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How to live: Peterson’s self-help book, 12 Rules for Life, is offered as ‘an antidote to chaos’. Photograph: Phil Fisk for the Observer

Last Monday I read about an intriguing interview with Jordan B Peterson on the Guardian website. Given that I have recently stated that spiritually oriented psychologists are almost as rare as the Phoenix, I may have to eat my words. Peterson may say some things I don’t quite agree with, but more often that not what he says about giving life meaning resonates strongly with me. I think I will have to buy his book. I can hear my shelves groaning with the weight of that thought. Below is a short extract: for the full post see link.

It is uncomfortable to be told to get in touch with your inner psychopath, that life is a catastrophe and that the aim of living is not to be happy. This is hardly the staple of most self-help books. And yet, superficially at least, a self-help book containing these messages is what the Canadian psychologist Jordan B Peterson has written.

His book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos is an ambitious, some would say hubristic, attempt to explain how an individual should live their life, ethically rather than in the service of self. It is informed by the Bible, Nietzsche, Freud, Jung and Dostoevsky – again, uncommon sources for the genre. . .

Peterson’s worldview is complex, although 12 Rules makes a heroic attempt to simplify it into digestible material. It might be encapsulated thus: “Life is tragic. You are tiny and flawed and ignorant and weak and everything else is huge, complex and overwhelming. Once, we had Christianity as a bulwark against that terrifying reality. But God died. Since then the defence has either been ideology – most notably Marxism or fascism – or nihilism. These lead, and have led in the 20th century, to catastrophe.

“‘Happiness’ is a pointless goal. Don’t compare yourself with other people, compare yourself with who you were yesterday. No one gets away with anything, ever, so take responsibility for your own life. You conjure your own world, not only metaphorically but also literally and neurologically. These lessons are what the great stories and myths have been telling us since civilisation began.”

. . . “It’s all very well to think the meaning of life is happiness, but what happens when you’re unhappy? Happiness is a great side effect. When it comes, accept it gratefully. But it’s fleeting and unpredictable. It’s not something to aim at – because it’s not an aim. And if happiness is the purpose of life, what happens when you’re unhappy? Then you’re a failure. And perhaps a suicidal failure. Happiness is like cotton candy. It’s just not going to do the job.”

But how do we build meaning? By putting it before expediency. Which is quite close to simply “acting right”. Peterson believes that everyone is born with an instinct for ethics and meaning. It is also a matter of responsibility – you need to have the courage to voluntarily shoulder the great burden of being in order to move towards that meaning. This is what the biblical stories tell us. The great world stories have a moral purpose – they teach us how to pursue meaning over narrow self-interest. Whether it’s Pinocchio, The Lion King, Harry Potter or the Bible, they are all saying the same thing – take the highest path, pick up the heaviest rock and you will have the hope of being psychologically reborn despite the inevitable suffering that life brings.

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PTSD and war

Before we plunge further in from where we got to last time, I need to look briefly at what is known about the impact of war trauma on those affected by killing other human beings. This will help clarify just how disabling the effects of Ian’s experiences were likely to be on someone who was already undoubtedly very vulnerable.

There was an in-depth look at this in a television documentary in the wake of the Falklands War. The programme adduced a wealth of evidence that most human beings have a powerful and deep-seated aversion to killing other people. Approximately 98% of us are to varying degrees averse. For example, there were soldiers in the days of muzzle-loading muskets, who died with their muskets in their hands, the barrel full of undischarged ammunition balls. They had faked reloading without firing, so reluctant were they to risk killing anyone. Others, using rifles, were known to aim to miss or to wound slightly rather than to kill.

There are two outliers, representing about 1% in each case, who have no such inhibitions. One such exception is, not surprisingly, the psychopath. The other exception, which is very surprising, is an otherwise morally and emotionally normal individual who has no compunction about killing.

Psychologists, to their shame, devised training methods, using probable battle scenarios, that made rapid and automatic shooting to kill seem easy and unproblematic. These scenarios were practiced repeatedly until the lethal reaction was instinctive. What no one predicted was how traumatic many soldiers found it, to be confronted in battle with the consequence of their training: a dead soldier they had killed without a moment’s thought. As with Ian, the post-traumatic reactions were often devastating, with guilt and horror as key components of flashbacks and nightmares. In his case the signs of trauma were the unrelenting voices, a waking nightmare in effect.

Some of the horror of this is captured in Keith Douglas’s poem of the Second World War, How to Kill.

keyesdouglas

Keith Douglas

Under the parabola of a ball,
a child turning into a man,
I looked into the air too long.
The ball fell in my hand, it sang
in the closed fist: Open Open
Behold a gift designed to kill.

Now in my dial of glass appears
the soldier who is going to die.
He smiles, and moves about in ways
his mother knows, habits of his.
The wires touch his face: I cry
NOW. Death, like a familiar, hears

And look, has made a man of dust
of a man of flesh. This sorcery
I do. Being damned, I am amused
to see the centre of love diffused
and the wave of love travel into vacancy.
How easy it is to make a ghost.

The weightless mosquito touches
her tiny shadow on the stone,
and with how like, how infinite
a lightness, man and shadow meet.
They fuse. A shadow is a man
when the mosquito death approaches.

This is an equally disturbing but different kind of trauma from the kind captured in Wilfred Owen’s poems, such as Dulce et Decorum Est.

The intense guilt Ian harboured about his army experiences was too hard to bear and he had buried it. However, his subsequent guilt over throwing his alcoholic partner out of the house because her drinking was consuming his income from three jobs and he couldn’t cope any longer, reactivated the earlier even more intense guilt, because he thought she might die on the street, meaning that he might in a sense have killed her.

During the first period of therapy he felt that he was dealing only with his guilt about her, and that this was the main problem in terms of his voices. This was hard enough. Only later did he come to realise, by the impact of an anniversary effect I’ll come to in the next post, that the far darker army experiences, that he hadn’t yet dealt with, lay still active in this respect underneath.

What use is religious practice here?

There is much evidence that faith and religion are beneficial to mental (and physical) health. They reduce amongst other difficulties: depression, anxiety, suicide, & psychosis. The protectors they provide include: greater meaning and purpose, higher self-esteem, social support, less loneliness and more hope. (Harold Koenig at al. in Religion and Health’ Chapter 15)

My focus now will be on two aspects: reflection and consultation. Buddhism offers the most obvious example of powerful reflective processes. There is also a wealth of information that suggests most strongly that the process of collaborative conversation (Andersen and Swim), of consultation in the Bahá’í sense (see John Kolstoe), of inquiry (see Senge), of interthinking, can achieve remarkable results: Neil Mercer talks of the crucial function of language and says:

it enables human brains to combine their intellects into a mega-brain, a problem-solving device whose power can be greater than that of its individual components. With language we are able not only to share or exchange information, but also to work together on it. We are able not only to influence the actions of other people, but also to alter their understandings. . . . . Language does not only enable us to interact, it enables us to interthink.

It is the special combination of both these processes that is unique to the Bahá’í Faith as far as I am aware, though variations of each alone can be found in other either religious or educational/therapeutic contexts.

After I qualified and became a member of the Bahá’í community, fully integrating my understanding and practice of these processes into my clinical repertoire took a couple of years. I came to feel the benefits of that were considerable.

These weren’t the only factors I tried to accommodate. The hardest to digest was the belief that the mind is not dependent upon the brain. I have dealt with that in detail elsewhere.

