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Posts Tagged ‘religion’

The primary question to be resolved is how the present world, with its entrenched pattern of conflict, can change to a world in which harmony and co-operation will prevail.

World order can be founded only on an unshakeable consciousness of the oneness of mankind, a spiritual truth which all the human sciences confirm. Anthropology, physiology, psychology, recognize only one human species, albeit infinitely varied in the secondary aspects of life. Recognition of this truth requires abandonment of prejudice—prejudice of every kind—race, class, colour, creed, nation, sex, degree of material civilization, everything which enables people to consider themselves superior to others.

(Universal House of Justice The Promise of World Peace Section III – 1985)

In the previous two posts I focused primarily on our major blindspots. Before going into more detail about the nature of bias, it needs to be clarified that solutions to problems and attitudes that create divisions are hard to come by because too many of us, perhaps especially in the individualistic West, have an investment in denying our collective and complex connectedness. This constitutes an additional and intractable blind spot. It may even be that as our complex interconnectedness becomes more irresistibly obvious we resort increasingly to a defensive protectionism, and fall prey to an increasing credulity in the face of simplistic and often scapegoating fixes to the problems that disturb us.

I’ve touched on the problems of Western individualism already in my previous sequence on balancing spirit and matter. I mentioned that, when I read Shweder’s Thinking Through Cultures, I learnt how biased in a potentially destructive way our implicit individualism is. I confessed to how this related to flaws in my own discipline of psychology, favoured in the Western world. Earlier in his book Shweder describes it as follows:

Not surprisingly, in most sociocentric role-based societies… it is sociology, not psychology, that thrives as an academic discipline. In other, more individualistic cultures (for example, the United States) it is psychology that flourishes at universities and popular bookstores, while sociology has an uneasy relationship to a public that find sociological discourse to be unreal and laden with ‘jargon.’[1]

In the years since he wrote that book, Shweder’s thesis has not ceased to be relevant, as Tom Oliver testifies in The Self Delusion, his powerful 2020 dismemberment of our myth of individualism:[2]

Our modern culture, from media advertising to our formal education system, all seem to emphasise extreme individuality, and these are arguably providing an overwhelming set of stimuli which are training our minds to increasingly perceive the world in an individuated away.

This affects our understanding of almost any situation and strongly influences our decision-making. Take mental health, my specialism, as one example:[3]

. . . Clinical medicine still labours under a biomedical model, focusing purely on biological factors. Thus, mental illnesses such as depression are treated with drugs… without dealing properly with root psychological, environmental and social causes.

Though he is clearly not a believer in any commonly understood paradigm of God, his attitude to the required relationship between religion and science, if we are to break through our block, is very refreshing:[4]

We see in the 21st century a genuine synergy emerging between science and spirituality… We can cut through the dogma and fables of organised religion and instead explore scientifically the moral and spiritual states that are often narrowly dubbed ‘religious experiences’ that may actually be just one possible way to see beneath the veil of self-delusion…

A new partnership is needed between science and religion in order to deal with the destruction of our natural world.

He believes firmly that ‘state-of-the-art scientific advances in understanding human interconnectedness – whether it be with the microbiome within us, the natural world around us, or with other people – open up considerable benefits in terms of personal and planetary health.’[5]

I will return to some of his other insights later in relation to bias, which is such a pervasive symptom of our failure to connect with others.

First though we need to look at Jennifer Eberhardt’s perspective on that.

Implicit Bias

Bias may not be as conscious and deliberate as we might be tempted to think, and we also may therefore not be as free from it as we would like. Bias can be internal, invisible even to us, resulting in unintended acts of discrimination.

In her engaging and accessible treatment of the subject in her book Biased, Jennifer Eberhardt begins her explanation by clarifying this, using the term ‘implicit bias’ to capture this pattern:[6]

Implicit bias is not a new way of calling someone a racist. In fact, you don’t have to be a racist at all to be influenced by it. Implicit bias is a kind of distorting lens that’s a product of both the architecture of our brain and the disparities in our society.

A key foundation stone for this is located in research she summarises by saying:[7]

For nearly fifty years, scientists have been documenting the fact that people are much better at recognising faces of their own race than faces of other races . . .

That cringe-worthy expression ‘They all look alike’ has long been considered the province of the bigot. But it is actually a function of biology and exposure. Our brains are better at processing faces that evoke a sense of familiarity.

As a result, when we have negative associations to the unfamiliar they are activated with amazing speed:[8]

The process of making these [negative] connections is called bias. It can happen unintentionally. It can happen unconsciously. It can happen effortlessly. And it can happen in a matter of milliseconds.

This is why I am treating aspects of bias as another form of blind spot, similar to those I have dealt with in the previous two posts.

Stereotypes, Biases and their Sources

Eberhardt quotes Lippman’s interesting definition of stereotypes as ‘impressions that reflect subjective perceptions but stand in for objective reality.’[9] To create a stereotype, the important link here is between harbouring an impression and mistaking it for truth. Not surprisingly stereotypes can blind us ‘to information that [doesn’t] conform to what [we] already believe.’[10]This ‘confirmation bias is a mechanism that allows inaccurate beliefs to spread and persist.’ It is also not surprising to know [11]that ‘studies confirm that biased parents tend to produce children who are biased as well.’

Researchers have found abundant evidence for the different shapes such biases can take in terms of racial prejudice:[12]

What researchers typically find is that people are faster to categorise . . . faces and words when they are using the same key to respond to faces that are black and words that are bad. But if they’re using a single key to respond to faces that are black and to words that are good, their brains seem to bog down. It takes more effort to connect black and good, because black and bad are more strongly associated in our minds.

What is equally or perhaps even more disturbing is that there are also ‘results [which] suggested that the implicit association between blacks and apes was much stronger than the black-crime association.’[13]

Sharing the same race does not exempt us from bias either:[14]

Black people are just as likely as whites to expect signs of disorder in heavily black neighbourhoods.

. . . That suggests a sort of implicit bias that has more to do with associations we’ve absorbed through history and culture than with explicit racial animus.

Various emotions are implicated in different aspects of bias.

Fear is one. For example Bargh found that:[15]

those who had not received flu shots expressed more negative views about immigration than those who had been inoculated against the virus. Their sense of vulnerability to disease was tied to unacknowledged fears about infected immigrants.

Fear operates more generally than this, of course: ‘The same fear response that’s supposed to keep us safe can activate bias in ways that stigmatise and threaten others.’[16]The situation is even worse if we have to make decisions quickly: ‘bias is most likely to surface in situations where we’re fearful and we’re moving fast.’[17]

Disgust is another emotion involved in bias:[18]

When Harris and Fiske showed pictures of homeless people to study participants inside a neuro-imaging scanner,… the insula and amygdala – areas of the brain associated with disgust – were more active.

