Posts Tagged ‘Universal House of Justice’

Room in the House of the Báb

This year the Bahá’í Calendar celebrates the Declaration of the Báb from sunset on the 22nd till sunset on the 23rd May, the key moments beginning two hours after sunset on the 22nd. I am therefore republishing my usual post explaining the significance of this date and time for Bahá’ís.  Given yesterday’s atrocity in Manchester it is particularly poignant.

On the 22nd May the world will again start to be circled in celebration. About two hours after sunset, when the new day starts for us, Bahá’ís everywhere will come together to share prayers, readings and music in memory of a very special event. What’s it all about?

In this ordinary room pictured on the left, 166 years ago, an important meeting took place. It began a process that is still unfolding to this day.  For Bahá’ís this meeting has a very special meaning, the full significance of which would not be immediately obvious  to all those attending a typical Holy Day Celebration. This is a brief attempt to unpack its key significance in the words of the central figures of the Faith.

The Guardian of the Bahá’í Faith opened his description of the event with these words:

May 23, 1844, signalizes the commencement of the most turbulent period of the Heroic Age of the Bahá’í Era, . . . . . No more than a span of nine short years marks the duration of this most spectacular, this most tragic, this most eventful period of the first Bahá’í century. . . . .

He continued:

The opening scene of the initial act of this great drama was laid in the upper chamber of the modest residence of the son of a mercer of Shiraz, in an obscure corner of that city. The time was the hour before sunset, on the 22nd day of May, 1844. The participants were the Báb, a twenty-five year old siyyid, of pure and holy lineage, and the young Mulla Husayn, the first to believe in Him. Their meeting immediately before that interview seemed to be purely fortuitous. The interview itself was protracted till the hour of dawn.

He quoted the words of Mulla Husayn:

“This Revelation,” Mulla Husayn has . . .  testified, “so suddenly and impetuously thrust upon me, came as a thunderbolt which, for a time, seemed to have benumbed my faculties. I was blinded by its dazzling splendor and overwhelmed by its crushing force. Excitement, joy, awe, and wonder stirred the depths of my soul. .  . . . .

And concludes:

With this historic Declaration the dawn of an Age that signalizes the consummation of all ages had broken.

Shoghi Effendi: God Passes By, Pages: 3-8

(For a more detailed sense of what happened see this link.)

‘Abdu’l-Bahá shown here (at center) with Bahá’ís at Lincoln Park, Chicago, Illinois, USA, in 1912.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá shown here (at centre) with Bahá’ís at Lincoln Park, Chicago, Illinois, USA, in 1912 (for source see link).

`Abdu’l-Bahá, in His visit to America in 1912, spoke briefly of the day itself:

It is a blessed day and the dawn of manifestation, for the appearance of the Báb was the early light of the true morn, whereas the manifestation of the Blessed Beauty, Bahá’u’lláh, was the shining forth of the sun. . . . On this day in 1844 the Báb was sent forth heralding and proclaiming the Kingdom of God, announcing the glad tidings of the coming of Bahá’u’lláh and withstanding the opposition of the whole Persian nation.

He then gave a brief outline of the events that followed, detailing the ensuing persecution which was severe and persists, of course, until today in Iran:

Some of the Persians followed Him. For this they suffered the most grievous difficulties and severe ordeals. They withstood the tests with wonderful power and sublime heroism. Thousands were cast into prison, punished, persecuted and martyred. Their homes were pillaged and destroyed, their possessions confiscated. They sacrificed their lives most willingly and remained unshaken in their faith to the very end.

The Báb was subjected to bitter persecution in Shiraz, where He first proclaimed His mission and message. A period of famine afflicted that region, and the Báb journeyed to Isfahan. There the learned men rose against Him in great hostility. He was arrested and sent to Tabriz. From thence He was transferred to Maku and finally imprisoned in the strong castle of Chihriq. Afterward He was martyred in Tabriz.

He holds up the life and sacrifices of the Báb as an example:

We must follow His heavenly example; we must be self-sacrificing and aglow with the fire of the love of God. We must partake of the bounty and grace of the Lord, for the Báb has admonished us to arise in service to the Cause of God, to be absolutely severed from all else save God during the day of the Blessed Perfection, Bahá’u’lláh, to be completely attracted by the love of Bahá’u’lláh, to love all humanity for His sake, to be lenient and merciful to all for Him and to upbuild the oneness of the world of humanity. Therefore, this day, 23 May, is the anniversary of a blessed event.

`Abdu’l-Bahá: Promulgation of Universal Peace, Pages: 138-139

So, there are implications in these events, remote though they seem to most of us in both time and place,  for how we should conduct ourselves today. The Guardian unravelled some of these possibilities in the following passage.

