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Posts Tagged ‘Shoghi Effendi’

Coronavirus Structure (for source of image, see link)

Perhaps it is not surprising that, during lockdown, I should be revisiting books that I have already read as well as reading new ones.

What I didn’t expect was to find that a book by John Hatcher, published in 1994, would contain passages that resonate so strongly with me 26 years later.

I’m going to focus primarily on a handful of quotations from the last third of his book. I am not going to insult any reader’s intelligence by labouring the point and attempting to spell out in detail why I find these ideas so powerfully relevant right now.

In Chapter 7 of The Arc of Ascent, after exploring in depth how the concept of unity in the Bahá’í Revelation, combined with an understanding of the need for a sense of connection with God to be translated into personal action ideally in the context of an effective organisational structure within the religion, he begins to spell out some of the obstacles in the way if humanity as a whole is to benefit from comparable insights.

Near the start of the chapter he explains:[1]

. . . while the generality of humankind may readily acknowledge their desire to abolish warfare, to protect the environment and create a sane and just administration of human affairs, the power to bring about a reformation in human governance resides largely in the hands of a small cadre of thoroughly entrenched political leaders, most of whom seem perfectly willing to sacrifice the public good to secure their own self-interest. And while some of these leaders may die off or be replaced, the ones who take their place seem little different.

Self-interest, as he acknowledges, can extend beyond the merely personal to, for example, an economic niche, a racial identity or a nation state. Even when extended in this way it is divisive and will not help heal our world of its problems.

As he spells out:[2]

. . . we can conclude that the first requisite for the initiation of a world system of social management is the increasing awareness on the part of constituent governments that when the world is contracted into one integral organism, it is impossible to pursue the narrow interests or well-being of member states apart from the health and well-being of the global community as a whole.

The prescience of the comments Hatcher quotes from Shoghi Effendi’s Citadel of Faith, written between 1947 and 1957, is spine-tingling:[3]

The woes and tribulations which threaten… are partly avoidable but mostly inevitable and God-sent, for by reason of them a government and people clinging tenaciously to the obsolescent doctrine of absolute sovereignty and upholding a political system, manifestly at variance with the needs of the world already contracted into a neighbourhood and crying out for unity, will find itself purged of its anachronistic conceptions . . .

In 1941 Shoghi Effendi was writing an equally important statement – The Promised Day Is Come. There he spelt out clearly the reasons for concluding that the world is now essentially one country while also clarifying that he is not denigrating ‘a sane and intelligent patriotism.’ In his view, this ‘declaration’ proclaims ‘the insufficiency of patriotism, in view of the fundamental changes effected in the economic life of society and the interdependence of the nations, and as a consequence of the contraction of the world . . .’,[4]

Hatcher shares the Guardian’s view that ‘fiery tribulations,’[5] such as the Second World War, need to occur to motivate humanity and raise our consciousness to the necessary higher level. War is only one example of many possible tribulations. Hatcher, perhaps hinting at an awareness of a threat that Shoghi Effendi probably could not have specifically anticipated so early in the century, states:[6]

. . .some event or series of events must suddenly make all self-interest synonymous with planetary survival.

However, Shoghi Effendi’s criteria from Citadel of Faith could embrace that possibility as they include ‘[a]dversity, prolonged, worldwide, afflictive, allied to universal destruction’ whose impact will ‘stir the conscience of the world . . .’ and ‘precipitate a radical change in the concept of society.’  In summary, in the words of a letter the Guardian wrote:[7]

[Calamities] are to teach the nations, that they have to view things internationally, they are to make the individual attribute more importance to his moral, than his material welfare.

Hatcher quotes a letter from Shoghi Effendi[8] stating that ‘it seems only intense suffering is capable of rousing men to the spiritual efforts required’ to achieve political unity.

The very magnitude of the increasingly imminent threat of climate change and the totality of its potentially destructive power may just be the trigger to our mobilising a more effective response. As David Wallace-Wells puts it in his apocalyptic warning, The Uninhabitable Earth :[9]

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.

However, in the light of more recent experience, Covid-19 may be a better candidate for this awakening than climate change, because its impact is more immediate.

Despite its tragic consequences and the immense suffering it has caused, if this is the wake-up call enough of us will pay attention to, it could mark a significant turning point, enabling us to reconfigure our priorities and avoid even more horrendous calamities further down the road. If we are to give some positive meaning to all the pain this pandemic is causing, surely we must from now on exert ourselves and make sure society does not slump back into its previous comfortably destructive trance. We owe that at least to those whose lives have been cut short in this pandemic.

I will be developing some of these ideas next month at greater length.

Footnotes:

[1]. The Arc of Ascent page 236. Unless otherwise stated all references are to Hatcher’s book.
[2]. Page 237.
[3]. Page 238: Citadel of Faith is a collection of messages from Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the Bahá’í Faith, to the Bahá’ís of the United States.
[4]. Page 238.
[5]. Page 244.
[6]. Page 246.
[7]. Page 247.
[8]. Page 251.
[9]. The Uninhabitable Earth – page 25.

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We cannot segregate the human heart from the environment outside us and say that once one of these is reformed everything will be improved. Man is organic with the world. His inner life moulds the environment and is itself also deeply affected by it. The one acts upon the other and every abiding change in the life of man is the result of these mutual reactions.

