Posts Tagged ‘spirituality’

Religion and Science are inter-twined with each other and cannot be separated. These are the two wings with which humanity must fly. One wing is not enough. Every religion which does not concern itself with Science is mere tradition, and that is not the essential. Therefore science, education and civilization are most important necessities for the full religious life.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá, from ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in London – page 28

At the end of the previous post I concluded that we are still a long way from having redressed the balance between an overvalued materialistic science and a discounted spirituality and religion. What other challenges lie ahead in Margaret Donaldson’s view, as explained in Human Minds: an exploration, if we are to correct this bias?

The Need for Hard Work

To foster this aspect of our potential being requires great effort,[1] it is likely that its ‘cultivation, like that of the intellectual modes, calls for steady work, sustained over many years; that it is hard to achieve in any circumstances; and that it is even harder to achieve without the full support of the resources of one’s culture.’ And the full support of our cultural resources is clearly lacking in this case.

In addition,[2] ‘[a] certain level of material and social security is necessary.’ This applies to both sides of this divide: given that the intellectual mode is more generously rewarded in our culture, it would seem to have the edge in that respect as well.

If the educational system does not nurture an appetite for understanding of any kind it is unlikely to prosper. Teachers are the ones who can hold such long-term benefits in mind[3] ‘in ways that children are unable to do themselves.’ A particularly interesting point she makes here concerns ‘the importance of stepping back further still [beyond the self] to recognise yet another point of view: the legitimate interest of all humanity.’  This involves ‘decentring’ sufficiently, in Piaget’s sense of the word, ‘to avoid being bound to a single point of view.’ This maps closely onto the concepts of reflection and disidentification which have featured often on this blog already, so I won’t rehash them here.

Goals such as these must not be imposed on pupils. They must be[4] ‘taken over by the learners as their own in the end’ in such a way that ‘discipline’ becomes ‘self-discipline.’ She makes a telling point when she writes, ‘Consequently special educational effort must be devoted to making comprehensible those purposes that are most likely to seem obscure.’ Materialistically minded teachers are unlikely to be able or willing to achieve that in terms of the value-sensing transcendent mode.

The key question therefore becomes: ‘How do you give them some sense of the experience that comes with developing spirituality as it aspires towards transcendence?’

Her answer is to suggest that[5] ‘if we are wise enough and sufficiently serious about the enterprise, our schools can offer intermediate goals in a well-planned sequence so that each achievement is also an opening which reveals new challenges not too far out of reach.’ For this to work, she argues,[6] ‘since the new goals cannot initially be understood by the novice, the first step on the way has to be an act of trust… This trust is encouraged and endorsed – or otherwise – by attitudes that are widespread in a society.’

Which is precisely the problem:[7] ‘if children are to be encouraged to direct their efforts towards achievement in these modes, they need to be shown that high proficiency in them is valued.’

We are here in the same kind of bind that I described in an earlier post which explored how we might better balance matter and spirit. I argued that a key pair of requirements was: first, co-ordinated institutions strong enough to mobilise change, and second, a level of global consciousness clear and strong enough to create those institutions. There is a chicken and egg problem there, however. Until we have an educational system that helps create such a consciousness, how will we have the effective motivation to create the institutions that we need if we are to develop such an educational system? My focus in that post was on reversing the negative effects of our economic system. The problem here is related to that but not identical.

What does Donaldson have to say about this aspect of the issue?

‘Gradgrind’s Class’ from The Illustrated Hard Times by Nick Ellis (for source see link)

Achieving a Balance

Even though she accepts that[8] ‘intellectual competence is not widely understood or valued for what it is.. . . the case is much worse when we turn to a consideration of the advanced value-sensing modes.’ In effect,[9] ‘our value-sensing capacities are being put quite firmly into second place.’ It would be breaking fundamentally new ground to have ‘a culture where both kinds of enlightenment were respected and cultivated together.’ She then asks, ‘Is there any prospect that a new age of this kind might be dawning?’

