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Posts Tagged ‘Unity’

Thou art but one step away from the glorious heights above and from the celestial tree of love.

(Bahá’u’lláh – Persian Hidden Words, Number 7)

Greyson AfterWe ended the previous post on a somewhat mystical note. Now for a consideration of the impact of NDEs upon the lives of the experiencers and their sympathisers.

How Important is this Impact?

Greyson makes it very clear that he feels that the life-changing impact of NDEs upon those who experience them is possibly the most significant factor in the whole challenging conundrum. He states unequivocally towards the end of his book: [1]

. . . . there is one thing about which I am certain, about which the evidence is overwhelming – and that is the effect of NDEs on people’s attitudes, beliefs and values. If you take only one thing from this book, I would want to you to appreciate the transformative power of these experiences to change people’s lives.

For him, after decades of careful study, these life changes are in no way in doubt, the evidence in support of them is so strong, and the impact is startlingly powerful as well.

He asserts[2] that NDEs were ‘changing people’s lives as surely as our psychiatric drugs and psychotherapy. What’s more, they seemed to do this much faster, more profoundly, and more permanently.’

It is perhaps also important to mention that in his view NDEs are not some kind of symptom of an underlying mental disorder:[3]

… the evidence suggests that people with mental illness have NDEs no more or less often than do people in the general population.

In fact they seem to mitigate such problems:

. . . But what I did find surprising was that, among those who had come close to death, those who’d had NDEs described less psychological distress than those who hadn’t had NDEs.

They clearly do not originate from a mental health problem:[4]

[The memory of an NDE] doesn’t fade over time, but retains its vividness and richness of detail. In contrast, people with mental illness usually realise, after the acute episode is over, that their visions were unreal. And memories of an episode of mental illness fade over time…

Moreover, ‘[p]eople who have had NDEs often examine their experience again and again, in order to seek and develop insight into the meaning of the experience,’ and they are usually life-enhancing:

NDEs usually lead to an enhanced sense of meaning and purpose in life, increased joy in everyday things, decreased fear of death, and a greater sense of the interconnectedness among all people. As a result, people who have NDEs often become less absorbed in their own personal needs and concerns and more altruistic and compassionate towards others.

A surprising piece of evidence pointing in this direction comes from Joel, a sufferer from chronic pain, who had attempted suicide. He responded to Greyson’s probing around, if what awaited us after death was so beautiful and he was in so much pain, why was he still alive. Joel’s response is worth quoting at some length:[5]

“It’s true that I am no longer afraid of death,“ he said, “but I’m also no longer afraid of life. Yes, I am still in a lot of pain, and I don’t see a way out of that for now. But I also see that my pain and suffering are given to me for a reason. I see now that there is a meaning to everything that happens, and a purpose for all our problems.“

. . . “ The pain is something I need to learn to deal with, not something I need to escape from.“

And as Greyson points out,[6] ‘[Joel’s] pain never went away, but he never tried to kill himself again.’ Moreover, ‘[t]hose who do have NDEs are less suicidal after the event than suicide attempters who don’t have NDEs. . . . They most often report that the experience made them feel they are a part of something greater than themselves.’

The Nature of the Impact

A mountain of evidence from the reports of those who have experienced an NDE highlights how important it was in giving their lives meaning. He reports that[7] ‘[m]any link their heightened personal value and more meaningful life to their belief that death is not the end, and their sense of being interconnected with other people.’ They refer to[8]  ‘increased compassion and concern for others and a sense of connection to – and desire to serve – other people, which often leads to more altruistic behaviour.’

Some form of spirituality comes into the mix as well, which means[9] ‘the aspect of their personal lives that includes something beyond the usual senses, and a personal search for inspiration, meaning, and purpose, a quest to connect with something greater than themselves.’

It is again worth quoting another person’s story at some length:[10]

“An almost insatiable thirst for knowledge in the subject of science, philosophy, theology, and what is called metaphysics has dominated my life since the NDE.… I feel the most important things are seeking and sharing knowledge, and receiving and returning love. I feel strongly it is the spiritual that is important, and that the dogma and doctrine of organised religions are a man-made, and for that reason, subject to flaw, and as history has shown, not too effective.”

Greyson comments on that, saying ‘NDEs often lead to a paradoxical decrease in devotion to any one religious tradition, despite a greater awareness of guidance by and connection to a higher power.’

Bizarrely there is a strong echo of one of my favourite poems here:[11]

Many experiencers describe adopting a form of nondenominational spirituality since there NDEs, in which all religious traditions are valued but no one religion is given precedence. [Katherine Glenn] told me she saw in her experience that the core of all religions is essentially the same.

. . . ‘ there are many paths of the mountain to reach God and it really doesn’t matter which one you take, because when you get there to that mountaintop it is all the same love, light, peace, harmony, gratitude, wisdom, truth, and victory for everybody.’

As I explained on the back of a quote from this poem in a talk I gave at a methodist church in Ludlow on the Bahá’í concept of unity, the essential oneness of religion is not a new idea. John Donne, an Elizabethan poet-priest in Tudor England, wrote:

On a huge hill,
Cragged and steep, Truth stands, and he that will
Reach her, about must and about must go,
And what the hill’s suddenness resists, win so.

The most obvious implication of what he says here is that we have to work hard to find Truth.

However, there are other equally important implications, and one of them in particular makes a core aspect of the Bahá’í path, the essential oneness of all religion, particularly relevant for us in our relations both between ourselves and with the wider community.

Within our different faiths, we are all, in a sense, approaching Truth from different sides of this same mountain. Just because your path looks somewhat different from mine in some respects, it does not mean that, as long as you are moving upwards, yours is any less viable than mine as a way to arrive at the truth. Only when someone’s idea of God takes them downhill, perhaps killing others in His name, or at least hating them as misguided deviants, should we realize their God is not ‘worthy of worship,’ to use Eric Reitan’s phrase, and is not God at all. Theirs is not a true religion. All the great world religions are in essence one. It is only when we mistake the cultural trappings and rituals for the core that we think this is not true.

Donne clearly felt so at the time he wrote Satire III:

As women do in divers countries go
In divers habits, yet are still one kind,
So doth, so is Religion.’

