Posts Tagged ‘spirituality’

Light & Lamp

My current sequence of posts on subliminal influences makes it seem timely to republish this sequence that last saw the light two years ago. I have changed the numbering from before. The posts are interwoven with current sequences.

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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For source of image see link

For source of image see link

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

John Ehrenfeld, in Flourishing, the account of his conversation with Andrew Hoffman, develops even further the ideas about our situation that we explored last time (page 107), when he says that ‘Collapse cannot be avoided, if people do not learn to view themselves and others with compassion.’ I have explored the value of compassion and altruism at length elsewhere on this blog, so won’t elaborate further here.

He continues to expand on the importance of our becoming conscious of our interconnectedness (page 108) if we are to truly care. (Another topic explored at length elsewhere, including from a Bahá’í perspective.)

This does not mean we will know all the answers and any such false confidence has been at the root of many of our difficulties (page 111). We have to give due weight to the complexity of reality (page 116):

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

This position is rigorously explored in Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow. He adduces decades of research to help him define exactly those areas, such as Ehrenfeld refers to here, where, despite our frequently arrogant assumption to the contrary, it is impossible to predict accurately, or in some cases at all, what will happen.

Ehrenfeld defines what our recognition of complexity must entail in his view (page 116-117):

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

Mechanistic models won’t serve our purpose here (page 117). They fail to capture (page 118) ‘the holistic qualities of life.’ Moreover:

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

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

1 Earth Heart alone

For one source of this image see link

Dealing with Complexity

Ehrenfeld feels we have to include three important components in our models of thinking if we are to get anywhere near understanding this complexity (page 119):

The first important component is that the complex Earth system cannot be reduced to a set of analytic rules that both explain and predict its behaviour. . . . . Chaotic situations remain chaotic until something perturbs the system and creates order, but we cannot tell in advance what the ordered system will look like. . . . .

A second important component is that the model of learning and knowledge necessary to understand sustainability in a complex system contradicts the conventional Cartesian model of cognition. [The necessary level of almost exact prediction is impossible.] . . . . . This tension must be very frustrating to many scientists who are not yet ready to drop the scientific method of revealing truth for a method that can only describe behaviour in general terms. . . . .

A third important component is that we must replace the apparent certainty of technocratic designs with adaptive and resilient systems built on understanding that is gained by experience.

There are within the philosophy of science streams of thought, which would not find this predicament surprising or even perhaps particularly frustrating. The frustration of the scientist that Ehrenfeld refers to in the face of organic and potentially chaotic complexity finds an appropriate response in what I have read concerning the relationship William James’s explored between pragmatism and uncertainty. There is more about that elsewhere on this blog (see links in previous sentence.)

Unsurprisingly, pragmatism follows naturally on as part of Ehrenfeld’s argument (page 120), including a later important reference to William James (see below):

If we are to cope . . . we have to start by telling the truth. Pragmatism, an important element of leadership for sustainability-as-flourishing, helps us to move towards the direction of that truth.

This allows for a fruitful and creative interaction between experience and analysis (page 121), and allows for the corrective influence of collective reflection. This is similar to the Bahá’í emphasis upon consultation undertaken by co-workers in a spirit of non-dogmatic reflection (see earlier post). He also advocates the contribution (page 122) of a spirituality that ‘can encompass belief in immaterial realities or experiences of the immanent or transcendent nature of the world and help a person to discover the meaning of their Being, and the deepest values by which we can live.’

Ehrenfeld steps beck from any simplistic notion of pragmatism, explaining (page 128):

Finding pragmatic truth relies on a continuous enquiry or experiment by a community of learners that ends only when the ‘theory’ developed to explain the latest results successfully explains what is happening and, then and only then, is deemed to be ‘true.’ But such truths are always contingent on and subject to being overruled by future experience.