The moment had now arrived for that undying, that world-vitalizing Spirit that was born in Shiraz, that had been rekindled in Tihran, that had been fanned into flame in Baghdad and Adrianople [i.e. the places to which Bahá’u’lláh was successively exiled], that had been carried to the West, and was now illuminating the fringes of five continents, to incarnate itself in institutions designed to canalize its outspreading energies and stimulate its growth. [My emphasis] The Age that had witnessed the birth and rise of the Faith had now closed.  . . . . .

The Formative Period, the Iron Age, of that Dispensation was now beginning, the Age in which the institutions, local, national and international, of the Faith of Bahá’u’lláh were to take shape, develop and become fully consolidated, in anticipation of the third, the last, the Golden Age destined to witness the emergence of a world-embracing Order enshrining the ultimate fruit of God’s latest Revelation to mankind, a fruit whose maturity must signalize the establishment of a world civilization and the formal inauguration of the Kingdom of the Father upon earth as promised by Jesus Christ Himself.

(God Passes By, page 324)

Even such a powerful explanation as this does not convey the full impact of this Revelation on the lives of all Bahá’ís nor explain in terms which are easy for everyone to grasp why the core of the Bahá’í vision applies to everyone, Bahá’í and non-Bahá’í alike.

Shrine of the Báb at Night

In 2001 the central body of the Faith wrote a message to all those assembled in Haifa to witness the ceremony that marked the completion of the Terraces that climb above and descend below the Shrine of the Báb. The core paragraphs for our present purpose begin by explaining what the Faith and all our activities within it are for:

Reflection on what the Bahá’í community has accomplished throws into heartbreaking perspective the suffering and deprivation engulfing the great majority of our fellow human beings. It is necessary that it should do so, because the effect is to open our minds and souls to vital implications of the mission Bahá’u’lláh has laid on us. “Know thou of a truth,” He declares, “these great oppressions that have befallen the world are preparing it for the advent of the Most Great Justice.” . . . .  In the final analysis, it is this Divine purpose that all our activities are intended to serve, and we will advance this purpose to the degree that we understand what is at stake in the efforts we are making to teach the Faith, to establish and consolidate its institutions, and to intensify the influence it is exerting in the life of society.

They make completely explicit the change in our way of thinking that is required of us:

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. Commitment to this revolutionizing principle will increasingly empower individual believers and Bahá’í institutions alike in awakening others to the Day of God and to the latent spiritual and moral capacities that can change this world into another world. We demonstrate this commitment, Shoghi Effendi tells us, by our rectitude of conduct towards others, by the discipline of our own natures, and by our complete freedom from the prejudices that cripple collective action in the society around us and frustrate positive impulses towards change.

(From the 24 May 2001 message from the Universal House of Justice to the Believers Gathered for the Events Marking the Completion of the Projects on Mount Carmel)

So, in short, the Báb surrendered His life to show us the way. Bahá’u’lláh endured roughly 50 years of imprisonment, torture and exile as He explained to us in detail what was required. The rest is up to us.

Flowers near the Shrine

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A kindly tongue is the lodestone of the hearts of men. It leadeth the way and guideth.

(Bahá’u’lláh: Gleanings: CXXXII)

Picking up from where the last post left off, I need to explain how I am learning to balance the competing priorities of my life.

As I explained earlier, not only is there sometimes a conflict between my introverted preferences, such as for reading and writing, and my need to operate in the world outside my head, but there can also be a clash between my desire to read and my desire to write. The symbol I’m developing to express a way of balancing these needs is of the wheel I want my life to run on.

There is no way I can avoid an action of some kind. Even doing nothing is a form of action. So, action has to be the rim of the wheel, the surface in constant contact with the road my life is taking.

However, I have to recognise that constantly, unremittingly, huge swathes of time are being taken up with experiences of various kinds, whether internally generated or externally triggered. The bulk of them are processed unconsciously, and in addition most of what is conscious will be rapidly forgotten, possibly almost undigested.

However, as I see it, if I do not ruminate on the most precious parts of it I will fail to learn the crucially important lessons they can teach me. So, I must build firmly into the structure of my life’s wheel the reinforcing elements of reading, writing, meditation and consultation (I have dealt elsewhere with the mutually reinforcing power of consultation and meditation, so I won’t repeat it all here). The conclusion I arrived it was this:

It seems possible, at least in principle, to use meditation to improve our consultation skills and consultation perhaps to practise and refine our meditation. It also raises the question whether consultation, at least in the West, would benefit from more silence.

We know it requires detachment. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá explains in Paris Talks (page 174):

This faculty of meditation frees man from the animal nature, discerns the reality of things, puts man in touch with God.

One possible way of conceptualising detachment, or at least a result of it, is freedom from our animal nature as described here. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá wrote (Selected Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá: page 207):

Regarding the statement in ‘The Hidden Words’, that man must renounce his own self, the meaning, is that he must renounce his inordinate desires, his selfish purposes and the promptings of his human self, and seek out the holy breathings of the spirit . . . . ..