As part of this realisation NDE experiencers, referring to something many feel all religions share in one form or another,[12]‘often describe the Golden Rule not as a moral guideline we should try to follow, but as a description of how the world works, a law of nature as inescapable as gravity.’

The power of these insights in Greyson’s view has to go beyond words:[13]

Of course, the true test of spiritual growth is not what people feel or say but whether it translates into everyday life.

He feels that it does.

There are many other insights in this book that I have not shared, relating to the negative reactions of others when these experiences are shared,[14] brain activity during recall matches that for the recall of real events[15] and many more.

The Indirect Impact

I want to close with a consideration of the impact of NDEs on those who learn about them without having experienced any such thing themselves.

For example, one study at Miami University of Ohio[16] ‘found that more than 80% of undergraduate students in a sociology class that studied NDEs felt more compassionate concern for others and greater feelings of self-worth both at the end of the semester and in a follow-up a year later.’

And it is not just people with no serious problems who benefit:[17]

Studies have shown that introducing information about NDEs into the treatment of suicidal clients who did not respond to traditional therapy can lead to a dramatic decrease or elimination of suicidal thoughts. Other research has shown that information about NDEs can reduce the suffering of grieving individuals, leading to less anxiety, anger, and blame, and help them feel engaged in life again.

As a result he concludes that ‘near-death experiences appear to be having a rippling effect throughout society in helping people address their concerns about death and their ability to enjoy life and feel compassion for one another.’

That is one reason why he feels the impact of the experiences is perhaps their most important aspect, and not just on the NDE experiencer.

The Last Judgement

This is an accessible, but definitely not a superficial, exploration of the importance and validity of these phenomena, embedded in an account of his own joureny to deeper understanding as a result of his research. I recommend it to all those who have recognised the importance of this subject, whether at this point they believe in it or not. Any sceptic who decides to walk away from this exploration of the evidence without giving it a second glance cannot in my view rightly describe themselves as a true scientist.

For myself, after I’d finished this sequence, a thought drifted across my mind which I felt might be worth sharing. I don’t want to pass over until I’ve made better sense of this life and what it means, but I probably won’t be able to do so until I pass over. I think that’s quite  enough for now.

References

[1]. After: a Doctor Explores What Near-Death Experiences Reveal About Life and Beyond  – page 164. Unless specified otherwise, all quotes are from After.

[2]. Page 60.

[3]. Pages 81-82.

[4]. Page 88.

[5]. Page 167.

[6]. Page 168.

[7]. Page 169.

[8]. Page 172.

[9]. Page 177.

[10]. Page 178.

[11]. Page 179.

[12]. Page 182.

[13]. Page 184.

[14]. Page 198.

[15]. Page 97.

[16]. Page 213.

[17]. Page 214.

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At the end of the previous post I suggested that, while Koestenbaum’s pointer that the ‘extreme inward region of consciousness’ to which reflection enables us to get closer is what we in the West call God was extremely valuable, it was not enough in itself. It was not until I found the Bahá’í Faith that I realised just how important two other factors in our behaviour were to this process of self-enhancement: consultation and service.

I have explored these elsewhere at some length so I will deal with them briefly here.

Consultation, Action and Reflection

While independent investigation of the truth is valued in the Faith, it is supremely important to compare notes with others to enhance our simulation of reality and enable ourselves to decide upon the best course of action. Bahá’u’lláh and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá return to this point many times. Bahá’u’lláh, for example, says ‘Take ye counsel together in all matters, inasmuch as consultation is the lamp of guidance which leadeth the way, and is the bestower of understanding.’[1]

Consultation is strongly linked with action. As Ring and Valarino stressed in their book, Lessons from the Light, without taking action on the insights gained from an NDE there will be only be shallow changes in our ways of being. The Bahá’í Faith emphasises exactly the same point in the value it attaches to being of service to others: actions outweigh words. In the words of Bahá’u’lláh: ‘Let deeds, not words, be your adorning.’[2]

Without the uplifting power of action and consultation, reflection will have little traction.

There are of course other elements to this process for Bahá’ís, including prayer, immersing ourselves in sacred verses and obeying the Laws of the Faith. However, I have chosen not to focus on them here, but rather to concentrate on the elements that relate most closely to those early influences on my spiritual progress that I am trying here to integrate into one coherent formulation in this sequence of posts.

Action as well as understanding is also critical when we are seeking to give expression to and consolidate our sense of connection with the earth. There is a sense of symmetry in the two ends of this diagram in certain respects at least. The same is true for our understanding of the myriad ways we are connected to our fellow human beings and other life forms on planet earth.

Action and understanding interact to enhance our connectedness.

Interconnectedness

At every level of that diagram – body, thought and spirit – interconnectedness is a critical consideration. Tom Oliver’s book, The Self Delusion, unpacks this powerfully at the material and social levels. The diagram takes it further.

I cannot resist repeating here the insight a dream once gave me: heart and earth in English are anagrams and this expresses the inextricable threads that bind the two together. Take that along with the insight the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh kept forcing on my consciousness after I started to tread the Bahá’í path that it is only by developing an ‘understanding heart’ that we will ever be able to decode the true meaning of reality at the highest levels and of the Bahá’í Writings, and you have all levels of the diagram blended into one phrase.

For the more sceptical reader it might help, before I end this sequence, if I refer once more to Iain McGilchrist and his ideas on lateralisation to bring the idea of an understanding heart down to a more material level for a moment, preparatory to launching off into transcendent realms again before the end.

Towards Acquiring an Understanding Heart

In The Master and His Emissary McGilchrist defines what would be a huge step forward in enhancing our level of consciousness:[3]

[T]he rational workings of the left hemisphere . . . should be subject to the intuitive wisdom of the right hemisphere.

For Jenny Wade, in her excellent book Changes of Mind, balancing these two aspects moves the person to the level of what she calls Authentic consciousness:[4]

Authentic consciousness requires access to the non-dominant hemisphere, but not exchanging one hemisphere’s orientation for the other’s. It is “whole brain” thinking, in which both hemispheres organise consciousness, suggesting some entrainment of EEG patterns across the neocortex.

