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Posts Tagged ‘Universal House of Justice’

Lost Connections

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Johann Hari’s book, Lost Connections, about his journey out of the medication trap surrounding depression. I’ve been recommending it to anyone I know who seems to have been struggling with similar issues. A close friend in Australia was initially intending to borrow the book from her library but the waiting list was so long, even though they had several copies in stock, she gave up and bought her own copy, which she is now lending to others. This gives a pretty clear indication of just how many people in our society are fighting these same battles.

For some reason I never found time to do a proper review of his book, and things have moved on since then, but I thought it was still important to mention it here before I move onto to fresh woods and pastures new.

So, what strange tracks have I been wandering along recently?

Three recent books kept me hooked from start to finish, a pretty unusual state of affairs as my habit is to move from uncompleted book to uncompleted book, sometimes only coming back to finish the first one in the sequence years after starting it.

Not quite so this time.

I obviously got a lot out of the first two books, my most recently purchased. I won’t be dwelling on them at great length though. They both tackled closely related subjects in slightly different ways.

How the World Thinks

Julian Baggini’s How the World Thinks is, as its sub-title spells out, a philosopher’s take on the world of ideas. It’s refreshing because it sets out to modify our Western tendency to think that ours is the only approach. His book is devoted to undermining this arrogant complacency and is replete with telling points such as (page 24):

It is perhaps no coincidence that insight as a source of knowledge is stressed most in the traditions the West finds least philosophical. Western philosophy’s self-image has largely been constructed by distancing itself from ideas of the philosopher as a sage or guru who penetrates the deep mysteries of the universe like some kind of seer. This distancing has blinded it to the obvious truth that all good philosophy requires some kind of insight.

And concerning a broader sense of what aesthetic means in Eastern traditions (page 294):

One problem I as a Westerner have understanding this is that the primary connotations of aestheticfor me concern art,… But the original, broader meaning of aesthetic is ‘relating to felt experience’… It was only later in the nineteenth century that the meaning ‘concerned with beauty’ became common. To say that Japanese philosophy is aesthetic rather than conceptual is not primarily to say that it is concerned with the appreciation of beauty – artistic, natural or otherwise – but that it centred on the experiential.

He spreads his net very widely over a number of topics and a vast range of traditions.

Living with the Gods

As does Neil McGregor in his book, Living with the Gods: on beliefs and peoples. Although Braggini dealt with spiritual and moral systems of thought, McGregor is more focused on religious traditions. He has a lighter touch and uses colourful illustrations to bring his points to life.

He deals with important issues that resonate across traditions such as (page 385) ‘the growing trend towards literalist readings of holy texts,’ which need to be taken poetically or mythically. This trend reinforces the tendency we are seeing across the world of faiths and ideologies to develop ever fiercer levels of conviction.

Another that crops up in his book is our different relationships with the natural world, for instance in the Yup’ik culture of south-west Alaska (page 70) which asserts ‘a respectful, entirely equal partnership between animals and humans, where the animals have a real agency,[something which is] almost impossible for a highly urbanised society to grasp. Most foreign to us is perhaps its assumption of such close inter-connectedness and mutual obligation.’

What’s Missing?

Given that both books cover such a wide spectrum of beliefs and world views, it was a shade disappointing to find that they neither of them mentioned the Bahá’í take on some of their issues, even though it would have been relevant, and one of them even quotes from a book by Christopher Bellaigue, The Islamic Enlightenment: the modern struggle between faith and reason,that doesn’t fall into that trap. More of that next time.

What issues do they each raise on which the Bahá’í perspective might have shed some light? A couple of examples will have to suffice.

Braggini first

Braggini deals at some length with the complex issue of the relationship between the individual and the community.

In his discussion of the self in the third part of his book (pages 175-220), he explains two concepts: the relational self and the atomised self. Although the Japanese are identified in our minds with a ‘collectivist’ emphasis (page 194) this is too simplistic. A leading figure in the Kyoto school (page 195) ‘stressed that nothing in this philosophy is against individualism’ and that ‘individualism and egoism must be strictly distinguished.’ He also discusses (page 201) the ‘default conception of self in Africa’ as ‘a relational one. One manifestation of this is the South African concept of ubuntu. This word defies translation but means something like ‘humanity towards others’ or ‘the universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity.’ He believes that the individualism of our Western culture came about ‘as soon as selves were conceived in Platonic terms. Unlike the relational selves of East Asian thought, such selves are discrete, self-contained. They may interact and cooperate with others but each is a separate unit, entire unto itself.’

His concluding section of this part discusses the concepts of integrity and intimacy. He feels that ‘a lot of what is going wrong in the West is a breakdown of a stable equilibrium between intimacy and integrity. Consider the distinction in terms of autonomy and belonging. More of one inevitably leaves us with less of the other, and in the West the autonomy culture has become so dominant it has squeezed out belonging.’

What might the Bahá’í point of view add to this?

There is the obvious aspect: the core belief that all humanity is one. Also the powerful sense, as expressed by its central body in 2001 that there has to be ‘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.’

That may not deal clearly enough with the question of the best relationship between the individual and the community. The Bahá’í NGO addresses that more adequately in The Prosperity of Humankind.They wrote:

Human society is composed not of a mass of merely differentiated cells but of associations of individuals . . . As social organization has increased, the scope for the expression of the capacities latent in each human being has correspondingly expanded. Because the relationship between the individual and society is a reciprocal one, the transformation now required must occur simultaneously within human consciousness and the structure of social institutions. . . in the achievement of human progress, the interests of the individual and those of society are inextricably linked. . . .Concern that each human being should enjoy the freedom of thought and action conducive to his or her personal growth does not justify devotion to the cult of individualism that so deeply corrupts many areas of contemporary life. Nor does concern to ensure the welfare of society as a whole require a deification of the state as the supposed source of humanity’s well-being. Far otherwise: the history of the present century shows all too clearly that such ideologies and the partisan agendas to which they give rise have been themselves the principal enemies of the interests they purport to serve. Only in a consultative framework made possible by the consciousness of the organic unity of humankind can all aspects of the concern for human rights find legitimate and creative expression. . . . Present-day conceptions of what is natural and appropriate in relationships — among human beings themselves, between human beings and nature, between the individual and society, and between the members of society and its institutions — reflect levels of understanding arrived at by the human race during earlier and less mature stages in its development. If humanity is indeed coming of age, if all the inhabitants of the planet constitute a single people, . . . — then existing conceptions that were born out of ignorance of these emerging realities have to be recast.

I have cherry-picked key points from across a number of pages to try and illustrate that this perspective is adding something significant into the mix: first, the idea of the global family of humanity and, secondly, the notion that we have an understanding of our relationships that has evolved in the past but now needs to evolve far beyond its current level.

In a letter written to all Bahá’ís throughout the world in March 2017, our central body went into more detail about the implications of this for our economic system:

The welfare of any segment of humanity is inextricably bound up with the welfare of the whole. Humanity’s collective life suffers when any one group thinks of its own well-being in isolation from that of its neighbours’ or pursues economic gain without regard for how the natural environment, which provides sustenance for all, is affected. A stubborn obstruction, then, stands in the way of meaningful social progress: time and again, avarice and self-interest prevail at the expense of the common good. Unconscionable quantities of wealth are being amassed, and the instability this creates is made worse by how income and opportunity are spread so unevenly both between nations and within nations. But it need not be so. However much such conditions are the outcome of history, they do not have to define the future, and even if current approaches to economic life satisfied humanity’s stage of adolescence, they are certainly inadequate for its dawning age of maturity. There is no justification for continuing to perpetuate structures, rules, and systems that manifestly fail to serve the interests of all peoples. The teachings of the Faith leave no room for doubt: there is an inherent moral dimension to the generation, distribution, and utilization o f wealth and resources.