Meditation, then, might help us achieve the detachment necessary for consultation. Consultation will almost certainly strengthen our ability to be detached and thereby facilitate our meditation. They are clearly not unrelated disciplines sharing as they do this same outcome.

We also have to be open to the views of other people when we consult and, in my case, to the Bahá’í Scriptures when I meditate upon them or to the promptings of our higher self when we commune with it in meditation. So these two skills are not all that different either: they both enhance our understanding of reality.

In the end, it’s hard to resist the conclusion that meditation will help us consult and consulting will help us meditate.

Last but by no means least, the strong axle to which the spokes of this wheel are attached, and around which it revolves, is reflection, in all the various senses I have explored in detail on this blog, including its meditative aspect and its way of enhancing our detachment. With this in its proper place not only will I be able to balance my various priorities better, but I will also be able to deal more wisely with what happens when my scripts are triggered.

The forces that impelled me to formulate this particular recipe were: first of all in the present the need to escape from the still active counterproductive patterns I’ve described in the first post of this sequence; next, came what I have learned from the various approaches that helped me step back enough from them to think hard about them in the past, including the years of therapy and Buddhist meditation; and last of all, what still sets the seal on my current perspective is the combination of insights from existentialism and my life-changing encounter with the Bahá’í Faith, which has set my overall direction in life every since.

I have described my reasons for making this leap of faith in a sequence of posts. The short answer to the question, ‘Why did I make that choice?’ is this. I was bowled over by how closely everything I had understood in my exploration of the Bahá’í Faith mapped onto what I already believed. It was what I felt I had been searching for almost all my adult life: an egalitarian meaning system that combined activism with spirituality in a way that absolutely prohibited the use of force, or any other dubious means, to persuade others of its truth. When I was asked if I wanted to join the Bahá’í community, unless all I had protested that I believed was pure hypocrisy, I surely had to put my money where my mouth had been all those years. So I did. My closest friends predicted I’d be out again in six months. It was just another of my fads. Yet here I still am 35 years later.

So, I am aware that to complete the context in which the wheel operates, I need a compass and a map. In a previous post I explained my model of the compass of compassion. This was my conclusion:

Because the earth has a magnetic field that helps us find our right direction it wasn’t hard to see that a compass, already more than half-way to compassion in its spelling, was a good way of remembering the key value that underpins every other spiritual value in all faiths, and which in Bahá’í terms emanates from the three unities of the essential oneness of God, religion and humanity, blurred as our perception of those may sometimes be. The other meaning of the word ‘compass’ is also a reminder, as is the image of our world from space, to widen the embrace of my compassion to include all life and perhaps even the earth itself, an imperative need as Robert Wright describes it.

Bahá’u’lláh also has a most interesting way of linking a compass with kindness that suggests I might be on the right lines here (Gleanings: CXXXII):

A kindly tongue is the lodestone of the hearts of men. It leadeth the way and guideth.

I am not going to pretend that the compass we have chosen will always make it easy to decide what is the right thing to do and provide us with a strong enough motivation to do it. We are human and sometimes our moral energy flags. Also a moral compass built on a system of values is more complex than a material compass. Values are arranged in a hierarchy. On occasions we need to decide that a higher value trumps a lower one. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá gives a simple example of this (Bahá’í World Faith, page 320):

If a doctor consoles a sick man by saying: “Thank God you are better, and there is hope of your recovery,” though these words are contrary to the truth, yet they may become the consolation of the patient and the turning-point of the illness. This is not blameworthy.

He says this even though lying is condemned outright by Him in other quotes to be found at the same link.

Now for the map.

It should also be obvious that the map I have chosen is that drawn up by the Divine Cartographer, Bahá’u’lláh, whose organising principle is unity. One of the most challenging statements relating to the need to live the principle of oneness comes in a message of the Universal House of Justice to all those gathered on Mount Carmel to mark the completion of the Arc 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. Commitment to this revolutionizing principle will increasingly empower individual believers and Bahá’í institutions alike in awakening others to the Day of God and to the latent spiritual and moral capacities that can change this world into another world.

I have faith that this compass and that map will lead me to generate enough wisdom by the processes I describe to help me climb as high as I am able up the mountain of truth so that, God willing, I can more fully recognise our interconnectedness and act accordingly, helping to build a better world in the process, I trust.

Good luck to you all in your search for your compass and your map. Don’t forget to use a trustworthy wheel for the wagon of your life as you journey on.

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Reflecting Evil

Reflecting Evil

These [perfect] mirrors are the Messengers of God Who tell the story of Divinity, just as the material mirror reflects the light and disc of the outer sun in the skies. In this way the image and effulgence of the Sun of Reality appear in the mirrors of the Manifestations of God. This is what Jesus Christ meant when He declared, “the father is in the son,” the purpose being that the reality of that eternal Sun had become reflected in its glory in Christ Himself. It does not signify that the Sun of Reality had descended from its place in heaven or that its essential being had effected an entrance into the mirror . . . .