The easiest was the notion that not only is the spiritual core of all religions essentially the same, but also humanity is in essence one: we are all part of the human family and all interconnected, not just at a material level but at a spiritual one as well. This is relevant here. This concept of unity not only serves to dispel any residual sense we might have that someone with a diagnosis of schizophrenia is somehow a different kind of being from us, but it also clarified that being inwardly divided, as many of us are, is not only a betrayal of our own essential inner oneness but an obstacle to our connecting with others, not just as a therapist but in any relationship. Similarly a community that is at odds with itself with find it hard to connect with everyone on a harmonious basis. I will be returning to that point.

My shorthand description of reflection is to say that it involves separating consciousness from its contents. Consultation, in similarly brisk terms, is the dispassionate comparison of notes, with the emphasis here on the word ‘dispassionate.’

Reflection

In discussing the nature and power of reflection I usually start with Peter Koestenbaum’s book, New Image of the Person: Theory and Practice of Clinical Philosophy.

Reflection, he says (page 99): ‘. . . releases consciousness from its objects and gives us the opportunity to experience our conscious inwardness in all its purity.’ I will look more closely at exactly what this might mean in a moment. Before we move on from his take on the matter, what he says at another point is even more intriguing (page 49): ‘The name Western Civilisation has given to . . . the extreme inward region of consciousness is God.’

I am quoting this upfront so that, if you find what I’m going to say from a faith perspective hard to accept, this might help.

In earlier posts I have discussed how psychosis is a very rigid and inflexible state of mind. I believe it is simply at the end of a continuum along which we all are placed. We all to some degree at times overvalue our beliefs, our perceptions, our simulation of reality. This can bring about a degree of attachment to them that makes us inflexible and highly resistant to contradictory evidence or different perspectives. This does not create a huge problem if our take on reality is not also destructive or frightening or both.

Fixity in the face of often extremely unpleasant phenomena causes an unacceptable and virtually inescapable amount of distress to the sufferer and of anxiety in his friends and family. The distress is what brings the sufferer to the attention of the psychiatric services. Psychiatry then applies the label schizophrenia. This label, in my view, mixes up the content of the experiences with the person’s relationship to those experiences in what can be a most unhelpful way.

Just as it is important to separate our perceptions (voices, visions and other internally generated experiences in other sensory modalities) from our understanding (beliefs, models, assumptions, meaning systems etc), it is crucial also to separate out, from the nature of these experiences in themselves, this loss of perspective and flexibility which I am calling fixity.

I have examined elsewhere on this blog the various ways that this fixity can be dispelled. Here I plan to focus simply on reflection. This is not because they are irrelevant. One, which I term disowning, by which I meant discounting or suppressing uncomfortable contents of consciousness such as pain, grief or guilt, was something Ian described in in the process of our shared reflections: he saw himself as increasingly ‘recognising’ his feelings rather than ‘repressing’ them.

My focus though will be on how reflection enables us to contain unpleasant material in consciousness, giving us time to think about and explore it, prior to integrating it.

Bahá’u’lláh, the Founder of the Bahá’í Faith, in the Kitáb-i-Íqán (Book of Certitude) quoted a hadith from the Islamic tradition: ‘One hour’s reflection is preferable to 70 years’ pious worship.’

‘Abdu’l-Bahá

His son ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, explored this in a talk he gave at a Friends’ Meeting House in London in 1913. He spoke of reflection, meditation and contemplation as virtually equivalent concepts. He went on to explain their power (Paris Talks – pages 174-176):

This faculty of meditation frees man from the animal nature, discerns the reality of things, puts man in touch with God. . . .

Through this faculty man enters into the very Kingdom of God. . .

The meditative faculty is akin to the mirror; 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. . . .

What he says for me maps onto Koestenbaum but in more directly spiritual terms. It explains why reflection, also connected with meditation and contemplation, is so powerful from a Bahá’í point of view.

The mirror analogy along with Bahá’u’lláh’s various references to the human heart as a mirror, led me to ask: what are the possible similarities between consciousness and a mirror?

Basically, a mirror is NOT what is reflected in it. In the same way, consciousness is not its contents. We are not what we think, feel, sense, plan, intend, remember, imagine and so on. This is also known as Disidentification in Psychosynthesis. In Jessica Davidson’s very brief summary, the affirmation exercise this form of therapy uses reads like this:

I have a body and sensations, but I am not my body and sensations. I have feelings and emotions, but I am not my feelings and emotions. I have a mind and thoughts, but I am not my mind and thoughts. I am I, a centre of Pure Awareness and Power.

Less controversially for most people I suspect, I would prefer to affirm that I have sensations, but these change from moment to moment so I cannot be my sensations. I am the capacity to sense. And so on with feelings, thoughts, plans, memories and imaginings, including our ideas about ourselves and what or who we are. Assagioli’s final affirmation was, as I remember, ‘I am a centre of pure consciousness and will.’

Reflection enables us to find meaning in what we are tempted to call ‘madness.’ It gives us the freedom to examine it even if only in our own minds. Psychosis is almost always meaningfully rooted in a client’s experience.

How might reflection help us find meaning?

Reflection helps counteract the fixity of attachment to the contents of consciousness that characterises what is called the ‘psychotic’ experience. The crucial stepping back relates not just to the experiences themselves, such as visions and voices, but to the explanations the sufferer has created for the experiences, which then cease to be delusional.

What Ian thought was just schizophrenia had meaning. Understanding and integrating that meaning released him from his voices. To understand his psychotic experiences he had to neither suppress them nor surrender to them: he had to contain them so he could examine them.

Recognising that they were simply the contents of his consciousness enabled him to step back, experience and think about them. They no longer had power over him.

I will sharing some of his thoughts on this in the final post.

Consultation

But there is one step further we can go.

When Ian loosened his identification with his experiences, he was able not just to think about them, he could also compare notes with others about what they might mean: he could consult in a Bahá’í sense of that undervalued word.

The Bahá’í International Community, which represents the Faith at the United Nations, quotes Bahá’u’lláh on consultation (The Prosperity of Humankind Section III): ‘In all things it is necessary to consult. The maturity of the gift of understanding is made manifest through consultation.’

What might He mean by that. Paul Lample in his excellent book Revelation and Social Reality puts forward his view: (page 199):

Consultation is the method of Bahá’í discourse that allows decisions to be made from the bottom up and enacted, to the extent possible, through rational, dispassionate, and just means, while minimising personal machinations, argumentation, or self-interested manipulation.’

Key words and phrases here are: ‘from the bottom up’ which I take to mean not imposed in some condescending fashion by those who feel superior; ‘dispassionate’ meaning objective and detached (something I’ll come back to in more detail in the next and last post); and ‘minimising . . . manipulation,’ so no ulterior motives or advantage seeking creep in.

Later he adds further illumination (page 215):

[C]onsultation is the tool that enables a collective investigation of reality in order to search for truth and achieve a consensus of understanding in order to determine the best practical course of action to follow.… [C]onsultation serves to assess needs, apply principles, and make judgements in a manner suited to a particular context.’

The key concept here is the ‘collective investigation of reality.’ This means that all parties involved in consultation are comparing notes, sharing perspectives, without undue attachment to their own point of view and not in an attempt to win an argument but with a sincere striving to understand reality better.

Just as the client needs to reflect, so does the ‘therapist.’ It is a two way street. And the therapist needs to model what she wants the client to learn: reflection. If she does not consultation is not possible. She must be as detached from her conclusions as she wants the client to be. If both client and therapist can reflect together as equals they are genuinely consulting. They can achieve a higher level of understanding, a better simulation of reality, together, than they ever could alone.