This not only refers to the same idea of human progress, but also extends its reference to the relationship between the individual and society from the socio-political sphere to the economic one.

That’s the main reason why I feel the absence of an awareness of the Bahá’í perspective significantly reduces the sought-for inclusiveness of this otherwise excellent book. He is the writer who refers to Bellaigue’s book in a discussion of Islam (page 48), which means he should have had some idea of where the Bahá’í Faith is coming from.

McGregor next

I can deal with McGregor more briefly. He discusses polytheism at some length (pages 322 passim). He is concerned to examine how monotheism has tended throughout its history to be more intolerant than polytheism in terms of the societies it shapes. He is not simplistic about this though (page 329): ‘But as we shall see  . . . polytheism, no less than monotheism, can in the modern world also provide a vehicle for exclusion and political intolerance.’

The potential Bahá’í contribution here can be stated briefly. As far as I am aware the Bahá’í Faith is the first major monotheistic religion explicitly to accept that Hinduism, a polytheistic Eastern religion, completely separate from the tradition of the so-called ‘people of the book,’ is a valid divinely inspired faith. Not only that but it explicitly includes Buddhism and, not so surprisingly given its country of origin, Zoroastrianism, in the same category. The international Bahá’í website lists the founders of the great faiths as follows: ‘Throughout the ages, humanity’s spiritual, intellectual and moral capacities have been cultivated by the Founders of the great religions, among them Abraham, Krishna, Zoroaster, Moses, Buddha, Jesus Christ, Muhammad, and—in more recent times—the Báb and Bahá’u’lláh.’

This is not so significant an omission, perhaps, given the nature of his book, but it indicates that he fails to mention a monotheistic faith that has enshrined an inclusiveness that hopefully will avoid the intolerance trap.

Time to move on.

The last book in today’s list is Bellaigue’s on the Islamic Enlightenment.

More of that next time.

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. . . . the mind is the power of the human spirit. Spirit is the lamp; mind is the light which shines from the lamp. Spirit is the tree, and the mind is the fruit. Mind is the perfection of the spirit, and is its essential quality, as the sun’s rays are the essential necessity of the sun.

(Selected Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá: page 316-317)

This, then, is what a theory of everything has to explain: not only the emergence from a lifeless universe of reproducing organisms and their development by evolution to greater and greater functional complexity; not only the consciousness of some of those organisms and its central role in their lives; but also the development of consciousness into an instrument of transcendence that can grasp objective reality and objective value.

(Thomas Nagel, Mind and Cosmospage 85)

Now I come to the question of transcendence.

Transcending the crocodile does not depend upon accepting the existence of a soul, though that’s where this post will be going in the end.

Even if we only consider the brain and see the sense of self as its product, with no ‘true’ or ‘real’ self beyond that, we have ground to stand on which will enable us to shake off the shackles of the crocodile and avoid the swamp it lives in.

I’ve recently been reading Julian Baggini’s book How the World Thinks. His discussion of the No-Self issue addresses this point succinctly and may help me avoid rehashing arguments used elsewhere on this blog. He explores the Buddhist concept of anattā, which denies the reality of the ātman or self (page 178):

There is no ātman that has physical form, sensations, thoughts, perceptions of consciousness. Rather, what we think of as the individual person is merely an assemblage of these things.

He adds an important qualification (page 179):

If anattā seems more radical a view than it is, that is in large part because its usual translation is ‘no-self.’ But all it really means is no ātman: no eternal, immaterial, indivisible self. This is very different from denying there is any kind of self at all.

That Buddhism then encourages the effortful practice of meditative techniques to free us from the prison of this illusion of self clearly indicates that the no-self doctrine is not incompatible with the idea that we can escape the crocodile inside.

So, whether or not we have an immortal soul or self that is not a by-product of the brain, we can use techniques such as reflection or disidentification to rise above the tangle of thoughts, feelings, plans and perspectives with which we weave our convincing patterns on the loom of consciousness.

If I am relying on reason alone there is no way I can prove that the mind is independent of the brain anymore than someone else can prove conclusively it isn’t. Agnosticism is the only position available to reason alone. Many people are content to leave it at that. They may even happily look at the evidence marshaled for soul or no soul and keep their options open. I did that myself for a number of years.

Some of us though prefer in the end to make a choice. We’d rather decide there is or is not a soul, a God and/or an after-life. Either way that’s an act of faith.

I decided, for reasons I’ve explained elsewhere on this blog, to believe we have a soul. I now feel this is the simplest explanation for all the data marshalled by psychologist David Fontana in his rigorous exploration of the evidence, Is There an Afterlife? For those interested in exploring further a more accessible book is Surviving Death by journalist Leslie Kean. Powerful individual testimony also comes from Eben Alexander in his account of his own experience as a sceptical neurosurgeon, Proof of Heaven.

If you prefer not to believe in a soul, the vast body of hard evidence still demands some kind of credible explanation, because trying to write it all off as flawed or fake won’t work. The evidence is in many cases more rigourous than that ‘proving’ the efficacy of the tablets we take when we have a problem with our health.

Anyway, I have come to think it’s easier to accept that our consciousness is not just an emergent property of our brain. If you’d like to stick with it we’ll see where it takes us on this issue.

Mind-Brain Independence

A quote from the middle of Emily Kelly’s chapter in Irreducible Mind on Frederick Myers’s approach (page 76) seems a good place to start from, because the last sentence cuts to the core of the challenge constituted by his position and the evidence that mainstream ‘scientists’ ignore:

This notion of something within us being conscious, even though it is not accessible to our ordinary awareness, is an exceedingly difficult one for most of us to accept, since it is so at variance with our usual assumption that the self of which we are aware comprises the totality of what we are as conscious mental beings. Nevertheless, it is essential to keep in mind Myers’s new and enlarged conception of consciousness if one is to understand his theory of human personality as something far more extensive than our waking self.

The mind-brain data throws up a tough problem, though. Most of us come to think that if you damage the brain you damage the mind because all the evidence we hear about points that way. We are not generally presented with any other model or any of the evidence that might call conventional wisdom into question, at least not by the elder statesmen of the scientific community. There are such models though (page 73):

The first step towards translating the mind-body problem into an empirical problem, therefore, is to recognise that there is more than one way to interpret mind-brain correlation. A few individuals have suggested that the brain may not produce consciousness, as the vast majority of 19th and 20th century scientists assumed; the brain may instead filter, or shape, consciousness. In that case consciousness maybe only partly dependent on the brain, and it might therefore conceivably survive the death of the body.

Others are of course now following where he marked out the ground but we have had to wait a long time for people like van Lommel to show up in his book Consciousness Beyond Life: The Science of the Near-Death Experience with all the perplexities and puzzles of modern physics to draw upon (page 177):

It is now becoming increasingly clear that brain activity in itself cannot explain consciousness. . . . . Composed of “unconscious building blocks,” the brain is certainly capable of facilitating consciousness. But does the brain actually “produce” our consciousness?