William James - portrait in pencil

William James – portrait in pencil

This resonates with what David Lamberth wrote in his excellent book, William James and the Metaphysics of Experience (page 222):

For James, then, there are falsification conditions for any given truth claim, but no absolute verification condition, regardless of how stable the truth claim may be as an experiential function. He writes in The Will to Believe that as an empiricist he believes that we can in fact attain truth, but not that we can know infallibly when we have.

It follows from all this, as Ehrenfeld explains (page 132):

In a world of pragmatic thinking, my understanding of the same world that both of us inhabit is likely to be different from yours because you and I have led historically different lives… [A]s long as people are acting and thinking authentically, no one can own an absolutely ‘true’ belief about the world or claim to have the one ‘right’ way to act.

Combining Pragmatism and Principle

It is perhaps important to emphasise here that being pragmatic in this context does not mean being unprincipled. The existence of this link is so frequently and strongly assumed  that it consistently hides an important truth. In a world where exact predictions of what will happen when we take a particular action are virtually impossible, given the complexity of the globally interconnected system within which we now have to operate, we have to find ways of enacting our values while adjusting our plans in the light of subsequent events.

The modus operandi at the individual level which Acceptance and Commitment Therapy outlines seems to me to apply at the collective level as well. We make a plan with clear steps towards what we feel is our valued goal. However, we should not be so attached to any particular step as to confuse it with the ultimate goal. If the step proves not to be taking us in the direction we hoped for we need to change it. Also, as I have discussed at length elsewhere, both at the individual and collective level, the means we choose to bring us nearer to our desired objective should never be inherently corrupt or downright evil.

At the collective level, this all links back as well to the kind of collective creativity Paul Mason refers to in Postcapitalism. He writes (page 287):

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

He feels we have to move past this bad model towards a better one building on more co-operative principles (page 288):

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

Ehrenfeld emphasises the importance of spirituality because it is the strongest foundation for a necessary sense of interconnectedness (page 152). His view of religion is much less positive, though that is not entirely surprising given how divisive religion is perceived to be. His main reservation though is that religions are out of date: he seems sadly unaware of the existence of the Bahá’í Faith and the role of other religions in promoting the kinds of awareness he is advocating.

His view is essentially the same as the Bahá’í perspective, which also sees this task as the work of centuries. He writes (page 154):

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

It seems a good idea to end this discussion of this complex and challenging issue with the words from a friend’s blog-review of this book.

But it’s fascinating too that when ‘Abdul-Bahá, eldest son of Bahá’u’lláh and His appointed successor, travelled to North America in the summer of 1912, He stopped for two nights in Boston, Massachusetts.  He spent His first morning meeting friends and enquirers, and gave three public talks. At an evening gathering in the Hotel Victoria on the evening of 23 July, He spoke to those early members of the US Bahá’í community on “true economics” – founded on love, kindness and generosity – ideas with which, a century later, the concept of sustainability-as-flourishing seems to fit entirely comfortably:

‘The fundamentals of the whole economic condition are divine in nature and are associated with the world of the heart and spirit…Hearts must be so cemented together, love must become so dominant that the rich shall most willingly extend assistance to the poor and take steps to establish these economic adjustments permanently. If it is accomplished in this way, it will be most praiseworthy because then it will be for the sake of God and in the pathway of His service. For example, it will be as if the rich inhabitants of a city should say, “It is neither just nor lawful that we should possess great wealth while there is abject poverty in this community,” and then willingly give their wealth to the poor, retaining only as much as will enable them to live comfortably.

‘Strive, therefore, to create love in the hearts in order that they may become glowing and radiant. When that love is shining, it will permeate other hearts even as this electric light illumines its surroundings. When the love of God is established, everything else will be realized. This is the true foundation of all economics. Reflect upon it. Endeavour to become the cause of the attraction of souls rather than to enforce minds. Manifest true economics to the people. Show what love is, what kindness is, what true severance is and generosity.’