Promulgation of Universal Peacepage 173

Emp Civil

I realise that my current sequences of posts are very much focused on the individual life and its traumas, only incidentally bringing in the context of our lives as a consideration. To redress that imbalance I am republishing a sequence on ‘The Empathic Civilisation.’

We have discovered how far Rifkin’s case against religion seems largely to be based on his dislike of Christian teachings, especially concerning the existence of Satan, the Fall of man,  and the resultant denigration of the body. He is aware that other religious teachings do not fall into what would be for him the same trap.

For example, he feels that the Gnostic gospels were more empowering and benign (page 238) and finds close parallels ‘between Jesus’s teachings as expressed in the Gospel of Saint Thomas and Hindu and Buddhist teachings at the time.’

He develops this theme (page 239):

. . . the Gnostics viewed Jesus as a human being who had achieved enlightenment. There is no talk of him performing miracles or referring to himself as the son of God or any recollection of Jesus dying for the sins of a fallen humanity.

Then he states his case (page 240):

For the Gnostics, ignorance of one’s true self, not sin, is the underlying cause of human suffering. Therefore, the key to unlocking the divine in each person is self-knowledge through introspection.

And he has a view of Jesus to match (page 241):

The critical question is whether enlightenment comes from fully participating in the world around us in all of its vulnerability and corporeality or by withdrawing to an inner world removed from the vulnerability of corporeal existence. The historical Jesus was fully engaged in the world.

He acknowledges the positive impact of Christianity (page 246):

The Christian empathic surge lasted a mere three centuries; but in that time it made an incredible mark on history. By A.D. 250 the number of Christians in Rome alone had grown to fifty thousand people.

Goethe, Kant and Schopenhauer

He, in the same way as many others, dates from the time of the Enlightenment the demise of religion as an effective force in society. He locates a key figure as embodying an inspiring post-Enlightenment empathic spirit – secularised empathy, if you like: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (page 307):

If one were to have to choose a single individual who most embodied a cosmopolitan view of the world and a universal empathic sensibility, Goethe would be an easy pick.

His subsequent commentary explains exactly the nature of Goethe’s appeal for Rifkin. He fuses empathy with biosphere concern (page 308):

Goethe felt that the purpose of living was to enrich life and that man is endowed with a special appreciation of life – a heightened consciousness – so that he might steward all that is alive. . . . Breathing nature in and out was the way one takes in nature and remains connected to the larger whole.

It is here that the roots of Rifkin’s model of empathy and biosphere consciousness becomes most explicit (page 309):

With Goethe, we see the secularisation of the empathic impulse, embedded in the embodied experience and that includes not only human society but all of nature. His empathic view is truly universal in scope.

His critique of Kant remains firm. He condemns his take on the Golden Rule (page 347):

Left behind is any heartfelt connection to another’s plight as if it were one’s own; the desire to comfort them because of a felt understanding of one’s common humanity.

He prefers Arthur Schopenhauer (page 348):

Schopenhauer argues that the moral code that accompanies theological consciousness is purely prescriptive. If human nature is “fallen,” as the Abrahamic religions suggest, then there is no moral basis within an individual’s being that would predispose him to do the morally right thing. God’s commandments, therefore, are a prescriptive device telling human beings that this is the way they “ought” to behave if they are to be rewarded by God’s grace and not punished by his wrath.

He is indeed hanging his condemnation of religion as a positive redemptive influence almost exclusively on the hook of a particular religion’s interpretation of Genesis. I suspect there is a rope around the throat of his argument here. He feels that he can now locate our redemption in that same physical nature he is convinced that religion is revolted by (page 349):

After deconstructing Kant’s categorical imperative, Schopenhauer offers a detailed description of moral behaviour that he argues is embedded in the very sinew of human nature – with the qualification that it needs to be brought out and nurtured by society if it is to be fully realised. He argues that “compassion” is at the core of human nature.

Is Being Embodied Enough?

Robert Wright

Robert Wright

However, in my view, and I suspect in the view of many members of many religions throughout the world, there is no need to make his leap of logic and deny a transcendent realm in order to explain why human beings can be compassionate. Even evolutionary theory – for example in the thinking of Robert Wright and Michael McCullough – plainly discerns how the development of empathy is wired into our brains and selected for in successful cultures.

Robert Wright sees this in evolutionary terms. In his book The Evolution of God, he discusses how the expansion of the moral imagination (page 428) can ‘bring us closer to moral truth.’

His line of argument will not appeal to everyone: it’s probably too materialistic for many religious people and too sympathetic to religion for many materialists. He states:

The moral imagination was ‘designed’ by natural selection . . . . . to help us cement fruitfully peaceful relations when they’re available.