We are now ready to explore the impact of these processes on Ian and to examine some other important factors and considerations. More of that next time.

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child-soldier-empty-roadOnly as humanity comes to understand the implications of what occurred during this period of history will it be able to meet the challenges that lie ahead. The value of the contribution we as Bahá’ís can make to the process demands that we ourselves grasp the significance of the historic transformation wrought by the twentieth century.

(Century of Light – page 0)

The recent sequence of workshops on unity that I am blogging about at the moment also has roots in the insights expressed in a book I delved into about two years ago. Here is the third post of eight. I will be posting them interwoven with the Becoming True Upholders of His Oneness sequence. Century of Light is this key text published by the Bahá’í World Centre designed to help us understand the challenges we face in the world today. If you prefer you can download this in PDF version (3 Components of Our Wreck). I learned a huge amount both from preparing these materials and from walking with others in the 2015 workshop along a path of intense exploration over a period of days. 

Reflecting on Quotations

We agreed in the first workshop that we would start the day today by trying out one way of building reflection on a quotation into our moments of quiet contemplation.

We need to sit comfortably in our chairs, our backs reasonably erect, both feet in contact with the floor and hands lying loosely in our lap. We need to spend a few moments withdrawing our attention from the outside world and instead focusing it on our breathing. This is probably most easily done by resting our full attention on the movement of our diaphragm. At the start, if it helps, we can use our rate of breathing to slow down our inward recitation of the passage we have memorised. When we are alone we can of course recite the passage out loud. If anyone has not yet memorised a passage it is fine to begin this process by reading it slowly and mindfully after settling quietly into a reflective state of mind.

Keeping our breathing steady and even, we should focus our entire attention upon each phrase as we read or recite it. As Easwaran points out (page 32) in his excellent book, in the end we have to find the pace that suits us best: ‘the space between words is a matter for each person to work out individually.… If the words come too close together, you will not be slowing down the mind… If the words stand too far apart, they will not be working together…’

If we find our mind has wandered, we should, without getting irritated with ourselves, begin the passage again at the beginning. This teaches the mind that it cannot getaway with wandering: there is a price to pay.

In these early stages we should consider ourselves very successful if we can meditate in this way upon a text for five minutes without losing our concentration. Our aim over a period of months could be to increase their concentration span to something like 20 minutes. Clearly this would enable us, if we wished, to memorise longer passages for reciting, rather than repeating the same short text. It is advisable to change the text we use each week to fend off the indifference which can come from overfamiliarity.

  1. Why would regularly experiencing the wisdom captured in words in this way be helpful to us?
  2. What was our experience like this time?

Group Work

Reminder: For each group discussion the group should choose a facilitator. It would be best to change the facilitator for each piece of group work over the series of workshops but the group will remain the same. During the consultation, the facilitator’s role is to keep track of the time, to ensure that:

  1. everyone contributes something,
  2. no one keeps repeating the same point, and
  3. no one makes excessively long contributions.

The group also needs to agree who will keep a record of the main points for when there is a report back to everyone at the end of the group consultation. The aim should be to make the report back no longer than five minutes.

Ukrainian government army soldiers examine weapons captured from rebels in the city of Slovyansk, Donetsk Region, eastern Ukraine on July 5, 2014 (For source of image see link)

Ukrainian government army soldiers examine weapons captured from rebels in the city of Slovyansk, Donetsk Region, eastern Ukraine on July 5, 2014 (For source of image see link)

Group One Task

The Evidence of a Corrosive Cultural Climate

Pages 1: The loss of life alone has been beyond counting. The disintegration of basic institutions of social order, the violation – indeed, the abandonment – of standards of decency, the betrayal of the life of the mind through surrender to ideologies as squalid as they have been empty, the invention and deployment of monstrous weapons of mass annihilation, the bankrupting of entire nations and the reduction of masses of human beings to hopeless poverty, the reckless destruction of the environment of the planet – such are the more obvious in a catalogue of horrors unknown to even the darkest of ages past.

This is a powerful indictment of our culture. We need to unpack some of the implications before we can move on to more positive perspectives.

  1. Where do see evidence of ‘the disintegration of basic institutions of social order’ and ‘the abandonment . . . of standards of decency’? Is there an antidote to this process?
  2. What do we think is meant by ‘betrayal of the life of the mind through surrender to ideologies as squalid as they have been empty’? How might that best be remedied?
  3. Are any of the other points unclear in their implications?

Pages 3-4: The vast majority of the human family, living in lands outside the Western world, shared in few of the blessings and little of the optimism of their European and American brethren. [Refers to China, India, Latin America, & Africa.] . . . Most tragic of all was the plight of the inhabitants of the African continent, divided against one another by artificial boundaries created through cynical bargains among European powers. It has been estimated that during the first decade of the twentieth century over a million people in the Congo perished – starved, beaten, worked literally to death for the profit of their distant masters, a preview of the fate that was to engulf well over one hundred million of their fellow human beings across Europe and Asia before the century reached its end.

These masses of humankind, despoiled and scorned – but representing most of the earth’s inhabitants – were seen not as protagonists but essentially as objects of the new century’s much vaunted civilising process. Despite benefits conferred on a minority among them, the colonial peoples existed chiefly to be acted upon – to be used, trained, exploited, Christianised, civilised, mobilised . . . . To a large extent, religious and political pieties of various kinds masked both ends and means from the publics in Western lands, who were thus able to derive moral satisfaction from the blessings their nations were assumed to be conferring on less worthy peoples, while themselves enjoying the material fruits of this benevolence.

Additional Information:

In his book The Bottom Billion (2007) Paul Collier explains there are at least 58 countries worldwide trapped in poverty, as a result of factors such as incessant conflict or bad governance. The total population of these countries at that time was 980 million people, seventy per cent of whom live in Africa.

In addition we can factor in the abuse of children in various ways (Universal House of Justice: Ridván 2000):

Our children . . . . should not be left to drift in a world so laden with moral dangers. In the current state of society, children face a cruel fate.

  • Millions and millions in country after country are dislocated socially.
  • Children find themselves alienated by parents and other adults whether they live in conditions of wealth or poverty.
  • This alienation has its roots in a selfishness that is born of materialism that is at the core of the godlessness seizing the hearts of people everywhere.
  • The social dislocation of children is in our time a sure mark of a society in decline; this condition is not, however, confined to any race, class, nation or economic condition – it cuts across them all.

It grieves our hearts to realise that in so many parts of the world children are

  • employed as soldiers,
  • exploited as labourers,
  • sold into virtual slavery,
  • forced into prostitution,
  • made objects of pornography,
  • abandoned by parents centred on their own desires, and
  • subjected to other forms of victimisation too numerous to mention.

Many such horrors are inflicted by parents themselves upon their own children. The spiritual and psychological damage defies estimation.

Additional Information from ten years ago:

26,575 children die every single day. Of the 62 countries making no progress or insufficient progress towards the Millennium Development Goal on child survival, nearly 75 per cent are in Africa. In some countries in southern Africa, the prevalence of HIV and AIDS has reversed previously recorded declines in child mortality. Achieving the goal in these countries will require a concerted effort. Reaching the target means reducing the number of child deaths from 9.7 million in 2006 to around 4 million by 2015. Accomplishing this will require accelerated action on multiple fronts: reducing poverty and hunger (MDG 1), improving maternal health (MDG 5), combating HIV and AIDS, malaria and other major diseases (MDG 6), increasing the usage of improved water and sanitation (MDG 7) and providing affordable essential drugs on a sustainable basis (MDG 8). It will also require a re-examination of strategies to reach the poorest, most marginalized communities.