(Shoghi Effendi quoted in Compilation on Social and Economic Development)

Inequality

Tong is very aware, as I indicated at the end of the previous post, that our blind spots are highly damaging. What makes them worse is our tendency to protect them, sometimes by legislation that inhibits illuminating examination. A particularly toxic example, which she adduces, comes from the States and concerns inequality:[1]

Being poor is not just about losing the game. The poor are increasingly penalized and criminalized for their lack of wealth. At the simplest level, many banks charge a fine, or a fee, if any account balance is too low. The Bank of America, for example, has proposed a $12 dollar fee for monthly balances below $1500, in essence charging people for not having enough money. . . . Cities continue to threaten, arrest, and ticket homeless persons for forming life-sustaining activities – such a sleeping or sitting down – in outdoor public places, despite a lack of any lawful indoor alternatives. . . . Even faith-based organisations and good Samaritans face arrest and criminal liability for feeding hungry homeless people.

As I have dealt in detail with the deficiencies of our economic and political system in a recent sequence, I’ll just include here a brief reminder of Matthieu Ricard’s perspective on the system and why it finds it impossible to mend itself.

Ricard, in his thought-provoking book Altruism, radically questions the operational model of our acquisitive society. We are not homo economicus,[2] ‘selfish agents’ out to promote ‘their own interests.’ We are potentially homo reciprocans with a desire to ‘cooperate’ and consider ‘the benefits to the community’ in what we do. He quotes Amartya Sen who wrote:[3]‘Taking universal selfishness as read may well be delusional, but to turn it into a standard for rationality is utterly absurd.’

He then quotes[4] Milton Friedman’s purblind declaration that any other policy for corporate officials than maximising the dividends of stockholders would ‘undermine the very foundations of our free society.’ The word ‘free’ there is of course doubly ironic: those who pay the true price of our society are anything but free. Then he follows up with Frans de Waal’s damning analysis: ‘Every advanced nation has had major business scandals [over the last 10 years] and in every case executives have managed to shake the foundations of our society precisely by following Friedman’s advice.’

He argues the evidence strongly suggests that the kind of regulation libertarians fear is conducive to economic growth.[5]Their fantasy of a ‘free market economy,’ far from being stable, leads to global crashes. He quotes the research of Thomas Picketty, which demonstrates that, even in-between crashes, none of the wealth realised by the elite trickles down to the less well off.[6] And the unkindest cut of all came with 2008 crisis: bankers walked off with bonuses while others, lower down this disgraceful pecking order, lost their homes and/or their jobs.[7] It is not without significance that, between 1998 and 2008, the financial sector spent 5 billion dollars lobbying politicians in the States.

Proof, if any were needed, of their lack of motivation to change.

Our Simulation

Tong’s conclusions are uncompromising while at the same time recognizing how steep is the hill we still have to climb:[8]

To see the world clearly, we must first become aware of the veil; we must recognize our blind spots. The way we’ve come to perceive reality is so deeply ingrained, so socially and inter-generationally rooted, that we’ve lost sight of the manner in which we think. This is important, because what we think creates reality.

Our constructed world has become so real and dear to us, we’ve forgotten that what we call reality is a product of our minds.

I have referred a number of times on this blog to the fact that our experience of reality, with all its vivid intensity, is simply a simulation. In a way this insight in itself is not the most important one to grasp. We need to dig more deeply into its implications. This is where the strength of Tong’s case and its ultimate value really begins to count:[9]

The system, as I’ve argued in this book, is our life support system. It is the system we have built so that we no longer have to rely on the whims of nature’s cycles. It is a system that made us the most powerful species on earth. . . . The irony is that our survival is merely incidental to the goal of the system: ownership.

We cannot see the system because it exists in our blind spots. It is nature in disguise. Today, if we fail to see our connection to the natural world, it’s because most of our products look nothing like it . . . Nature has been transformed into a product. . . . As a consequence, the economy grows, but nature dies.… None of us could have guessed that in the end we will need to pull the plug on our own life-support system, and if we don’t, it will destroy us.

What we see as our sustainer and protector will in fact eventually be the death of us if we do not act now to radically change it. And this is where Tong articulates the crucial insight shared in Tom Oliver’s book, which I referred to in the first post: our interconnectedness:[10]

We navigate the world by our common-sense perception, but that perception has blinded us to reality again and again. . . We have mistrusted processes and phenomena beyond the boundaries of what we can touch and feel with our limited senses . . .

Our senses tell us we are separate from the universe and the environment and other living things. Science, however, presents the evidence to prove that our physical perceptions are wrong.

Oliver is as intensely concerned as Tong is to counteract our dangerous delusion that we are independent selves:[11]

. . . We have one . . . big myth dispel: that we exist as independent selves at the centre of a subjective universe.

He explains:[12]

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

An initially subliminal sense that we are in some way tied tightly to diverse other races can have a negative effect. As our complex interconnectedness becomes more irresistibly obvious we see a defensive protectionism on the rise, and an increasing credulity towards simplistic and often scapegoating fixes.

Which is what leads me to move from considering blind spots to examining biases. More on that next time.

References:

[1]. The Reality Bubble – pages 307-08.
[2]. Altruism – page 564.
[3]. Altruism – page 565.
[4]. Altruism – page 566.
[5]. Altruism – page 571.
[6]. Altruism – page 572.
[7]. Altruism – page 573.
[8]. The Reality Bubble – page 339.
[9]. The Reality Bubble – pages 341-42.
[10]. The Reality Bubble – page 344.
[11]. The Self Delusion – page 3.
[12]. The Self Delusion – page 4.

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From the The European Bahá’í Business Forum website

Coherence

At the end of the last post I flagged up the fact that another key capacity necessary for change is lacking: coherence. The significance of this lack was flagged up as long ago as 10 November 1974 in a message from the sovereign body of the Bahá’í community, the Universal House of Justice. They wrote:

We should also remember that most people have no clear concept of the sort of world they wish to build, nor how to go about building it. Even those who are concerned to improve conditions are therefore reduced to combating every apparent evil that takes their attention.