An additional twist makes the situation worse for some victims of prejudice. That skin colours remain the same across generations impedes the assimilation of those with darker skins because differences remain visible no matter what else changes over time, and, as Sherman and Clore’s research confirmed, the prevalent association of white with pure and black with bad runs deep. ‘“Sin is not just dirty,” the authors write, “it is black. And moral virtue is not just clean, but also white.”’ They conclude that ‘these associations allow implicit bias to turn skin colour into a value judgement.’ [19]

As we will find later, even closer connections across racial divides do not necessarily bring harmony and reduce prejudice:[20]

Online social networks connect us to our neighbours. But the same tools that promise security and promote camaraderie can foster a sort of tunnel vision that distorts our sense of danger, heightens suspicion, and even puts the safety of others at risk. Residents can circulate photographs of a ‘suspicious’ strangers to neighbours and police with the touch of a button and without any evidence the person is doing anything wrong – a practice that can amplify and justify bias in the minds of locals primed by worries about the safety of their homes.

To quote Eberhardt’s summary so far:[21]

In many ways, this is how bias operates. It conditions how we look at the world and the people within it, despite our conscious motivations and desires, and even when such conditioning can put us in harm’s way. Just as drivers are conditioned by how the roads are constructed in their native land, so too are we conditioned by racial narratives that narrow our vision and bias how we see the world around us.

We are conditioned to be biased and bias warps our way of seeing the world.

Next time I will look at some of the consequences of this in more detail and also at the complications that lie across the path towards possible solutions.

Footnotes:

[1]. Shweder – page 169.
[2]. The Self Delusion – page 158.
[3]. The Self Delusion – page 185.
[4]. The Self Delusion – pages 186-87.
[5]. The Self Delusion – page 194.
[6]. Biased – page 6.
[7]. Biased – pages 13-14.
[8]. Biased – page 32.
[9]. Biased – page 32.
[10]. Biased – page 33.
[11]. Biased – page 39.
[12]. Biased – page 40.
[13]. Biased – Page 143
[14]. Biased – page 160.
[15]. Biased – page 163.
[16]. Biased – Page 181.
[17]. Biased – page 184.
[18]. Biased – Page 164.
[19]. Biased – pages 166-67.
[20]. Biased – page 180.
[21]. Biased – Page 170.

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Tipping Point

At the end of the previous post, which dealt with the need for coherence if we are to address the most compelling challenges of our time, I flagged up that a key pair of requirements was: first, co-ordinated institutions strong enough to mobilise change, and second, a level of global consciousness clear and strong enough to create those institutions. There is a chicken and egg problem there, however. Until we have an educational system that helps create such a consciousness, how will we have the effective motivation to create the institutions that we need if we are to develop such an educational system?

Additional complicating factors are that, to achieve a fully transformative level of consciousness to mend our crippled civilisation and defective cultures root and branch will, as the Universal House of Justice indicates, be ‘the work of centuries.’

However, if we are to have any kind of civilisation at all beyond the next few decades, there is at least one urgent problem to resolve: global heating. We don’t have centuries to rise to that challenge. I have neither the time nor the clarity to fully address that right now though there is an earlier attempt on this blog.

What I plan to focus on here is whether we have the capacity to begin to build the foundations right now to make both those other projects, lifting consciousness and creating institutions, potentially viable.

In this final post I will begin to explore some tentative suggestions about how this process might begin to work.

A Tipping Point

Bahá’ís believe that we are living on the cusp of massive changes in society and civilisation. We believe that, in the words of Bahá’u’lláh, ‘the world’s equilibrium’ has ‘been upset.’ We can sign up to the vision expressed by Ray and Andersen in their book: ‘When a force for change moves into an inherently unstable time, the potential leverage is very great indeed.’[1]

Paradoxically, the very magnitude of the increasingly imminent threat and the totality of its potentially destructive power may be the trigger to our mobilising a more effective response. As David Wallace-Wells puts it in his apocalyptic warning:

If you had to invent a threat grand enough, and global enough, to plausibly conjure into being a system of true international cooperation, climate change would be it.[2]

Moreover, Bahá’ís believe that science and religion are not at odds, which goes some way to answering the problem McGilchrist explores in The Master & his Emissary. We can see how they could work together for the betterment of all humanity as these authors can: ‘New technologies may give us solutions to many global problems, if they are brought to life in settings with cooperative, constructive values.’[3] Our vision is often summarised in the words ‘The earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens.’ Ray and Anderson appear to resonate to that as well: ‘The sense of “one planet, our home” is inescapable.’[4] Their conclusion is: ‘It’s a matter of moral imagination, a wisdom of the heart.’[5] (For more on ‘moral imagination’ see an earlier post.)

And the core of that vision, that wisdom, is captured towards the end of their book:

[Cultural Creatives] say that each of us is a living system within a greater living system, connected to each other in more ways than we can fathom. If we focus on that wholeness, we can begin to imagine a culture that can heal the fragmentation and destructiveness of our time.[6]

I feel that there is the possibility of huge reciprocal benefits here.

There are a number of thinkers who have striven to articulate a more benign way of organising our global economic system.

Raworth

There are signs that younger economists, in addition to the writers of The Econocracy, are beginning to question the values of unrestrained neo-liberalism and its emphasis on growth and profit. Kate Raworth in Doughnut Economics is one example. She writes (page 74-75):

We live now, says Daly, in Full World, with an economy that exceeds Earth’s regenerative and absorptive capacity by over-harvesting sources such as fish, and forests, and over-filling sinks such as the atmosphere and oceans.

Her book puts forward an alternative approach in detail. Her website contains this useful summary:

Humanity’s 21st century challenge is to meet the needs of all within the means of the planet. In other words, to ensure that no one falls short on life’s essentials (from food and housing to healthcare and political voice), while ensuring that collectively we do not overshoot our pressure on Earth’s life-supporting systems, on which we fundamentally depend – such as a stable climate, fertile soils, and a protective ozone layer. The Doughnut of social and planetary boundaries is a playfully serious approach to framing that challenge, and it acts as a compass for human progress this century.

Ehrenfeld

Other thinkers are encouragingly moving in the same direction. John Ehrenfeld, in his conversation with Andrew Hoffman, explains his belief that our current understanding of sustainability, and its promise of a sustainable future, is a delusion:

Hybrid cars, LED light bulbs, wind farms and green buildings, these are all just the trappings that convince us that we are doing something when in fact we are fooling ourselves, and making things worse….Reducing unsustainability, although critical, will not create sustainability.”[7]

He suggests a more viable idea: ‘sustainability-as-flourishing.’ He describes four key elements:

First, flourishing is the realisation of a sense of completeness, independent of our immediate material context. Flourishing is not some permanent state but must be continually generated. . . . . Flourishing is the result of acting out of caring for oneself, other human beings, the rest of the ‘real material’ world, and also for the out-of-the-world that is, the spiritual or transcendental world. . . . Second it is about possibility. Possibility is not a thing. . . . it means bringing forth from nothingness something we desire to become present. . . . . Third, the definition includes far more than human benefit. Flourishing pertains to all natural systems that include both humans and other life. Finally, adding forever to this definition lends it the timelessness that is found in virtually all conversations about sustainability. In fact, sustainability makes little sense except as a lasting condition. It is that important.[8]