Trafficking in children is a global problem affecting large numbers of children. Some estimates have as many as 1.2 million children being trafficked every year. There is a demand for trafficked children as cheap labour or for sexual exploitation. Children and their families are often unaware of the dangers of trafficking, believing that better employment and lives lie in other countries. Most child casualties are civilians. But one of the most deplorable developments in recent years has been the increasing use of young children as soldiers. In one sense, this is not really new. For centuries children have been involved in military campaigns—as child ratings on warships, or as drummer boys on the battlefields of Europe. Indeed the word ‘infantry’, for foot-soldiers, can also mean a group of young people. What is frightening nowadays is the escalation in the use of children as fighters. Recently, in 25 countries, thousands of children under the age of 16 have fought in wars. In 1988 alone, they numbered as many as 200,000. And while children might be thought to be the people deserving greatest protection, as soldiers they are often considered the most expendable. During the Iran-Iraq war, child soldiers, for example, were sent out ahead in waves over minefields.

  1. How do you think that we managed to disguise from ourselves the iniquity of what we were doing in all these areas for so long and why has Africa come out of it all so badly?
  2. Have we now moved past that period of exploitation, neglect and abuse, or is it still happening? If it is, why does it persist?
  3. If we have moved on to some degree, how did we do it?
  4. Why is the harm we have been doing to our children a crucially important issue for us to address urgently, probably as urgently as climate change if not more so?
  5. What does all this tell us about the size of the task still ahead, if we are to turn things round completely?

Group Two Task

Materialism

Page 6: Where winds of change did dispel the mists, among the educated classes in Western lands, inherited orthodoxies were all too often replaced by the blight of an aggressive secularism that called into doubt both the spiritual nature of humankind and the authority of moral values themselves. Everywhere, the secularisation of society’s upper levels seemed to go hand in hand with a pervasive religious obscurantism among the general population.

Page 89: Fathered by nineteenth century European thought, acquiring enormous influence through the achievements of American capitalist culture, and endowed by Marxism with the counterfeit credibility peculiar to that system, materialism emerged full-blown in the second half of the twentieth century as a kind of universal religion claiming absolute authority in both the personal and social life of humankind. Its creed was simplicity itself. Reality – including human reality and the process by which it evolves – is essentially material in nature. The goal of human life is, or ought to be, the satisfaction of material needs and wants. Society exists to facilitate this quest, and the collective concern of humankind should be an ongoing refinement of the system, aimed at rendering it ever more efficient in carrying out its assigned task.

Page 135: There has not been a society in the history of the world, no matter how pragmatic, experimentalist and multiform 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 civilisation”. 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.

Appreciation of the benefits – in terms of the personal freedom, social prosperity and scientific progress enjoyed by a significant minority of the Earth’s people – cannot withhold a thinking person from recognizing that the system is morally and intellectually bankrupt. It has contributed its best to the advancement of civilisation, as did all its predecessors, and, like them, is impotent to deal with the needs of a world never imagined by the eighteenth century prophets who conceived most of its component elements. Shoghi Effendi did not limit his attention to divine right monarchies, established churches or totalitarian ideologies when he posed the searching question: “Why should these, in a world subject to the immutable law of change and decay, be exempt from the deterioration that must needs overtake every human institution?”

Page 136: Tragically, what Bahá’ís see in present-day society is unbridled exploitation of the masses of humanity by greed that excuses itself as the operation of “impersonal market forces“. What meets their eyes everywhere is the destruction of moral foundations vital to humanity’s future, through gross self-indulgence masquerading as “freedom of speech”. What they find themselves struggling against daily is the pressure of a dogmatic materialism, claiming to be the voice of “science“, that seeks systematically to exclude from intellectual life all impulses arising from the spiritual level of human consciousness.

These are key paragraphs for us to understand thoroughly if we are to grasp the importance and true nature of a more spiritual path forward.

Blake Newton

Additional Information:

From A Compilation on Scholarship: Baha’i Reference Library):

Just as there is a fundamental difference between divine Revelation itself and the understanding that believers have of it, so also there is a basic distinction between scientific fact and reasoning on the one hand and the conclusions or theories of scientists on the other. There is, and can be, no conflict between true religion and true science: true religion is revealed by God, while it is through true science that the mind of man “discovers the realities of things and becomes cognizant of their peculiarities and effects, and of the qualities and properties of beings” and “comprehendeth the abstract by the aid of the concrete”. However, whenever a statement is made through the lens of human understanding it is thereby limited, for human understanding is limited; and where there is limitation there is the possibility of error; and where there is error, conflicts can arise.

Medina, in his book Faith, Physics & Psychology, explains that he sees the current worldview as destructively rooted in the thinking of Descartes and Newton. He refers to it throughout as the ‘Cartesian-Newtonian worldview.’ Descartes split mind from body, which he considered to be a machine. He considered that all true understanding derived from analysis (splitting into components) and logic. Add to this Newton’s determinism (we can predict anything from our knowledge both of its starting state and the operation of immutable universal laws) and, in Medina’s view, we have the current, in his view pernicious, Cartesian-Newtonian worldview (page 14):

. . . . this classical science worldview is based on a mechanistic view of human beings and the universe that alienates human beings from their spiritual, moral, and emotional faculties. It has divided the world into mutually exclusive opposing forces: the dichotomies of science versus religion, reason versus faith, logic versus intuition, natural versus supernatural, material versus spiritual, and secular versus sacred. The result is a materialistic worldview that emphasises the truth of science, reason, logic, the natural, the material, and the secular while ignoring or even denigrating the truth of religion, faith, intuition, the supernatural, the spiritual, and the sacred.

Medina goes on to unpack what for him at least are the limitations of ‘secular spirituality’ which (page 94) ‘do not necessarily promote an altruistic social ethic or a desire on the part of individuals to improve society for the benefit of all.’ He includes ‘religious fundamentalism’ (page 95-96) under this umbrella ‘because it represents an attempt to use religion as a vehicle to fulfil worldly desires for leadership or power or as a justification for ungodly acts such as forced conversion of pagans or warfare against infidels.’

He goes on to state that our version of Christianity has contributed to the problems the Cartesian-Newtonian worldview creates (page 129) as a result of its concept of ‘an all-transcendent God Who is essentially divorced from the cursed natural world.’ He concludes (pages 129-30):

It is my belief that an extremist form of Christian theism actually worked hand-in-hand with the Cartesian-Newtonian worldview to promulgate a false sense of separation between the spiritual and the material and between the sacred and the secular.

It is important to stress that he is not criticising the true essence of Christianity here, simply some of its more extreme distortions with their destructive consequences.

For those interested in a more mainstream Christian take on the matter see God, Humanity & the Cosmos (Southgate et al: pages 95-98): they too conclude that a mechanical view of the world prevailed as a result of the success of this Descartes/Newton fusion, and this then negatively affected economics and political theory as well as religion and our view of ourselves. 