The next stage after this is Transcendent consciousness, the last one before Unity consciousness – yes, she really does think Unity consciousness is the highest level. At this stage the synchrony of the two halves of the brain goes beyond intermittent entrainment:[5]

During meditation, EEG measurements show that both hemispheres slow from beta level activity to alpha and theta waves. Theta is the characteristic brain wave pattern of long-term meditators. Not only does synchronisation of brain waves occur between hemispheres in advanced states, but this entrainment forms harmonic patterns called hypersynchrony.

That last word has distracting implications given its involvement in the causes of an epileptic fit. I think Evan Thompson’s description of brain activity in the context of Tibetan Buddhist meditation is more helpful:[6]

The synchrony of the oscillations – the way that the EEG waves are in sync with one another across distant areas of the scalp – reflects the large-scale coordination of the neuronal populations into a large but temporary functional network . . . More simply put, during the meditation practice, numerous ‘neural assemblies’ – populations of neurones that fire together –rapidly establish communication and thereby formed a massive interconnected network.

Whether there is a further enhancement of the relationship between the hemispheres at the Unity level is not clear:[7]

It is not know whether people with Unity consciousness have significantly different brainwave patterns than those at the high end of Transcendent consciousness, especially concerning hemispheric influence…

Even so, there is sufficient evidence to suggest that, at the material level at least, attainment of a level of consciousness deserving to be labelled an ‘understanding heart’ will entail a greater degree of balance between the two hemispheres of the brain than most of us normally achieve at least in Western cultures. This level of consciousness plausibly can be claimed to give us access to transcendent levels of experience normally beyond the spectrum of awareness available to us.

Final Thoughts

I only wish that I could now prove having been blessed by richly detailed mystical experiences. Sadly that is not the case. Some fleeting glimpses perhaps but no more than that, falling far short of a high level of access to the spiritual realms.

What I do benefit from regularly are flashes of insight that help me rise to a higher level of understanding of complex situations and stressful challenges, which then enables me to respond more creatively and positively to them. I also am able to remain far calmer and clearer in mind under stress. I am more grounded in two senses of that word. I more strongly feel my connection with nature and humanity as a whole, and I am more firmly in touch with the core of my being – my ‘understanding heart’ at its currently still relatively immature level of development.

I am very aware that this whole account is less clear and compelling than I would ideally have liked it to be. My excuse is that many aspects of what I am seeking to describe here are hard to capture in prose. I have interpolated a poem or two of mine to try and penetrate somewhat deeper.

Maybe the main value of this whole exercise has been to help me, at least, understand what I am talking about. Whether that justifies my taking up blog space with it remains to be seen.

References:

[1]. Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh – Lawh-i-Maqsúd.
[2]. Persian Hidden Words Number 5.
[3]. The Master & his Emissary – page 203.
[4]. Changes of Mind – page 157.
[5]. Op. cit.: page 198.
[6]. Waking, Dreaming, Being – Page 73.
[7]. Changes of Mind – page 260.

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

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

One Family

Humanity is one family. We are interconnected at both the material and the spiritual levels.

Interconnections at the material level are obvious and sometimes overwhelming. From the internet through the dynamics of our economic system to our impact upon the environment we cannot escape the fact of our global interdependence.

In terms of spiritual interconnectedness the evidence is anything but evident to most of us!

David Fontana’s book Is There an Afterlife? marshalls a wealth of data collected under carefully controlled conditions, all pointing to something impossible to explain in purely material terms. He is aware, as is John Hick, that even this amount of evidence for the transcendent is not compelling.

In his book The Fifth Dimension Hick explains why, in his view, it never will be. He contends that experiencing the spiritual world in this material one would compel belief whereas God wants us to be free to choose whether to believe or not (pages 37-38):

In terms of the monotheistic traditions first, why should not the personal divine presence be unmistakably evident to us? The answer is that in order for us to exist as autonomous finite persons in God’s presence, God must not be compulsorily evident to us. To make space for human freedom, God must be deus absconditus, the hidden God – hidden and yet so readily found by those who are willing to exist in the divine presence, . . . . . This is why religious awareness does not share the compulsory character of sense awareness. Our physical environment must force itself upon our attention if we are to survive within it. But our supra-natural environment, the fifth dimension of the universe, must not be forced upon our attention if we are to exist within it as free spiritual beings. . . . To be a person is, amongst many other things, to be a (relatively) free agent in relation to those aspects of reality that place us under a moral or spiritual claim.

As an additional complication, he talks also (page 114) of the materialism of our current ‘consensus reality.’ Naturalism has created the ‘consensus reality’ of our culture. It has become so ingrained that we no longer see it, but see everything else through it.

The near death experience of the initially skeptical Eben Alexander, a neurosurgeon, as recounted in his book Proof of Heaven, is strong anecdotal evidence of mind-brain independence at the very least. In terms of interconnectedness at a spiritual level Thomas Mellen‘s account, in his story of his near death experience, of when he encountered the being of Light, (Ken Ring – Lessons from the Light – page  287) is as cogent as you could get:

And at that time, the Light revealed itself to me on a level that I had never been to before. I can’t say it’s words; it was a telepathic understanding more than anything else, very vivid. I could feel it, I could feel this light. And the Light just reacted and revealed itself on another level, and the message was “Yes, [for] most people, depending on where you are coming from, it could be Jesus, it could be Buddha, it could be Krishna, whatever.”

But I said, “But what it is really?” And the Light then changed into – the only thing I can tell you [is that] it turned into a matrix, a mandala of human souls, and what I saw was that what we call our higher self in each of us is a matrix. It’s also a conduit to the source; each one of us comes directly, as a direct experience [from] the source. And it became very clear to me that all the higher selves are connected as one being, all humans are connected as one being, we are actually the same being, different aspects of the same being. And I saw this mandala of human souls. It was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen, just [voice trembles], I just went into it and [voice falters], it was just overwhelming [he chokes], it was like all the love you’ve ever wanted, and it was the kind of love that cures, heals, regenerates.

None the less these intensely felt personal experiences cannot compel, in those who do not wish to believe it, an acceptance of the spiritual dimension, with our consequent interconnectedness at that level.