He is aware that this sounds like a glorified pursuit of self-interest, similar to one of Rifkin’s reservations about the Golden Rule. He argues, though, that it leads beyond that (pages 428-429):

The expansion of the moral imagination forces us to see the interior of more and more other people for what the interior of other people is – namely remarkably like our own interior.

Beyond RevengeMichael McCullough in his exploration of our dual potential for revenge and forgiveness, Beyond Revenge, sees them as hard –wired (page 132):

Revenge and forgiveness… are conditioned adaptations – they’re context sensitive. Whether we’re motivated to seek revenge or to forgive depends on who does the harming, as well as on the advantages and disadvantages associated with both of these options.

Empathy, also hard-wired, plays its part in determining what will happen (page 148):

One of the best ways to take all the fun out of revenge, and promote forgiveness instead, is to make people feel empathy for the people who’ve harmed them. In 1997, my colleagues and I showed that when people experience empathy for a transgressor, it’s difficult to maintain a vengeful attitude. Instead, forgiveness often emerges. . . . When you feel empathic toward someone, your willingness to retaliate goes way down.

This material potential may be a necessary condition for empathy to grow further in our increasingly global civilisation. Even if religion is not the enemy, do we need it? The question is whether we agree that the way evolution has shaped the brain is also a sufficient condition to produce the necessary levels of self-mastery and altruism and spread them widely and deeply enough across humanity to preserve us in the longer term.

Rifkin clearly feels it’s the best hope we’ve got, even though one of his key witnesses wasn’t sure where empathy comes from (page 350):

Although the origins of man’s capacity for empathy was a mystery to Schopenhauer, the teleology was clear. By feeling another’s plight as if it were our own and by extending a hand to comfort and support them in their struggle to persevere and prosper, we recognise the unifying thread that connects each of us to the other and all of life on earth.

He nonetheless builds an ideal of interconnectedness as far as possible in these purely material terms. He sees civilisation as having a key role in realising this potential (page 362):

While we are all born with a predisposition to experience empathic distress, this core aspect of our being only develops into true empathic consciousness by the continuous struggle of differentiation and integration in civilisation. Far from squelching the empathic impulse, it is the dynamics of unfolding civilisation that is the fertile ground for its development and for human transcendence.

He wheels out the atheist’s favourite philosopher to administer what he hopes will be the kiss of death to any hope of the transcendent (page 382):

Nietzsche went after both the theologians and the rationalists, saying that it was time to give up the illusion that there exists something called “absolute spirituality” or “pure reason.”

Nietzsche argued that there is ‘only a perspective “knowing”. . .’ I won’t rehearse here all the thinking that has been done to confirm that, while it is true that all I have is my perspective, it does not mean that we have proved there is no transcendent realm. I’ve explored this, for example, in the sequence of posts on William James, whose point of view is succinctly captured by Paul Jerome Croce in his masterly Science & Religion in the Era of William James (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.

Absence of evidence therefore would not be evidence of absence, but in any case there is a wealth of evidence Rifkin is choosing to ignore here, as we have briefly touched upon above.

I realise that just as it is impossible for Rifkin conclusively to prove that any hope of empathic rescue from our current predicament must come from our material nature because that is all there is, I cannot conclusively prove to everyone’s satisfaction that

(a) this could never be sufficient, and

(b) that is OK because we can draw upon transcendent powers.

That though is what I believe.

When I was a child my father asked me to imagine what it would be like if a man stood with each of his feet in a bucket, grabbed the handles and tried to lift himself off the ground. In my view, all the evidence so far points to our being in a similar predicament: I find it impossible to believe we can mobilise what would be the necessary level of vision, self-sacrifice and sustained co-ordinated action over centuries to turn round our descent into self-destruction and climb back from the brink of extinction by our own unaided efforts.

Amit Goswami (for source of image see link)

Amit Goswami (for source of image see link)

A Ground of Being

In any case, whatever you think about that point, I feel there is even more convincing evidence that we do not have to rely only on ourselves. There is a transcendent dimension or foundation to reality and we can learn to draw upon its powers. In religion-neutral language we can speak of a ground of being, inherently conscious, inherently loving, inherently wise, that we can learn to connect to.

Amit Goswami, the physicist, in an interview about his book, The Self-Aware Universe, confirms the mystic insight and vividly conveys his sense of it:

So then one time — and this is where the breakthrough happened — my wife and I were in Ventura, California and a mystic friend, Joel Morwood, came down from Los Angeles, and we all went to hear Krishnamurti. And Krishnamurti, of course, is extremely impressive, a very great mystic. So we heard him and then we came back home. We had dinner and we were talking, and I was giving Joel a spiel about my latest ideas of the quantum theory of consciousness and Joel just challenged me. He said, “Can consciousness be explained?” And I tried to wriggle my way through that but he wouldn’t listen. He said, “You are putting on scientific blinders. You don’t realize that consciousness is the ground of all being.” He didn’t use that particular word, but he said something like, “There is nothing but God.”