The imagery Lommel uses in his introduction is slightly different from that of Myers, as we will see – “The function of the brain can be compared to a transceiver; our brain has a facilitating rather than a producing role: it enables the experience of consciousness” – but the point is essentially the same. Whereas we now can draw upon all the complexities of Quantum Theory to help us define exactly what might be going on behind the screen of consciousness, and Lommel certainly does that, Myers had no such advantage. Nonetheless, he creates a rich and subtle picture of what consciousness might be comprised. He starts with the most basic levels (Kelly – page 73):

. . . . our normal waking consciousness (called by Myers the supraliminal consciousness) reflects simply those relatively few psychological elements and processes that have been selected from that more extensive consciousness (called by Myers the Subliminal Self) in adaptation to the demands of our present environment: and . . . the biological organism, instead of producing consciousness, is the adaptive mechanism that limits and shapes ordinary waking consciousness out of this larger, mostly latent, Self.

This problem is illustrated by Myers’s very helpful original analogy, and it shows just how far he was prepared to go in taking into account disciplines that others would have felt were beyond the pale (page 78):

Our ordinary waking consciousness corresponds only to that small segment of the electromagnetic spectrum that is visible to the naked eye (and varies species to species); but just as the electromagnetic spectrum extends in either direction far beyond the small portion normally visible, so human consciousness extends in either direction beyond the small portion of which we are ordinarily aware. In the ‘infrared’ region of consciousness are older, more primitive processes – processes that are unconscious, automatic, and primarily physiological. Thus, ‘at the red end (so to say) consciousness disappears among the organic processes’ (Myers, 1894-1895). Sleep, for example, and its associated psychophysiological processes are an important manifestation of an older, more primitive state. In contrast, in the ‘ultraviolet’ region of the spectrum are all those mental capacities that the remain latent because they have not yet emerged at a supraliminal level through adaptive evolutionary processes. . . . . Such latent, ‘ultraviolet’ capacities include telepathy, the inspirations of creative genius, mystical perceptions, and other such phenomena that occasionally emerge.

Where does this take us?

Given the mirror used to illustrate the power of reflection, a reasonable description of the effects of sticking with the ego and its crocodile can be found in these words of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá (Promulgation of Universal Peace– page 244):

What is the dust which obscures the mirror? It is attachment to the world, avarice, envy, love of luxury and comfort, haughtiness and self-desire; this is the dust which prevents reflection of the rays of the Sun of Reality in the mirror. The natural emotions are blameworthy and are like rust which deprives the heart of the bounties of God.

To find a close correspondence to the idea of disdentification in the words of an 18thCentury thinker felt like a further confirmation of its validity. Emily Kelly, in the book Irreducible Mind, quotes Myers quoting Thomas Reid, an 18th century philosopher (page 74):

The conviction which every man has of his identity . . . needs no aid of philosophy to strengthen it; and no philosophy can weaken it.… I am not thought, I am not action, I am not feeling; I am something that thinks, and acts, and suffers. My thoughts and actions and feelings change every moment…; But that Self or I, to which they belong, is permanent…

This contradicts my quasi-namesake David Hume’s perception of the situation as quoted by Braggini (pages 185-86):

What you observe are particular thoughts, perceptions and sensations. ‘I never catch myself, distinct from such perception,’ wrote Hume, assuming he was not peculiar.

I noted in the margin at this point, ‘’That’s not my experience.’

So, as good a place as any to pick up the thread of Myers’s thinking again is with his ideas of the self and the Self. There are some problems to grapple with before we can move on. Emily Kelly writes (page 83):

These ‘concepts central to his theory’ are undoubtedly difficult, but despite some inconsistency in his usage or spelling Myers was quite clear in his intent to distinguish between a subliminal ‘self’ (a personality alternate or in addition to the normal waking one) and a Subliminal ‘Self’ or ‘Individuality’ (which is his real ‘unifying theoretical principle’). In this book we will try to keep this distinction clear in our readers minds by using the term ‘subliminal consciousness’ to refer to any conscious psychological processes occurring outside ordinary awareness; the term “subliminal self” (lower case) to refer to ‘any chain of memory sufficiently continuous, and embracing sufficient particulars, to acquire what is popularly called a “character” of its own;’ and the term ‘Individuality’ or “’Subliminal Self” (upper case) to refer to the underlying larger Self.

Myers believed that the evidence in favour of supernormal experiences is strong enough to warrant serious consideration (page 87):

Supernormal processes such as telepathy do seem to occur more frequently while either the recipient or the agent (or both) is asleep, in the states between sleeping and waking, in a state of ill health, or dying; and subliminal functioning in general emerges more readily during altered states of consciousness such as hypnosis, hysteria, or even ordinary distraction.

He felt that we needed to find some way of reliably tapping into these levels of consciousness (page 91):

The primary methodological challenge to psychology, therefore, lies in developing methods, or ‘artifices,’ for extending observations of the contents or capacities of mind beyond the visible portion of the psychological spectrum, just as the physical sciences have developed artificial means of extending sensory perception beyond ordinary limits.

He is arguing that the science of psychology needs to investigate these phenomena. I am not suggesting that, as individuals, we need to have had any such experiences if we are to make use of this model of the mind successfully. I personally have not had any. However, my belief that there is a higher self strongly motivates me to work at transcending the influence of my ego and its crocodile, and I suspect that subliminal promptings towards constructive action in complex and difficult circumstances often come from that direction.

This brings us into the territory explored by Roberto Assagioli in the psychotherapeutic approach called Psychosynthesis, with its use of concepts such as the Higher Self, for which I am using the term True Self.

1: Lower Unconscious 2: Middle Unconscious 3: Higher Unconscious 4: Field of Consciousness 5: Conscious Self or “I” 6: Higher Self 7: Collective Unconscious (For the source of the image see link.)

A crucial component in implementing the Psychosynthesis model, in addition to finding it credible, is will power.

Assagioli, the founder of Psychosynthesis, contends that we are being raised by a higher force ‘into order, harmony and beauty,’ and this force is ‘uniting all beings . . . . with each other through links of love’ (Psychosynthesis: page 31). He explores what we might do to assist that process, and what he says resonates with Schwartz’s idea that persistent willed action changes brain structure. He writes (The Act of Will: page 57):

Repetition of actions intensifies the urge to further reiteration and renders their execution easier and better, until they come to be performed unconsciously.

And he is not just talking about the kind of physical skills we met with in Bounce. He goes on to say (page 80):

Thus we can, to a large extent, act, behave, and really be in practice as we would be if we possessed the qualities and enjoyed the positive mental states which we would like to have. More important, the use of this technique will actually change our emotional state.

This is what, in the realm of psychology, underpins the power of determination that the Universal House of Justice refers to in paragraph 5 of their 28 December 2010 message:

Calm determination will be vital as [people] strive to demonstrate how stumbling blocks can be made stepping stones for progress.

Changing ourselves in this way as individuals will ultimately change the world in which we live.

I am not arguing that transcending the crocodile is easy, nor am I saying that one particular way of achieving this will suit everyone. It is an effortful path and we each have to find our own. It is important that we do not mistake a credible looking path for the destination itself. If the path is not moving us towards our goal we must find another one. Nonetheless I am convinced the goal is within our grasp if we can believe in it enough to make the effort.

The Higher Good

There is one last important point for those of us who wish to believe in a God of some kind.

My very battered copy of this classic.