Even at the material level there is a strong case that all prejudice and gross inequality must be abolished: the spiritual case, which is unfortunately more elusive, is potentially an even more powerful a motivator. And this sense of connectedness, of essential unity, needs to extend beyond our species to the planet as a whole. The earth, our homeland must be nurtured not exploited.

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

Bahá’u’lláh could even be said to have anticipated the way our planet is kicking back against our mindless greed and ruthless exploitation. He wrote: ‘My earth is weary of you, and everything within it shunneth you.’ (Hidden Words Bahá’u’lláh)

So, exactly what does our unity mean in practice?

The Welfare of the Entire Human Family

There is a challenging aspect to this as we discovered as we explored it together in a workshop at a Bahá’í Summer School.

There is no get-out clause in the wording that this message uses: ‘Each human being on earth must learn to accept responsibility for the welfare of the entire human family.’ So that means everyone must take responsibility for the welfare of everyone. I can’t wriggle out of it. This means me: I have to take responsibility for the welfare of everyone – no exceptions allowed.

Some aspects of this are not too challenging. I live near a college for the visually handicapped. Quite often as I walk to town I spot a blind person with a white cane at a difficult crossing, where traffic is hard to judge if you can’t see, struggling to decide whether or not it is safe to cross. It’s easy for me to offer help and let them take my arm as I choose the right moment to cross. It costs me no more than a minute or two and I know exactly what needs doing.

It gets harder with large groups that are equally in need of my help, if not more so, because effective help would require more effort and more knowhow. I might baulk at the idea of helping thousands of refugees even though I wanted to.

That was not the biggest problem though. What about those who undoubtedly are playing a part in creating the refugee problem, Isis for example? I have no problem helping the physically blind. What should be my attitude to the morally blind, those who might harm me if I try to help them and who are impossible for me to like let alone love? Isn’t moral blindness deserving of compassion and effective help?

In the workshop we got as far as realising that society has a responsibility to understand their deficiencies and seek to remedy them compassionately, while keeping those individuals who are doing this work safe from harm at the hands of psychopaths or fanatical ideologues.

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

Next time I’ll be looking at two important ways of increasing our capacity to work more effectively together to change this complex and divided world.

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No one truth can contradict another truth. Light is good in whatsoever lamp it is burning! A rose is beautiful in whatsoever garden it may bloom! A star has the same radiance if it shines from the East or from the West. Be free from prejudice, so will you love the Sun of Truth from whatsoever point in the horizon it may arise! You will realize that if the Divine light of truth shone in Jesus Christ it also shone in Moses and in Buddha. The earnest seeker will arrive at this truth.

(‘Abdu’l-Bahá Paris Talks – page 137)

Tu verdad? No, la Verdad,
y ven conmigo a buscarla.

[Your truth? No, the Truth,
and come with me to seek it.]

(Quoted in Xon de Ros – page 226)

In the previous three posts I’ve traversed a wide range of issues impacting on Machado’s poetry, including politics, life’s complexity, doubt, egotism, spirituality and dreams, to name but a few. Just to repeat, before I plunge right in, there are four main texts referred to in what follows: Alan S Trueblood Antonio Machado: selected Poems, Don Paterson The Eyes, Xon de Ros The Poetry of Antonio Machado: changing the landscape, and Gerald Brenan The Literature of the Spanish People. I have tried to make sure the source of any quotations is clear.

Reality, Understanding & Language

I am going to move onto slightly different territory now. Truth is the first main focus. As we have begun to suspect, Machado’s characteristic stance is uncertainty. One Day’s Poem illustrates this as it meanders between humour and philosophy, taking its own sweet time. Just over half-way through we stumble over these lines:

Water from true springs
welling clear,
flowing on;
poetry, sprung from the heart.
Something to build on?
There is no solid ground
in the spirit or the wind.
Only oar and sail
drifting on,
down to the shoreless sea.

Trueblood unpacks what underlies this kind of thought (page 68):

. . . it is hard to conceive of his finding ultimate satisfaction within the limitations of a purely existential outlook. There would have remained the doubt of which he was writing…, not ‘doubt after the manner of philosophers… but poetic doubt, which is human doubt, that of a man solitary and uncertain of his path, among many paths. Among paths which lead nowhere . .’

The problem for Machado is that (Trueblood – page 39), ‘personal truths are not truths at all; one must seek the truth.’ He trusts experience but not necessarily his explanation of it (page 45): ‘One never doubts what one sees, only what one thinks.’

This reminds me of my encounter with William James. At the end of my three part sequence I concluded:

My best hope is fairly clear . . . I can always look to refine my imperfect understanding, bringing it ever closer to what I hope is the truth but never knowing whether I have got there yet or not.

Interestingly that completely coincides with what Lamberth reports as William James’s point of view, reinforcing further my feeling that he was indeed a kindred spirit and explaining satisfactorily why I got such a buzz out of finding this second book after reading these words in the first one I had read (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.

So, exactly how does Machado think we can capture the closest possible representation of experience?

Reality is complex and fluid. That would make capturing it in words difficult enough. What makes it even more difficult is that our perceptions are not stable either. An understanding of this is not unique to Machado. Xon de Ros quotes Machado (page 5): ‘cambian la mar y el monte y el ojo que los mira’ [‘The sea and the mountain and the eye that sees them change.’] Munch expresses  the related idea that mood alters perception (Prideaux – page 81-83): ‘Experience told him that each individual found his own landscape based on his inner feeling. . . One sees things at different moments with different eyes… The way in which one sees also depends on one’s mood . . .’

Poetry, though, could be the best means of overcoming these difficulties (Xon de Ros – page 4):  ‘. . . the notion of immobility in perpetual change that defines living reality can only be communicated by poetic language (Macrí).’ A further confounding element though is the presence of the past (page 5): ‘Machado’s concern had moved from the past as it is filtered into our consciousness, to the past that inhabits and shapes are reality.’

Given that reality is to a certain degree ineffable there are limits to how far it can be captured, even in poetry (page 116):

‘. . . the effort to make sense of the unpresentable by means of metaphorical substitution inevitably leaves (leads?) the subject to appeal to connections already intelligible within [his] specific cultural context.’ Quoted from Kirk Pillow Sublime Understanding 2000 – page 253.