And something flipped inside of me which I cannot quite explain. This is the ultimate cognition, that I had at that very moment. There was a complete about-turn in my psyche and I just realized that consciousness is the ground of all being. I remember staying up that night, looking at the sky and having a real mystical feeling about what the world is, and the complete conviction that this is the way the world is, this is the way that reality is, and one can do science. You see, the prevalent notion — even among people like David Bohm — was, “How can you ever do science without assuming that there is reality and material and all this? How can you do science if you let consciousness do things which are ‘arbitrary’?” But I became completely convinced — there has not been a shred of doubt ever since — that one can do science on this basis.

And he is not the only scientist to have reported such an experience (see link).

There are those who feel that this can be done as an individual through meditation without drawing upon any spiritual tradition or organised religion. I certainly agree that we can move a long way forwards in this way, but for me there is a distinction between the profound insights granted to the Founders of the great world faiths, no matter how far the followers may have strayed from the original path, and those insights a mystic can achieve.

To explain this clearly we need to start from the idea stated in the quotation at the head of this post. The Founders of the great world religions are like stainless Mirrors in which we can see reflected what is the closest approximation to the reality of God that we are capable of apprehending.

However, our hearts, which are, as a friend once expressed it, the experience of our soul in consciousness, are also mirrors which we can polish until they reflect as perfectly as we are able, but not as perfectly as a Messenger of God, the Sun of Reality if we choose to point them in that direction.

We therefore have two responsibilities: the first is to polish or rather burnish the steel of our heart’s mirror (it’s not a modern mirror!) so it can reflect more faithfully and, the second is to turn it towards the Sun of Truth. If we turn it in worship towards lesser gods it will become tarnished again (Bahá’u’lláh – from The Seven Valleyspage 21):

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.”

That, it seems to me, defines the difference between a mystic and a Messenger of God. Each Messenger of God has given us guidance appropriate to the time in which we live that will enable us to perfect our heart, as far as we are able, and perfect our world – rebuild our civilization if you like.

The Universal House of Justice, the central body of the Bahá’í Faith, has already unpacked very clearly what this must mean to us (see my earlier post on Working for a Divine Arkitect). When the arc of buildings on Mount Carmel were complete, the following words were read at the opening ceremony:

. . . the time has come when each human being on earth must learn to accept responsibility for the welfare of the entire human family. Commitment to this revolutionising principle will increasingly empower individuals and Bahá’í institutions alike in awakening others to . . . the latent spiritual and moral capacities that can change this world into another world.

(Universal House of Justice: 24 May 2001 in Turning Point page 164)

While Bahá’ís have a model for how this task might be accomplished, it is not a task for Bahá’ís alone. It would be impossible. All people of good will across the planet need to play their part according to their sense of what is required of them.

While I accept that the capacity for a high degree of empathy is wired into our brains, I also strongly believe that a higher level again can be reached, with proportionately more leverage in terms of sustained action, if we also can internalise a sense of what the Quakers term ‘That of God’ which is in all of us. Then we will not only have a strong sense of our links to one another but we will also have the confidence to act against apparently overwhelming odds that comes from the knowledge that we human beings are not alone. Bahá’u’lláh says (Bahá’u’lláh, The Hidden Words, Arabic no. 13):

Turn thy sight unto thyself, that thou mayest find Me standing within thee, mighty, powerful and self-subsisting.

Only when we have such a sense of powerful support and shared humanity does it seem to me that we can reach that tipping point, when most of the world of humanity will be prepared and able to put their weight effectively against the wheel of redemptive change, and only then will disaster be averted. Pray God that moment will not come too late for us.

Rifkin has done his best in this impressive book to suggest one possible path towards a secure future. Those who follow his line of thinking and put it into practice will surely do some good. They could do so much more, it seems to me, if they had faith in an effectively benign power higher than the planet we are seeking to save and which needs our urgent help.

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Generation after generation of believers will strive to translate the teachings into a new social reality. . . . . . . . [I]t is not a project in which Bahá’ís engage apart from the rest of humanity.

(Paul Lample: Revelation & Social Reality – page 48)

I realise that my current sequences of posts are very much focused on the individual life and its traumas, only incidentally bringing in the context of our lives as a consideration. To redress that imbalance I am republishing a sequence on The Cultural Creatives by Paul Ray and Sherry Ruth Anderson.

As we saw in the previous post, Ray and Anderson’s book, The Cultural Creatives, tracks the way that the drops of personal aspiration from millions of separate individuals first combine into several different streams before beginning to converge into a massive river of increasing power.