In his attempt to understand the horrors of Nazism, Erich Fromm writes in his masterpiece, The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, a dog-eared disintegrating paperback copy of which I bought in 1976 and still cling onto, something which deserves quoting at length (pages 260-61):

The intensity of the need for a frame of orientation explains a fact that has puzzled many students of man, namely the ease with which people fall under the spell of irrational doctrines, either political or religious or of any other nature, when to the one who is not under their influence it seems obvious that they are worthless constructs. . . . . Man would probably not be so suggestive were it not that his need for a cohesive frame of orientation is so vital. The more an ideology pretends to give answers to all questions, the more attractive it is; here may lie the reason why irrational or even plainly insane thought systems can so easily attract the minds of men.

But a map is not enough as a guide for action; man also needs a goal that tells him where to go. . . . man, lacking instinctive determination and having a brain that permits him to think of many directions in which he could go, needs an object of total devotion; he needs an object of devotion to be the focal point of all his strivings and the basis for all his effective – and not only proclaimed – values. . . . In being devoted to a goal beyond his isolated ego, he transcends himself and leaves the prison of absolute egocentricity.

The objects of man’s devotion vary. He can be devoted to an idol which requires him to kill his children or to an ideal the makes him protect children; he can be devoted to the growth of life or to its destruction. He can be devoted to the goal of amassing a fortune, of acquiring power, of destruction, or to that of loving and being productive and courageous. He can be devoted to the most diverse goals and idols; yet while the difference in the objects of devotion are of immense importance, the need for devotion itself is a primary, existential need demanding fulfilment regardless of how this need is fulfilled.

When we choose the wrong object of devotion the price can be terrifying.

Eric Reitan makes essentially the same point. He warns us that we need to take care that the object of devotion we choose needs to be worthy of our trust. In his bookIs God a delusion?, he explains a key premise 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, including the secular variations such a Fascism and Nazism.

The way forward, I believe, lies in recognising a higher and inspiring source of value that will help us lift our game in a way that can be sustained throughout our lifetime. For many of us that is God (from Selected Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá – page 76):

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.

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The only authenticated portrait of Emily Dickinson later than childhood. (For source of image see link)

[I]n turning inward, Dickinson gained unique insights into the human psyche.

(Pollak and Noble in A Historical Guide to Emily Dickinson,page 45)

The Passion of Emily Dickinson 

As I indicated at the end of the last post, I am looking at another book this time. Unlike Gilbert and Gubar, with their focus on patriarchy in The Mad Woman in the Attic, Judith Farr, in her book The Passion of Emily Dickinson,spends most of her time in the first two thirds of her book unpicking delicate strands of evidence to help us guestimate to whom some of Emily Dickinson’s poems were addressed.

Though fascinating from a biographical point of view, whether Emily Dickinson was writing a poem to Sue or to the Master doesn’t really matter to most of us as aficionados of her work. For us, what counts is to be able to allow the poem to impact as strongly as possible on our consciousness through the lens of our current understanding. Admittedly sometimes biographical details can shed light upon the meaning of poem: but all too often they constitute a veil between it and us. A great poem almost always transcends even the writer’s conscious intentions and understanding. That’s what makes it great. If anyone can capture all its meaning in words it might as well have been written in prose.

For these reasons, I am skipping over the whole of the first part of her book and homing in on where I feel most at home, with what Farr has to say about Emily Dickinson as poet of the interior in relation to time, nature and eternity.

The beginning of this exploration comes at page 247 when Farr writes:

She did have a poetic ‘project,’ and throughout her oeuvre it is perceptible. This was to depict ‘Eternity in Time.’

She continues (pages 247-48):

[H]er feelings result in a radiant conception of immortal life. . . . There is nothing morbid about this dream vision. … It is love, and the painful longing issuing from it, that gave Dickinson her vision of eternity. . . If Dickinson’s poetic productivity largely ceased after 1868, the reason had to do with the assimilation of her two great passions for Sue and for Master.

I will come on later in more details as to why I think this is yet another over-simplification of why she may have fallen away from her peak after the mid-1860s.[1]I’m not denying though that love and loss were part of the grit that helped form the pearls of her poetry. I concur with Farr when she writes (page 251):

[S]he had to grieve before she could continue to develop (and the grief was itself a means of developing).

Pollak refers (page 6) to ‘Dickinson’s incremental knowledge of the house of pain.’

Her love of poetry and her perception of its links with love, as we have already noted contrasted with her loathing of domestic chores (page 255):

Her prevailing conception of love inspiring art enables Dickinson to write her final sentences. There eternity is felt in time, and its sea is linked to her work.… Her vision was of the next world next to her as she did her housework, all that baking, canning, cleaning, and sewing so balefully recorded in her letters.

Nature was crucial to her, as it had been to the Brontës and to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, because for her (page 294) ‘nature offers clues about infinity.’ This was even to the extent that (page 302):

The horizon was a point of order for landscape painters like Church. For poets like Dickinson, it was the point of fusion of this world and the next.

Which finally brings me to two specific poems.

This is the first, an intensely powerful poem of sacrificial separation.

There came a Day at Summer’s full,
Entirely for me—
I thought that such were for the Saints,
Where Resurrections—be—

The Sun, as common, went abroad,
The flowers, accustomed, blew,
As if no soul the solstice passed
That maketh all things new

The time was scarce profaned, by speech—
The symbol of a word
Was needless, as at Sacrament,
The Wardrobe—of our Lord—

Each was to each The Sealed Church,
Permitted to commune this—time—
Lest we too awkward show
At Supper of the Lamb.

The Hours slid fast—as Hours will,
Clutched tight, by greedy hands—
So faces on two Decks, look back,
Bound to opposing lands—

And so when all the time had leaked,
Without external sound
Each bound the Other’s Crucifix—
We gave no other Bond—

Sufficient troth, that we shall rise—
Deposed—at length, the Grave—
To that new Marriage,
Justified—through Calvaries of Love—

Farr writes (pages 305-06) that, while being on the one hand plighting ‘troth on earth,’ it also records a quasi-religious ‘ceremony or compact of renunciation.’ She summarises it by saying:

This may have looked like an ‘accustomed’ sunny day when her flowers bloomed as usual, but it has marked her own movement from spring to summer: from girlhood to womanhood, from the old life to the sacred new one.

Nature is here contrasted with the spiritual by its ignorance of the day’s significance, its beauty notwithstanding. While her hope for her love’s fulfillment in the afterlife is its main theme, there is the implication that this separation is at least part of the crucible for her future poetry.

Before moving onto the next poem I want to quote in full, I need to refer briefly to two others: ‘I cannot live without You’ and ‘Behind Me – dips Eternity.’ As Farr explains (page 308) the first poem is important because it is describing ‘the surrender of a love that is morally forbidden.’ This is one of the sources of the grief referred to earlier. The second is important for present purposes because the opening stanza captures vividly her fusion of nature and eternity:

Behind Me– dips Eternity –
Before Me – Immortality –
Myself – the Term between –
Death but the Drift of Eastern Gray,
Dissolving into Dawn away,
Before the West begin –

Farr goes into much detail about how the Luminist paintings of Frederick Edwin Church and Thomas Cole, with which Emily Dickinson was deeply familiar, play on these tropes. I will shortly be coming onto how nature and women were similarly seen, and in my view still continue to be seen, as objects of exploitation during this period and beyond.

It’s probably also worth including here Eberwein’s view, expressed in A Historical Guide to Emily Dickinson (page 79), that ‘For Emily Dickinson, then, the essence of religious experience remained in that haunting question, “Is immortality true?”’

Capturing the Inscape

I now need to illustrate the other powerful capacity her poems have: to capture inner states. It will also serve as a useful pointer towards the next book I’ll be considering: Lives like Loaded Guns.