  1. Why do we think secularism and religious obscurantism might go hand in hand in the way described here?
  2. What are the achievements of American capitalism and what makes them so persuasive given the damage the system seems to be causing?
  3. How can materialism, dogmatic or otherwise, be effectively a religion? What are the parallels?
  4. What is ‘liberal relativism’ and how has it been fostered by a materialist world view? How does this philosophical and moral approach make such a perfect marriage with capitalism? Do we agree that this arrangement is bankrupt?
  5. Are market forces not really impersonal?
  6. Are science and materialism not really in tune?

Report Back: One member of each group explains their conclusions and what they have learnt. Their group members can join in to field whatever questions and comments come their way.

Compensating Accomplishments

Pages 4-5: To point out the failings of a great civilisation is not to deny its accomplishments. As the twentieth century opened, the peoples of the West could take justifiable pride in the technological, scientific and philosophical developments for which their societies had been responsible. . . . . A continuous process of discovery, design and improvement was making accessible power of unimaginable magnitude – with, alas, ecological consequences equally unimagined at the time – especially through the use of cheap fuel and electricity.

Page 5: Changes taking place at the deeper level of scientific thought were even more far-reaching in their implications. The nineteenth century had still been held in the grip of the Newtonian view of the world as a vast clockwork system, but by the end of the century the intellectual strides necessary to challenge that view had already been taken. New ideas were emerging that would lead to the formulation of quantum mechanics; and before long the revolutionising effect of the theory of relativity would call into question beliefs about the phenomenal world that had been accepted as common sense for centuries.

  1. How do we feel about the advantages they quote? Why aren’t they enough to turn our society round and avert the crisis towards which we seem to be hurtling?
  2. In what ways do we think new scientific paradigms may have changed our perspective on reality?

Where now?

. . . . . As the twentieth century opened, Western civilisation was reaping the fruits of a philosophical culture that was rapidly liberating the energies of its populations, and whose influence would soon produce a revolutionary impact throughout the entire world.

More on all this next time.

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To download the complete materials click this link Upholders of His Oneness v2.

Each day we drove into Strathallan from Dundee. This was because my health issues meant that I needed to make sure I had enough rest each day. Being a resident at summer school means that you have the benefit of more activities but with that goes a greater expenditure of energy that I couldn’t afford this time round.

So, after the long ribbon of the bridge over the shining waters of the Firth of Tay and the 17 miles of dual carriageway under alternating showers and sunshine, we arrived back at the school in time for prayers and Khazeh Fananapazir’s engaging exploration of the significance of this year. Two hundred years ago Bahá’u’lláh, the Founder of the Bahá’í Faith, was born in Tehran. This year therefore Bahá’ís are taking every opportunity to remember His life and connect with Him spiritually, as well as to deepen our understanding of the spiritual connection between Bahá’u’lláh as the Manifestation of God for this day and the Báb as His Herald .

After that, and a cup of coffee and a cake, we headed for our workshop.

Consensus Consciousness

It might help if we begin more or less where we left off. Charles Tart in his book Waking Up.’ begins his analysis of social reality and its impact on the individual by contending (page 9) that ‘Consciousness, particularly its perceptual aspects, creates an internal representation of the outside world, such that we have a good quality “map” of the world and our place in it.’ He doesn’t mince words when he describes what he feels is an important correlative of this (page 11): ‘Our ordinary consciousness is not “natural,” but an acquired product. This has given us both many useful skills and many insane sources of useless suffering.’

He chooses to introduce a phrase that captures this (ibid):

. . . [For the phrase ordinary consciousness] I shall substitute a technical term I introduced some years ago, consensus consciousness, as a reminder of how much everyday consciousness has been shaped by the consensus of belief in our particular culture.

He continues (page 59):

. . . . one of our greatest human abilities, and greatest curses, is our ability to create simulations of the world . . . . These simulations, whether or not they accurately reflect the world, can then trigger emotions. Emotions are a kind of energy, a source of power.

In the workshop at Strathallan School we delved deeply into this down side and its costs from a spiritual point of view. In a mystical work of poetic power and great beauty Bahá’u’lláh writes (Seven Valleys – pages 19-20):

Thus it is that certain invalid souls have confined the lands of knowledge within the wall of self and passion, and clouded them with ignorance and blindness, and have been veiled from the light of the mystic sun and the mysteries of the Eternal Beloved; they have strayed afar from the jewelled wisdom of the lucid Faith of the Lord of Messengers, have been shut out of the sanctuary of the All-Beauteous One, and banished from the Ka’bih of splendour. Such is the worth of the people of this age! . . . . .

Clearly, this kind of tunnel vision is more than enough to account for why Bahá’u’lláh can dismiss much of what we think as superstition, illusion, delusion and ‘vain imaginings.’ There was some discussion in the workshop as to whether invalid should be taken to mean ‘sick’ or ‘unconfirmed/inauthentic.’ Fortunately we had the chance to check out with Khazeh, the presenter of the plenary sessions and a reader of both Arabic and Persian, what the word in the original text meant: he said without the slightest hesitation, ‘sick’.

Also, what we see is still very much in the eye of the beholder. In an exploration which compares reality at the spiritual level to the sun, whose pure light is white, Bahá’u’lláh illustrates how different what we observe is from the light itself (pages 19-20):

In sum, the differences in objects have now been made plain. Thus when the wayfarer gazeth only upon the place of appearance–that is, when he seeth only the many-colored globes –he beholdeth yellow and red and white; hence it is that conflict hath prevailed among the creatures, and a darksome dust from limited souls hath hid the world. And some do gaze upon the effulgence of the light; and some have drunk of the wine of oneness and these see nothing but the sun itself.

It cannot be emphasised too strongly that these subjective differences, which result from the imperfections of our vision, can give rise to utterly toxic conflicts, conflicts whose origins are in essence delusional.

Cleansing the Mirror

As individuals, brainwashed by flawed worldviews, what can we do to transcend the resulting limitations?

In exploring this angle on the issue I am not discounting that steps also need to be taken to address the limitations of our culture, but, in seeking to capture the flow of consultation around the quotations we were considering, it’s easiest to start from here and deal with the wider issues later.

Bahá’u’lláh writes (Gleanings – XXVII):

. . . 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.

I have dealt at length elsewhere on this blog with the idea of the human heart as a mirror that needs to be burnished if it is to reflect the light of spiritual reality and that we also need to be sure that we do not mistake what is reflected there for the mirror itself. It is enough at this point simply to quote a writer whose insights, along with my experience of Buddhist meditation, helped prepare me to understand Bahá’u’lláh’s Revelation sufficiently to choose the path He reveals to us. What this writer says covers what our consultation on the day disclosed to us about the power and challenges of separating consciousness from its contents, a process he calls reflection.

In his brilliant book on existentialism The New Image of the Person: The Theory and Practice of Clinical Philosophy, Peter Koestenbaum states that (page 69):

[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.

This process of reflection, and the detachment it creates and upon which the growth of a deeper capacity to reflect depends, are more a process than an end-state at least in this life.

Koestenbaum explains this (page 73):

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

By reflection he means something closely related to meditation.

Reflection, he says (page 99):

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

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

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

I feel this brings us in psychotherapeutic terms close to the exact place ‘Abdu’l-Bahá is describing in Paris Talks. These are the quotes we wrestled with at the Summer School, striving to understand the role of silence more fully (page 174-176):

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 at one time — he cannot both speak and meditate.

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. . . .

Through the faculty of meditation man attains to eternal life; through it he receives the breath of the Holy Spirit — the bestowal of the Spirit is given in reflection and meditation. . .