They quote from many peoples’ diverse stories, illuminating what they have in common. This example is typical of many in its feeling of not belonging (page 101):

‘My family was so happy on the golf course, and gossiping round the pool, but I felt like I was in some plastic prison. I finally took my dad’s rental car and spent all of Sunday at the ocean. Sitting on the cliffs watching the white pelicans soar over the Pacific, I felt like I was finally crawling back inside my own skin, breathing the fresh air, at home.’

When this feeling of isolation eventually gives way to a sense of common purpose with millions of others, an awsome power will be released. The authors retell a version of the myth of Amaterasu Omikami, the Great Mother Sun, who, because of a great hurt, hid herself in a cave and plunged the whole world into darkness until the spirits of all living things each brought a tiny fragment of a mirror with them as they danced and sang outside the cave. When she peeped out to see what was going on, they wanted to be able to lift up all their tiny mirrors at once to reflect back to her in all its glory the brilliance of her light to break her gloomy mood and return her to the heavens. The plan worked (pages 345-346):

The power that can be focused by a compound mirror is vast, while that reflected by uncoordinated individual actions has little effect. . . . [I]solated actions can’t make the kinds of changes that are needed now. . . . Our new story is one that requires ten thousand tellers and ten times more to be inspired by it. Our new face needs ten thousand mirrors, each with a unique angle of vision to catch the creative energy available now.

To achieve this kind of concerted action will not be easy even if we manage to achieve a strong clear sense of our need for it. It has always required great courage and huge sacrifices in the past, for groups of people to combine together to right even a single wrong or lift society to a higher level of understanding about one issue only. People have to do what they are afraid to do. The freedom movement in the States is not alone in providing innumerable examples of this heroism and the power of example is of central importance here (page 124):

You do not ask someone else to do what you aren’t willing to do yourself. But they did the things they feared most – they went to gaol, faced fire hoses and men with clubs, took responsibility for their friends and fellow protesters. It swept them into the deepest fear they  had ever known – but then it lifted them  beyond that fear into a strength and steadfastness they never expected.

The rewards of such courage are beyond price and its long term effects incalculable. Paul Begala testifies to that when he speaks of John Lewis (page 125):

‘I live and work in a place and a time when courage is defined as enduring a subpoena with dignity. So it is humbling to be in the presence of a man who aced down Bull Connor and his attack dogs, armed with nothing more than his courage, his conscience, and his convictions. If that ain’t a hero, I don’t know what is.

A key aspect of this kind of courage is practising what you preach (ibid):

‘Walking your talk.’ In the all-night meetings and councils of the freedom and peace movements, and the consciousness-raising groups of the women’s movement, this specific insight about social action evolved into an even more basic conviction about living authentically. What you believe in your heart has to match what you do in your life . . . .

There remain other significant problems which, the authors make clear, have dissipated the painstakingly accumulated rivulets of activity in many isolated places before they ever joined all the other brooks to make a stream. These problems pose key questions.

First of all, how do you build on the experience of others who are engaged in basically the same enterprise but in widely separated places. Networks, whose ability to operate is increasingly facilitated by the internet, are part of the answer (page 128):

Most social movements have two arms: the political and the cultural. . . . . . Contrary to the convictions of the political arm, the cultural arm is at least as important, and sometimes far more so, in its effects on the culture. . . . . But the spell-breaking power of the cultural arms takes place in submerged networks.

Secondly, how do you pass down what you have learned to those who come after you? Part of the answer to this second question lies in the power of persistency (page 203):

In the consciousness movement, the people who can persevere for ten, twenty, and thirty years are the ones who can have a dramatic impact on the culture – because that is the true time horizon of effective action. Those who need fast results and instant gratification had better go into some other line of work. As a number of Cultural Creatives told us, you have to enjoy the people and the process, and you need the maturity to work in a longer time frame.

Anyone involved in working to change the culture in which they live will have to face the intense discouragement that all too frequently comes when results fail to match up to expectations. A choice point torments us: ‘Do I keep faith with my vision or do I break faith with it?’ Keeping faith beyond what feels like its breaking point is often what brings about a break through, healing the testing breach between vision and reality, at least until the next time.

Much of the power of these processes is invisible, which is partly what makes the work so testing, but it can be calculated to some degree once you understand the typical dynamics (page 109):

To understand the true size of a social movement, think of a target with three concentric circles. The centre is the hundreds of visible leaders, demonstrators, and little organisations. Around the centre is a circle of many thousands of active supporters. and around those two active circles is the circle of the sympathetic millions who are touched by the events, and may simply read the arguments, and as a result make different choices in some part of their lives.

Powerful as these processes are, even when political alliances reinforce them, they are almost certainly not enough (page 154):

To change the culture, you cannot depend on the terms and solutions the old culture provides. . . . Leaving the heavy lifting to the political side of the movements, the cultural side started drying up, and the submerged networks began to lose touch with one another.