He feels we have forgotten what it is to be human and, blinded by materialism, we reduce everything about growth to economics, turning it into a kind of religion:

If religion boils down to a group’s ‘ultimate concern,’ then growthism is our religion and the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is our god. But this religion exacerbates the destructive and violent intrusion of human culture into both nature and our own conception of who we are.[9]

It’s not, he assures us, about stopping consumption; it’s about how we consume. Our pervasive consumer culture is a choice that we’ve made: “This behaviour is so embedded that it appears to be human nature… But it is a cultural phenomenon”.[10]

Sustainability-as-flourishing, he says, requires the re-conceptualization of our lives around two perspective-shaking ideas. We need to shift our dominant mind-sets from Having to Being and from Needing to Caring:

Having is not a fundamental characteristic of our species. We are not creatures with insatiable wants and desires, even though that self-view has been reinforced by our present consumptive patterns. . . . . . Being is the most primal characteristic that distinguishes humans from all other species. Being is the basic way we exist in the world and is enacted whenever we exhibit authentic care. . . . .

Need is based on a deeply embedded insecurity that is fed by our modern culture telling us that we are incomplete or inadequate unless we acquire whatever thing will fill that artificial hole… Caring reflects a consciousness of our interconnectedness with the world (the web of life) and the historic recognition that well-being depends upon acting to keep these relationships in a healthy state. . . . . .

Institutions built on this premise will be very different from those of today. . . . . When we rediscover who we are, we will live out our lives taking care of a world composed of our own selves, other humans, and everything else.[11]

The idea of rediscovering a truer sense of self is not some kind of baseless sentimental nostalgia. For example, Gaia Vince in her book Transcendence quotes early evidence to support Ehrenfeld’s claim:

The extraordinary settlement of Çatalhöyük – already a city, 8000 years ago, of hundreds of one-room mud-bricked homes accessed from the roof – reveals evidence of a remarkably egalitarian society with strong social control and norms that prevented accumulation of wealth.[12]

Ehrenfeld also sees spirituality as going beyond the material and explains: ‘This domain is especially important to sustainability, as it heightens one’s sense for the interconnectedness of Being’ and goes on to say that ‘At the centre of this notion of interconnection is that of love . . . . Love is not a something, but a way of acting and accepts the Being of all others as legitimate.’[13] This reminds me of Scott Peck’s dictum in The Road Less Travelled that, ‘Love is not a feeling: love is work:’ those may not be his exact words, but how I have remembered what I thought he meant.

Almost Ehrenfeld’s final words on this aspect of the matter are: ‘Sustainability-as-flourishing without love is not possible.’[14]

Ehrenfeld develops this further, when he says that ‘Collapse cannot be avoided, if people do not learn to view themselves and others with compassion.’[15] I have explored the value of compassion and altruism at length elsewhere on this blog, so won’t elaborate further here.

This does not mean we will know all the answers and any such false confidence has been at the root of many of our difficulties[16]. We have to give due weight to the complexity of reality, which, as we explored earlier, much of current economic and political thinking does not do:

Our contemporary conversation about sustainability is taking place without a clear understanding, or with purposeful ignorance, of our place within a complex world. Complexity refers to a system whose parts are so multiply interconnected that it is impossible to predict how it will behave when perturbed.[17]

Ehrenfeld defines what our recognition of complexity must entail in his view:

Until we recognise and accept that we humans are an integral part of the complex system we call Earth, the possibility of sustainability will be nil.[18]

Singing from McGilchrist’s hymn sheet, he argues that mechanistic models won’t serve our purpose here[19]. They fail to capture ‘the holistic qualities of life.’[20] Moreover:

Flourishing and other similar qualities emerge from the working of the system as a whole and cannot be described by any reductionist set of rules.

This complexity also testifies to the impossibility of defining any of the problems we face in simple terms. No minority group or economic sub-system can in itself explain a failure of this wider system and we cannot accurately predict simple outcomes even from simple lines of action. Ehrenfeld goes on to explain exactly what this implies.

At the collective level, this all links back as well to the kind of collective creativity Paul Mason refers to in Postcapitalism, in ways that resonate with the Bahá’í concept of consultation discussed elsewhere. He writes:

Cooperative, self managed, nonhierarchical teams are the most technologically advanced form of work. Yet large parts of the workforce are trapped in a world of fines, discipline, violence and power hierarchies – simply because the existence of a cheap labour culture allows it to survive.[21]

He feels we have to move past this bad model towards a better one building on more co-operative principles:

As we pursue these goals, a general picture is likely to emerge: the transition to postcapitalism is going to be driven by surprise discoveries made by groups of people working in teams, about what they can do to old processes by applying collaborative thinking and networks.[22]

Ehrenfeld emphasises the importance of spirituality because it is the strongest foundation for a necessary sense of interconnectedness. His view of religion is much less positive, though that is not entirely surprising given how divisive religion is perceived to be, something we explored briefly in an earlier post. His main reservation though is that religions are out of date: he seems sadly unaware of the existence of the Bahá’í Faith and the role of other religions in promoting the kinds of awareness he is advocating.

The Bahá’í Perspective

His view is essentially the same as the Bahá’í perspective, and he also sees this task as the work of centuries. He writes:

I don’t think even the young adults of today are going to be the ones to ultimately change things. They are part of a much longer process of change that will even outlive them. It will take generations for these ideas to become embedded in the culture and new norms aligned with flourishing to arise.[23]

It seems a good point in the discussion to tap into a Bahá’í writer who has usefully explored the nature of this dilemma: he looks at it in terms of consciousness and social structures.

Before I plunge into that aspect of his thinking it would perhaps be useful just to touch on some of his earlier insights to pave the way to it.

The writer I’m referring to is Michael Karlberg, a Bahá’í academic with a background in ‘critical theories of culture and communication.’[24] His book is titled Beyond the Culture of Contest. His explanation of his basic position summarises a key aspect of this sequence’s perspective:

This book was written to advance the thesis that our contemporary ‘culture of contest’ is socially unjust and ecologically unsustainable and the surrounding ‘culture of protest’ is an inadequate response to the social and ecological problems it generates.[25]

He later discusses Adam Smith’s assumption that the free market would function within and be restrained by ‘a larger moral framework,’[26] before going onto explain where it all went wrong:

Since western-liberal societies have largely neglected Smith’s call for moral self-regulation, yet accepted Smith’s warnings about state regulation, they have been left with a culture of virtually unrestrained market competition.[27]

The consequences are predictably bleak:

In this context, as the relative absence of state and moral regulation results in the permanent extinction of increasing numbers of species, sustainability of the contest itself is called into question.[28]

Interestingly, in the context of the earlier discussion about capitalism masquerading as a kind of religion, having referred in the previous page to ‘a seemingly insatiable society’ he mentions, immediately after pointing out the absence of moral regulation, ‘the deification of competitive values.’