I have discussed elsewhere how this Bahá’í model combines these ideals with their pragmatic application and wrote, in part:

The Bahá’í Faith is a pragmatic religion – striving to learn how to walk the spiritual path with practical feet. The components of this process are described as study of guidance, consultation, action, reflection along with prayer and meditation on Scripture. This provides a set of interconnected steps to assess how effectively action is transforming our communities.

I closed that post with a video that illustrated what I meant. Here it is again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Black Friday (for source of image see link)

Black Friday (for source of image see link)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For source of image see link

For source of image see link


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sustainability-as-flourishing, he says, requires the re-conceptualization of our lives around two perspective-shaking ideas. We need to shift our dominant mind-sets from Having to Being and from Needing to Caring (pages 99-100):

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

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

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

Ehrenfeld (page 104) also sees spirituality as going beyond the material and explains: ‘This domain is especially important to sustainability, as it heightens one’s sense for the interconnectedness of Being’ and goes on to say that ‘At the centre of this notion of interconnection is that of love . . . . Love is not a something, but a way of acting and accepts the Being of all others as legitimate.’ This reminds me of Scott Peck’s dictum in The Road Less Travelled that, ‘Love is not a feeling: love is work:’ those may not be his exact words, but how I have remembered what I thought he meant.

Almost Ehrenfeld’s final words on this aspect of the matter are (page 105): ‘Sustainability-as-flourishing without love is not possible.’

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

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So, as I asked at the end of the previous post, what chance do Christina and Stefan Grof stand in their efforts to prove the mystical component of psychosis?

I need to repeat the caveats I voiced at the start of this sequence about their book, The Stormy Search for the Self: understanding and living with spiritual emergency, so that I do not come across as easily taken in. It is not easy to tread the razor’s edge between the default positions of intransigent incredulity and irremediable gullibility, but here goes.

Their book has echoes for me of Hillman’s The Soul’s Code in that it combines deep insights with what read like wild flights of fancy and carefully substantiated accounts of concrete experience with vague waves at unspecified bodies of invisible evidence. Even so, so much of it is clearly derived from careful observation and direct experience, and goes a long way towards defining what look convincingly like spiritual manifestations which are currently dismissed as mere madness. It seemed important to flag the book up at this point.

I am going to focus on what I feel are their strongest points: concrete experiences that illustrate their perspective and their brave and, in my opinion, largely successful attempts to make a clear distinction between mystic and merely disturbed experiences, not that the latter are to be dismissed as meaningless. It’s just that their meaning is to be found in life events not in the transcendent.

First I’ll deal with their account of one person’s spiritual crisis. In the last post I’ll be looking at their scheme of diagnostic distinction.

Georgiana Houghton‘s ‘Glory Be to God’ (image scanned from ‘Spirit Drawings’ – the Courtauld Gallery)

A Concrete Example

What follows is a highly condensed summary of one person’s story. A key point to hold in mind is one the Grofs made earlier in the book (page 71):

Often, individuals benefit from their encounter with the divine but have problems with the environment. In some instances, people talk to those close to them about a powerful mystical state. If their family, friends, or therapists do not understand the healing potential of these dimensions, they may not treat them as valid or may automatically become concerned about the sanity of the loved one or client. If the person who has had the experience is at all hesitant about its validity or concerned about his or her state of mind, the concern of others may exaggerate these doubts, compromising, clouding, or obscuring the richness of the original feelings and sensations.

Karen’s Story

They begin by providing some background (pages 191-92):

[S]he had a difficult childhood; her mother committed suicide when she was three, and she grew up with an alcoholic father and his second wife. Leaving home in her late teens, she lived through periods of depression and struggled periodically with compulsive eating.

Assuming that her subsequent experiences were what they seem to be, and I do, then it is clear that just because there is trauma in someone’s background does mean that the unusual experiences they report are entirely reducible to some form of post-traumatic stress response any more than they can be explained satisfactorily simply in terms of brain malfunction. Whatever is going on in the brain is just a correlate but not a cause, and previous trauma may have rendered any filter susceptible to leaks from a transcendent reality. I am restraining myself from leaping too soon to that last and much desired conclusion.

