapist, there was a strong feeling of two interconnected inscapes interacting.

Iain McGilchrist has much to say on a similar point which he terms ‘betweenness.’ There is only space for a brief example here from an account of a woman with right hemisphere damage:[7]

Here are a host of interrelated points, which describe the plight of modern humanity as exemplified in the writings of modernism. Not only is there immobility, but things are fragmented, ‘presenting themselves’ in a disconnected way, each on its own: no betweenness. What’s more, there is more specifically no flow ‘between’ things: between her [the patient] and the world, where things ‘evoke’ no emotional response, where she can no longer ‘abandon’ herself to the world, a world she cannot join, and where she must remain ‘outside’.

More on that later when I delve more deeply into The Matter with Things.

This leads neatly into Koestenbuam’s next point from 40 years earlier.[8] The fourth stage he labels ‘social or communal consciousness… It is the experience of unity with a large number of conscious centres over a long period of time.’

The poem I wrote, triggered by Mellen-Thomas Benedict’s account of his NDE in Ken Ring’s Lessons from the Light,[9] has echoes of this same insight:

The light changes into a mandala of souls
all our souls, our true selves, are fused,
we are one being,
we are the same being,
distinct aspects of the same Being.
I enter this mandala of human souls
white hot with all the love we’ve ever wanted,
a love that can heal everything, everyone

Where he possibly moves beyond McGilchrist (but I might be wrong about this as I am only about halfway through the 1333 pages of the main text of The Matter with Things) is at the fifth stage and beyond. The fifth stage is ‘cosmic consciousness’[10] where ‘the social consciousness becomes now the object of our consciousness… With this reduction we have reached the experience of universality.’ The sixth and last level[11] is ‘the eternal now… when even space and time become the objects of the intentional stream of consciousness. The subjective core, which has succeeded in making an object of cosmic consciousness, experiences itself outside of space and time.’

It’s pretty clear though how the left hemisphere language of these explanations of right hemisphere spiritual experience would have helped hugely in preparing my mind for my encounter with the deeply mystical and profoundly spiritual insights in the Bahá’í Writings to which I would shortly be exposed. Proof if any more was needed that I owed Koestenbaum far more than I described in Leaps of Faith.

It also perhaps explains why I came to feel that I was not only a Buddhist but also an Existential traveller on the Bahá’í path.

His next point again resonates with The Matter with Things. ‘Consciousness is objectless’ and Western languages do not really have words for this. McGilchrist is again relevant here with his sense of the limitations of language. For example, he explains the value of art in this respect:[12] ‘the beauty and power of art and of myth is that they enable us, just for a while, to contact aspects of reality that we recognize well, but cannot capture in words.’  He adds, ‘we would be lost without words, but sometimes it is wisdom to be lost for words.’

My sequence of posts, triggered by reading Irreducible Mind, deals in detail with my struggle to accept the idea of mind-brain independence and the spiritual origins of mind, so I won’t dwell on it here.


I will close my discussion of Koestenbaum with some summarising thoughts from his chapter on Mysticism. He goes on to explain[14] what he terms ‘the phenomenological description of pure consciousness.’ By this he means that:[15]

The consciousness within me is first of all experienced as universal… Second… as infinite… the absence of limits… third (as) coeval (coincident) with space and time… fourthly as indestructible (and) … finally, this consciousness can be experienced and recognised as the ground of being… as one answer to the question: what and where is home?

I have already said too much to have the space here to unpack in detail why that short passage seems so crucial to priming my mind to accept the huge leaps of faith required of me if I, a recent atheist/agnostic of something like 20 years duration, was to accept the Bahá’í revelation. All I will do here is flag up the word ‘indestructible,’ which challenged my concept of the finality of death, and the phrase ‘ground of being,’ which was a stepping stone towards a digestible idea of God.

Equally interesting, but less dramatic, was the way this led, in his exploration, to something almost identical with practice of disidentification in Psychosynthesis. He wrote:[16]

I am not this thought; I am not this feeling; I am not this physical object; I’m not this body of flesh and bones, nor am I this self-concept. I am not these feelings, these attitudes and these responses associated with my personality. Nor am I these character defences or body armour with which most of us so closely identify ourselves. I am in instead and in truth pure and universal consciousness.

Koestenbaum published his book in 1978. As I only have my notes I can’t check whether he acknowledges any debt to Psychosynthesis as his source for this idea. Either way it doesn’t really matter as the double validation, both in this book and Assagioli’s, first published in 1965, helped me on my way.

There is more I could say but this is probably enough for now to make my point and redress the failure of my original account to do justice to Koestenbaum’s crucially important role in my spiritual journey.

My conscience is somewhat eased by my having corrected the record in this way.


[1]. The New Image of the Person – page 73. Unless otherwise indicated all quotes are from this book.
[2]. Page 99.
[3]. Page 49.
[4]. Page 77.
[5]. Page 79.
[6]. Page 80.
[7]. The Matter with Things – page 336.
[8]. Page 80 again.
[9]. Lessons from the Light – pages 286-91.
[10]. Page 81.
[11]. Page 82.
[12]. The Matter with Things – page 631.
[13]. Page 86.
[14]. Page 145.
[15]. Pages 146-47.
[16]. Page 165.

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