His analysis of how our current tripartite system of political, economic and legal domains is destructively skewed raises another point relevant to the quandaries I am struggling with:

Political and legal contests are expensive and economic contests determine who has the money to prevail in them.[29]

What makes it worse is that:

Within this tripartite system of contests, it is impossible to regulate economic activity in a socially just and ecologically sustainable manner. In fact, within this system, it is the economy that ultimately regulates political and legal decision-making, rather than the other way around.[30]

His ideas about how to address this come much later, and this is where consciousness and social structures come into play. In describing ‘strategies of social reform’ he draws the following distinction:

 . . . many people have viewed the development or transformation of individual consciousness as a path to meaningful social change. . . . [alternatively] many people have historically viewed the reform or transformation of basic social structures as the path to meaningful social change.[31]

He offers the Bahá’í perspective as synthesis:

In this context Bahá’ís believe that individual psycho-structural development and collective socio-structural reforms are both necessary but that neither one is sufficient by itself. They therefore advocate a twofold process of change involving both.

He discusses this in more detail, first at the level of the individual, and emphasis on education is key here, as is the fact that the Bahá’í community is developing institutions for whom this is a main focus:

On the individual level, Bahá’ís pursue social change primarily through educational processes. . . . [At the time his writing] out of 1700 social and economic development projects Bahá’ís are currently engaged in around the world, more than 750 are education projects. Bahá’ís also conceive of education in terms of individual, moral or spiritual development.[32]

Next he turns to systemic interventions:

The Bahá’ís are simultaneously pursuing collective strategies of socio-structural transformation. The entire administrative order…, with its non-adversarial decision-making methods, its non-partisan electoral model and its globally coordinated institutional structure, is not merely a theoretical construct for Bahá’ís. Rather, Bahá’ís have been actively building this administrative order for more than three quarters of a century…[33]

The ultimate goal for Bahá’ís, he states with reference to Building a Just World Order, is for ‘the administrative order’ to provide them ‘with an institutional framework within which they can further develop the skills, capacities and attitudes that they believe are needed to manage processes of social change in an increasingly interdependent complex world.’[34]

At the end of this post I have added a list of additional references that will provide more detailed information about Bahá’í thought and practice in these respects.

Perhaps it is best to end this sequence with a quotation from a 1985 message to all the peoples of the world, as going into greater detail at this point would open up another long sequence of posts.

An urge towards unity, like a spiritual springtime, struggles to express itself through countless international congresses that bring together people from a vast array of disciplines. It motivates appeals for international projects involving children and youth. Indeed, it is the real source of the remarkable movement towards ecumenism by which members of historically antagonistic religions and sects seem irresistibly drawn towards one another. Together with the opposing tendency to warfare and self-aggrandizement against which it ceaselessly struggles, the drive towards world unity is one of the dominant, pervasive features of life on the planet during the closing years of the twentieth century.

The experience of the Bahá’í community may be seen as an example of this enlarging unity. It is a community . . . drawn from many nations, cultures, classes and creeds, engaged in a wide range of activities serving the spiritual, social and economic needs of the peoples of many lands. It is a single social organism, representative of the diversity of the human family, conducting its affairs through a system of commonly accepted consultative principles, and cherishing equally all the great outpourings of divine guidance in human history. Its existence is yet another convincing proof of the practicality of its Founder’s vision of a united world, another evidence that humanity can live as one global society, equal to whatever challenges its coming of age may entail. If the Bahá’í experience can contribute in whatever measure to reinforcing hope in the unity of the human race, we are happy to offer it as a model for study.[35]

My own sense of purpose here is similar to that which Karlberg stated at the start of his book:

. . . It is not my intent that readers come away from this book with a personal interest in, or commitment to, the Bahá’í Faith. I will be satisfied, however, if I have prompted my readers towards critical self-reflection regarding the codes of adversarialism that underlie the contemporary culture of contest.

We need to find ways of breaking free of the religion of capitalist profit and consumption that prevails so widely in the West.

I am not claiming that the Bahá’í Faith has perfectly developed a complete antidote in practice. We are still in learning mode and have a steep mountain still to climb. However, I believe our model has valuable insights that can be used by everyone engaged in this struggle to build a better world.

There is no way Bahá’ís could ever claim to be able to do this alone in any case. We all need to work on this together, and have much to learn from each other as we do so. A key Bahá’í offering is our pattern of globally co-ordinated practice, built on a foundation of consultative decision-making, and complemented by vigorous educational processes involving children, youth and adults, that offers a good chance of transcending the fragmented, divided, divisive and almost chaotic processes that currently exist.

This confronts the chicken-and-egg problem, referred to earlier, of how to have educational systems, organisational structures and enhanced consciousness being simultaneously developed.

Additional References:

Humanity Is Our Business Posts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7.

Century of Light Posts1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8.

Becoming a True Upholder of His Oneness Posts 1, 2, 3 and 4.

Footnotes:

[1] The Cultural Creatives – page 230.
[2] The Uninhabitable Earth (page 25)
[3] The Cultural Creatives – page 318.
[4] The Cultural Creatives – page 302.
[5] The Cultural Creatives – page 314.
[6] The Cultural Creatives – page 314.
[7] Flourishing: a frank conversation about sustainability – page 18.
[8] Flourishing: a frank conversation about sustainability – pages 49-50.
[9] Flourishing: a frank conversation about sustainability – pages 76-77.
[10] Flourishing: a frank conversation about sustainability – page 175.
[11] Flourishing: a frank conversation about sustainability – pages 191-194.
[12] Transcendence – page 178.
[13] Flourishing: a frank conversation about sustainability – pages 202-203.
[14] Flourishing: a frank conversation about sustainability – page 204.
[15] Flourishing: a frank conversation about sustainability – page 208.
[16] Flourishing: a frank conversation about sustainability – page 217.
[17] Flourishing: a frank conversation about sustainability – page 226.
[18] Flourishing: a frank conversation about sustainability – pages 227-228.
[19] Flourishing: a frank conversation about sustainability – page 229.
[20] Flourishing: a frank conversation about sustainability – page 230.
[21] Postcapitalism – page 287.
[22] Postcapitalism – page 288.
[23] Flourishing: a frank conversation about sustainability – page 305,
[24] Beyond the Culture of Contest – page ix.
[25] Beyond the Culture of Contest – page xi.
[26] Beyond the Culture of Contest – page 39.
[27] Ibid.
[28] Beyond the Culture of Contest – page 41.
[29] Beyond the Culture of Contest – page 51.
[30] Beyond the Culture of Contest – page 52.
[31] Beyond the Culture of Contest – page 156.
[32] Beyond the Culture of Contest – page 157.
[33] Beyond the Culture of Contest – page 158.
[34] Ibid.
[35] The Promise of World Peace

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It’s time to explore in more detail what makes it possible to see capitalism as a religion, but also to see how important it is to factor in other influences than disconnected spirituality to explain our paralysis in the face of capitalism’s deficiencies.