Interestingly, it’s possible that there was an organic trigger to her spiritual crisis (page 192):

. . . [F]ive days before her episode, Karen had begun taking medication for an intestinal parasite, stopping as the daily experience started. . . . . It is difficult to accurately assess its role in the onset of this event. . . . Whatever the source, her crisis contained all the elements of a true spiritual emergency. It lasted three-and-a-half weeks and completely interrupted her ordinary functioning, necessitating twenty-four-hour attention.

Her friends asked the Grofs to become involved in her care so they were able to observe the whole situation as it unfolded.

That Karen was able to avoid being admitted to psychiatric hospital was down to the support of a wide circle of friends. That this meant that she did not have to take any medication is important, according to the Grofs and other sources. Anti-pychotic medication has the effect of blocking the very processes that a successful integration of the challenging experiences requires. They describe the lay nature of her support (pages 192-93):

[B]ecause of Karen’s obvious need and the reluctance of those around her to involve her in traditional psychiatric approaches, her care was largely improvised. Most of the people who became involved were not primarily dedicated to working with spiritual emergencies.

What were her experiences like during this period of what they call ‘spiritual emergency’?

Their description covers several pages (page 194-196). This is a very brief selection of some of the main aspects. To Karen her vision seemed clearer. She also ‘heard women’s voices telling her that she was entering a benign and important experience. . . .’ Observers noted that ‘heat radiated throughout Karen’s body and it was noted that ‘she saw visions of fire and fields of red, at times feeling herself consumed by flames. . . .’

What is also particularly interesting is her re-experience of previous life crises: ‘[S]he struggled through the physical and emotional pain of her own biological birth and repeatedly relived the delivery of her daughter,’ as well as confronting ‘death many times and in many forms, and her preoccupation with dying caused her sitters to become concerned about the possibility of a suicide attempt.’ She was too well protected for that to be a serious risk.

In the last post I will be linking a therapeutic technique the Grofs advocate, Holotropic Breathwork, with some of my own experiences. This makes their description of how this technique can uncover repressed memories of traumatic experiences all the more credible to me. More of that later. That Karen should have been triggered into such regressions is not therefore surprising to me.

By way of supporting her through this, ‘telling her that it was possible to experience death symbolically without actually dying physically, her sitters asked her to keep her eyes closed and encouraged her to fully experience the sequences of dying inwardly and to express the difficult emotions involved.’ It is significant for their model that encouragement and support in facing what we might otherwise be tempted to flee from helps. ‘She complied, and in a short time she moved past the intense confrontation with death to other experiences. . . .’

Given my interest in the relationship between apparently disturbed mental states and creativity, it was noteworthy that ‘[f]or several days, Karen tapped directly into a powerful stream of creativity, expressing many of her experiences in the form of songs. It was amazing to witness: after an inner theme would surface into awareness, she would either make up a song about it or recall one from memory, lustily singing herself through that phase of her process.’

They describe her during this period as ‘extremely psychic, highly sensitive, and acutely attuned to the world around her.’ For example she was ‘able to “see through” everyone around her, often anticipating their comments and actions.’

Georgiana Houghton‘s ‘The Glory of the Lord’ (image scanned from ‘Spirit Drawings’ – the Courtauld Gallery)


Things began to take a more positive turn (page 196):

After about two weeks, some of the difficult, painful states started to subside and Karen receive increasingly benevolent, light-filled experiences and felt more and more connected with a divine source.

Perhaps I need to clarify that I am not attempting to adduce this as evidence of the reality of the spiritual world. People like David Fontana and Leslie Kean have collated such evidence far better than I ever could, and sorted out the wheat from the chaff with honesty and discernment.