So not just history but current culture comes into play. These challenges, constituting (page 115) a ‘crisis of representation,’ pave the way for the use of one possible remedy, which is expressed by Mautner (page 209): ‘a predilection for ambiguity of language because it reflects the ambiguity of the world.’

This is where aphorisms come into play at times (page 211): ‘ambiguity is a virtue of the modern aphorism . .’ (Mautner page 816): furthermore, as Vickers points out (page 209): ‘the true aphorist has a fragmented kaleidoscopic vision from which this genre is the perfect form.’

This catapults us back into links with Cubism (page 225 re Nuevas Canciónes):

the contraposition of fragments, jumping and cutting from philosophy to the commonplace, seriousness to humour, seems to preclude a sequential reading, suggesting the simultaneity of the Cubist work. . . . Paradox and uncertainty are prominent in the series.

Obscurity again

The question for me becomes, as I discussed in an earlier post of this sequence, whether there is complete capitulation to unintelligible complexity or not. My sense is that Machado generally stays well this side of gibberish. We need this to be so because (page 227) ‘the mind, nevertheless, seeks pattern, continuity, and coherence in the disjunctive.’

We’ve been here before in my sequence on van Gogh:

He wanted to remain rooted in recognisable reality (page 223-24):

‘I find Breitner’s stuff objectionable because the imagination behind it is clumsy and meaningless and has virtually no contact with reality.’

[He has a strong sense] sense that disorder in art relates to disorder in the mind of the artist. Speaking of work he does not like he writes: ‘I look on it as the result of a spell of ill-health.’ He speaks of Breitner’s ‘coffee-house existence’ which creates a ‘growing fog of confusion,’ and of his having been ‘feverish,’ producing things which were ‘impossible and meaningless as in the most preposterous dream.’ Van Gogh felt that:

‘Imperceptibly he has strayed far from a composed and rational view things, and so long as this nervous exhaustion persists he will be unable to produce a single composed, sensible line or brushstroke.’

The ‘subliminal uprush,’ as Myers would term it (see Irreducible Mind), needs conscious organisation to make the best of it.

However, coherence should not be bought at the expense of new insights. Xon de Ros quotes Gifford as saying (page 15) that ‘every real poem starts from a given ground and carries the reader to an unforeseen vantage point, whence he views differently the landscape over which he has passed,’ adding ‘This remark is undoubtedly true of Machado’s best poems.

There was also something else that Frost valued (Matthew Hollis on Edward Thomas page 77), something akin to what Robert Hayden quoted as Auden’s version of it, that poetry is about ‘solving for the unknown,’ as dealt with in an earlier post:

‘No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.’ [Frost] said that he never started a poem whose ending he already knew, for to have done so would, he believed, deny a fundamental purpose in poetry: that writing is an act of discovery. ‘I write to find out what I didn’t know I knew.’ Other times he phrased the idea slightly differently, but always the same basic premise: surprise leading to discovery. It was a thrilling and courageous approach to poetry . . .

In their introduction to their edition of ‘The Poetry of Táhirih’ John Hatcher and Amrollah Hemmat explore this further, initially referring to Hayden again (page 16):

The poet Robert Hayden was fond of saying that poetry is the art of saying the impossible. . . Another thing Hayden was fond of noting is that often the most popular poetry – if poetry has any sort of popularity of these days – is usually mediocre poetry because it can be easily understood. . . . great poetry, poetry with lasting merit, takes us from our present state of awareness to some place else . . .

I am happy to go with them this far, though I am not so convinced of the general mediocrity of popular poetry for reasons I will come back to in a moment. I find it harder to buy into where their next contention takes us (page 17):

We are urged to possess the cleverness to discern how language employs poetic devices to reach out beyond itself, to point us to some larger idea. . . . [T]he poet . . . is attempting something beyond description. . . . Those who are over the course of time considered to be the ‘good’ poets or the ‘great’ poets, most often happen to be the poets who are not always easy to understand.

And the clinching issue is this (pages 17-18):

The good poet, the demanding poet, thus writes for a small audience, people who think it worth their time to go through the intense and sometimes agonising process of trying to figure out what the artful use of language is trying to tell us.

It smacks for me of intellectual snobbery.

It also reminds me of the debate that sparked around Elizabeth Jennings’ poetry. Was it too simple and naïve to be of any real value, in spite of its popularity.

Dana Greene’s biography contains many instances of this position, for example, concerning her Extending the Territory in 1985 (page 149):

The detractors depressed her. John Lucas, writing in the New Statesman, criticized her ‘vapid’ poems, with their unvaried language and uninteresting subject matter.’

Some admirers of Geoffrey Hill would probably have thought the same as Lucas. Nonetheless it won the Southern Arts Society prize of £1,000.

Michael Schmidt, as her editor for 25 years and publisher of Poetry Nation Review described her as (page 186) ‘the most unconditionally loved writer of the generation of poets of the Movement,’ and  attributed ‘her popularity to her feel for ordinary people and her honest, straightforward, non-ironic, and non-satiric verse, this was generally written in strict form.’

I think, however, Hatcher and Hemmat do raise a valid point in saying (page 18):

. . . The artist may not always be concerned with what is the most effective way to communicate to others what insight he or she has achieved. Rather the artist is searching for the best sensual referent or concrete expression for what has been a thoroughly personal experience.

But I can’t join them, at least as far as Schoenberg and Beckett are concerned, when they write (ibid):

It takes a bit more energy and training to appreciate the atonality of Sternberg [sic – should be Schoenberg], Eliot’s The Wasteland, Beckett’s Waiting for Godot or Joyce’s Ulysses.… a good artist does not talk down to the audience, does not ‘dumb down’ the art.

A YouTube comment from P. Teagan on the Piano Concerto, Op. 42 pins down the reason for my reluctance:

‘Schoenberg, to me, and I’m no music professor, but this perfectly sums up the anxiety I feel constantly through life in its various forms and energy levels. Each voice of the various instruments, the different motifs, and the vigor in which they are played embody the many forms and sources of our daily worry and fears. All the subtle things nagging at our subconscious. The constant fear of death, loneliness, and pain. The true chaos of the universe and our existence. The feeling of loss of order. The realization that everything we experience is just a product of a soft computer sitting in our heads. I definitely don’t feel too great after listening to this, but I absolutely have to respect it for its ability to invoke these strange thoughts and confusing emotions.’