A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things gives a powerful account, similar to the one in John Fitzgerald Medina’s Faith, Physics & Psychology, of the so-called Enlightenment’s rapacious attitude to nature, expressed all too often in sexual terms. Patel and Moore write (page 53):

The second law of capitalist ecology, domination over nature, owed much to Francis Bacon (1561–1626)… He argued that “science should as it were torture nature’s secrets out of her.’ Further, the ‘empire of man’ should penetrate and dominate the “womb of nature.“

For them, ‘The binaries of Man and Woman, Nature and Society, drank from the same cup.’ I think their meaning would have been more faithfully represented if they had written ‘Society and Nature’ in that order. Even so their point is reasonably clear.

They share Medina’s distrust for our Cartesian legacy (page 54):

[H]ere was an intellectual movement that shaped not only ways of thinking but also ways of conquering, commodifying and living. This Cartesian revolution accomplished four major transformations, each shaping our view of Nature and Society to this day. First, either–or binary thinking displaced both–and alternatives. Second, it privileged thinking about substances, things, before thinking about the relationships between those substances. Third, it installed the domination of nature through science as a social good.

Finally, the Cartesian revolution made thinkable, and doable, the colonial project of mapping and domination.

This maps onto McGilchrist’s thinking about left-brain and right-brain differences and how the holistic, intuitive and empathic processes of our minds, which were in the past sometimes dismissively referred to as ‘feminine,’ and which tune into the ambiguous subtlety of reality, have been misguidedly subordinated to those arrogantly over-confident, logical, serial and linguistic processes, which hopelessly oversimplify reality and are sometimes complacently referred to as ‘masculine.’

I agree that Emily Dickinson, though she ultimately transcended them, was shaped by these crude ideological forces within a capitalist nonegalitarian culture that sees nature and humanity (women and ‘natives’ particularly) instrumentally, as thingsto be exploited for some kind of purely material advantage, rather than as beings to be valued for their own sake and nurtured with love and respect. As the Universal House of Justice has pointed out in The Promise of World Peace, capitalism is as flawed as communism, because both are equally materialistic ideologies:

The time has come when those who preach the dogmas of materialism, whether of the east or the west, whether of capitalism or socialism, must give account of the moral stewardship they have presumed to exercise.

That Dickinson was able to retreat from these repressive pressures into Vesuvial creativity is both a blessing to her, that helped compensate for her pain, and a gift to us now as we confront our generation’s variants of a toxic culture. She can inspire us to also strive to turn our pain in the face of abuses into creativity.

Her social isolation, a characteristic that fascinates me as my Solitarios sequence testifies, may have brought at least one other crucial benefit, beyond giving her creativity space to flourish in a general sense. It may have made her more sensitively attuned to her inscape than most of us will ever be.

I heard a Fly buzz– when I died –
The Stillness in the Room
Was like the Stillness in the Air –
Between the Heaves of Storm –

The Eyes around – had wrung them dry –
And Breaths were gathering firm
For that last Onset – when the King
Be witnessed – in the Room –

I willed my Keepsakes – Signed away
What portion of me be
Assignable – and then it was
There interposed a Fly –

With Blue – uncertain – stumbling Buzz –
Between the light – and me –
And then the Windows failed – and then
I could not see to see –

Not only is this one of my favourite Emily Dickinson poems, but it is a significant one as we begin to transition to Lives like Loaded Guns. Farr pins down its crucial characteristic (page 310): ‘In such poems Emily Dickinson investigates the nature of consciousness by analysing its recession.’ As many people know it’s not the only one. Most famously there is also ‘I felt a funeral in my brain.’ More of that later.

Why she should be so interested in recessions of consciousness, Farr does not explain except in terms of her interest in death. She apparently called her poems (page 328) ‘bulletins from immortality.’

In the next post we will begin to close in on where all these ideas are leading.

Footnote

[1]. Between 1861, the year the American Civil War started, and 1865, the year it ended, she wrote something in the region of 936 of her 1789 poems, ie 52%. She was writing at an approximate rate of 187 poems per year. After the war was over, her average rate was 32 poems per year. That may not, though, have been the only factor.

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I recently was involved in a series of workshops at Builth Well in Wales. I thought it worth sharing the materials used. The first set came out last Thursday and the last will come out next Thursday. What the simple presentation of these materials fails to capture of course is the wealth of insight that comes from exploring the riches contained in the quotations used. The only way of accessing that would be to try approaching them in the same way.

Prayer

Create in me a pure heart, O my God, and renew a tranquil conscience within me, O my Hope!  Through the spirit of power confirm Thou me in Thy Cause, O my Best-Beloved, and by the light of Thy glory reveal unto me Thy path, O Thou the Goal of my desire!  Through the power of Thy transcendent might lift me up unto the heaven of Thy holiness, O Source of my being, and by the breezes of Thine eternity gladden me, O Thou Who art my God!  Let Thine everlasting melodies breathe tranquillity on me, O my Companion, and let the riches of Thine ancient countenance deliver me from all except Thee, O my Master, and let the tidings of the revelation of Thine incorruptible Essence bring me joy, O Thou Who art the most manifest of the manifest and the most hidden of the hidden!

Bahá’u’lláh

Practicing Weeding the Garden

schwartzA few years ago I read an excellent book – The Mind & the Brain – by Jeffrey M Schwartz and Sharon Begley. It’s dealing with really serious mental health problems such as Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). However, I resonated strongly to their Four Step method of managing obsessions and compulsions (pages 79-91) and felt it could be used more widely to dispel almost all intrusive and undesirable patterns of thought and feeling. I was so impressed that I thought it worthwhile eliminating all psychobabble and creating a simple mnemonic so the whole idea was easily remembered and used. This is the first of two weeding techniques.

Spot It

Once I become aware of a ‘Here I go again’ moment that has caused me difficulty in the past, I can set myself the task of spotting the earliest possible warning signs. At first I might only notice that I’m doing it again when it’s already too late to stop myself. But I can reflect immediately afterwards on my recollection of how I got to that point. If I leave it, the memory will fade and I will not be able to bring to mind an earlier warning sign. By repeating this exercise there will come a point where I can spot the cloud before the storm breaks.

Step Back

The second stage is stepping back. It involves reminding myself that the habit is not me. I can change it. Thoughts and feelings are mostly just brain noise that can’t necessarily be trusted: actions are often their equally unreliable product. I can step back.  This makes the next step possible.

Stop It

Once I can spot the approaching storm early enough and step back, I can stop it. The mind’s weather, unlike the climate’s, is in our control, believe it or not.

The trick here is to invent a method that suits me best for pressing the pause button. I might shout at myself inside my head, ‘STOP!’ Or I might imagine a big red button that I press or a lever that I pull down, that brings the gathering storm to a halt. If I try this too late in the process it won’t work and I will have to learn to spot it earlier. At that point I also need to reinforce my sense that this is simply a habit and not who I really am. It’s even better if I can see it as senseless, neural noise, useless and pointless. This helps me realise it can change. The brain is plastic.

Initially while I’m testing out whether I can make this work, I can count very slowly, one slowed down breath at a time, to 90. This is usually enough time for the immediate power surge from the amygdala, at the brain’s emotional centre, to die down. This does not mean it would be a good idea to get stuck right into the situation again and respond. If I can get to 90 at a slow enough pace, I will find I am much calmer if not completely calm.