She accepts there will be[10] ‘a span centuries’ before we can ‘see any change at all.’ This anticipates the point made by the Universal House of Justice in a letter written in 2013 where it states, concerning a closely related issue:

[H]owever promising the rise in collective consciousness may be, it should be seen as only the first step of a process that will take decades–nay, centuries–to unfold. For the principle of the oneness of humankind, as proclaimed by Baha’u’llah, asks not merely for cooperation among people and nations.  It calls for a complete reconceptualization of the relationships that sustain society.

The value-sensing mode similarly runs counter to many deeply established prejudices in contemporary society, even to the extent that ‘Experiences in the value-sensing modes run the risk of being confused with madness.’[11]

Just as in the past, she feels, it took time and effort for mathematics to be distinguished from magic,[12] ‘it was achieved’ in the end, and now ‘[f]or our part we shall have to achieve a similar distinguishing of experiences in the value-sensing modes from magic on the one hand and madness on the other if we are ever to correct the imbalance between intellectual and emotional development that exists today.’

Her position is therefore ultimately optimistic by implication: humanity came to realise mathematics was not magical mumbo-jumbo, so it will do the same for mysticism eventually. She fails convincingly to explain the educational path that will enable that to happen. Even so, I find her overall exposition of the problem rewarding and illuminating.

The closest I have got myself to attempting an explanation of how such a much-needed transformation might come about is my discussion of how to move forwards from a competitive materialistic economic culture, using key points made by Karlberg in his richly rewarding book Beyond the Culture of Contest.

In describing ‘strategies of social reform’ he draws the following distinction:[13]

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

He offers the Bahá’í perspective as synthesis:

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

He discusses this in more detail, first at the level of the individual, and emphasis on education is key here, as is the fact that the Bahá’í community is developing institutions for whom this is a main focus:[14]

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

Next he turns to systemic interventions:[15]

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

The ultimate goal for Bahá’ís, he states with reference to Building a Just World Order,[16] is for ‘the administrative order’ to provide them ‘with an institutional framework within which they can further develop the skills, capacities and attitudes that they believe are needed to manage processes of social change in an increasingly interdependent complex world.’

Among those requisite social changes is the basic Bahá’í principle that science and religion are fundamentally compatible. The sane and effortful development of both these fields of exploration are fundamental to the creation of a more harmonious and constructive social order.

The Bahá’í world website pins this down precisely:

Taken together, science and religion provide the fundamental organizing principles by which individualscommunities, and institutions function and evolve. When the material and spiritual dimensions of the life of a community are kept in mind and due attention is given to both scientific and spiritual knowledge, the tendency to reduce human progress to the consumption of goods, services and technological packages is avoided. Scientific knowledge, to take but one simple example, helps the members of a community to analyse the physical and social implications of a given technological proposal—say, its environmental impact—and spiritual insight gives rise to moral imperatives that uphold social harmony and that ensure technology serves the common good. Together, these two sources of knowledge are essential to the liberation of individuals and communities from the traps of ignorance and passivity. They are vital to the advancement of civilization.

Even so, clear as that is, at least to me, there seems to be a long and bumpy road to travel before that vision of the future can be realised, and there has been much to reflect on recently about the ways we could get seriously derailed if we do not wake up soon enough to the realities that challenge our current self-centred and consumerist way of life.


[1]. Human Minds: an exploration – page 236: unless otherwise stated all references are from this text
[2]. Page 254.
[3]. Page 256.
[4]. Page 259.
[5]. Page 260.
[6]. Page 262.
[7]. Page 262.
[8]. Page 263.
[9]. Page 264.
[10]. Page 265.
[11]. Ibid.
[12]. Page 266.
[13]. Beyond the Culture of Contest – page 156.
[14]. Beyond the Culture of Contest – page 157.
[15]. Beyond the Culture of Contest – page 158.
[16]. Ibid.

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Let those who hear our voices be aware
That night now reigns on earth. Nocturnal listeners,
The time you hear me in is one of darkness,
And round us, as within us, battle rages.