What I am hoping to do is use this as a demonstration that sometimes at least what could be written off as meaningless and irrational brain noise might not only be significantly related to early experiences in life, as the trauma work suggests, but also to a spiritual dimension whose reality our culture usually denies with the result that the experiences are pathologised. The outcome in this case strongly suggests that pathologising them needlessly prolongs them and blocks life-enhancing changes that would otherwise have resulted.

They go onto describe the end of the episode and its aftermath (ibid.):

. . . . As Karen began to come through her experience, she became less and less absorbed by her in the world and more interested in her daughter and the other people around her. She began to eat and sleep more regularly and was increasingly able to care for some of her daily needs. . . .

Rather as was the case with Fontana and his poltergeist investigation, as the vividness of the experiences receded, doubts beganset in (ibid.:)

As she became increasingly in touch with ordinary reality, Karen’s mind started to analyse her experiences, and she began to feel for the first time that she had been involved in a negative process. The only logical way of explaining these events to herself was that something had gone wrong, that perhaps she had truly lost her mind. Self-doubt is a common stage in spiritual emergencies, appearing when people begin to surface from the dramatic manifestations . . .

She was not blind to the positives in the end (page 197):

Two years later, when we discussed her experience with her, Karen said that she has mixed feelings about the episode. She is able to appreciate many aspects of what happened to her. She says that she has learnt a great deal of value about herself and her capacities, feeling that through her crisis she gained wisdom that she can tap any time. Karen has visited realms within herself that she previously had no idea were there, has felt enormous creativity flow through her, and has survived the previously frightening experiences of birth, death, and madness. Her depressions have disappeared, as well as her tendency toward compulsive overeating.

But her doubts persisted, and may have been to some extent fuelled by her family and friends’ reactions and the lack of informed support (page 198):

On the other hand, Karen also has some criticisms. Even though she could not have resisted the powerful states during her episode, she feels that she was unprepared for the hard, painful work involved. In spite of the fact that she received a great deal of assistance during the three weeks, she feels that she was not yet ready to venture forth into the daily world when she was required to do so by the exhaustion of the resources of those around her. Since that time, she has lacked contact with people with whom to further process her experiences. She considers herself somewhat “different” for having had the episode (an opinion also indirectly expressed by her family and some of her friends) and has tended to downgrade it by concentrating on its negative effects.

The support had to be reduced after the three-week peak period because the support network was burning out. The Grofs felt (ibid.:)

Many of these problems could have been avoided if Karen had had consistent and knowledgeable support immediately following her crisis, perhaps in a halfway house, and follow-up help – in the form of ongoing therapy, support groups, and spiritual practice – for a more extended period of time.

It is dangerous to extrapolate too wildly but I feel that in Karen’s story there are real grounds for hope. She recovered from an apparently devastating episode of mental disturbance without drugs. She demonstrated modest but lasting mental health gains in terms of no subsequent depression or compulsive eating. There is every reason to suppose given this experience and the evidence of Dr Sami Timimi’s study, adduced by James Davies in Cracked and described in the previous post, that an outcome like this could apply far more widely across the so-called psychotic spectrum. Yes, the intervention was time intensive, but it was brief and successful. This compares with long-term interventions involving medication resulting in symptoms that continue to simmer for years or even decades, blighting the whole life of the sufferer and the lives of close family.

The Grofs then explore models of help and aftercare, which I won’t go into now as the main focus I want to take is on their ideas of how to distinguish a spiritual emergency such as Karen’s from other forms of disturbance. This is clearly an important distinction to be able to make as the approaches taken when dealing with trauma-related disturbances and spiritual crises will be somewhat different, though Karen’s case implies there might well be an overlap.

However, all the evidence that has accumulated since they wrote suggests that all such so-called psychotic episodes are better dealt with in a non-diagnostic way, which is an issue that the Grofs do not fully address, probably because at the time of their writing placing spiritual emergency on the agenda seemed a more urgent issue, given that it was and still is doubly disparaged.