A key point was made in the Century of Light, a statement published by the Bahá’í World Centre in 2001. They wrote:

In an age of scientific advancement and widespread popular education, the cumulative effects of . . . . disillusionment were to make religious faith appear irrelevant.[1]

Adding, later on the same page, the important caveat that:

The yearning for belief is inextinguishable, an inherent part of what makes one human. When it is blocked or betrayed, the rational soul is driven to seek some new compass point, however inadequate or unworthy, around which it can organize experience and dare again to assume the risks that are an inescapable aspect of life.

My very battered copy of this classic.

I’ve explored this before on this blog. In his attempt to understand the horrors of Nazism, Erich Fromm, on a similar track, writes in his masterpiece, The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, a dog-eared disintegrating paperback copy of which I bought in 1976 and still cling onto, something which deserves quoting at length:

The intensity of the need for a frame of orientation explains a fact that has puzzled many students of man, namely the ease with which people fall under the spell of irrational doctrines, either political or religious or of any other nature, when to the one who is not under their influence it seems obvious that they are worthless constructs. . . . . Man would probably not be so suggestive were it not that his need for a cohesive frame of orientation is so vital. The more an ideology pretends to give answers to all questions, the more attractive it is; here may lie the reason why irrational or even plainly insane thought systems can so easily attract the minds of men.

But a map is not enough as a guide for action; man also needs a goal that tells him where to go. . . . man, lacking instinctive determination and having a brain that permits him to think of many directions in which he could go, needs an object of total devotion; he needs an object of devotion to be the focal point of all his strivings and the basis for all his effective – and not only proclaimed – values. . . . In being devoted to a goal beyond his isolated ego, he transcends himself and leaves the prison of absolute egocentricity.[2]

The objects man’s devotion vary. He can be devoted to an idol which requires him to kill his children or to an ideal the makes him protect children; he can be devoted to the growth of life or to its destruction. He can be devoted to the goal of amassing a fortune, of acquiring power, of destruction, or to that of loving and being productive and courageous. He can be devoted to the most diverse goals and idols; yet while the difference in the objects of devotion are of immense importance, the need for devotion itself is a primary, existential need demanding fulfilment regardless of how this need is fulfilled.

When we choose the wrong object of devotion the price can be terrifying.

Eric Reitan makes essentially the same point. He warns us that we need to take care that the object of devotion we choose needs to be worthy of our trust. In his bookIs God a delusion?, he explains a key premise that our concept of God, who is in essence entirely unknowable, needs to show Him as deserving of worship: any concept of God that does not fulfil that criterion should be regarded with suspicion.  Our idealism, our ideology, will then, in my view, build an identity on the crumbling and treacherous sand of some kind of idolatry, including the secular variations such a Fascism and Nazism.

The thirst for belief may partly explain why we have ended up putting our faith where it currently lies, lies being the operative word. Carrette and King use a quote from Tony Benn to make the main comparison point:

‘The most powerful religion of all… is the people who worship money.… The banks are bigger than the cathedrals, the headquarters of the multinational companies are bigger than the mosques or the synagogues.’[3]

They feel that business becomes ‘the religion of the market.’[4]

They specify some of the details about how it works:

A religion of feel-good affluence reassures the consuming public that religion can indeed be just another feature of the capitalist world with little or no social challenge to offer to the world of business deals and corporate takeovers. Spirituality is appropriated for the market instead of offering a countervailing social force to the ethos and values of the business world.[5]

These are not the only forces at work, alongside the trance-inducing pacifying factors listed previously. Wilhelm Streeck, in his book How Will Capitalism End?, refers, for example, to the way the system founds ‘. . . social integration on collective resignation as the last remaining pillar of the capitalist social order, or disorder.’[6]

We probably need to unpack the possible causes of such disabling resignation.

For one thing, as Carrette and King point out, ‘The market is being presented to us as natural and inevitable.’[7], a quality captured in the term capitalist realism’, used by the late cultural theorist Mark Fisher to describe the sense that ‘not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system… it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it’.

To catch essentially the same point Streeck uses a German term:

Sachzwang: A factual constraint residing in the nature of things it leaves you no choice. Soon even the left began to internalise the idea of globalization [of capital] as a natural evolutionary process unstoppable by political means . . .[8]

He spells out this suppressive force most clearly when he writes:

. . . over two decades, globalisation as a discourse gave birth to a new pensée unique, a TINA (There Is No Alternative) logic of political economy for which adaptation to the ‘demands’ of ‘international markets’ is both good for everybody and the only possible policy anyway.[9]

The net effect of this is to create a social climate of powerless dissatisfaction, in which deracinated spirituality acting as a tranquilliser is not the only paralysing influence, as Streeck explains:

A pervasive cynicism has become deeply ingrained in the collective common sense. . .  elite calls for trust and appeals to shared values can no longer be expected to resonate with the populace nursed on materialistic-utilitarian self-descriptions of a society in which everything is and ought to be for sale.[10]

This combination of seeing no alternative, cynical acceptance and bogus spirituality have brought us to the point where, to quote Carrette and King this time:

Neoliberal ideology seeps into the very fabric of how we think, indeed into the very possibilities of our thinking to such an extent that people now live as if the corporate capitalist structures of our world are the truth of our existence.[11]

This is very much in harmony with the Bahá’í perspective:

The overthrow of the twentieth century’s totalitarian systems has not meant the end of ideology. On the contrary. There has not been a society in the history of the world, no matter how pragmatic, experimentalist and multi-form it may have been, that did not derive its thrust from some foundational interpretation of reality. Such a system of thought reigns today virtually unchallenged across the planet, under the nominal designation “Western civilization”. Philosophically and politically, it presents itself as a kind of liberal relativism; economically and socially, as capitalism—two value systems that have now so adjusted to each other and become so mutually reinforcing as to constitute virtually a single, comprehensive world-view. [12]

Others also refuse to accept this tunnel vision. Ziya Tong, in her book The Reality Bubble, describes us as a ‘human population’ of ‘eight billion strong, marching to a capitalist drumbeat of eat, work, shop, and sleep. . . . Why do we do it? The big myth, I would argue, is that we are brought up believing there is no other way. We are simply told that this is how the system works.’[13] She asserts that we  can find a new way of looking, ‘new eyes’ in the words of Proust.

As a Bahá’í I am very clear in my own mind that there are alternatives to this dispiriting way of disorganising things, but any more detailed consideration of these will have to wait until the last post in this sequence. The gloom will have to continue for a bit longer so we can explore it more deeply.

Perhaps one of the central and most insidious sleights of mind perpetrated by this ideology is defined by Streeck as ‘the exaltation of a life in uncertainty as a life in liberty.’[14]

Streeck goes on to explain that, if there is active, or at least perceptible discontent, it is to be labelled as a problem within the person:

The entropic society of disintegrated, de-structured and under-governed post-capitalism depends on its ability to hitch itself onto the natural desire of people not to feel desperate, while defining pessimism as a socially harmful personal deficiency.[15]

And of course, deracinated spirituality, ‘the new cultural Prozac,’[16] comes in as the weapon of choice to defuse any incipient feelings of desperation.