Meditation is the key for opening the doors of mysteries. In that state man abstracts himself: in that state man withdraws himself from all outside objects; in that subjective mood he is immersed in the ocean of spiritual life and can unfold the secrets of things-in-themselves. To illustrate this, think of man as endowed with two kinds of sight; when the power of insight is being used the outward power of vision does not see.

This faculty of meditation frees man from the animal nature, discerns the reality of things, puts man in touch with God.

. . . Through this faculty man enters into the very Kingdom of God. . . .

The meditative faculty is akin to the mirror; 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, and may we become so pure as to reflect the stars of heaven.

Bronze mirror, New Kingdom of Egypt, Eighteenth Dynasty, 1540–1296 BC. For source of image see link.

This paved the way for our attempt to understand the relationship between achieving oneness and cleansing the mirror of the heart, which Bahá’u’lláh describes as burnishing, a process of intense friction involving metal against metal, not just picking up a duster and some polish to bring the shine back to a modern glass mirror. Once again a quick confab with Khazeh confirmed that the original word implied effort and friction. This suggests that Bahá’u’lláh may have had the early metal mirrors in mind when He wished to convey how difficult, even painful, the polishing process would be for the heart’s mirror. A Wikipedia article states:

. . . . stone and metal mirrors could be made in very large sizes, but were difficult to polish and get perfectly flat; a process that became more difficult with increased size; so they often produced warped or blurred images. Stone mirrors often had poor reflectivity compared to metals, yet metals scratch or tarnish easily, so they frequently needed polishing. Depending upon the color, both often yielded reflections with poor color rendering.[6] The poor image quality of ancient mirrors explains 1 Corinthians 13‘s reference to seeing “as in a mirror, darkly.”

The art of making glass mirrors was not perfected until the 16th Century.

If we become capable of polishing the mirror of our hearts, then we can potentially become capable of reflecting the pure undivided light of spiritual reality, thus transcending both our inner conflicts and our conflicts with others.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá describes this possibility in the following words (Selected Writing of ‘Abdul-Baha 1978 – page 76):

For now have the rays of reality from the Sun of the world of existence, united in adoration all the worshippers of this light; and these rays have, through infinite grace, gathered all peoples together within this wide-spreading shelter; therefore must all souls become as one soul, and all hearts as one heart. Let all be set free from the multiple identities that were born of passion and desire, and in the oneness of their love for God find a new way of life.

This then will remedy our current conflicted state, wherein we are at war with ourselves as well as with others. This is Bahá’u’lláh’s description of the challenge we face compared with the reality most of us are blind to (Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh = CXII):

No two men can be found who may be said to be outwardly and inwardly united. The evidences of discord and malice are apparent everywhere, though all were made for harmony and union. The Great Being saith: O well-beloved ones! The tabernacle of unity hath been raised; regard ye not one another as strangers. Ye are the fruits of one tree, and the leaves of one branch.

He is unequivocal about the role of religion in this healing process (ibid. – CXXVIII):

The religion of God is for love and unity; make it not the cause of enmity and dissension. . . . Conflict and contention are categorically forbidden in His Book. This is a decree of God in this Most Great Revelation.

And now we come to a cusp where we move from looking mainly at the individual to where we look at the community. And here it is that we will see where words can change from misleading labels or names, corrupted by misguided worldviews, to lamps of guidance.

That needs to wait for the next post.

When we got back to Dundee that evening, from the window of the flat where we were staying we could see the lights of a cruiser docked at the harbour side. Though purely material, it had a beauty of its own.

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The Great Chain of Being

If we say religion is opposed to science, we lack knowledge of either true science or true religion, for both are founded upon the premises and conclusions of reason, and both must bear its test.

( ‘Abdu’l-BaháPromulgation of Universal Peace –page 107)

In the light of Roger’s recent comment I thought I should in fairness republish my sequence of posts explaining the value of Wilber’s book The Marriage of Sense and Soul. This sequence of two posts was first published in 2012 and picks up on aspects of Wilber’s thought to which I resonate more strongly than those in his Theory of Everything.

In the previous post I summarised Ken Wilber‘s take on modernism as expressed in his The Marriage of Sense & Soul. Basically he feels that, although we have gained much by splitting the medieval fusion of instrumental, moral and subjective thinking, we have drained much of our felt life of its meaning by adopting such a purely mechanical model of the world. Part of his search for a way to undo this damage involves revisiting what he feels we have lost.

The Great Chain of Being Broken

On page 61 he picks up the thread:

. . . all interiors were reduced to exteriors. All subjects were reduced to objects; all depth was reduced to surfaces; all I’s and WE’s were reduced to Its; all quality was reduced to quantity; levels of significance were reduced to levels of size; value was reduced to veneer; all translogical and dialogical was reduced to monological. Gone the eye of contemplation and gone the eye of the mind – only data from the eye of the flesh would be accorded primary reality, because only sensory data possessed simple location, here in the desolate world of monochrome flatland.

He goes on to contend that when science discovered that mind and consciousness were anchored in the natural organism i.e. the brain and not disembodied, the Great Chain of Being, the old world view, took a colossal hit from which it never recovered (page 62).

I need to digress one moment to unpack what he sees as an essential aspect of this Great Chain of Being:

In the natural order, earth (rock) is at the bottom of the chain: this element possesses only the attribute of existence. Each link succeeding upward contains the positive attributes of the previous link and adds (at least) one other. Rocks, as above, possess only existence; the next link up, plants, possess life and existence. Animals add not only motion, but appetite as well.

Man is both mortal flesh, as those below him, and also spirit as those above. In this dichotomy, the struggle between flesh and spirit becomes a moral one. The way of the spirit is higher, more noble; it brings one closer to God. The desires of the flesh move one away from God.

This should have a familiar ring to it for anyone with a spiritual view of the world. It certainly has for Bahá’ís. There are many quotations I could choose from to illustrate this but the passage below is particularly appropriate in the context of this discussion where science and spirit have come to seem at war:

If we look with a perceiving eye upon the world of creation, we find that all existing things may be classified as follows: First—Mineral—that is to say matter or substance appearing in various forms of composition. Second—Vegetable—possessing the virtues of the mineral plus the power of augmentation or growth, indicating a degree higher and more specialized than the mineral. Third—Animal—possessing the attributes of the mineral and vegetable plus the power of sense perception. Fourth—Human—the highest specialized organism of visible creation, embodying the qualities of the mineral, vegetable and animal plus an ideal endowment absolutely minus and absent in the lower kingdoms—the power of intellectual investigation into the mysteries of outer phenomena. The outcome of this intellectual endowment is science which is especially characteristic of man. This scientific power investigates and apprehends created objects and the laws surrounding them. It is the discoverer of the hidden and mysterious secrets of the material universe and is peculiar to man alone. The most noble and praiseworthy accomplishment of man therefore is scientific knowledge and attainment.

( ‘Abdu’l-Bahá: Foundations of World Unity – page 48)

The irony, that a capacity, which Bahá’ís see as spiritual in origin, should have been harnessed to a process that has undermined our understanding of the spiritual, will not be lost on anyone reading this post. Wilber makes a subtle but important point on page 70:

Notice the difference between the interior of the individual – such as the mind – and the exterior of the individual – such as the brain. The mind is known by acquaintance; the brain, by objective description.

This contempt for our subjective experience as a source of legitimate data is something he feels we need to overcome. This forms the basis for his more balanced model of empiricism, one that he feels does not fall into the trap of privileging matter over mind.