This is exactly why I think there should be something more in the mix, in the case of both Schoenberg and Beckett. We have more than a soft computer in our heads. Dissonance, no matter how well it reflects the jarring reality stretching tightly across the surface of our times, is not enough. There needs to be at least a taste of some sort of transcendence.

Their closing remark is unexceptionable speculation (page 19):

The artist may further presume that, having discovered this window on reality, we might somehow be better people for our efforts… the artist may take such delight in the existential act of creating that communication is the furthest thing from the artist’s mind.

My own feeling is that the question is more complex than they acknowledge. Perhaps poets are akin to psychotherapists, whose best pattern of action is to match their communication to where their client is coming from and encourage them to step onto different ground. Successful matching in this way facilitates a meeting of minds that means we are likely to be able to induce others to move from their current constricted position to a healthier place. In the process we learn as well.

Poems that do not match a large enough readership are hardly going to change the world for the better, no matter how brilliant their abstruse and inaccessible message is: by the time the future understands it, if it ever does, their message will either be too late or already understood without its help. Poems that do not challenge their readers to step out of their comfort zone will not do so either.

Striking the right balance is a matter of great skill, something only the greatest poets ever achieve: accessible enough to attract a wide readership and demanding enough to lift the consciousness of its readers to a higher level. I personally feel that Machado rises to this challenge in many of his poems.

Alter Egos

Another complicating factor of particular interest to me is how the task of capturing experience in words is complicated by the problem of how we decide who we are. Don Paterson raises the basic point, when he says (page 55): ‘there are several Antonio Machados.’ Xon de Ros quotes Machado on Proust (page 185): ‘No conviene olvidar nuestro espíritu contiene elementos para la construcción de muchas personalidades.’ [It’s best not to forget that our soul contains elements for the construction of many personalities.’] At the very least this triggers (Page 211): ‘the poet’s inner dialogue in which the addressed ‘other’ does not imply a social relationship with the world, but with the poet’s own self.’

The issue is fundamental to an understanding of Machado, as much so possibly as is the case with Fernando Pessoa and his heteronyms, though Machado distinguishes his position from Pessoa’s.  Xon de Ros unpacks its exact importance (page 244):

This conception of the self as an aggregate underlies Machado’s theory of the apocryphal, distinguishing this figure from those founded on an originary, unified consciousness: the double, the heteronym, and the pseudonym. Unlike these, the apocryphals are manifestations of what Machado refers to as the essential heterogeneity of the self. . . ‘No conviene olvidar tampoco que nuestro espíritu contiene elementos para la construcción de muchas personalidades.’

I absolutely accept that this is a not uncommon state of mind. My own sequence on my Parliament of Selves demonstrates that I’m not stranger to this myself. Machado is not wrong in that sense. I resonate strongly to his perspective. However, he is also not seeing it as a fragmentation that needs to be resolved if we are to change ourselves and the world for the better.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá makes it completely clear ((Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá: page 78):

. . . all souls [must] become as one soul, and all hearts as one heart. Let all be set free from the multiple identities that were born of passion and desire, and in the oneness of their love for God find a new way of life.

That He needs to state this at all implies that most of us don’t experience things that way.

Why might this be so important? After all, having a crowd of selves inside sounds quite exciting.

The Bahá’í concept of unity is key.

The unity necessary to discover truth through consultation in the true sense of that word, and then act effectively, depends upon detachment. Bahá’u’lláh writes in the Hidden Words, ‘Since We have created you all from one same substance it is incumbent on you to be even as one soul, to walk with the same feet, eat with the same mouth and dwell in the same land, that from your inmost being, by your deeds and actions, the signs of oneness and the essence of detachment may be made manifest.’

Not only that. Being detached enough from our lower selves to be at one within ourselves and connected to our true self, the soul in common speech, gives us the best chance of uniting with others, and vice versa of course. That level of unity is what is required if we are going to be able to solve the global problems confronting humanity right now, including the two most challenging – global heating and gross inequality.

Nature

There is so much more I could explore but this last post has already gone for longer than I planned. So, I will deal with an important aspect of his approach to poetry very briefly. Nature mattered greatly to him. Xon de Ros interprets this in a way whose relevance is greater than ever (Page 6):

Machado’s attention to the particular detail – the turn of the river, the quality of its water, the trees along the banks, and the differences between actual rivers – suggests an ecopoetic concern, in which the poet’s relation to nature is re-imagined in such a way as to encourage environmental awareness and responsibility.

Moreover (page 247) ‘[his poems] more often . . .  display a relationship with nature in which the human is not dominant but an integral part of the natural world.’ This view is supported by Gerald Brenan (page 430):

It is . . . a poetry that thinks, and by its thought endeavours to reach down to some inner, deeply hidden core. . . in Machado this language of the soul is expressed through the mediation of natural objects. All through [Soledades] we find certain things in nature appearing and reappearing – rocks, poplars, ilex trees, streams, water. Above all, water. Whether in the form of rivers, rocks, springs, tarns or fountains, his verse plays with it and draws from it a symbolical nourishment.

He concludes (page 435): ‘This was his message – “Awake!“ The eye must be taught to see, not merely to look: the brain to think and the soul to contemplate the eternal, if uncertain, things.

I can’t think of a better place to stop than that.

As usual I am adding at the end a poem that I find particularly resonant. The first version is the original Spanish, the second Trueblood’s translation and finally my recent attempt to render what it means to me in a poem of my own.

Anoche cuando dormía
soñé ¡bendita ilusión!
que una fontana fluía
dentro de mi corazón.
Dí: ¿por qué acequia escondida,
agua, vienes hasta mí,
manantial de nueva vida
en donde nunca bebí?

Anoche cuando dormía
soñé ¡bendita ilusión!
que una colmena tenía
dentro de mi corazón;
y las doradas abejas
iban fabricando en él,
con las amarguras viejas,
blanca cera y dulce miel.

Anoche cuando dormía
soñé ¡bendita ilusión!
que un ardiente sol lucía
dentro de mi corazón.
Era ardiente porque daba
calores de rojo hogar,
y era sol porque alumbraba
y porque hacía llorar.