This raises the issue, which there is no time to explore more deeply just now, of how much the current unequal, disempowering and disconnecting system in which we live is responsible for many of the health problems, and, more relevantly here, mental health problems from which we suffer. One quote from James Davies’ book Cracked, which I reviewed in the past, will have to suffice. Davies interviewed Dr Peter Breggin, a US psychiatrist who is critical of the medical model. Breggin explained his viewpoint:

Most problems are created by the contexts in which people live and therefore require contextual not chemical solutions. ‘People who are breaking down are often like canaries in a mineshafts,’ explained Breggin. ‘They are a signal of a severe family issue.’ .  . . . For Breggin, because the medical model fails to take context seriously – whether the family or the wider social context – it overlooks the importance of understanding and managing context to help the person in distress.[17]

As a qualifying point, it’s true that, in the UK at least, psychology has shifted away from an unqualified endorsement of the medical model. The British Psychological Society’s Division of Clinical Psychology recently published a report emphasizing the utility of psychotherapeutic approaches to psychosis. The executive summary opens with the observation that ‘Hearing voices or feeling paranoid are common experiences which can often be a reaction to trauma, abuse or deprivation. Calling them symptoms of . . . psychosis or schizophrenia is only one way of thinking about them, with advantages and disadvantages.’[18]

Also, the practice of individual psychologists, including me before I retired, has always been careful to avoid doing anything that might induce someone to adapt to the unacceptable, whether that was within an abusive relationship or an oppressive work environment.

I’ll pause at this point. There are certain ingredients that we need to add into this explanatory salad, such as baffling complexity, if it is to create a more satisfactory account of our lack of concerted opposition to the system’s defects. Once done, I can then move on to possible ways of transcending the problems. I am grateful though to Selling Spirituality for triggering me, with its energising critique, to revisit this whole area, and both for emphasising the complicity of so-called spirituality and for confronting me with the barely credible possibility that many people actually invest what amounts to a religious strength of faith in capitalism.

Footnotes

[1] Century of Light – Page 59.
[2] The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness – pages 260-61.
[3] Page 23. Unless otherwise stated all references are from Selling Spirituality.
[4] Page 157.
[5] Page 126.
[6] Streeck – Page 15.
[7] Page 174.
[8] Streeck – Page 22
[9] Streeck – Page 23.
[10] Streeck – Page 34.
[11] Page 170.
[12] Century of Light – Page 135.
[13] The Reality Bubble – (page 7).
[14] Streeck -Page 46.
[15] Page 33.
[16] Page 77.
[17] Page 279
[18] BPS, 2014, p. 6.

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I am sitting in a café reading a book.

‘Why are you bothering to tell us that?’ you may well ask, as you all know I read whenever I’m alone and there’s nothing else I’ve got to do.

Well, this book is a bit special.

As it happens, I’m in a café in a shopping centre, and through the glass shine the temptations of consumer heaven. Within less than 200 yards I could bejewel and reclothe myself, refurnish our house and replace all our electrical goods and gadgets, if I wished to and could afford it.

And that’s just for starters.

Instead, I am reading a short book, highlighting passage after passage as I do so, undistracted by the jangling music in the background. It’s a book that goes a considerable way towards explaining why the minarets of capitalism[1] have replaced cathedrals, churches, mosques, synagogues and temples as the must-go-to places for massive throngs of people in the Western world and beyond.

Many of us are already aware that organised religion is out of favour. As the book says it’s ‘an outdated conflict-causing and ritualistic, bad thing’[2] in many people’s eyes. The process of downgrading religion, which began with the so-called Enlightenment (almost everything has a dark side, including this), was given a boost at the end of First World War, because, as the Bahá’í World Centre explains, ‘fossilised religious dogmas that had lent moral endorsement to the forces of conflict and alienation were everywhere in question.’[3]

What we may not have been willing to realise so clearly is that there is a new religion on the block. It’s been hidden from us in plain sight. As the authors put it: ‘God is dead, but has been resurrected as capital. Shopping malls have become the new altars for worshipping the God of money.’[4] And the new religion is not all it’s cracked up to be, as well as not lacking its own serious disadvantages. It is costing lives as well as controlling them.

The book I am reading, Selling Spirituality by Jeremy Carrette and Richard King, argues a strong case for the value of seeing the modern world through this lens. If you have the patience to follow me through my explanation, I think your journey will be well worthwhile. At the very least it will hopefully convey why the loss of the positive side of religion has not been compensated for by the prevalence of what has been misleadingly termed spirituality.

The writers’ main focus is to account for how a deracinated spirituality has been commandeered to help consolidate capitalism’s hold on our minds. In their view this has been made possible in the first place because the word is capable of so many possible meanings it can be harnessed to support an incalculable number of purposes. They argue that, ‘There is no essence or definitive meaning to terms like spirituality or religion’[5] and, as a result, ‘The very ambiguity of the term means that it can operate across different social and interest groups and in capitalist terms, function to establish a market niche.’[6]

It is worth noting at this point that the so-called benefits, which this synthetic brand of spirituality brings to the table, are not universally accessible. The authors describe how ‘[t]he wisdom of spiritual classics like the Tao Te Ching become reduced to a philosophy of worldly accommodationism, tailored to reduce the stress and strain of modern urban life for relatively affluent westerners.’[7] In fact, as they put it more bluntly later, ‘it is feel-good spirituality for the urban and the affluent and it has nothing to say to the poor and the marginalised in society, other than offering them a regime of compliance, a new “opiate for the masses.”’[8]

Before I move on to consider in more detail how exactly that might be said to work, it’s important to spell out the way that capitalism has become not simply a way of doing business, but an ideology that justifies it. Carrette and King describe that as follows, drawing a clear and important distinction between economic liberalism and its political progenitor[9]:

The new economic and political orthodoxy in this emerging world order is known as neoliberalism and it puts profits before people, promotes privatisation of public utilities, services and resources, and is in the process of eroding many of the individual civil liberties that were established under its forerunner– political liberalism.

This shift required being legitimised widely in a credible way. Spirituality has played a significant role in this, they feel:[10]

In contemporary society the discourse of ‘spirituality’ often promotes the ideology of neoliberalism… it does this by providing an aura of authenticity, morality and humanity that mediates the increasingly pernicious social effects of neoliberal policies.

The lack of effective opposition, even from the religions whose convenient concepts were borrowed, enabled its anodyne effect to spread:

. . . traditions are becoming subject to a takeover precisely because members of these traditions have failed to see the increasingly religious quality of capitalism in the modern world.

And this was what, in their view, enabled neoliberal capitalism to morph into what is effectively a religion: [11]

. . . the economic theology of neoliberalism.… corporate capitalism – the new religion of the Market. Its God is ‘Capital’ and its ethics highly questionable.