Swap It

This is the time to activate step three: Swap It. If I simply leave it there, on the pause button, and do nothing else, it won’t be long before my brain starts revisiting the trigger situation and stoking up the storm again. An empty brain will fill itself with the old familiar script if you leave it to itself and the mind will cloud up again.

So, I will have to give some careful thought beforehand about what I will put in place of the void I have created. There are many possibilities.

If all I want to do is to make sure I don’t escalate a row, I could go for a walk round the block, as long as that’s at least a mile from start to finish.

If I want to be sure that I am avoiding a slide into deep sadness, into planning my revenge or into full-blown panic, I will have to substitute a longer, more creative and more absorbing activity. Prayer and meditation are obvious remedies for the spiritually inclined. Gardening or cooking works for some. Playing a musical instrument or painting can do the job. Learning a language or studying something really interesting is another possibility. If all else fails, decluttering the chaos of an attic might work. It’s impossible to say what will work for everyone. We’re all so different.

The mnemonic I use for this series of steps is Spot It, Step Back, Stop It, and Swap It. If we compare our hearts and minds to a garden in need of clearing, this process is analogous to weeding. It can take a bit to time before we can reliably move on to planting, which is the focus of the next session. You may notice that I draw a distinction between the mind and the brain. We may need to explore this briefly if it is not clear why I am making that distinction.

There is a simple practice that gives us a readily portable substitute for any undesirable pattern of thought and feeling. It’s the mantram, the second practice to help us weed our minds.

Eknath Easwaran

Meditation

I owe a better understanding of this idea to Eknath Easwaran and his book on meditation – Meditation: common sense directions for an uncommon life. He advises using quotations as a core meditative means of training our minds (more of that next time). He recommends the Mantram as something more portable, that need not be confined to the quietness of a room set aside for meditation. He explains the origin of the term (page 59): the word is linked to ‘the roots man, “the mind,” and tri, “to cross.” The mantram, repeated regularly for a long time, enables us to cross the sea of the mind. An apt image, for the mind very much resembles the sea. Ever-changing, it is placid one day, turbulent the next.’

For him, the mantram links us to (page 60) ‘the supreme Reality,’ whatever we choose to call it:

What matters greatly is that we discover – experientially, not intellectually – that this supreme Reality rests at inmost centre of our being.  . . . the mantram stands as a perpetual reminder that such perfection is within all of us, waiting to flow through our thoughts, words, and deeds.

He feels that (page 70) ‘the mantram works best when we repeat it silently in the mind with as much concentration as possible.’ He recommends we use the mantram at all moments of stress or simple waiting. It helps keep us calm and, for him, every repetition counts, taking us slightly deeper each time we repeat it with focused concentration. He strongly recommends we use it before we sleep.

The mantram (page 112) is also ‘particularly helpful in the case of hurry, because it gives the restless mind something to fasten on to and gradually slows it down.’ When a mistake triggers a mind bomb (page 113) ‘[t]he best course to follow at that time is to repeat the mantram a few times and recollect yourself so you can proceed at a measured pace.’

A Mantram-style Exercise Based on a Bahá’í practice

Is there a way that, by using words, we can have some confidence that we are replacing a negative thought process with something more positive? Bahá’u’lláh, in the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, instructs Bahá’ís to repeat the Greatest Name 95 times each day.

  1. It hath been ordained that every believer in God, the Lord of Judgement, shall, each day, having washed his hands and then his face, seat himself and, turning unto God, repeat “Alláh-u-Abhá” ninety-five times. Such was the decree of the Maker of the Heavens when, with majesty and power, He established Himself upon the thrones of His Names. Perform ye, likewise, ablutions for the Obligatory Prayer; this is the command of God, the Incomparable, the Unrestrained.

About the repetition of Alláh-u-Abhá, the Universal House of Justice wrote:

Let all experience the spiritual enrichment brought to their souls by this simple act of worshipful meditation.

This would seem like a good place to start. Obviously there are many ways of fulfilling this spiritual obligation. What is clearly important is that is should be done mindfully. Below is an illustration of one possible way of achieving such mindfulness. For those who are not Bahá’í, then any spiritually inspiring word or short phrase can be used instead.

We need to sit comfortably in our chairs, our backs reasonably erect, both feet in contact with the floor and hands lying loosely in our lap. We need to spend a few moments withdrawing our attention from the outside world and instead focusing it on our breathing. This is probably most easily done by resting our full attention on the movement of our diaphragm.

We can use our rate of breathing to pace our use of the Greatest Name (or whatever spiritually significant words we have chosen). In the Aqdas it only says “repeat”, so we may feel that this can be done within the mind alone or that it requires to be said out loud. If we are repeating the Greatest Name or its equivalent for us in our heads it is possible to do so on every in-breath: the virtue of this from a meditative point of view is that we perhaps “inhale” some of its power as we do so.  If we repeat it aloud, it is hard to do so except on the out-breath. For the purpose of this group meditation, it is better to repeat our chosen words in our mind silently.

Of course, for this to completely fulfill our spiritual obligation as Bahá’ís we must perform our ablutions (the ones for our obligatory prayer will do if we are saying the Greatest Name at the same time). We also need to “turn towards God.” This may not prove possible here at this point.

We will simply be trying out one way of replacing brain noise with an uplifting alternative.

There is no need for us in this case to count as we are not attempting to replicate exactly the Bahá’í discipline. Also there is no reason why Bahá’ís should not at other times draw on the power of the Greatest Name to settle our distracted or disturbed minds. Others should feel free to use any spiritually significant alternative in the same way.

When we have finished, we can share how that felt and what we learnt.

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Sunset in Builth

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IMG_2413I recently was involved in a series of workshops at Builth Well in Wales. I thought it worth sharing the materials used. The second set will come out next Monday and the last next Thursday. What the simple presentation of these materials fails to capture of course is the wealth of insight that comes from exploring the riches contained in the quotations used. The only way of accessing that would be to try approaching them in the same way.

Prayer

O compassionate God!  Thanks be to Thee for Thou hast awakened and made me conscious.  Thou hast given me a seeing eye and favored me with a hearing ear, hast led me to Thy kingdom and guided me to Thy path.  Thou hast shown me the right way and caused me to enter the ark of deliverance.  O God!  Keep me steadfast and make me firm and staunch.  Protect me from violent tests and preserve and shelter me in the strongly fortified fortress of Thy Covenant and Testament.  Thou art the Powerful.  Thou art the Seeing.  Thou art the Hearing.

O Thou the Compassionate God.  Bestow upon me a heart which, like unto a glass, may be illumined with the light of Thy love, and confer upon me thoughts which may change this world into a rose garden through the outpourings of heavenly grace.

Thou art the Compassionate, the Merciful.  Thou art the Great Beneficent God.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá

Overview

In the Bahá’í Writings the phrase ‘understanding heart’ is used more than thirty times. Of the heart, in various places Bahá’u’lláh uses three images, one of the mirror, one of the lamp and one of the garden. It is on this last that most of the focus will be in this aspect of the weekend course.

In the Persian Hidden Words Bahá’u’lláh writes: ‘‘In the garden of thy heart plant naught but the rose of love . . . .’ (PHW: 3). Also in the Hidden Words He speaks of the ‘hyacinths of wisdom’ (PHW: 33), which will grow as a result of sowing ‘the seeds of Divine wisdom in the pure soil of thy heart.’

It is easy to access the obvious meanings of these passages. We will be exploring as deeply as we can in the time available what implications they might have for how this process might work and what we might do to foster it. This will include unpacking exactly what we think Bahá’u’lláh might mean by the word ‘pure’ in this context.