(David Gascoyne, from Night Thoughts in Collected Poems, page 135)

David Gascoyne

Given my recent triggering to go back yet again to David Gascoyne’s poetry I couldn’t resist republishing this short sequence.

Till now, I probably hadn’t read my way through Gascoyne’s work in its entirety since 1982 when I purchased Robin Skelton’s edition of his collected poems, sometime before I found my way to the Bahá’í Faith.

For the first time in heaven knows how many years I’m listening to Beethoven as I work at my laptop on this post – his Pathétique, First Movement.

And why is that?

What is the reason for these changes? Perhaps even more importantly why do they seem so important to me? I’ll take the first of those questions right away, leaving the second for the next post.

Regular readers of this blog will find some repetition of earlier posts here, but I need to repeat the main ideas briefly in order to make sense of what has happened.

Basically, the reading of The Forty Rules of Love. It is the equivalent of my Dancing Flames dream in its impact.

Dancing Flames Dream

Let’s take the dream first, which I had in 1980 towards the end of my first degree in psychology, when I was doing a full time job as Deputy Manager of a Day Centre for people with mental health problems as well as studying for the BSc part-time. I’ve blogged about it at some length before so I will cut to the chase here.

The key moment in the dream was when my car broke down. I clambered out to look under the bonnet to see what was wrong. It seemed like a routine breakdown. When I lifted the bonnet though everything changed. I didn’t recognize what it was at first— then I saw it was a golden horn. I mean the instrument, by the way, not the sharp pointed weapon of the rhinoceros. The engine was underneath the horn. When I removed the horn I could see the engine was burning.

A chain of associations, many of them involving Yeats’ A Prayer for my Daughter, explained that the golden horn represented the arts, and most especially poetry and song. The bottom line for me was that the dream was telling me in no uncertain terms that I was working too hard in the wrong way, and had sold out poetry/song for prose, heart for intellect, and intuition for reason and most of all the dream was emphasising that this choice was ‘breaking down,’ that perhaps even the car, a symbol of a mechanical approach, was the wrong vehicle to be relying on so exclusively.

Further reflection led me to feel that the spirit (petrol in terms of the dream) fuels (gives life to) my body (the engine of the dream). When I channel the flames of life appropriately there is no danger. However, if we, as I clearly felt I had, allow the patterns of work and relationships to become inauthentic and detached from our life force, we have bartered the ‘Horn of Plenty’ and

. . . every good
By quiet natures understood
For an old bellow full of angry wind.

(Yeats in A Prayer for my Daughter – stanza 8).

I shifted the focus then to art in general stating that art is an external representation of an inner state which is sufficiently expressive to communicate to other human beings an intimation of someone’s else’s experience of the world. Art not only conveys the artist’s experience but also lifts the understanding of both poet and reader to a higher level.

In a way poetry at that time was my substitute for religion. In 1980, I wrote:

Poetry is my transcendent value or position. It gives me a perspective from which I can view the ‘complexities’ of my ‘mire and blood’ with less distress.

When I found a religion, which gave me a sense that seemed to offer some hope of walking the spiritual path with practical feet, thereby balancing intuition and reason, efficiency and love, I ceased to monitor carefully the way I was treading the path. To extend the metaphor by imagining that my heart was my left foot and my head the right, each governed by the opposite side of the brain, I lost sight of whether I was using both feet. I didn’t notice that I had begun to limp. My left foot was growing weaker.

A rag rug

The Dream of the Hearth

My dream of the hearth, which I have also explored at length on this blog, helped me redress this imbalance.

This was the dream:

I am sitting on a rag rug, the kind where you drag bits of cloth through a coarse fabric backing to build up a warm thick rug.  The rags used in this case were all dark browns, greys and blacks. It is the rug, made by my spinster aunt, that was in the family home where I grew up. I’m in the living room, facing the hearth with its chimney breast and its cast-iron grate and what would have been a coal fire burning brightly. I am at the left hand corner of the rug furthest from the fire. To my right are one or two other people, probably Bahá’ís, but I’m not sure who they are. We are praying. I am chewing gum. I suddenly realise that Bahá’u’lláh is behind my left shoulder. I absolutely know it. I am devastated to be ‘caught’ chewing gum during prayers but can see no way of getting rid of the gum unobserved.