However, there are pressures that make it imperative that we transcend this lack of cohesion. The European Bahá’í Business Forum, in a recent letter, puts it fairly bluntly:

We are faced with a challenging new era in human history. It is a chaotic phase of transition in which collectively we are confronted with the difficult reality of unprecedented global uncertainty and forces of fragmentation.

The planet itself is now telling us through accelerating signs of climate change that business as usual is leading us to disaster.

In addition, they spell out bluntly that not everyone is willing to embrace the prospect of radical change:

While the internal incoherence within the current economic system will lead to its collapse, sweeping away some obstacles to a new sustainable system, we are currently faced with the headwinds of an intransigent resistance to change.

That the system is broken in many ways seems almost beyond dispute. Joseph Stiglitz defines a key aspect in the introduction to his widely acclaimed post mortem on the efficacy of our current political and economic system – The Price of Inequality:

. . . capitalism is failing to produce what was promised, but is delivering on was not promised – inequality, pollution, unemployment, and, most important of all, the degradation of values to the point where everything is acceptable and no one is accountable.[1]

The remedy that makes sense to him is currently conspicuous by its absence:

For markets to work the way markets are supposed to, there has to be appropriate government regulation. But for that to occur, we have to have a democracy that reflects the general interests – not the special interests or just those at the top.[2]

This suggests that mending the system will not be easy.

We have to develop some sense, though, of how this perverse fragmentation can be remedied, and a desire for reform to be generated, if there is to be any hope of constructive change.

Not only is the tunnel vision of some approaches far too narrow ever to address the full complexity of the issues that confront us all in global late-capitalism, but even where there might be a wider focus, there is a failure to recognize that tackling aspects of the system’s defects more or less one at a time, in an uncoordinated manner, is not going to get far either.

Iain McGilchrist, in his comprehensive analysis of the way our culture has privileged the wrong half of our brain, The Master & his Emissary, makes it clear how neurobiology has been enlisted to serve the purposes of a reductionist and materialistic scientism. The conclusion he reaches that most matters when we look at our western society is this:

The left hemisphere point of view inevitably dominates . . . . The means of argument – the three Ls, language, logic and linearity – are all ultimately under left-hemisphere control, so the cards are heavily stacked in favour of our conscious discourse enforcing the world view re-presented in the hemisphere that speaks, the left hemisphere, rather than the world that is present to the right hemisphere. . . . which construes the world as inherently giving rise to what the left hemisphere calls paradox and ambiguity.[3]

He makes a crucial point, when he writes, ‘However distinguished, the individual remains part of the whole and is understandable only in terms of the whole of which it forms a part,’[4] a truth our society and culture seems to have forgotten a long time ago. So, from our fragmented perspective, the group looks like ‘a potential threat to individuality,’[5] a belief that would make effective cooperation seem quite problematic.

On the whole he concludes that the left hemisphere’s analytic, intolerant, fragmented but apparently clear and certain ‘map’ or representation of reality is the modern world’s preferred take on experience. Perhaps because it has been hugely successful at controlling the concrete material mechanistic aspects of our reality, the left hemisphere view has become the norm within which we end up imprisoned. People, communities, values and relationships, though, are far better understood by the right hemisphere, which is characterised by empathy, a sense of the organic, and a rich morality. The left hemisphere tends, in its black and white world, fairly unscrupulously to make living beings, as well as inanimate matter, objects for analysis, use and exploitation.

Towards the end of his book, McGilchrist describes a more desirable society when he writes, ‘a society is, or should be, an organic unity, not an assemblage of bits that strive with one another.’ As it stands, he adds, ‘It is as if every organ in the body wanted to be the head.’[6]

We are in desperate need of reinstating a proper balance in the modes of operation of the two hemispheres. This cry is articulated in the Bahá’í Faith’s belief that religion and science are to be seen as one and should not be in conflict. They are as the wings of one bird, as also, we believe, are men and women.

McGilchrist’s articulation of this need is complex and subtle but required reading for anyone who cares about these issues. The quote below is only one part of his case, though a central one.

There is, in summary, then, a force for individuation (left hemisphere) and a force for coherence (right hemisphere): but, where the whole is not the same as the sum of its parts, the force for individuation exists within and subject to the force of coherence. . . . . [T]he rational workings of the left hemisphere . . . should be subject to the intuitive wisdom of the right hemisphere.[7]

This however could be much easier said than done, on a collective level, when we are heavily influenced by the powerful promptings of a competitive and acquisitive culture.

A further obstacle to achieving collectively the necessary level of understanding to motivate us to effective action is the short-term perspective that is wired into our primate brains. Ken Whitehead expresses it better than I can:

This pattern reveals a fundamental characteristic of how our brains work; we tend to focus on the short term, and have little thought of the long-term consequences of our actions. The early hunters devised ever more efficient ways of killing the existing inhabitants of the new lands they occupied. There was no thought of long-term consequences. Why should there be? The supply of prey animals was believed to be inexhaustible. Yet one day they were all gone!

The problems we face in today’s world suggest that little has changed in the last fifty thousand years. In his 2004 book “A Short History of Progress”, Ronald Wright describes human beings in today’s world as running 21st century software on fifty thousand-year old hardware. Our brains have evolved to react to short-term crises, such as an attack by a hungry lion. The more subtle cognitive abilities which would allow us to assess and respond appropriately to longer term threats are much less developed within the human brain. As a result we are very good at responding quickly to an emergency, but we are hopelessly inept, both as individuals and as a society, when it comes to taking effective action to head off threats which are perceived as being distant.