‘Real’ Science and ‘Real’ Religion

Wilber concludes a complex review of what should constitute evidence and falsifiability by stating (page 169):

. . . it then becomes perfectly obvious that the real battle is not between science which is ‘real,’ and religion, which is ‘bogus,’ but rather between real science and religion, on the one hand, and bogus science and religion, on the other. Both real science and real religion follow the three strands of valid knowledge accumulation, while both bogus science (pseudo-science) and bogus religion (mythic and dogmatic) fail that test miserably. Thus, real science and real religion are actually allied against the bogus and the dogmatic and the nonverifiable and the nonfalsifiable in their respective spheres.

To arrive at this point he has covered ground that it would be impossible to reproduce completely here. I am offering only a selection of the barest bones of his argument. I am aware that this treatment may reduce the power of his case somewhat and can only suggest that, before dismissing it out of hand, anyone put off by my summary should read the original case in full as Wilber puts it. Also I have discussed on this blog Alvin Plantinga’s powerful exposition of a similar argument.

One of Wilber’s most basic points is that science is inconsistent if it claims that all its conclusions are based solely on external evidence.  He admits that science at its best does not claim this. On the contrary it acknowledges that interior processes such as mathematics play a huge part in the construction of its world view. However, it does a sleight of hand when it privileges the interior processes upon which it relies (e.g. mathematics) while ruling out of court those interior processes that it regards as suspicious (e.g. meditation). In Wilber’s view (pages 148-149), if you accept the one you must accept the other.

Give a Little

However, for true progress to be made, in his view, both sides need to give a little (pages 160-161):

We have asked science to do nothing more than expand from narrow empiricism (sensory experience only) to broad empiricism (direct experience in general), which it already does anyway with its own conceptual operations, from logic to mathematics.

But religion, too, must give a little. And in this case, religion must open its truth claims to direct verification – or rejection – by experiential evidence.

He builds further on this (page 169):

. . . . religion’s great, enduring, and unique strength, is that, at its core, it is a science of personal experience (using ‘science’ in the broad sense as direct experience, in any domain, that submits to the three strands of injunction, data, and falsifiability.

By injunction, he means ‘If you want to know, do this.’ This applies in equal measure to using a microscope correctly and to practising mindfulness skilfully. As I have argued elsewhere there are various pragmatic experiential exploration at the command of religions to explore their truths other than simply examining meditation, Wilber’s main focus, or similar purely individual experiences. For example, the Bahá’í Faith is a pragmatic religion – striving to learn how to walk the spiritual path with practical feet. The components of this process are described as study of guidance, consultation, action, reflection along with prayer and meditation on Scripture. This provides a set of interconnected steps to assess how effectively collective action is transforming our communities[1].

From this validation of personal experience Wilber reaches the encouraging conclusion (ibid.):

Thus, if science can surrender its narrow empiricism  . . . . ., and if religion can surrender its bogus mythic claims in favour of authentic spiritual experience (which its founders uniformly did anyway), then suddenly, very suddenly, science and religion begin to look more like fraternal twins than centuries-old enemies.

This he sees as a way of reintegrating what has been for so long so damagingly disconnected. As he puts it towards the end of his book (page 196):

. . . . the crucial point is that sensory-empirical science, although it cannot see into the higher and interior domains on their own terms, can nonetheless register their empirical correlates.

Footnote:

[1] There are those on what are probably the edges still of the scientific community who would already recognise this as a viable method of investigation, one that will enhance both understanding and practice. One example is the model of action research described by Peter Reason.

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If we say religion is opposed to science, we lack knowledge of either true science or true religion, for both are founded upon the premises and conclusions of reason, and both must bear its test.

( ‘Abdu’l-BaháPromulgation of Universal Peace –page 107)

In the light of Roger’s recent comment I thought I should in fairness republish my sequence of posts explaining the value of Wilber’s book The Marriage of Sense and Soul. This sequence of two posts was first published in 2012 and picks up on aspects of Wilber’s thought to which I resonate more strongly than those in his Theory of Everything.

A Windfall

I’ve had a plan for some time that looked like it would never see the light of common day. In the years before I began blogging I had read a number of books that impressed me deeply. I thought what a great idea it would be to blog about them as well, not just about the books I’m reading at the moment. So, I sorted them out onto a shelf for future processing. And they’ve stayed there ever since. Just not enough time in the day to revisit them, refresh my memory and convey my sense of why they are so important.

Then I had a windfall. I discovered that I’d done extensive notes on at least one of the books electronically in early 2001. In this post and one more I’ll attempt to winnow out what I feel now are some of the most telling points I captured at the time from The Marriage of Sense & Soul by Ken Wilber.

The Costs of Splitting

Wilber is concerned about what is also one of my obsessions: the price of modernism and the conflict that exists between religion and science. The Marriage of Sense and Soul is a brilliant attempt to capture the essence of his thinking on this issue in a reasonably accessible form between the covers of a single book. I don’t think he oversimplifies his position as a result.

Wilber acknowledges the dignity of modernity in its liberalism – equality, freedom, justice; representational democracy; political and civil rights:

These values and rights existed nowhere in the premodern world on a large scale, and thus these rights have been quite accurately referred to as the dignity of modernity.

This dignity comes (and he adduces scholars from Weber to Habermas in support of this contention) from the differentiation of art, morals and science; i.e. the beautiful, the good and the true. Each has its own language: I, we and it language (page 50). Because these are differentiated the We can no longer dominate the It. Religious tyranny can no longer dictate to science what is true. Nor can the “we” of the church or state over-ride the rights of individuals (“I”). As we shall shortly see, there is though another trap that a simplistic enthronement of reason has set for us.

It may help to bring in what Pusey and Sloane, in different books, have to say that sheds further light on this crucial set of distinctions.

Michael Pusey I have quoted in a previous post. He explains (page 51) that at the threshold of modernity Jurgen Habermas sees three modes of relating to the world becoming increasingly differentiated: there is first the ‘instrumental’ approach, then the ‘ethical’ perspective and thirdly the ‘aesthetic’ take on reality. These need to be in balance and integrated. We have increasingly privileged the instrumental (ends/means or rational/purposive) at the expense of the other two (moral and expressive). This mode has ‘colonised’ what Habermas calls the ‘lifeworld.’ Discourse from the other two positions plays second fiddle to the ‘instrumental’ (sorry! I couldn’t resist the pun!) This impoverishes the decision-making processes of our public lives. Values and subjectivity are seen as second rate, on no objective basis whatsoever.

Tod Sloan, in his book Damaged Life, quotes Habermas directly in support of his position (page 60):

As the process of modernisation continues, the different modes of rationality tend to become isolated in separate ‘orders of life.’ The resulting divisions present a serious problem to individuals who need to form personal identities capable of integrating several modes of rationality. Habermas writes: “Cognitive-instrumental, moral-practical, and aesthetic-expressive orientations of action ought not to become so independently embodied in antagonistic orders of life that they overcome the personality system’s average capacity for integration and lead to permanent conflicts between lifestyles. (Habermas, The Theory of Communicative Action Volume 1, 1984: page 245)

In short, art, morals and science have flown apart and we are bearing the consequences!