1. Preparing the Soil of the Heart’s Garden (90 Minutes)

There are three practices that we will be drawing on as we grapple with what the quotations from the Bahá’í Writings mean to us and seek to internalize them.

Reflective Consultation

The first I will introduce now: we will be drawing on it soon. It is a process of group consultation pioneered in Colombia in the early days of the Ruhi Institute. What does it involve? First, people ask for or offer clarification of any words that are difficult to understand.

In turn each person reads a quotation out loud. The one who first reads the quote acts as a group leader for the consultation on that quote.

Then each person re-reads the quote before sharing one response (s)he has to the quote. Every one in turn expresses their responses to the quote in this same way, whether as thoughts, feelings, intuitions or whatever. All group members should at least read part if not all of the quotation even if they feel they will have nothing to share after doing so.

This goes on until all the members feel they have said all that they wish to say or time has run out. There are no right or wrong answers during this process. It is an opportunity to reflect deeply and share the result.

Efforts should be made not to respond to what others have said but simply to focus on one’s reaction at the time one reads the quote again. Attention should be paid to what implications the quote has for our own lives and to suggestions as to how we might apply what we have learned.

The group leader’s only job is to see that everyone follows these rules, i.e. reads the quote prayerfully and shares one (and only one) response without referring to what others have said!

Introduction

When we apply the metaphor of gardening to the cultivation of our spiritual core, the heart, what might be involved? Hopefully, as we explore further, we will develop a stronger sense of what the word ‘heart’ means in this context. For now I suggest we stick to simple basic implications of the image.

What do we do when we garden? We need to clear and prepare the soil. We need to decide what seeds or shoots to plant, and then place them in the ground. We need to tend them afterwards, keeping them out of the frost, for example, and ensuring they receive sufficient water and sunlight.

Also important, though we may not have time to reflect on this aspect this weekend, is the climate that surrounds us. If we have enough sunlight and rain, flowers will bloom and the fruits come in abundance. If the days are dark or there is drought, plants will shrivel and die. In spiritual terms sunlight and water are seen as coming from God, from immersing ourselves in the Writings of His Messengers, from pure-hearted prayer, from a community of seekers and from sincere acts of service. If we deprive ourselves or are deprived of any of these aspects of the spiritual life, which are also ways of tending the seeds we are sowing, we will risk creating a winter or a desert for our hearts. As ‘Abdu’l-Bahá explained:

But instead of this, what has taken place! Men turned away their faces from following the divinely illuminated precepts of their Master, and winter fell upon the hearts of men. For, as the body of man depends for life upon the rays of the sun, so cannot the celestial virtues grow in the soul without the radiance of the Sun of Truth.

(Paris Talks– page 31-32)

Coming back to the main focus of the day, what might preparing the soil of the heart involve?

Practice of Reflective Consultation

To begin our exploration of this let’s use the process of reflective consultation we spoke of earlier on one of the following quotes:

Return, then, and cleave wholly unto God, and cleanse thine heart from the world and all its vanities, and suffer not the love of any stranger to enter and dwell therein. Not until thou dost purify thine heart from every trace of such love can the brightness of the light of God shed its radiance upon it, for to none hath God given more than one heart. . . . .  And as the human heart, as fashioned by God, is one and undivided, it behoveth thee to take heed that its affections be, also, one and undivided. Cleave thou, therefore, with the whole affection of thine heart, unto His love, and withdraw it from the love of any one besides Him, that He may aid thee to immerse thyself in the ocean of His unity, and enable thee to become a true upholder of His oneness, the Exalted, the Great.

(Proclamation of Bahá’u’lláh: page 52

O My Brother! A pure heart is as a mirror; cleanse it with the burnish of love and severance from all save God, that the true sun may shine within it and the eternal morning dawn. Then wilt thou clearly see the meaning of “Neither doth My earth nor My heaven contain Me, but the heart of My faithful servant containeth Me.”

(Seven Valleys and the Four Valleys: pp 21-22)

What do we feel we have learnt from that process?

Further Considerations

Bahá’u’lláh makes it clear that this process of preparation, purification if you prefer, cannot be avoided.

. . . the lilies of ancient wisdom can blossom nowhere except in the city of a stainless heart. “In a rich soil, its plants spring forth abundantly by permission of its Lord, and in that soil which is bad, they spring forth but scantily.”

(Kitáb-i-Íqán UK Edition– page 122)

Before all else (the friends) must sanctify their hearts and purify their motives, otherwise all efforts in furthering any enterprise will be fruitless.

(‘Abdu’l-Bahá, quoted by the Universal House of Justice in a message: 10 February 1980)

O SON OF BEING! Thy heart is My home; sanctify it for My descent. Thy spirit is My place of revelation; cleanse it for My manifestation.

(Bahá’u’lláh – AHW No 59)

. . . a man should make ready his heart that it be worthy of the descent of heavenly grace.

(Bahá’u’lláh – The Four Valleys page 54)

If we are to weed effectively we need to have some idea of what a weed looks like before we can get rid of it. Perhaps using the same method of reflective consultation will help us glean some insights from the one or both of following quotes.

When a true seeker determineth to take the step of search in the path leading unto the knowledge of the Ancient of Days, he must, before all else, cleanse his heart, which is the seat of the revelation of the inner mysteries of God, from the obscuring dust of all acquired knowledge, and the allusions of the embodiments of satanic fancy. He must purge his breast, which is the sanctuary of the abiding love of the Beloved, of every defilement, and sanctify his soul from all that pertaineth to water and clay, from all shadowy and ephemeral attachments. He must so cleanse his heart that no remnant of either love or hate may linger therein, lest that love blindly incline him to error, or that hate repel him away from the truth.

(Bahá’u’lláh: Kitáb-i-Íqán page 162– UK Edition page 123)

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. Be ablaze as the fire, that ye may burn away the veils of heedlessness and set aglow, through the quickening energies of the love of God, the chilled and wayward heart. Be light and untrammeled as the breeze, that ye may obtain admittance into the precincts of My court, My inviolable Sanctuary.

(Gleanings No. CLII)

Looking Ahead

In the third session we will be exploring the idea of planting seeds in the garden of the heart. Memorising quotations is a useful tool for this purpose. This is also the second practice we will be using, and the foundation of the third one.  I am hoping that before tomorrow’s session you will be able to find time to look at this idea. Here is a possible way to make it easier for those who find memorizing difficult. The method I am quoting here has been adapted from a way of memorising poetry. I sorry to say that I have no record of whose original idea I have borrowed here.

How to Learn Passages: 

  1. Read the passage once. Then divide it into convenient short sections, each equivalent to a line of poetry.
  2. Now read the first section out loud. Take your eyes from the page and immediately say the section again. Glance back to make sure you got it right. If you made a mistake, try again. Now do the same with the second section. Repeat the procedure for every section in the passage.
  3. Go back to the beginning. This time, read the first two sections out loud, look away and repeat them aloud. Check. If you made a mistake, try again. Now move onto the next two sections, going through the whole passage two sections at a time.
  4. Repeat the passage three sections at a time, then four sections at a time, then five and then six. By the sixth pass, no matter how long the passage, you will have memorised it.
  5. Recite the whole passage just before going to bed at night.
  6. Crucial: stop thinking about the passage. Your sleeping mind is very important for memory.
  7. The next day, you should find (after a glance at the first section to bump-start your memory) that you can recite the whole passage.