Now for the difficult distinction in the next post, along with a brief description of their recommended intervention.

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The best lack all conviction, while the worstSand Sculpture
Are full of passionate intensity.

(W. B. Yeats: ‘The Second Coming‘)

The issues I have been looking at lately – war, the economy, the rigid approach to mental health – all raise the question, ‘Why do we find it so difficult to fix such problems, even when we can see that something is seriously wrong? One factor, among many, is discussed with great insight by Jonathan Haidt, whom I quote from in a short sequence on conviction, which I have decided to republish now. This is the second of three. The first came out on Monday: the last will come out tomorrow.

Ruling passion

We obviously need to take care what we believe in. It tends to determine the person we will become. Sadly, most of us devote more conscious effort to choosing a car than creating a character. We simply accept what we have been given, rarely assessing its value, rarely considering whether or not it could be changed for the better, and if we do feel dissatisfaction with what we have become we tend to test it against inappropriate measures such as the wealth it has brought us, the worldly success we have achieved, the number rather than the quality of our friendships, the power we derive from it and so on. We seldom carefully reflect upon our beliefs and how they have shaped and are still shaping who we are.

Culture has struggled to get a handle on this problem for generations. In the 18th Century they talked of people having a ‘ruling passion.’ This was the organising principle around which all activities and aspirations were supposed to revolve. Alexander Pope wrote:

The ruling passion, be it what it will,
The ruling passion conquers reason still.

(Moral Essay iii: lines 153-154)

(Samuel Johnson, though, questioned the usefulness and validity of this concept in his usual robust fashion.) That they called it a ‘passion’ gives us a clue about what is going on here.

Samuel Johnson (for source of image see link)

Samuel Johnson (for source of image see link)

Erich Fromm’s book, ‘The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness‘ (1973: page 260) develops this idea very clearly.  He argues that, in human beings, character has replaced instinct as a driver of what we do. And character creates a special need in us.

Man needs an object of total devotion to be the focal point of all his strivings. In being devoted to a goal beyond his isolated ego, he transcends himself and leaves the prison of absolute egocentricity. He can be devoted to the most diverse goals and idols but the need for devotion is itself a primary, essential need demanding fulfilment.

This has created a god-shaped hole in the middle of our being. We cannot help but fill it with something. Our sense of identity is at stake. In 2001 the Bahá’í World Centre published a review of the Twentieth Century which contained these words (page 59-60):

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

Is conviction, like atomic power, a double-edged sword? Can we truly say that no great enterprise was ever accomplished and no huge and large scale evil ever completed without it? If this is so, and I think it is because both great good and massive evil require great energy and great persistence, what determines whether it will be destructive or constructive?

Idealising something (or someone) seriously flawed corrupts us: I  think the opposite is also true and that worshiping something both better and greater than ourselves improves us. I would like to entertain the possibility that it is the object of our devotion as we understand it rather than simply the intensity of the conviction that makes the greatest difference, though if the object of devotion is less than good then the intensity of our devotion will strongly influence how destructive espousing that belief will make us.

Is there any object of devotion that does not induce in its followers intolerance and hatred towards others especially those who have a different god?

Tolerant Devotion

The issue of what determines the strength and nature of our convictions is not a straightforward one. When I was studying psychology for the first time in the 1970s I came across the work of Thomas Pettigrew, which is still referred to even now. It illustrates nicely the exact nature of the difficulty.

To put one set of his findings very simply, whether you were a miner  in segregated West Virginia or apartheid South Africa, the culture around you differed depending on whether you were above ground or below it. Below ground discrimination was potentially dangerous so the culture there frowned on it: above ground the culture was discriminatory. What was particularly interesting to me was that 20% of people discriminated all the time regardless of the culture and 20% refused to do so at all: 60% of people shifted from desegregation below ground to segregation above it (the percentages are approximate: the pattern is accurate).

The implications are fascinating.

