Given the emphasis I placed on compassion in yesterday’s review of Buddha’s Brain, I felt this earlier post might be of interest.
I said at the end of an earlier post that I might, in addition to quoting from Karen Armstrong, risk revealing some of my own strange ways of holding onto the few spiritual insights I’ve acquired recently, hence the rough and ready cartoonish graphic at the head of this post (more of that in a moment).
So here goes on both counts.
The roots of what I am going to describe go back a long way but it would make for a very long post indeed to go into them as well. For present purposes what is important is a play on three words that were forced on my attention in some dreamwork I did and in my study of the Bahá’í Writings: heart, earth and hearth. Removing the ‘h’ from one or the other end of ‘hearth’ creates the other two words. This word play only works in English but its effect is powerful for me.
This is for several mutually reinforcing reasons.
Bahá’u’lláh reminds us of the value of the earth:
If true glory were to consist in the possession of such perishable things, then the earth on which ye walk must needs vaunt itself over you, because it supplieth you, and bestoweth upon you, these very things, by the decree of the Almighty. In its bowels are contained, according to what God hath ordained, all that ye possess. From it, as a sign of His mercy, ye derive your riches.
And He warns us of the dangers of taking it for granted, especially for those who profess wisdom but fail to practice it:
[Of those who profess belief but do not practice) . . . . . ye walk on My earth complacent and self-satisfied, heedless that My earth is weary of you and everything within it shunneth you.
(Persian Hidden Words: No. 20)
He refers to the earth in terms that remind us of how we should feel if we are true to our spiritual natures. He points out that acquiring the qualities of earth will make our being fertile for wisdom:
O My servants! Be as resigned and submissive as the earth, that from the soil of your being there may blossom the fragrant, the holy and multicolored hyacinths of My knowledge.
The same quotation goes on to make reference to fire. Both fire and earth are strongly related to the human heart in Bahá’í Scripture.
Bahá’u’lláh compares our hearts to a garden which needs seeding and tending:
Sow the seeds of My divine wisdom in the pure soil of thy heart, and water them with the water of certitude, that the hyacinths of My knowledge and wisdom may spring up fresh and green in the sacred city of thy heart.
(Persian Hidden Words: No. 33)
And He gives us more guidance still as to what else to plant there:
In the garden of thy heart plant naught but the rose of love, . . . . . . . . .
(Persian Hidden Words: No: 3)
Given that Buddhism regards wisdom and compassion as two sides of the same coin, there may be no difference between them at the spiritual level.
Also in the Hidden Words are references to the fire in the heart:
The candle of thine heart is lighted by the hand of My power, quench it not with the contrary winds of self and passion.
(Persian Hidden Words: No. 32)
So for me the idea that earth and heart are one is close to the surface and a dream gave me a potent symbol of that in the hearth, which is a symbol also evoked by the presence of fire in our hearts.
When I first became aware of all these links I dwelt more on the idea of fire than flowers and the earth. That was partly because a punning connection with my first name, Pete, suggested fuel (peat to burn) in the dream I had about a hearth, rather than peat as compost to grow flowers.
There was a lot more mileage in the hearth image than that, of course. For example, it combined the ‘soft’ right-brain qualities of peat with the ‘hard’ left-brain qualities of the iron grate in a way that resonated with what Iain McGilchrist suggests is the need to give both aspects of our being their proper role and function if we are to be balanced human beings creating a balanced civilisation. But I won’t dwell on that just now: I’ve probably said more than enough in previous posts.
Later the other associations with ‘peat’ came more strongly to the surface, particularly as my second name, Hulme, is so close to ‘humus’. They came through so strongly, in fact, that I have come to use the heart-shaped photo of the earth (see the top of the post) as my current reminder of all this. There were no hyacinths or roses handy in the clipart gallery I used, so I made do with tulips, but the point is clear enough. The earth-heart photo also calls to mind very usefully that the ‘earth,’ the dwelling place of all humanity, ‘is but one country.’
Because the earth has a magnetic field that helps us find our right direction it wasn’t hard to see that a compass, already more than half-way to compassion in its spelling, was a good way of remembering the key value that underpins every other spiritual value in all faiths, and which in Bahá’í terms emanates from the three unities of the essential oneness of God, religion and humanity, blurred as our perception of those may sometimes be. The other meaning of the word ‘compass’ is also a reminder, as is the image of our world from space, to widen the embrace of my compassion to include all life and perhaps even the earth itself, an imperative need as Robert Wright describes it.
Bahá’u’lláh also has a most interesting way of linking a compass with kindness that suggests I might be on the right lines here.
A kindly tongue is the lodestone of the hearts of men. It leadeth the way and guideth.
Exposing this personal approach to helping myself internalise and remember what I think I have learnt did seem a bit risky, hence my earlier hesitation. I was encouraged to persist by a moving and amusing TED talk by Brené Brown that my good friend, Barney Leith, shared with me (see the YouTube at the end of this post).
She speaks amongst other things about how our way of dealing with our vulnerability affects our relationships with others, even our whole attitude to life. Those who embrace their vulnerability, her research demonstrates, are more empathic, more authentic and better connected to others. Vulnerability is indispensable to a ‘whole-hearted’ life. So how could I continue to cop out in the light of that? (‘I can think of a few ways,’ said my craven part but I managed to ignore it.)
Well, I’ve left very little room for Karen Armstrong after all. I’ll need to come back to some of the things she says in a later post. Just one quick thought for now.
When you are engrossed in thoughts of anger, hatred, envy, resentment or disgust, notice the way your horizons shrink and your creativity diminishes. I find it impossible to write well when I am churning with resentment.
It would be easy to leap in and say, ‘But what about satire?’ The response there might well be, ‘What is fuelling the anger that drives the satire?’ If it is petty spite arising from wounded vanity, for example, I doubt we would be talking about great satire and this, I think, is what lets down some of Alexander Pope‘s less effective moments. If it is outrage at some monstrous injustice or malpractice, such as led to the writing of ‘Animal Farm‘, ‘1984‘ and Swift’s ‘Modest Proposal,’ then there’s every chance the satire, rooted as it will be in a deep compassion for and identification with our fellow human beings, will be great satire, standing the test of changing times and changing tastes. Such works all have the capacity to demonstrate a control over difficult material which would be impossible in a state of intemperate rage.
This link she hints at between compassion and creativity has helped me make conscious an inner process that has determined which works of art I keep going back to, such as the plays of Shakespeare, and those I leave behind unrevisited. It is Shakespeare’s compassion that is the flame that brings my moth-mind back to him over and over again.
Take these lines from ‘Measure for Measure‘ (Act 1, Scene 3, lines 85-88):
The sense of death is most in apprehension,
And the poor beetle, that we tread upon,
In corporal sufferance finds a pang as great
As when a giant dies.
This surely is the spirit that should permeate our entire lives.
My simple unskilled diagram is just the beginnings of my latest attempt to bring that about and realise its full potential in my life as a Bahá’í. It works for me but I can quite see that it might not do the trick for anyone else. Since I first wrote this post I have added the mindful-eye logo I use to the compass. I have put it as the home screen in my mobile phone, so every time I open it I’m reminded of how I wish to be. Preparing my mind in this way seems to attract opportunities to be helpful in small ways. Or maybe it just makes me more able to spot them and respond when they happen. Whatever the reason it has made my few small kindnesses that bit more likely.
Enjoy the talk on vulnerability.