So, to achieve coherence we need to effect two major changes.

The first is to subordinate our analytical tendencies to our holistic potential and invest the necessary significant level of effort in transcending our short-term biases. Education will be a key to that, but if those who value holism and effortful thought do not gain the power to shape our educational system, how is that ever going to happen?

The second is to create cohesive, cooperative and morally creative institutions to manage our communities at every level. This may have to be accomplished before we can rebalance our educational system. You may well ask, ‘how though can we do that until our educational and child-rearing systems create, on a wide enough scale, the kind of consciousness necessary to build such institutions?’ A chicken and egg situation to which I will return later.

The Need for Institutions

Focusing for now on the need for coherent and effective institutions, I found this clearly defined and analysed when reading The Cultural Creatives.

Ray and Andersen describe how anyone involved in working to change the culture in which they live will have to face the intense discouragement that all too frequently comes when results fail to match up to expectations. A choice point torments us: ‘Do I keep faith with my vision or do I break faith with it?’ Keeping faith beyond what feels like its breaking point is often what brings about a breakthrough, healing the testing breach between vision and reality, at least until the next time.

Much of the power of these processes is invisible, which is partly what makes the work so testing, but it can be calculated to some degree once you understand the typical dynamics:

To understand the true size of a social movement, think of a target with three concentric circles. The centre is the hundreds of visible leaders, demonstrators, and little organisations. Around the centre is a circle of many thousands of active supporters. and around those two active circles is the circle of the sympathetic millions who are touched by the events, and may simply read the arguments, and as a result make different choices in some part of their lives.[8]

Powerful as these processes are, even when political alliances reinforce them, they are almost certainly not enough:

To change the culture, you cannot depend on the terms and solutions the old culture provides. . . . Leaving the heavy lifting to the political side of the movements, the cultural side started drying up, and the submerged networks began to lose touch with one another.[9]

At present we are indeed for the most part locked into ‘the terms and solutions the old culture provides.’ Wilhelm Streeck hits this nail on the head as well:

The de-socialised capitalism of the interregnum hinges on the improvised performances of structurally self-centred, socially disorganised and politically disempowered individuals.[10]

Ray and Andersen pinpoint a crucial missing link:

No one knew, or even thought about, how to create cultural institutions to support the work that was so important to them. The first generation practitioners  . . . . . could [hardly] manage their way out of a paper bag. . . . There really was a hole in the culture – the old ways didn’t work, and the new ones hadn’t yet been invented.[11]

The apparent absence of new ways that seem potentially effective is a debilitating aspect of many people’s thinking, much of it rooted in our default position of individualism, as Streeck points out:

The sweated workers of today and the middle-class workers in the countries of advanced capitalism… never experience together the community and solidarity deriving from joint collective action.[12]

Not surprisingly, this becomes a vicious circle, founded as it is in disconnected disempowered individualism:

The practices that make it possible for individuals to survive under neoliberalism may also help neoliberalism itself to survive. . . . . social life in an age of entropy is by necessity individualistic.[13]

But we do have institutions. Why exactly, in Ray and Andersen’s view, wouldn’t the institutions the United States already had, for example, do the trick?

The three Bigs – big government, big business, and big media – have difficulty dealing with issues that cannot be isolated from other issues and solved with tools at hand.[14]

Even progressive movements themselves could be rendered ineffective by the same tendency to atomise everything: ‘Activists, too, are Modernism’s children, believing that they must become specialists.’[15]

Too many people pick off parts of the problem unable to see or agree that they are all interconnected. In the end the core issue cannot be evaded:

Cultural Creatives may be leading the way with responses directed towards healing and integration rather than battle. For these responses to contribute to the creation of a new culture, grassroots activism and social movements will have to evolve into new institutions. . . . [W]hile new social movements are transitory, institutions can turn the energies of these movements into everyday action.[16]

The Need for Transcendence

They also strongly suggest that this might well involve something much more than a merely materialistic approach. They quote Joseph Campbell:

‘You do not have a myth unless you have an opening into transcendence.’ . . . If we cannot recognise the universe and the nations and ourselves as manifestations of ‘the grounding mystery of all being,’ he said, ‘we have nothing we can really trust.’[17]

And this quote is not in isolation. They also refer to Vijali Hamilton:

‘The true story is that there is a luminous, spacious energy that flows through everything all the time. It’s within matter, within things as well as within space, and you can tune in to it at any time . . . . . It is not otherworldly. It is right here, closer than our own flesh.’[18]

This is very close indeed to the idea that Shoghi Effendi quotes the Founder of the Bahá’í Faith describing:

‘O My servants!’ Bahá’u’lláh Himself testifies, ‘The one true God is My witness! This most great, this fathomless and surging ocean is near, astonishingly near, unto you. Behold it is closer to you than your life vein! Swift as the twinkling of an eye ye can, if ye but wish it, reach and partake of this imperishable favor, this God-given grace, this incorruptible gift, this most potent and unspeakably glorious bounty.’[19]

A sense of transcendent power may be necessary if we are to overcome the limitations of our primate brains with their tendencies towards the instinctive rather than the thoughtful and the short-term perspective as against the long view.

So it’s not surprising that leaps of faith are required of us if we are to undertake these kinds of transformative processes effectively. We must develop trust in what we are not wired to grasp easily.

Our negativity bias won’t help here. Hanson and Mendius’s book The Practical Science of Buddha’s Brain explores this clearly.