They feel we are speaking here of a powerful form of thought-control. I will be examining the way that works in more detail next time, but for now I will simply flag up that one of the reasons this pervasive and persuasive influence continues to operate so effectively is our lack of awareness that it exists:[12]

The institutions increasingly exerting their influence upon us are multinational corporations, big business and the mass media. . . . As human beings we are able to challenge regimes of thought control, but only if we become aware of them, and of the possibility of alternatives.

Because this is a book written for the general reader, it would be all too easy to dismiss their argument here as a facile simplification introduced simply to support their main line of argument. While it will not be possible to explore in depth comparable perceptions shared by professionals in the field of economics rather than religion, I will nonetheless share quotes from two different economists who are clearly on a parallel track.

First there is Wolfgang Streeck, in his book How Will Capitalism End? In his introduction he writes:[13]

The problem with [the] neoliberal narrative is, of course, that it neglects the very unequal distribution of risks, opportunities, gains and losses that comes with de-socialised capitalism . . . This raises the question why the neoliberal life associated with the post-capitalist interregnum is not more powerfully opposed, indeed how it can enjoy as much apparent support as it does . . .

By ‘post-capitalist interregnum’ he means the ‘long and indecisive transition’ we are currently experiencing.

He answers his question in a way that overlaps with what I will be describing later:

It is here that ‘culture’ comes in . . . The behavioural programme of the post-social society during the post-capitalist interregnum is governed by a neoliberal ethos of competitive self-improvement, of untiring cultivation of one’s marketable human capital, enthusiastic dedication to work, and cheerfully optimistic, playful acceptance of the risks in a world that has outgrown government.

That he does not include the mortar of pulverised spirituality that Carrette and King argue holds together the bricks Streeck lists in his inventory, does not disguise the fact that he detects the same kind of counterintuitive compliance they go onto describe.

Secondly, there’s Kate Raworth in her mind expanding Doughnut Economics. She uses the metaphor of a theatre production to capture the way that neoliberalism has orchestrated ‘the economic debate of the past thirty years’ in a script promising that ‘the market . . .is the road to freedom, and who could be against that? But putting blind faith in markets – while ignoring the living world, society, and the power of banks – has taken us to the brink of ecological, social and financial collapse.’[14]

In terms of where I’m heading with this, faith is the key word.

Next time I will begin to examine in more detail whether a distorted spirituality is all there is that helps keep most of us quiescent and compliant most of the time, before addressing in a subsequent post some of the ways in which capitalism can fairly be described as the new religion on the block. Much later I will be examining whether a better balance is possible, where a pure and undiluted spirituality combined with greater coherence could help us provide a more effective resistance to an increasingly unbridled market.

Footnotes:

[1] I have adapted this from ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s description as his ship approached New York harbour in 1912: on seeing the Wall Street skyscrapers ‘He had laughed and said, “Those are the minarets of the West.”’ (Diary of Juliet Thompson – page 233).
[2] Page 179. All page references in the footnotes, unless otherwise specified, refer to Carrette and King’s Selling Spirituality.
[3] Century of Light – page 43.
[4] Page 23.
[5] Page 3.
[6] Page 31.
[7] Page 90.
[8] Page 107.
[9] Page 7.
[10] Page 134.
[11] Page 178.
[12] Page 12.
[13] Streeck – pages 37-38.
[14] Raworth – pages 67-70.

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Given my current sequence on the dangers of ideology, I couldn’t resist reblogging this.

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Given my current sequence on the dangers of ideology I couldn’t resist reblogging this.

The Fundamentalist

For source of image see link

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O My servants! Be as resigned and submissive as the earth, that from the soil of your being there may blossom the fragrant, the holy and multicolored hyacinths of My knowledge.

(Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh  No. CLII)

My wife and I were sitting reading on the upper deck as the sun slowly sank towards the horizon. The sea was calm. There was a low band of cloud floating just at the bottom of the sky-line. It didn’t look as though we’d get the spectacular fire-forge of a sunset we’d been hoping for. Still, it was pleasant to sit, stroked by a relatively gentle wind, before a sky far wider than we usually enjoyed.

I took out my copy of Mindfulness and the Natural World by Claire Thompson. I had decided to use one of her meditations (page 124) to help me tune in more to nature.

‘Write a list of five things in nature that you noticed that day and feel grateful for.’ I started to work on my list, glancing at the sinking sun as I scoured my memory.

There was the fig tree in the square in Cadiz, at least I think it was a fig tree. The fruit hanging from its branches might have been just a tad too large to be a fig, but I wrote that down anyway.

Then there was the old tree in the coastal garden there. We’d been hurrying back to the boat at that point so I didn’t really have time to savour fully the complexity of its system of branches, but the impact it made even so had stuck in my mind.

I was beginning to struggle at this point. Clearly my campaign to connect with nature was getting off to a bad start here.

As I gazed at the slowly reddening sun, I noticed out of the corner of my eye a woman with an expensive camera leaning over the rail and staring at the water.

The melons I had eaten in my fruit salad came to mind for some reason. I wrote it down. That concoction was going to be a regular feature of my on-board diet, though I didn’t know that yet. Gratitude would shift into boredom.

Then I remembered the flocks of seagulls swooping down towards the waves as we pulled out of Cádiz.

As I worked on remembering another item to make my list of five, and tried to summon up a feeling of gratitude for the experiences I had remembered, the lady with the camera approached.

‘Hallo,’ she said, in a clearly Spanish accent.

‘Hi,’ I responded. ‘Glad you came up to speak to us. I was wondering what you were hoping to catch in your camera.’

‘Whales or dolphins.’

‘Ah, that explains your badge,’ I said, catching on slightly late to something I had noticed earlier even at a distance. I could read it clearly now. ‘Orca. What does that mean exactly?’

She gave me her opt-in card.

‘We’re giving a talk tomorrow. Would you like to come? It’s at 10 o’clock in the theatre.’

‘We will do. By the way it’s a bit of a coincidence that I was trying to tune into nature better when you showed up.’

I showed her the page I was working on and what the meditation was about.

She expressed polite interest before moving on to the next deck chair.

Later, at her talk, we learned, amongst other things, that the Orca, though it is known as the killer whale, is really a dolphin because it has teeth, which whales do not. There are 29 species of the whale/dolphin family in the Mediterranean. The tongue of the largest whale is large enough for an African elephant to stand on and its heart is the size of a VW car, apparently. The Orca is more modestly sized as a bus. The sperm whale can hold its breath for two hours. I’m not sure this factual approach was helping me in my efforts to tune in to the natural world.

After she walked away, I remembered the pigeons cooling off in the fountain just off the Plaza de España in Cádiz. I was kicking myself for not having taken a photograph.

I had a half-hearted attempt to meditate with gratitude on the five things in nature I’d recently noticed, before picking up the book to read some more, glancing at the setting sun as I did so, but failing to wonder why I hadn’t used that in my list instead of the melons.

Unfortunately I bumped up against one of my bêtes noirs almost as soon as I started reading (page 33

Like our bodies and our senses, our minds came from nature and were shaped by living in the natural world.