The emphasis which it placed on the idea of the heart and the earth being connected, and as a place where the peat of spirit could be burned safely to warm the body’s home and energise me for constructive action, was critical. Even so I still found it hard not to let my left brain leanings tilt me out of kilter.

The Forty Rules of Love

And here I am again with another reminder, which I have recently described, and which I see as yet again telling me I must give more attention to my heart.

During a conversation high above the plains of India, in Panghgani, as I recently described, one of my companions mentioned a book I’d never heard of: The Forty Rules of Love by Elif Shafak. I wrote the title and the author down, but didn’t think much more of it at the time.

It was only later that a synchronicity occurred that suggested that the conversation in Panchgani might have had more to it than I thought.

I was lamenting to my wife that I should have brought more books. I had finished the two massive tomes I’d brought with me. I thought they’d last the whole trip and possibly beyond. Three weeks, with not much other work to do, can gobble up more pages than I realized.

A few hours later there was a knock on the door.

‘It’s a parcel for you,’ my sister shouted.

‘For me?’

‘Yes, for you.’

I went to the door and signed for the package the postman handed over.

I looked at the label. It was from the person who had recommended the book by Shafak. I could tell immediately the parcel contained a book. And it resonated strongly with me as I read it on the plane home.

The book was clearly a labour of love, and the ‘rules,’ even though not to be found in that form in the words of Shams of Tabriz or Rumi, feel authentic in the sense that their original roots are in the ground of Rumi’s writing even if they have now been transplanted into a modern soil. And to be honest the rules don’t really read as rules most of the time: they are more like attempts to pin down some eternal truths about spiritual reality which we can use to guide our conduct if we wish.

A story with a different version in the book can be found in Wikipedia:

One day Rumi was reading next to a large stack of books. Shams Tabriz, passing by, asked him, “What are you doing?” Rumi scoffingly replied, “Something you cannot understand.” (This is knowledge that cannot be understood by the unlearned.) On hearing this, Shams threw the stack of books into a nearby pool of water. Rumi hastily rescued the books and to his surprise they were all dry. Rumi then asked Shams, “What is this?” To which Shams replied, “Mowlana, this is what you cannot understand.” (This is knowledge that cannot be understood by the learned.)

This again at least to some extent relates to the right (heart) and left (head) brain issue. Even more importantly though is the fact that the book illustrates powerfully the impact on Rumi of this encounter. It is confirmed by all the stories that have come down through time. It catapulted Rumi from scholar to poet.

I have finally twigged one of the main causes of the strong impact on me of this book, which initially puzzled me more than  a little. It wasn’t just to do with its spirituality. Reading it has forcefully catapulted me back to the consideration of poetry, and a particular kind of poetry at that.

More of that and David Gascoyne next time.

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A Light that does not Blind v3


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

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I am sitting in a café reading a book.

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

Well, this book is a bit special.

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

And that’s just for starters.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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Light & Lamp

My recently published sequence of two posts on the power of metaphor suggested strongly that I should publish this sequence again. It is a perfect illustration, in my view, of Lakoff and Johnson’s contention in Metaphors We Live By that (page 193):

Metaphor is one of our most important tools for trying to comprehend partially what cannot be comprehended totally; our feelings, aesthetic experiences, moral practices, and spiritual awareness.

In the end, they feel that (page 233) ‘much of self-understanding involves consciously recognising previously unconscious metaphors and how we live by them’ and ‘engaging in an unending process of viewing your life through new alternative metaphors.’  Until I read their words I don’t think I had fully appreciated exactly what I was doing when I grappled with the challenges of understanding what Bahá’u’lláh meant by the phrase ‘understanding heart.’