Colonising the Life-World

Worse even than that, Wilber forcefully argues, science has invaded the other spheres (page 56):

. . .[T]he I and the WE were colonised by the IT. ..  . . . Full and flush with stunning victories, empirical science became scientism,  the belief that there is no reality save that revealed by science, and no truth save that which science delivers. . . . Consciousness itself, and the mind and heart and soul of humankind, could not be seen with a microscope, a telescope, a cloud chamber, a photographic plate, and so all were pronounced epiphenomenal at best, illusory at worst. . . . . Art and morals and contemplation and spirit were all demolished by the scientific bull in the china shop of consciousness. And that was the disaster of modernity. . . . it was a thoroughly flatland holism. It was not a holism that actually included all the interior realms of the I and the WE (including the eye of contemplation). . . . [I] as the reduction of all of the value spheres to monological Its perceived by the eye of the flesh that, more than anything else, constituted the disaster of modernity.

Trying to turn the clock back is no solution: attempting to regress to some theoretical Golden Age in the past is a dead end. On page 57 he states:

Premodern cultures did not have this disaster precisely because they did not possess the corresponding dignities, either, and thus they cannot serve as role models for the desired integration. The cure for the disaster of modernity is to address the dissociation, not attempt to erase the differentiation!

He ends that chapter with the bleak description:

A cold and uncaring wind, monological in its method and calculated in its madness, blew across a flat and faded landscape, the landscape that now contains, as tiny specks in the corner, the faces of you and me.

We’re on familiar territory here. McGilchrist has more recently addressed it in terms of getting a better balance between left and right brain functioning. Sheldrake is fighting to get science to put down the blunderbuss of materialism in favour of a less reductionist more holistic approach. What is Wilber’s answer? That’s what the second post will be about.

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'Modern Times' (for source of image see link)

‘Modern Times’ (for source of image see link)

Last year about this time I posted this sequence which again seems relevant in the light of my current exploration of consciousness in the context of climate change. The posts appear on consecutive days.

In the last post we looked at Paul Mason’s discussion of surplus value and some of its implications. What seems to me particularly important for present purposes is the way he teases out so clearly how this process is destined eventually, whenever eventually might be, to running out of road. There will be not enough labour involved in production to create enough surplus value to sustain the capitalist model.

Karlberg, whom I also quoted at length in the last post, is largely focusing on value-based and moral arguments and the evidence that supports them. While I find them compelling not everyone will, not least the average profit-centred believer in the market.

The special interest to me of what Mason says lies in the fact that it is, if true, a pragmatic argument. It suggests that it is in the interests even of those, whose drive for increasing profit is their primary motivation, to recognise that what they are seeking to do is not only ultimately unsustainable because of the eventual exhaustion of natural resources, which seems a long way off;  unacceptable because of the costs in terms of pollution and climate change; and morally indefensible because of the debilitating hardships of the workforce. It is also unsustainable in its own materialistic terms. That capitalists appear to be in denial about the nature of their own reality does not diminish the power of this idea if it is true. Even if only partly true because it is only one aspect of a far more complex reality, the idea deserves a wider hearing than it seems to get at present and needs to be mnore carefully considered.

One of the reasons it remains so hard to prove is adduced by Mason himself in a different context in his book (page 271):

Given that we are decades into the info-tech era, it is startling that… there are no models that capture economic complexity in the way computers are used to simulate weather, population, epidemics, or traffic flows.

This is partly what makes debates about what major steps will most benefit the economy so flawed: there is no way exactly to predict what will happen in economic terms as a result of any specific option, so the power of the arguments lies then not in facts but in gut reactions, a very dangerous scenario. As a result, such debates, in any society with gross inequalities such as ours, can and frequently do reduce down to the pain and anger of the marginalised and disadvantaged being focused, by those seeking to influence them, on any convenient scapegoat as the cause of problems whose origin is far more complex.

We are often also blinded by our competitive materialism to the existence of other options and other arguments. Where do we go from here?

Black Friday (for source of image see link)

Black Friday (for source of image see link)

Consumption:

From the point of view of us as individuals, given that the business world is largely blind to the problem, what can be done?

We don’t have to look far for a key component of the problem, which is to some degree within our control: consumption. An interesting article on the Bahá’í Teachings website looks at this from within the context of climate change.

That vast range of potential sea level rises, which our children and our grandchildren will inherit from us, will depend on our consumption of fossil fuels, food and material goods. If we continue to consume those things in the same way we have in the past, we will flood the planet’s shores. If we mitigate and reduce our consumption, by converting to renewable energy sources, eating less wasteful and more moderate plant-based diets and finding ways to control our runaway, materialistic habits as consumers, we still have a chance of averting the drowning of the world’s great cities.

Perhaps Abdu’l-Baha had these future conditions in mind when he said “The sea of materialism is at flood tide and all the nations of the world are immersed in it.

It is important to realise also that there are other admittedly embryonic models for how society could begin to organise itself beyond the purely individual level. A recent symposium on Strengthening Local Economies for a Just Global Order, was held on 23 February this year at Devi Ahilya University in Indore, India. Its speakers articulated where we might begin to focus our attention:

“When village economies develop, why must they be limited to either capitalist or socialist models? We are seeking to forge new patterns and new models.”

The University’s Dean of Social Sciences, Dr. Kanhaiya Ahuja, emphasized the need for economic models that would reinforce the values of community life, such as compassion, contentment, cooperation, justice, and a sense of duty towards the common good. “Unfortunately,” he mentioned, “at present economic growth is being driven by consumerism and competition that are destroying these values.”

Speakers also discussed the need for balanced and just economic growth, viewing development within a broader vision of the spiritual and material prosperity of humanity.

“Economic models today give humanity a very limited range of options in explaining human behavior,” Dr. Fazli said. “One is to explain it in terms of greed, self-interest, and profit motive. The other is to say that the only way to organize society is to have absolute equality.

To understand our power as consumers we could start with Ehrenfeld, to whose thinking I turn now. In Flourishing, a book which records his thoughts in an interview with Andrew J. Hoffman (page 151) he states:

Consumers can exert a great deal of influence over corporations, just like voters can exert a great deal of influence over the political structure. So as consumers start turning away from products that have been purchased to feed some addiction and can’t satisfy them, and seek goods to help them authentically care for themselves and others in the world, then they become able to push back very hard on corporations.

For source of image see link

For source of image see link

Flourishing:

There are many encouraging signs that the prevailing wind might be changing direction.

For example, Ehrenfeld analyses in detail exactly where our mindless absorption with consumption has brought us and summarises it at one point as follows (pages 82-83):

Executives of the firms that are pushing sustainability… are unaware or purposely ignoring that the global economy is already consuming more than the Earth can provide. No matter what happens in the United States and Europe, the burden will increase as the rapidly growing economies of China, India, and elsewhere strive to attain the same levels that we “enjoy.”

But do we “enjoy” our consumer lifestyle? Data on drug abuse, crime, social alienation, and disintegrating communities might suggest otherwise. And yet, we continue to seek satisfaction in having and consuming more stuff.

As more of us consume more as more countries get wealthier, time may be running out.

Even our remedies unfortunately are flawed. Ehrenfeld believes that our current understanding of sustainability, and its promise of a sustainable future, is a delusion (page 11):

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.”

He suggests a more viable idea: ‘sustainability-as-flourishing.’ He describes four key elements (pages 27-28):

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.

He feels we have forgotten what it is to be human and, blinded by materialism, we reduce everything about growth to economics (page 41):

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.

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”.

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 (pages 99-100):

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 we are, we will live out our lives taking care of a world composed of our own selves, other humans, and everything else.

Ehrenfeld (page 104) 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.’ 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 (page 105): ‘Sustainability-as-flourishing without love is not possible.’

His thinking though does not stop there as we shall see in the next and final post in this sequence tomorrow.

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