Anoche cuando dormía
soñé ¡bendita ilusión!
que era Dios lo que tenía
dentro de mi corazón.

 

Last night I had a dream –
a blessed illusion it was –
I dreamt of a fountain flowing
deep down in my heart.
Water, by what hidden channels
have you come, tell me, to me,
welling up with new life
I never tasted before?

Last night I had a dream –
a blessed illusion it was –
I dreamt of a hive at work
deep down in my heart.
Within were the golden bees
straining out the bitter past
to make sweet-tasting honey,
and white honeycomb.

Last night I had a dream –
a blessed illusion it was –
I dreamt of a hot sun shining
deep down in my heart.
The heat was in the scorching
as from a fiery hearth;
the sun in the light it shed
and that tears it brought to the eyes.

Last night I had a dream –
a blessed illusion it was –
I dreamed it was God I’d found
deep down in my heart.

 

The Closest We Can Reach (after Machado)

Last night my dreams were blessed. A vision
came to me. Deep in my heart a spring
of fresh water gushed from some hidden

source. Though I asked the water flowing
past, how its revitalising powers
were formed, it could not say. I am growing.

Tonight my dreams are blessed. From flowers
within my mind, crowds of bees return
to their hive, changing the bitterness

of past loss to soft wax and golden
honey for my cells, lifting my heart
up to a different, higher plane.

Will tomorrow’s dreams, to heal my heart,
again be blessed, with radiant sunlight
this time, hotter than the warmest hearth?

If that should happen, there’ll be no doubt,
in my mind at least – my heart does hold
within it, at its deepest point, what
feels the closest we can reach to God.

‘The Sun’ by Edvard Munch (for the source of the picture see link)

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One hour’s reflection is preferable to 70 years’ pious worship.’

(Hadith quoted by Bahá’u’lláh in the Kitáb-i-Íqán)

Central to the task of reconceptualizing the system of human relationships is the process that Bahá’u’lláh refers to as consultation. “In all things it is necessary to consult,” is His advice. “The maturity of the gift of understanding is made manifest through consultation.”

(The Prosperity of Humankind, Section III)

Reflection takes a collective form through consultation.

(Paul Lample in Revelation and Social Reality – page 212)

I explained last week that the talk I planned to give at the interfaith meeting in Holland House never happened. I gave a rather different one instead. These are the bare bones of what I said.

Introduction:

I began with a brief explanation of the core belief of the Bahá’í Faith: unity or oneness. This is rooted in our sense that there is only one God, the great world religions share the same spiritual core and the whole of humanity is basically one family.

In terms of the individual, unity extends from within each of us to what exists between us. Bahá’u’lláh explains this in these terms: ‘Since We have created you all from one same substance it is incumbent on you to be even as one soul, to walk with the same feet, eat with the same mouth and dwell in the same land, that from your inmost being, by your deeds and actions, the signs of oneness and the essence of detachment may be made manifest.’

My understanding of this includes the idea that we need to heal the divisions within us if we are to heal the divisions between us and vice versa. To contribute to the best of my ability to the creation of a supportive and united community I have to resolve the conflicts within me by bringing the ‘multiple identities that were born of passion and desire,’ as ‘Abdu’l-Bahá puts it, together in obedience to a higher and worthier power. Only in this way may ‘all souls become as one soul.’

Terraces on Mount Carmel

What does this mean in practice

We must all come to recognize the truth of what the Universal House of Justice conveyed to all those gathered on Mount Carmel to mark the completion of the project there on 24th May 2001:

Humanity’s crying need will not be met by a struggle among competing ambitions or by protest against one or another of the countless wrongs afflicting a desperate age. It calls, rather, for a fundamental change of consciousness, for a wholehearted embrace of Bahá’u’lláh’s teaching that the time has come when each human being on earth must learn to accept responsibility for the welfare of the entire human family.

They explain that a ‘commitment to this revolutionizing principle will increasingly empower’ us and enable us to awaken each other ‘to the latent spiritual and moral capacities that can change this world into another world.’

When we look at our local communities, which is where an active concern for the wellbeing of others starts, the Guardian of the Bahá’í Faith reinforces the message that we ‘must do [our] utmost to extend at all times the helping hand to the poor, the sick, the disabled, the orphan, the widow, irrespective of colour, caste and creed.’[1]

Within the Faith at local level the Bahá’í community and beyond often benefits, when the community is of sufficient size, from the guidance of a local Spiritual Assembly: at national level the National Assembly does the same. Even where a local community is too small to have an Assembly, all of its members, as far as humanly possible, should be actively safeguarding the wellbeing of everyone within that community, and beyond if within its capacity.

Two key components

There are two other key components about which I spoke briefly on the day. Without these two components community life would be that much the poorer.

I will deal as briefly with them here as I did on the day because I hope to return to them more deeply when I report on a recent talk I gave about the Bahá’í contribution to understanding mental illness. I’ve also explored them on this blog at some length in the past.

Reflection is the first, concerned as it is with the individual. Reflection is not just thinking more deeply about something outside ourselves: it also involves separating consciousness from its own contents. We come to realise our minds are like a mirror, and just as a mirror is not what is reflected in it, our minds are not what is reflected in them. We are not what we feel, think, imagine, sense, remember or plan. These change from moment to moment. We are the capacity to do all of those things. We are not even who we think or feel we are. We are the emotional and sensing thinker who lies beneath all thought.

The words reflection, contemplation and meditation are used in the Bahá’í Writings in closely related ways, and this is true of the talk ‘Abdu’l-Bahá gave at a Society of Friends’ meeting house in London in 1913. Amongst other things He is recorded as having said (Paris Talks – pages 174-176):

This faculty of meditation frees man from the animal nature, discerns the reality of things, puts man in touch with God. . . . The meditative faculty is akin to the mirror; if you put it before earthly objects it will reflect them. Therefore if the spirit of man is contemplating earthly subjects he will be informed of these. . . .’