They explain that:

. . . . to motivate animals, including ourselves, to follow [survival] strategies and pass on their genes, neural networks evolved to create pain and distress under certain conditions: when separations break down, stability is shaken, opportunities disappoint, and threats loom. [20]

They explain slightly later not only why this was so but one of its most unwelcome correlates:

. . . it’s the negative experiences, not the positive ones, that have generally had the most impact on survival. . . . . The brain typically detects negative information faster than positive information. . . . . Your brain is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones.[21]

The consequences of this are not by any means simply confined to life threatening situations for us modern human beings (ibid):

. . . . In relationships, it typically takes about five positive interactions to overcome the effects of a single negative one (Gottman 1995).[22]

Also this bias towards negativity determines the scenarios with which our imagination mesmerises us constantly:

[Mini movies run in our heads] and . . . . keep us stuck by their simplistic view of the past and by their defining out of existence real possibilities for the future, such as new ways to reach out to others or dream big dreams. Their beliefs are the bars of an invisible cage, trapping you in a life that’s smaller than the one you could actually have.[23]

We need to make a conscious and sustained effort to cut against the grain of that bias:

Given the negativity bias of the brain, it takes an active effort to internalize positive experiences and heal negative ones.[24]

We clearly need every possible means to enable us to rise to the challenges we face in changing our broken system.

I have also been here before when I reviewed Jeremy Rifkin’s compelling analysis of our current situation in The Empathic Civilisation. He argues that a connection with the earth we depend upon, and our capacity to develop sufficient empathy for our fellow creatures as well as our planet, will be a sufficient motivator for us collectively, and in sufficient numbers, to avert catastrophe.

While I accept that the capacity for a high degree of empathy is wired into our brains, I also strongly believe that a higher level again can be reached, with proportionately more leverage in terms of sustained action, if we also can internalise a sense of what the Quakers term ‘That of God’ which is in all of us. Then we will not only have a strong sense of our links to one another but we will also have the confidence to act against apparently overwhelming odds that comes from the knowledge that we human beings are not alone. Bahá’u’lláh says (Bahá’u’lláh, The Hidden Words, Arabic no. 13):

Turn thy sight unto thyself, that thou mayest find Me standing within thee, mighty, powerful and self-subsisting.

Only when we have such a sense of powerful support and shared humanity does it seem to me that we can reach that tipping point, when most of the world of humanity will be prepared and able to put their weight effectively against the wheel of redemptive change, and only then will disaster be averted.

Rifkin has done his best in his impressive book to suggest one possible path towards a secure future. Those who follow his line of thinking and put it into practice will surely do some good. They could do so much more, it seems to me, if they had faith in an effectively benign power higher than the planet we are seeking to save and which needs our urgent help.

And there we will have to leave it until I attempt to explore this further in the next post, tentatively offering some possible ways of beginning to break this deadlock.

References:

[1] The Price of Inequality – page xlviii.
[2] The Price of Inequality – page li.
[3] The Master & his Emissary – pages 228-229.
[4] The Master & his Emissary – page 202.
[5] The Master & his Emissary – Page 255.
[6] The Master & his Emissary – page 444.
[7] The Master & his Emissary – page 444.
[8] The Cultural Creatives – page 109.
[9] The Cultural Creatives – page 154.
[10] Streeck – page 41.
[11] The Cultural Creatives – page 187.
[12] Streeck – page 25.
[13] Streeck – page 40.
[14] The Cultural Creatives – page 227.
[15] The Cultural Creatives – page 229.
[16] The Cultural Creatives – page 246.
[17] The Cultural Creatives – page 299.
[18] The Cultural Creatives – page 311.
[19] The Promised Day is Come – page 16.
[20] The Practical Science of Buddha’s Brain – page 26.
[21] The Practical Science of Buddha’s Brain – pages 40-41.
[22] Ibid.
[23] The Practical Science of Buddha’s Brain – pages 44-45.
[24] The Practical Science of Buddha’s Brain – pages 73-75.

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

I was asked to give a talk at a South Shropshire Interfaith meeting in the Methodist Church in Ludlow. This sequence is based on the slides I showed and the explanations I gave. It does not attempt to give an account of the experience of the evening: it would be impossible to do justice to that. Suffice it to say, I am grateful to have had the opportunity to explore these issues with such a welcoming group of seekers after truth.

Transcending the divisions within and between us

I closed the previous post with a question.

If we are going to be able to hold firm to a compass of compassion and steer a consistent course between the many temptations and deterrents that will lie in our way, what do we have to do? For most religious people prayer and meditation are obvious prerequisites, as well as obedience to the laws and observance of the rituals of their Faith.

In this divided world we need to do even more than that if we are to transcend the prejudices that prevent us from co-operating with our fellow human beings and rise above the quarrelling voices inside our heads.

Bahá’u’lláh has made it abundantly clear how high a level of unity we must achieve and how much this depends upon the degree of detachment we have developed. I am now going to spell out a key set of processes that, within the Bahá’í community and beyond, are critical to this.

Bahá’ís place great weight upon a group and community process called consultation. This goes far beyond the lip service paid to it all too often in the modern world where canvasing opinions that are then ignored is described as consultation. The success of this process depends to a great extent upon how far the participants have travelled along the road to detachment, and detachment meant in a very specific sense in this context. The link is in fact so strong that Paul Lample, in his book Revelation & Social Reality, expresses it as follows (page 212): ‘Reflection takes a collective form through consultation.’