First, as Richard Holloway stresses, most of us are ‘infirm of purpose’ and lack the courage of our convictions or even any convictions at all. We follow the herd, a potentially dangerous tendency.

Secondly, the proneness to develop strong convictions does not lead us to develop only the best ones. In the example of the mining communities, segregation and desegegration are antitheses and cannot both be right and desirable, but clearly both attract approximately equal numbers of adherents with equivalent degrees of courage in their convictions, in stark contrast to the moral cowardice or lack of conviction of the rest of us. It is questionable whether it is the ‘best’ that  ‘lack all conviction.’

Thirdly, while most of us are drifting with the tide rather than choosing a firm rock to cling to, the strong-minded do choose but on grounds that have little if anything reliably to do with their strong-mindedness. Authoritarianism  has been wheeled out as a favourite explanation for why people end up fascist or fanatical. It would though be hard to make it work as an explanation of the moral courage and firm conviction of a Martin Luther King or a Ghandi. The vision of these two men was not one of replacing their oppressors in power and becoming oppressors in their turn but of transcending oppression altogether.

So where on earth or in heaven does that leave us? Are these two men so exceptional that their example does not count? Or is a humane and constructive kind of strong conviction possible for most if not all of us?

A Possible Way Forward

When it comes to determining what might provide a positive vision of sufficient power to heal the divisions of the world of humanity, a consideration of religion is inevitable. Although I was brought up a Christian, became an atheist for nearly two decades and was strongly attracted to Buddhism for a period of years, the religion I know best is the Bahá’í Faith.

Much of what I will be describing in the next post about the vision I have derived from its teachings, is also to be found in other faiths. For instance, anyone who wants to know about the healing heart of the Christian message and the positively empowering concept of God it enshrines, there is no better place to go than Eric Reitan’s book, and I would also see God in much the same way as he does. His view also opens the way towards discerning the same spirit in other faiths.

One of his premises is that our concept of God, who is in essence entirely unknowable, needs to show Him as deserving of worship: any concept of God that does not fulfil that criterion should be regarded with suspicion.  Our idealism, our ideology, will then, in my view, build an identity on the crumbling and treacherous sand of some kind of idolatry.

I will though confine my discussion now to what the faith I know best, with its inclusive vision of the divine, has taught me about a way out of this divided and intolerant state by which we are bedevilled. Even those who do not believe in the divine can relate to much of what I will be saying by reframing the ‘divine’ as their highest most inclusive sense of the ultimate good around which to organise our lives.

I am not claiming that others have not grappled with these issues: nor am I saying that what they have discovered as possible antidotes to fanatical intolerance is to be ignored or discounted. Zimbardo and McCullough, for example, have much of great value to say from which we can all learn a great deal.

I do believe though that religion and spirituality have recently been so demonised in certain quarters that we are in danger of neglecting the powerful antidotes to evil that they also can provide. It is to these that I wish to draw our attention in the next post.

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Fragrance in the Dust

For source of image see link

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O SON OF THE SUPREME! I have made death a messenger of joy to thee. Wherefore dost thou grieve? I made the light to shed on thee its splendour. Why dost thou veil thyself therefrom?

(Bahá’u’lláh – Arabic Hidden Words No 32)

cafetiereCan it be true that if someone threatens your worldview it reminds you of your mortality? And the same with self-esteem? Does it explain why a sociopath could kill someone for not showing respect and why one society will seek to destroy another’s culture? Such extreme reactions seem to require an explanation at least as extreme.

Maybe I’ve found one – or maybe not.

A week or so ago I dropped the glass of my cafetière into the sink with predictable results. It died in pieces rather than in peace.

I wasn’t too upset. It was only the second time I’ve ever smashed a cafetière. I coped reasonably well for that week, making coffee in a plastic jug and trapping the grains in a tea strainer when I poured it into my mug. Not much grief there really. It would have been slightly embarrassing if we’d had guests, but none materialised in that time fortunately.