It is amazing to me how deep-seated and taken for granted this reductionist view of the mind is, spawned within the default materialism in which our minds swim. A materialistic model of the mind leaves us only with the Earth as a self-transcendent source of meaning and a motivator to lift our sights higher and behave more morally. This is the problem I have discussed before in reaction to Rifkin’s prescription for a change that would save our civilisation. Rifkin clearly feels our connection with the earth is the best hope we’ve got (page 350):

Although the origins of man’s capacity for empathy was a mystery to Schopenhauer, the teleology was clear. By feeling another’s plight as if it were our own and by extending a hand to comfort and support them in their struggle to persevere and prosper, we recognise the unifying thread that connects each of us to the other and all of life on earth.

As I expanded on in that post, my sense is that, sadly, nature alone will not be enough to lift us above our tendencies to self-destruction.

Of course, I also accept that some forms of ‘religion’ have led to the opposite problem, an exploitative contempt for nature and recognize that we need to integrate both religion and nature constructively if we are to survive.

Thompson’s reductionist assumptions continued (page 49):

To live in the realms of our minds and to cling to the idea of a constant separate ‘I’ experiencing our entire lives lies at the heart of most of our unhappiness.

It is true that our idea of who we are can cause unhappiness, but it does not prove that believing there is no self at all will make us happy. She is conflating mind with its contents. She is not considering the possible nature of pure consciousness, another issue I have dealt with at length elsewhere in a discussion of Sam Harris’ position in the light of his meditative practice. The part of it that is relevant to recall here, because of Thompson’s attachment to Buddhism, is this:

To explore this further with some hope of clarity I need to go back to something Harris says: ‘The implied centre of cognition and emotion simply falls away, and it is obvious that consciousness is never truly confined by what it knows.’

He may have disposed of the self in a way that preserves his atheism intact. What he skates over are the implications of the consciousness with which he is left. I can see that we are close to Buddhist ideas of the annihilation of the self as it merges back into the ground of being – blending its drop into the ocean once more.

But there’s a catch, isn’t there? There is still some kind of consciousness albeit without the usual boundaries. There is still an awareness with which he is connected and whose experience he remembers even if he cannot sustain that kind of awareness for long.

I put the book down again and picked up that day’s Sudoku puzzle, something the cruise printed off every morning for all passengers to battle with between watching the waves, the sunset or the dancing lessons in the Atrium (that term is an interesting remnant of the Roman civilisation which made it difficult to shake of the amphitheatre associations I described last time).

Instead of focusing on the numbers, I found my mind drifting back to another book I’d read before setting off on this trip, one that dealt with nature, this time in the context of poetry, and hadn’t pressed my anti-scientism button to quite the same extent, but enough to explain why my mind now drifted off in that direction.

Before setting foot on any deck, I had completed my reading of Jonathan Bate’s The Song of the Earth. Its rich and intriguing exploration of the relationship between poetry and nature was reshaping my understanding of both nature and poetry. I took it with me onboard ship along with his biography of John Clare, a sensation in his time as a peasant poet, an English equivalent of Robert Burns. The lifelong theme of his poetry was nature. His almost obsessional life’s work was a vast collection of poems rooted in his passionately intense and minute observations of the natural world.

I had naively thought that the cruise would bring me closer to the sea in a way that would deepen my relationship with nature. I had underestimated how hard the glittering carapace of the cruise ship would make connecting with the sea it sailed on, and how the instrumental architecture of the docks we landed at would virtually delete from sight the land we disembarked on. Cranes and containers, warehouses and duty free shops, competed for my attention instead.

Even driving through the countryside near Livorno, on the way to Pisa, had its ironic contrasts: on the right flourished green glades of umbrella pines opposite the war machine of an American army base.

Even so the conclusions Bate had reached in The Song of the Earth were still rattling round my head.

An important insight towards the end of the book comes from a poet whose complete works I recently took to the local Oxfam shop as not worth keeping. Bate writes (page 238):

Murray implies that the vastness and untamability of Australia mean that the peculiar power and sacredness of that land may still be sensed. He christens this religious sense ‘Strine Shinto.’ His own poetry – though tempered with wryness, irony and self-deprecation – undertakes a complex integration of the ancient idea that nature is the book in which a transcendent God writes his presence with a kind of secular Shinto which serves as the ground for an environmental ethic.

The insight, combining as it does the sacred and poetic with the natural, resonated strongly with me. I have written before of how repellant I find our exploitative relationship with the earth, a point that Bate touches on (page 244):

Advanced Western culture has a distinctive and perhaps exceptionally divisive understanding of humankind’s relationship to nature, an understanding which may for convenience be traced back to Baconian empirical science and Cartesian philosophical dualism, and which was further developed in Kantian idealism.

He pushed me to confront an issue that I hadn’t really thought much about before (page 251):

If ‘world’ is, as Ricoeur has it, a panoply of possible experiences and imaginings projected through the infinite potentiality of writing, then our world, our home, is not earth but language. . . . There is a special kind of writing, called poetry, which has the peculiar power to speak ‘earth’. Poetry is the song of the earth.

I’m not sure I agree with his point about where our home is, but I was eager to explore the idea of poetry as the ‘song of the earth.’

The sun was almost set now. Time to go back to our room and listen to the news before attempting to go to sleep, in my case with the usually reliable sedative of a good book.

As we took the lift down through the eight levels to Deck 5 after our conversation about whales and dolphins, I remembered the point in the mindfulness book that had linked with Thompson’s reductionism and Bate’s use of the example of one poet who has always intrigued me, though also frustrated my full understanding of what he is attempting to say (page 263):

In a letter of 13 November 1925 to his Polish translator, Rilke explained his purpose in his master work, the Duino Elegies. He considered these meditations as responses to the transience of all earthly things. In the face of transience, the poet must undertake the work of transformation. . . The language of unification and transformation, the yoking of earth and consciousness, the divinisation of the immanent world as against a withdrawal to a transcendent realm: these are all the moves which Wordsworth made in ‘Tintern Abbey’.

The phrase ‘as against a withdrawal to a transcendent realm’ struck a warning bell to which I will return later in this sequence – shades of reductionism again perhaps?

For now the key point is the haunting truth that (page 281):

The poetic articulates both presence and absence, it is both the imaginary recreation and the trace on the sand which is all that remains of the wind itself. The poetic is ontologically double because it may be thought of as ecological in two senses: it is either (both?) a language (logos) that restores us to our home (oikos) or (and?) a melancholy recognising that our only (oikos) home is language (logos).

It relates to something I was already aware of: transience. A haunting example cut literally across my path in China when I saw a man writing in water on the path of a Shanghai park. I learnt that this was a symbol of transience, of how all things fade eventually as time goes by.

When we got back to our cabin we watched Sky news, our default channel and not my preferred fare, which on this occasion was focused partly on the earthquakes in Indonesia. There had been a second one, slightly weaker than the first but still causing damage and possible loss of life. We promised ourselves we’d check with our steward the following day to make sure his family were all OK. 

Writing with Water in a Shanghai Park – a Buddhist symbol of Evanescence

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