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

My experience as a Bahá’í strongly suggests that the detachment necessary for effective consultation between people cannot be achieved easily or possibly at all without a complementary process within each of us. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá uses the terms reflection and contemplation to describe this state of mind. This process is so powerful that a tradition of Islam, quoted by Bahá’u’lláh states, ‘One hour’s reflection is preferable to seventy years of pious worship.’ [Kitáb-i-Íqán]

The simplest way of explaining my understanding of what this involves is to use the image of consciousness, or in ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s terms ‘the meditative faculty,’ as a mirror. At one level the mind simply captures as best it can what it experiences as a mirror captures what’s in front of it. A deeper implication is that, just as the mirror is not what it reflects but the capacity to reflect, consciousness is not the same as its contents. To recognize this and develop the capacity to withdraw our identification with the contents of our consciousness, whether these be thoughts, feelings, sensations, or plans, enables us to consult with others effectively and reflect upon, as in ‘think about,’ our experiences, ideas and self-concepts. Once we can do this it becomes easier to change them if they are damaging us or other people. I owe a debt to an existentialist thinker, Peter Koestenbaum in his New Image of the Person: Theory and Practice of Clinical Philosophy for this way of describing reflection and consciousness.

He states that (page 69):

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

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

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

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

By reflection what he means is definitely something closely related to meditation as ‘Abdu’l-Bahá describes it. Reflection, he says (page 99):

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

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

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

By disciplined practice of this skill we can begin to move beyond our divisive identifications, and become more able to work in unity with others. This is a skill and spiritual discipline that appears in various forms and with various labels in other religions as well as the Bahá’í Faith. Consultation, on the other hand, is not so central, as far as I know, in any other Faith.

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

The Power of Consultation

Shoghi Effendi, quotes ‘Abdu’l-Bahá explaining that ‘the purpose of consultation is to show that the views of several individuals are assuredly preferable to one man, even as the power of a number of men is of course greater than the power of one man.’ [`Abdu’l-Bahá, cited in a letter dated 5 March 1922 written by Shoghi Effendi to the Bahá’ís of the United States and Canada, published in “Bahá’í Administration: Selected Messages 1922-1932”, pages 21-22.]

‘Abdu’l-Bahá spells out the qualities required of us if we are to consult effectively. These include ‘purity of motive,’ ‘detachment from all else save God,’ ‘humility,’ and ‘patience.’ Unity, justice [‘Abdu’l-Bahá in Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá –number 43]

This makes for a powerful positive feedback loop which will immeasurably enhance our decision-making processes. Detachment is of course the core prerequisite of the three, and can be developed in us by various other ways as well. However, it is also the axle around which the wheel of consultation and reflection revolves, as well as being strengthened by them in its turn.

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

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

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

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

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

If we are going to be able to join together to determine what course of action to take in the increasingly complex situations that confront us, from a Bahá’í point of view which I think is well worth careful consideration, we need to develop these two core skills to the highest possible level. If we do not I fail to see, for example, how we can ever effectively tackle problems such as the climate crisis or the gross inequalities endemic in our global society.

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

So, in all that I have said in this sequence of posts, I hope it is clear that I am not seeking to persuade anyone that the explanations of spiritual reality have to be adopted, but I am urging everyone who shares our goals of unity and connectedness to enhance their effectiveness by testing in practice the powerful consciousness-raising processes I have described here.

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Kazimierz Dabrowski

Suffering is both a reminder and a guide. It stimulates us better to adapt ourselves to our environmental conditions, and thus leads the way to self improvement. In every suffering one can find a meaning and a wisdom. But it is not always easy to find the secret of that wisdom. It is sometimes only when all our suffering has passed that we become aware of its usefulness. What man considers to be evil turns often to be a cause of infinite blessings.

(Shoghi Effendi: Unfolding Destiny pages 134-135)

This is the first of three posts originally published in 2012, then again in 2014, 2015 and 2016. It seems appropriate to publish them yet again, because I have been pondering on the issue of theodicy in preparation from my talk in May to a humanist group. They will be interwoven another sequence over a three week period. 

Suffering

Sometimes an issue keeps poking you harder and harder until you simply can’t ignore it anymore. Suffering is one such issue for me at the moment. I did a couple of blog posts on the topic fairly recently and felt I had laid it to rest, if not for good, at least for a very long time. No such luck apparently. I kept producing poems that were locked into its gravitational field. The news keeps thrusting it before our eyes. I began to realise it was not finished with me yet even if I thought that, for my part, I had completely done with it.

Just before I made a recent visit to the Bahá’í Shrines in Haifa and at Bahji, I started a series of blog posts on mental health related issues. A comment was made on one of them:

. . . . two things that have encouraged me to see . . . mental suffering as growth have been developing a deeper spirituality, and learning about a theory of personal growth developed by Kazimierz Dabrowski, a Polish psychiatrist/psychologist, known as the “Theory of Positive Disintegration.”

I have to admit I’d never heard of Dabrowski but I’ve learned to catch at the hints life gives when I manage to spot them and I spotted this one. It was the first strong hint of something new in 20th century thinking, a different angle on the issue, and fortunately I snatched at it and obtained a book about his Theory of Positive Disintegration (TPD).

I began reading it on the plane out, continued reading it in the Pilgrim House at the Shrine of the Báb after my prayers, and carried on reading it in the plane home. Conversations in the Pilgrim House explored the issue of suffering and some of his ideas. Even BBC iPlayer programmes I was watching on the plane out rubbed my nose in the possible value of suffering.

I heard Dave Davies of the Kinks, in Kinkdom Come, stating at 58 minutes in: ‘If there hadn’t been bad times I might not have have got interested in spiritual things.’

So, here I am blogging about it yet again.