I kept popping into cook shops looking without success for a metal cafetière, until finally I picked up a cheap glass one – the kind that doesn’t let you take the glass out of the plastic frame. In fact there is a clear warning on the bottom telling you not to do so. My half-hearted effort to do exactly what I shouldn’t in the shop was fortunately unsuccessful.

I was standing in the kitchen making my first cup of coffee with this reincarnated cafetière when an explosion of relief and exhilaration burst inside my head. No, it was not because I had a working cafetière again. It was because a penny of insight, which had been dropping from a great height for what might well have been years, chose finally to hit the ground of consciousness. I was so relieved I was close to tears.

Why there and why then I have simply no idea, except that I have been reading constantly this last couple of weeks about death, psychosis and spirituality. Oh, and I had dreamt about my father the previous night: as much of my poetry shows this is something which could have helped trigger the insight that followed later in the day.

Reading in the Park

Put perhaps too simply, I not only continued to understand that most if not all mental health problems have crucially important spiritual dimensions, but that there is a core element of that which is particularly important. Maybe I was so moved because this core element has been a lifelong companion. Perhaps I was so blind to it for so long because I was too close to see it, or else it was too familiar to be noticed.

What is this element?


My lifelong companion and sometime muse.

It’s not the only factor behind these spiritual dimensions, but it’s a crucial one. An extreme inability to come to terms with death – and its children, trauma, pain and suffering – creates what Solomon et al call ‘cracks in [our] shields’ (The Worm at the Core – pp 185 passim). This in turn, as they unpack, brings all kinds of destruction in its wake.

I didn’t like their book much when I had finished reading it well over a week ago now. Too reductionist, I thought. But now something had changed. My unconscious had clearly been doing its own thinking since I finished reading it, and come to a very different assessment of their work.

Yes, they seem to rubbish religion at times, but – and it’s an important ‘but’ – they accurately capture an essential problem. They may see faith as a false fix, as in a way everything is in their eyes, but they pin down exactly one thing that needs fixing, almost above all else perhaps, and demonstrate that how we choose to fix it can lead to dire or delightful consequences.

We have ‘clumsy modes of dealing with terror,’ they quote Yalom as stating (page 190). Unless we establish a firm enough foundation of meaning and a strong enough platform of self to stand upon, death, or rather our fear of death, will always unground us, pathologise our minds – narcissism, anxiety, depression, psychosis, OCD, anorexia (and maybe psychopathy; I’ll have to ponder more on that) are according to them at least partially rooted in a failure of meaning and selfhood in the face of death.

Solomon et al insist on saying ‘self-esteem’ albeit in a healthy rather than an unhealthy sense: I wish they didn’t.

I prefer selfhood for reasons that will become fully apparent in subsequent posts, I hope. For now I’ll shorthand it by quoting a dictionary definition: ‘a complete sense of self.’ A complete sense of self, for me, has to go far beyond anything that makes me more important than anyone or anything else, and has to recognise how whatever I am is connected in some way to the universe as a whole and to all forms of life and life support within it. When I damage you or them, I damage me.

They bring various kinds of evidence into the mix, usually studies showing, for example, that exposure to death stimuli results in higher levels of intolerance for those who are ‘different’ in some way, or in greater use of alcohol or tobacco.

In their summary of ‘psychological disorders as terror mismanagement’ (page 190) the kind of evidence Solomon et al adduce includes a significant link at times between death-anxiety and psychosis (page 191):

One study of 205 hospitalised schizophrenic man found that 80 patients were overtly preoccupied with death, and that death fears coincided with the onset of the schizophrenic symptoms or with times when the symptoms were magnified.

They argue that ‘[s]ubject to bouts of overwhelming terror, schizophrenics construct imaginary worlds – which are as real to them as this book is to you – to counteract the dread.’

In spite of my dislike of diagnostic language and of their tendency to overstate their case, I have to admit they are making an important point. More on that next Thursday.

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