Even if you find it hard to accept the existence of God, it still perhaps makes sense to see this process of reflection as putting us in touch with far deeper and wiser aspects of our being and as releasing us from the hold of shallower and more treacherous perceptions. His use of the image of the mirror is also significant in this context, and not just because of the possible pun in English on the word reflect.

For me, realising the power of reflection enables us to break out of our often divisive patterns of thought and become more in harmony with our deepest self, more united within. In that state of mind we can take better care of ourselves and others.

We become more able to compare notes with others in order to gain a clearer picture of reality and to formulate more effective plans for dealing with our problems. Reflection enables us to consult more effectively.

Paul Lample explains the exact benefits of consultation as follows (Revelation and Social Reality pages 199 & 215):

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

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

It’s not difficult to see that in a community of any kind, whether Bahá’í or not, the exercise of these two skills will improve the wellbeing of all its members and enhance the quality of its community life.

The reciprocally potentiating combination of these two processes in this precise way is, as far as I know, unique to the Bahá’í Faith.

I hope to explain more about exactly how this might work in a therapeutic context at a later date.

Footnote:

[1] Shoghi Effendi Principles of Bahá’í Administration BPT UK 1976 Page 39.

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View of the River from the entrance of the Pavilion Centre

One hour’s reflection is preferable to seventy years’ pious worship.

Bahá’u’lláh quoting a hadith in Kitáb-i-Íqán – page 238).

Take ye counsel together in all matters, inasmuch as consultation is the lamp of guidance which leadeth the way, and is the bestower of understanding.

(Bahá’u’lláh – Tablets – page 168)

Reflection takes a collective form through consultation.

(Paul Lample in Revelation and Social Reality – page 212).

Last time I looked in some detail at the life of Bahá’u’lláh, as derived from the notes I made to prepare for a longer talk at the Pavilion Centre in Hereford that never happened! This is where I move to a brief consideration of the core teachings.

The Core Beliefs

The main tenets of Bahá’í belief can be summarised briefly here as follows:

The absolute core is a belief in the essential unity of God, Religion and Humanity:

O Children of Men! Know ye not why We created you all from the same dust? That no one should exalt himself over the other. Ponder at all times in your hearts how ye were created. Since We have created you all from one same substance it is incumbent on you to be even as one soul, to walk with the same feet, eat with the same mouth and dwell in the same land, that from your inmost being, by your deeds and actions, the signs of oneness and the essence of detachment may be made manifest. Such is My counsel to you, O concourse of light! Heed ye this counsel that ye may obtain the fruit of holiness from the tree of wondrous glory.

(“The Hidden Words of Bahá’u’lláh”, Arabic no. 68, rev. ed. (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1985), p. 20)

The earth is but one country and mankind its citizens.

(Gleanings – CXVII)

We are living in a single interconnected world. The challenges of globalism in its current form and the inequalities it fosters are causing many to regress to a harder line nationalism as the solution. This will definitely not work in the long term and probably won’t in the short term either.

Other important principles that stem from the concept of unity are:

The idea of a World Government; (this would not be an authoritarian bureaucracy – the local, national and international will each have their appropriate jurisdiction); the independent investigation of truth; the essential harmony of Religion and Science; the equality of men and women; the elimination of all prejudice; universal compulsory education; a spiritual solution to economic problems; and the need for a universal auxiliary language.

Questions Two, Three & Four

Two of the next three questions put to me before the talk were slightly more unusual:

How has your faith changed since travelling to the UK and do you practice in the same ways as originally defined? How can your belief be used to help us all create more understanding and a better world for us all – locally /nationally and beyond? What is your personal story for following your faith?

The answer to the first question is not a lot in terms of its fundamentals, and I’ve dealt with the second and third question on this blog many times.

The question that proved most intriguing, because the answer that popped into my head was not the one that I expected, was:

What is the most important aspect of your faith to you and why?

There is so much that I could’ve said including these: the Bahá’í Faith combines spirituality and activism in what seems to me to be a unique way; we have a global democratic administrative system that allows what we learn in one place to be applied in another and involves no priestly authority; its core concept of unity and interconnectedness is the key to our material survival as well as to our spiritual thriving; the idea of progressive revelation reduces the tensions and conflicts between people of different faiths; and service and community building are at the heart of the Faith’s approach to the social world. All of these matter to me a great deal and influenced my decision to attempt to tread the Bahá’í path. All of these depend for their effectiveness both upon nurturing the family and developing the educational system: even so I didn’t choose those either.

It may come as no surprise to readers of my blog that what I decided to say in the end, but never got the chance, focused upon the link between reflection and consultation, not just in the context of the administrative system, but as a consistent pattern of experiencing our inner and outer worlds and communicating with others, as skills that we need to use everywhere and all the time. It is part of the mystical core of the Bahá’í Faith, depending as both skills do on the development of the highest possible levels of detachment.

In a recent post I summarised the core of this insight briefly by saying:

. . . truthfulness requires the ability to reflect as an individual, which means stepping back, as we have described, from the immediate contents of our consciousness, so that we can gain a more objective and dispassionate perspective, and as a group it means consulting together as dispassionately as possible in order to lift our understanding to a higher level.

In fact, it is as though truth were, as John Donne wrote, ‘on a huge hill, cragged and steep.’ We are all approaching it from different sides. Just because your path looks nothing like mine it does not mean that, as long as you are moving upwards, it is any less viable than mine as a way to arrive at the truth. I might honestly feel you are completely mistaken and say so in the strongest possible terms. But I would be wrong to do so, even if I’m right. We would both move faster upwards if we compared notes more humbly and carefully. Reflection helps create the necessary humility: consultation makes the comparison of paths possible.

Of the key criteria that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá sets for the achievement of true consultation, I chose to emphasise, in this context, the capacity for detachment. This is simply because it underpins the process of reflection for us as individuals as well as the process of consultation for us as groups and communities. If I cannot step back from my passing thoughts and feelings, detach myself from them, I won’t be able to consult, and similarly if I am with people who cannot do that also, consultation will be impossible.

It is intriguingly difficult to convey these points briefly to those who have not had cause to think about them before. In the world as it stands it is increasingly important that more of us learn these skills than ever before. A constant focus of my current reflections is on how I can best work towards both honing my own reflection and consultation skills, and, just as importantly, how can I motivate others to do the same.

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