The Effects of Suffering

Stephen Joseph

Perhaps the best place to start is with a recent article in ‘The Psychologist.’ To my surprise, when I got home I found that the latest issue contains an article by Stephen Joseph about the psychology of post-traumatic growth. Trauma can shatter lives, it is true, but for some it seems rather to be an opportunity for growth. He draws an interesting distinction between two kinds of reaction to trauma (page 817):

Those who try to put their lives back together exactly as they were remain fractured and vulnerable. But those who accept the breakage and build themselves anew become more resilient and open to new ways of living.

Work has begun on teasing out what specific factors might be involved in creating this difference in approach (ibid):

Research shows that greater post-traumatic growth is associated with: personality factors, such as emotional stability, extraversion, openness to experience, optimism and self-esteem; ways of coping, such as acceptance, positive reframing, seeking social support, turning to religion, problem solving; and social support factors (Prati & Pietrantoni, 2009).

I wasn’t pleased to see that introversion is not included in the list of factors associated with ‘greater post-traumatic growth’ though it’s good to see that ‘turning to religion’ is definitely one. I remain quietly confident that the positive value of introversion will finally be recognised.

Joseph concludes (ibid):

Psychologists are beginning to realise that post-traumatic stress following trauma is not always a sign of disorder. Instead, post-traumatic stress can signal that the person is going through a normal and natural emotional struggle to rebuild their lives and make sense of what has befallen them. Sadly it often takes a tragic event in our lives before we make such changes. Survivors have much to teach those of us who haven’t experienced such traumas about how to live.

Suffering is not all bad

I have been aware for a long time that suffering is not all bad. In 1993 I had read Charles Tart’s Waking Up.

He argues, in the first part of this book, that most of us are to all intents of purposes asleep, or more accurately in a trance (page 106):

Each of us is in a profound trance, consensus consciousness, the state of partly suspended animation, stupor, of inability to function at our maximum level. Automatised and conditioned patterns of perception, thinking, feeling, and behaving dominate our lives.

He discussed ways of breaking this trance. Self-observation is a key tool. In describing its usefulness he also brings in a crucial insight (page 192):

Self observation is to be practised just as devotedly when you are suffering as when you are happy. Not because you hope that self observation may eventually diminish your sufferings – although it will have that effect – but because you have committed yourself to searching for the truth of whatever is, regardless of your preferences or fears. Indeed, suffering often turns out to be one of your best allies once you have committed yourself to awakening, for it may shock you into seeing aspects of yourself and your world you might never notice otherwise.

Dabrowski’s position, though, is far more complex than this, placing suffering in the context of a whole theory of personality development. A fuller explanation of this will have to wait for the next post. For now it is perhaps useful simply to note how Dabrowski’s idea of suffering seems closely related to Tart’s concept of a trance breaker. Sam Mendaglio, in the book he edited on the subject of TPD, writes (page 23):

Intense negative emotions and moods, typically regarded as impediments to growth and development, actually set the stage for advanced development by their disintegrating power. Intensely negative affective experiences begin the process of loosening a tightly integrated mental organisation. Though painful to individuals, negative emotions – the hallmark of inner conflict – allow people to achieve a more advanced level of human development.

His definition of what he feels lies at the end of this path through pain is of intense interest and concern to anyone seeking to gain support for a spiritual perspective on human suffering (page 23):

A developed human being is characterised by such traits as autonomy, authenticity, and altruism.

That seems as good a place as any to pause for now until the next time.

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Almeley Quaker Meeting House (For source of picture see link)

Last Saturday, thanks to the warm hospitality of the Quaker community of Almeley Wooton, the Herefordshire Interfaith Group were able to hold their fourth Spirituality Day at their meeting house, founded in 1672 after it was donated by Roger Pritchard. This is the second time the meeting house has been used for this purpose. Twenty-five people turned up to share in the experience.

The day started at 9.30 in the morning and finished shortly after 4 in the afternoon. It was a mix of spiritual chants, circle dance and meditative consultation. The theme this time was our interconnectedness with all things.

A particularly beautiful chant was shared by Mike and Susanne, the leaders of those sessions. ‘There is a secret one inside of us: all the stars and all the galaxies run through her hands like beads.’ This resonated strongly for me with the words of Alí that Bahá’u’lláh quotes in the Seven Valleys:

Dost thou reckon thyself only a puny form
When within thee the universe is folded?

Another timely reminder, given the challenges of climate change, came in another chant, which says ‘The earth is our mother: we must take care of her. Her sacred ground we walk upon with every step we take’ (an American Hopi Indian Tribal chant). Again this resonates with another quote from Bahá’u’lláh: ‘Every man of discernment, while walking upon the earth, feeleth indeed abashed, inasmuch as he is fully aware that the thing which is the source of his prosperity, his wealth, his might, his exaltation, his advancement and power is, as ordained by God, the very earth which is trodden beneath the feet of all men’ (Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, p. 44).

The consultative meditations were run by Brian and me.

Brian’s session focused on the concept of interspirituality, a concept formulated by Wayne Robert Teasdale), a Catholic monk, author and teacher from Connecticut, who died in 2004. He predicted that interspirituality would become the global spiritual view of our era. Mystical spirituality is the origin of all the world religions, from this perspective. If this is so, interspirituality—the sharing of ultimate experiences across traditions—is the religion of the third millennium, and the foundation that can prepare the way for a planet-wide enlightened culture, and a continuing community among the religions that is substantial, vital, and creative. As I was running sessions in parallel, I can only share these quotes from Brian’s hand out to give a flavour of the experience.

My sessions were focused around a group of quotations from Bahá’í and other sources. The ones that attracted the most attention were one from ‘Abdu’l-Bahá (from a previously untranslated tablet) which reads, ‘(C)o-operation and reciprocity are essential properties which are inherent in the unified system of the world of existence, and without which the entire creation would be reduced to nothingness’, and one from Albert Einstein, which came from a letter of consolation to a grieving father, that reads, ‘A human being is part of the whole, called by us ‘Universe’; a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest — a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. Nobody is able to achieve this completely but striving for such achievement is, in itself, a part of the liberation and a foundation for inner security.’