If you are not sure what passages to pick to practice on here are two suggestions relevant to that session’s theme.

Sow the seeds of My 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 the heart.

(Bahá’u’lláh PHW No 33 – see also No 78)

Know verily that the purpose underlying all these symbolic terms and abstruse allusions, which emanate from the Revealers of God’s holy Cause, hath been to test and prove the peoples of the world; that thereby the earth of the pure and illuminated hearts may be known from the perishable and barren soil. From time immemorial such hath been the way of God amidst His creatures, and to this testify the records of the sacred books.

(Bahá’u’lláh – Kitáb-i-Íqán UK Edition – page 32)

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Sunset in Builth

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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-Íqánpage 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 Thursday, at the Hereford Pavilion Centre, I gave a brief talk to the Herefordshire Interfaith about the Bahá’í Revelation.

Beforehand I was told that I would have 15 minutes and was given a list of questions to address.

On the day the committee part of the meeting spilled over into the Faith-to-Faith’s time slot. The quart into a pint pot problem of describing my beliefs in quarter of an hour became a quart into a test tube experience. I had five minutes!

Even so the Faith-to-Faith moments were valuable if tantalising.

First one member briefly explained the basics of Universal Sufism, a movement connected to the mystical teachings of Inayat Khan which regards itself as expressing the compassionate spiritual core of all religion and therefore does not see self-definition as Muslim a necessary criterion of membership. He closed with a short prayer.

There was time for only one question before it was my turn.

Bicentenary Leaflet

Fortunately I had copies with me of the Bicentenary leaflet that had been mailed out to us earlier from the National Office. That saved me explaining at any length the core beliefs. I handed it round at the start of my talk to all the seven people who were there.

I had time then to briefly outline the basic details of Bahá’u’lláh’s life and the essence of the Bahá’í teachings.

There was one question, before everyone shared the same feeling that next time we really needed to allow much more time to explore what was being explained.

Given that I had spent a fair amount of time preparing what I was going to say, I think it would be a shame to waste the notes I made, though not all of them were going to be shared even in a 15 minute time slot.

So, here goes.

What was unusual this time was that I was given a set of questions in advance, most of them predictable.

Question One: What is the historical and geographical story of you faith? What are your main tenets/beliefs?

Much of what I planned to say in response to that first question focused upon the life of Bahá’u’lláh, given this year celebrates the 200th Anniversary of His Birth.

The Life of Bahá’u’lláh.

Bahá’u’lláh’s life after the execution of the Báb, the Prophet Herald of the Bahá’í Faith, in 1850, was one of constant imprisonment and exile.

On 15 August 1852 there was an ill-considered and unsuccessful attempt on life of Shah by three followers of the Báb who were reacting against the persecutions taking place at the time. Bahá’u’lláh was denounced as a Bábí by the Shah’s mother amongst others.

The Chain that weighed on Bahá’u’lláh in the Siyah-Chal

He was taken to the so-called Black Pit – an underground disused water cistern used as a prison. Two chains were used on His shoulders, the heavier weighed more than 50 kgs. They left lifelong scars. The thumbs of both His hands were bound behind his back at times.

His first reported mystical experiences of the Divine occurred in this foul prison (See Moojan Momen, Bahá’u’lláh: a short biography  – page 32 – for both instances):

While engulfed in tribulations I heard a most wondrous, a most sweet voice, calling above My head. Turning My face, I beheld a Maiden—the embodiment of the remembrance of the name of My Lord—suspended in the air before Me. So rejoiced was she in her very soul that her countenance shone with the ornament of the good pleasure of God, and her cheeks glowed with the brightness of the All-Merciful. Betwixt earth and heaven she was raising a call which captivated the hearts and minds of men. She was imparting to both My inward and outer being tidings which rejoiced My soul, and the souls of God’s honoured servants.

Pointing with her finger unto My head, she addressed all who are in heaven and all who are on earth, saying: By God! This is the Best-Beloved of the worlds, and yet ye comprehend not. This is the Beauty of God amongst you, and the power of His sovereignty within you, could ye but understand. This is the Mystery of God and His Treasure, the Cause of God and His glory unto all who are in the kingdoms of Revelation and of creation, if ye be of them that perceive. This is He Whose Presence is the ardent desire of the denizens of the Realm of eternity, and of them that dwell within the Tabernacle of glory, and yet from His Beauty do ye turn aside.

The authorities failed to implicate Bahá’u’lláh in the plot so He was released after four months.

There followed His exile to Baghdad on 12 January 1853.

He spent 10 years there apart from a retreat to Sulaymaniyyih in Kurdistan 300 km north of Baghdad. This He did to avoid making worse the conflict his half brother was causing within the Bábí community. During those two years He wrote two mystical works, The Seven Valleys and The Four Valleys, for two prominent Sufis. He returned to Baghdad on 19 March 1856.

Somewhere between 1857 and 1858 the Hidden Words were written, a condensed summary of the spiritual teachings of earlier revelations.

In January 1861 the Kitáb-i-Íqán was written for the uncle of the Báb and explains the nature of progressive revelation and the meaning of prophetic symbols of the second coming of former messengers of God.

It wasn’t until 22 April 1863 on the brink of His exile to Constantinople (now Istanbul) and then Adrianople (now Edirne) that He openly declared He was the one foretold by the Báb.

It was in Adrianople that His half-brother tried to poison Him, leaving Him with a tremor for the rest of His life.

Bahá’u’lláh’s reputation was by now spreading in spite of His exile. The Bahá’í community can be said to have really begun to take shape at this point.

In 1868 He was banished again via Gallipoli and Haifa to ‘Akka, a walled and disease-ridden city, where He arrived on 31 August 1868. The authorities hoped and expected He would die there. Most people did.

It was in that prison His younger son, Mirza Mihdi, died, after falling though a sky light while pacing in prayer on the prison roof.

The Shrine of Bahá’u’lláh at Bahji

Bahá’u’lláh was moved under house arrest in September 1871 to the house of ‘Udi Khammar. This was where the Kitáb-i-Aqdas was completed. In this book He explains in full the laws applying to and the obligations of Bahá’ís. He also speaks of the successorship – without naming ‘Abdu’l-Bahá at this point He explains the successor will be the authoritative interpreter of Bahá’u’lláh’s Writings. He also lays the foundations of the Universal House of Justice.

A compassionate governor took office in 1876 and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was able to make plans for his father to move to a house at Mazra’ih near a beautiful garden in June 1877. He moved again to the mansion at Bahji in September 1879, close to where He was eventually buried in 1892.

His wife Asiyih Khanum had died in 1886 followed by His brother in 1887.

In 1882, at the suggestion of His father, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s The Secret of Divine Civilisation had been published in India.Political and social reform would not succeed without an underlying spiritual and moral reform’ was its theme. (Momen: page 138). Current thinking about the unwise divorce in free market thinking between J S Mill’s economics and his insistence on moral checks and balances reinforces the wisdom of this.

During the whole period from arriving in Baghdad to His time in ‘Akka a stream of books and letters flowed from His lips through the pens of His secretaries (his tremor did not allow him to write clearly and the speed of revelatory inspiration would have made it almost impossible for one hand to keep pace) – more than 7000 in all have been authenticated. In these texts he explained the details of his revelation.

In conditions less conducive than the British Museum reading room used by Karl Marx, he was able to produce what seem to me and many others across the world a better blueprint for a true civilisation. More of that next time along with an explanation of why I headed this sequence up with quotations concerning reflection and consultation.

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