So far we have seen that aspects of the idea of the heart as a garden inched us towards a slightly better sense of what Bahá’u’lláh might be seeking to convey when He writes of the ‘understanding heart.’ I have still some way to go though with my struggles to grasp this concept. It keeps slipping through my fingers.

At the end of the last post, I said I felt my best hope of making further progress was to use other metaphors, in this case from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh, to help unravel the deeper meanings of the heart metaphor.

There are two caveats to bear in mind here.

Metaphors help us understand but are not in themselves the reality which needs to be understood: this could apply even to the phrase ‘understanding heart.’

Also it may not be possible to translate metaphors fully and clearly into prose descriptions. Often we have to allow the metaphor to sink deep into the mind and then wait for the fragrance of its implications to slowly permeate our consciousness and influence our thoughts. Our culture privileges numbers and prose over imagery, shape and melody as a means of understanding, much to the detriment of right- as against left-brain processes. What I am about to do may therefore be a bit testing for some of us!

There are two other prevalent images for the heart in the Bahá’í Writings apart from the garden: the lamp or candle and the mirror. I repeat, at the risk of being boring: we would do well to bear in mind that we should not mistake these images for the Real, whatever that is. However, reflecting on their implications might get us significantly further.

O brother! kindle with the oil of wisdom the lamp of the spirit within the innermost chamber of thy heart, and guard it with the globe of understanding, . . .

(Bahá’u’lláh: Kitáb-i-Íqán page 61)

Given that I was earlier supposing that wisdom would result from searching to connect with the understanding heart, you may not be surprised to find that I have been discouraged at times to feel that I need wisdom to ignite the lamp of my spirit. What if I haven’t got any wisdom to use in this way?

Not to give up hope quite yet!

I think wisdom is one of those spiritual qualities, like detachment and compassion, that is both an end state and a process, and that no end state we can reach in this life would be the end of the journey in any case. By applying such wisdom as I have to fuel the light of my spirit, however paltry the resulting light may be, will enable me to see significantly further than I would have been able to do otherwise. Seeing further I will become wiser and will consequently have more oil to use next time.

This quote, also, is almost insisting on its relevance to the current exploration by introducing the idea of the ‘globe of understanding’ as a protector of the light. 

This still leaves the problem, though, of knowing what it means to treat the heart as a lamp that needs to be lit in some way. Sometimes the source of this light or fire is love, and sometimes, as here, it is wisdom. Buddhism sees wisdom and love, or compassion, almost as two sides of the same coin.

I find it easier to see love as being the spark that ignites the lamp of the heart. The words of a prayer I memorised very early on after I set my foot on the Bahá’í path express it beautifully:

Ignite, then, O my God, within my breast the fire of Thy love, that its flame may burn up all else except my remembrance of Thee, that every trace of corrupt desire may be entirely mortified within me, and that naught may remain except the glorification of Thy transcendent and all-glorious Being.

My mind teems with ways that this might work: prayer obviously as here, reading the Bahá’í Writings and the Scriptures of other great world religions, helping other living beings, meditating so as to purify the mind of all but the silence which opens the heart to the intuitions of the spirit, and so on. There are many quotations that point in that general direction. For example:

Were any man to ponder in his heart that which the Pen of the Most High hath revealed and to taste of its sweetness, he would, of a certainty, find himself emptied and delivered from his own desires, and utterly subservient to the Will of the Almighty. Happy is the man that hath attained so high a station, and hath not deprived himself of so bountiful a grace.

(Gleanings: page 343: CLXIV)

Wisdom as a spark is harder to fathom. The best I can manage right now is to say that all of the above can also serve to trigger a spark of wisdom.  Perhaps because of the way my mind works, I somehow experience love more often as fire and wisdom as light, though the Bahá’í Writings have no such bias.