This quote from Einstein is yet another that resonates strongly with a similar Bahá’í sentiment in a message from the Universal House of Justice in May 2001: ‘Humanity’s crying need will not be met by a struggle among competing ambitions or by protest against one or another of the countless wrongs afflicting a desperate age. It calls, rather, for a fundamental change of consciousness, for a wholehearted embrace of Bahá’u’lláh’s teaching that the time has come when each human being on earth must learn to accept responsibility for the welfare of the entire human family.’

The emphasis in my sessions was upon the need to reflect not just on what these passages mean but also on how we can apply what we have understood in our own lives, and we spent some time reflecting upon how we could do more for the homeless, for refugees and for the planet.

In a reflection session at the end of the day all the 17 remaining participants shared their thoughts about the day and without exception indicated that they had found the mix of dance, chant, meditation and discussion a perfect balance.

These are the handouts used in my group

Interconnectedness

First Pair

For every part of the universe is connected with every other part by ties that are very powerful and admit of no imbalance, nor any slackening whatever…

(`Abdu’l-Bahá,Selections from the Writings of `Abdu’l-Bahá, section 137, page 157
)

We have a stake in one another … what binds us together is greater than what drives us apart, and … if enough people believe in the truth of that proposition and act on it, then we might not solve every problem, but we can get something meaningful done for the people with whom we share this Earth.

(Barack Obama NY Times article 24 December 2006)

Second Pair

(C)o-operation and reciprocity are essential properties which are inherent in the unified system of the world of existence, and without which the entire creation would be reduced to nothingness.

(`Abdu’l-Bahá, from a previously untranslated Tablet)

A human being is part of the whole, called by us ‘Universe’; a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest — a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. Nobody is able to achieve this completely but striving for such achievement is, in itself, a part of the liberation and a foundation for inner security.

(Albert Einstein in a letter of consolation written in February 1950to a grieving father, Robert S. Marcus)

Third Pair

Were one to observe with an eye that discovereth the realities of all things, it would become clear that the greatest relationship that bindeth the world of being together lieth in the range of created things themselves, and that cooperation, mutual aid and reciprocity are essential characteristics in the unified body of the world of being, inasmuch as all created things are closely related together and each is influenced by the other or deriveth benefit therefrom, either directly or indirectly.

(`Abdu’l-Bahá, from a previously untranslated Tablet)

My brother asked the birds to forgive him: that sounds senseless, but it is right; for all is like an ocean, all is flowing and blending; a touch in one place sets up movement at the other end of the earth.

(Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers KaramazovChapter 3)

Fourth Pair

We cannot segregate the human heart from the environment outside us and say that once one of these is reformed everything will be improved. Man is organic with the world. His inner life moulds the environment and is itself also deeply affected by it. The one acts upon the other and every abiding change in the life of man is the result of these mutual reactions.

(Shoghi Effendi’s Secretary, in a letter dated 17 February 1933 to an individual believer)

All things are connected like the blood that unites us. We did not weave the web of life. We are merely a strand in it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves.

(Chief Seathl, a Susquamish chief,from aspeech believed to have been delivered in December, 1854)

Depending on how many of us there are, the plan is to split into several groups of four or five, each group taking a different pair of quotations to consult about, for a period of 20 minutes or so. After ensuring that everyone in the group has a grasp of the basic meaning of the quotes, it will be useful then to focus discussion mainly on what the implications are for society as a whole and in what ways we can apply the insights we find in our own lives. After that, we will come back together to share what we have thought.

A Meditative Practice to Cultivate a Sense of Connectedness

When we have finished sharing our thoughts about the quotes, we will try a meditation of about 15 minutes, before again briefly sharing our experiences.

Settle as comfortably as you can in your chair, with your back straight but not tense. Settle both feet on the floor and tune in to your breathing for a few moments, noticing how your solar plexus or your chest expands and contracts, and how the air feels as passes through your nose or mouth.

When you feel relaxed and comfortable, bring to mind a person, a place or a living being of any kind to whom you feel you owe a precious gift. Remember as fully as you can the nature of this gift, whether it be a moment of happiness, an easing of your distress, or the ability to take a vital step forwards in life, and send back, if you are able, to that person, place or being, a feeling of heartfelt gratitude for the gift they gave.

Holding that gratitude in mind and heart as much as you can, choose some aspect of nature or the human world, perhaps the sun that warms us, the trees that give us shade, the fruit from our orchards, the bees that pollinate our plants, the rain that falls and enables every living being to survive and thrive, those without a home to live in or fleeing from their native land, and pass that feeling of gratitude on. Feel that gratitude flow from you towards your chosen part of nature or humanity, and keep it flowing for as long as you can, as though it were your sunlight or your rain, nurturing whatever it falls upon and enabling it to thrive.

Then, when you are ready, see if you can find some kind of action you can take to honour that feeling of gratitude, something you can pledge to do, not once but from now on. Maybe all you feel you can do in that way is repeat this meditation everyday, or something like it, or perhaps there is something you can do to help foster some part of nature, whether that is by funding the planting of trees or growing in your garden the kinds of flowers bees and butterflies love to visit. Whatever you decide is fine as long as you find some way of maintaining a sense of connection with the web of life.

Then, when you are ready, bring your mind gently back to an awareness of the body and the chair you are sitting on, before slowly opening your eyes and connecting with the world immediately around you.

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