Flowers near the Shrine

Flowers near the Shrine of the Báb

The garden image implies that many of the processes that promote spiritual development have a far slower pace than either light or fire would suggest. The image is also powerfully suggestive of how the processes of spiritual growth are an interaction between what we do and what is accomplished by infinitely greater powers that work invisibly on the garden of the heart over long periods of time. It takes only a few seconds to plant a seed, it takes some degree of patience then to nurture and protect it, but by far the greater determinants of what happens in the end come from the soil, the weather and the sun.

When, for example, I read a passage of Scripture I am sowing seeds. When I perform acts of kindness as a result I water that seed. My heart’s garden then benefits with flowers and fruit because of the rich nutrients of the spiritual soil and the energising power of the divine sun. By analogy, these fruits yield further seeds that I can plant if I have the wisdom and caring to do so, and my heart will benefit even further.

It is therefore becoming obvious that no one image captures every facet of the process of spiritual development and no one metaphor conveys all I need to know if I am to grasp what it means to have an understanding heart. Something is becoming clear from the imagery we have looked at so far.

First of all, there is a key feeling and a crucial power of the mind that need to be kindled/planted in our heart, and a sense of that feeling and that power is best captured by the ideas of fire and/or light and seeds and/or flowers. In addition to roses of love Bahá’u’lláh writes of the ‘hyacinths of wisdom.’ Their perfume pervades their surroundings just as light is spread from the lamp and warmth from the fire.

Secondly, that simply lighting the flame or planting the seed is not enough: we have to act to protect the flame or nurture the seed. There is an implication that the fuel that feeds the flame is not of our making even though we are the channel for its reaching the lamp, just as it not our light but the sun’s that enables the plant to grow, flower and fruit. None the less if we do not tend the flame and the flower these other sources of sustenance will not be able to do their work.

Last of all, whatever the understanding heart is it needs to both contain and nurture/protect these candle flames or seeds. In a way, the dream I recently wrote about provided the perfect fusion for me of these two functions. My unconscious mind, may be my soul even, provided the image of the hearth: this one word contains the word we are trying to understand, ‘heart,’ and word to express this dual nature: earth and hearth. Both a hearth and a garden need clearing of those things that will choke the fire and the flowers. Ash and weeds must not be allowed to gather, so watering the flowers or sheltering the fire will not be enough.


The feeling is growing in me, as I write, that the phrase we are exploring fuses wisdom (understanding) and love (heart) in the highest sense of those two words. If I do not know enough I will fail to prevent either the flame of love in my heart from being extinguished by the gusts of passion blowing from the Sahara of the reptilian self that we described in a previous post, or the seedlings of compassion as they grow in the garden of my heart from falling sick, like Blake’s rose, infected by the pests and parasites of envy, greed and hatred.

It’s probably worth emphasising at this point that I am not arguing that such basic emotions as rage, fear, shame and guilt are always unhelpful and destructive. For instance, a complete absence of anxiety would render us dead in short order. However, excessive anxiety such as experienced in phobic disorders or obsessive-compulsive disorder can be completely disabling. In the same way, anger can help us defend ourselves or right wrongs at temperate levels, and make us a murderer in excess.

The problem is when we unreflectingly identify with any of these emotions from the reptilian brain. It’s then that we extinguish the flame of love and shatter the globe of understanding into a thousand fragments. We need to disidentify from these feelings, step back into a calmer place in our minds and, while taking these emotions into account, decide to act without being driven by their pressure to act them out destructively.  We will come back to the nature of reflection in the next post.

So, cultivating an understanding heart is not just about what I do with my mind and heart: it hinges even more perhaps on what I do with my hands and with my tongue, and these patterns of thought, feeling, speech and action need to combine compassion and wisdom in equal proportions.

I have to exert myself to mobilise my current level of understanding of both of these qualities to the best of my ability, no matter how low that level is, in order to lift that level even higher. Operating on the basis of prejudice, greed and any other lower form of feeling or understanding will set me back. 

The garden and the flame though are not the only images we can draw upon to assist us. There is at least one more equally powerful image that Bahá’u’lláh repeatedly uses. More of that next time.

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