They pinpoint the missing link (page 187):

No one knew, or even thought about, how to create cultural institutions to support the work that was so important to them. The first generation practitioners  . . . . . could [hardly] manage their way out of a paper bag. . . . There really was a hole in the culture – the old ways didn’t work, and the new ones hadn’t yet been invented.

And why exactly, in their view, wouldn’t the institutions the United States already had do the trick (page 227)?

The three Bigs – big government, big business, and big media – have difficulty dealing with issues that cannot be isolated from other issues and solved with tools at hand.

Even progressive movements themselves could be rendered ineffective by the same tendency to atomise everything (page 229): ‘Activists, too, are Modernism’s children, believing that they must become specialists.’

Too many people pick off parts of the problem unable to see or agree that they are all interconnected. In the end the core issue cannot be evaded (page 246):

Cultural Creatives may be leading the way with responses directed towards healing and integration rather than battle. For these responses to contribute to the creation of a new culture, grassroots activism and social movements will have to evolve into new institutions. . . . [W]hile new social movements are transitory, institutions can turn the energies of these movements into everyday action.

Rainbow Bodhisattva by Vijali Hamilton

They strongly suggest that this might well involve something much more than a merely materialistic approach. They quote Joseph Campbell (page 299):

“You do not have a myth unless you have an opening into transcendence.” . . . If we cannot recognise the universe and the nations and ourselves as manifestations of “the grounding mystery of all being,” he said, we have nothing we can really trust.

And this quote is not in isolation. They also refer to Vijali Hamilton (page 311):

The true story is that there is a luminous, spacious energy that flows through everything all the time. It’s within matter, within things as well as within space, and you can tune in to it at any time . . . . . It is not otherworldly. It is right here, closer than our own flesh.”

This is so close to the idea that the Founder of the Bahá’í Faith describes:

“O My servants!” Bahá’u’lláh Himself testifies, “The one true God is My witness! This most great, this fathomless and surging ocean is near, astonishingly near, unto you. Behold it is closer to you than your life vein! Swift as the twinkling of an eye ye can, if ye but wish it, reach and partake of this imperishable favor, this God-given grace, this incorruptible gift, this most potent and unspeakably glorious bounty.”

(Shoghi Effendi: The Promised Day is Come – page 16)

So it’s not surprising that leaps of faith are required of us if we are to undertake these kinds of transformative processes effectively. To use Will Keepin‘s words (page 279):

“The work I’m doing now,” he told us, “is all based on faith.” . . . The crises he went through “led to a whole new gift that I never would have guessed. It developed a quality of trusting in the unknown.”

From a Bahá’í point of view this all makes complete sense. Bahá’ís believe that we are living on the cusp of massive changes in society and civilisation. We believe that, in the words of Bahá’u’lláh, ‘the world’s equilibrium’ has ‘been upset.’ We can sign up to the vision expressed in this book (page 230): ‘When a force for change moves into an inherently unstable time, the potential leverage is very great indeed.’ We believe that science and religion are not at odds. We can see how they could work together for the betterment of all humanity as these authors can (page 318): ‘New technologies may give us solutions to many global problems, if they are brought to life in settings with cooperative, constructive values.’ Our vision is often summarised in the words ‘The earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens.’ Ray and Anderson appear to resonate to that as well (page 302): ‘The sense of “one planet, our home” is inescapable.’ Their conclusion is (page 314): ‘It’s a matter of moral imagination, a wisdom of the heart.’ (For more on ‘moral imagination’ see an earlier post.)

And the core of that vision, that wisdom, is captured towards the end of their book (ibid):

[Cultural Creatives] say that each of us is a living system within a greater living system, connected to each other in more ways than we can fathom. If we focus on that wholeness, we can begin to imagine a culture that can heal the fragmentation and destructiveness of our time.

I feel that there is the possibility of huge reciprocal benefits here.

In our Writings Bahá’ís are described as ‘catalysts.’

What is called for is a spiritual revival, as a prerequisite to the  successful application of political, economic and technological  instruments. But there is a need for a catalyst. Be assured that,  in  spite  of  your  small  numbers,  you  are  the  channels  through which such a catalyst can be provided.

(Universal House of JusticeTurning Point – page 124)

(For more on what being a catalyst means for us see both links.) I think we could learn much from the Cultural Creatives about how to play that part more effectively. Bahá’ís on the other hand have a model of how a world wide network, possessing a clear vision of the oneness of humanity, can strengthen its influence and consolidate its learning with the help of an appropriate organisational structure. There is therefore something significant that Cultural Creatives can learn from us.

An urge towards unity, like a spiritual springtime, struggles to express itself through countless international congresses that bring together people from a vast array of disciplines. It motivates appeals for international projects involving children and youth. Indeed, it is the real source of the remarkable movement towards ecumenism by which members of historically antagonistic religions and sects seem irresistibly drawn towards one another. Together with the opposing tendency to warfare and self-aggrandize-ment against which it ceaselessly struggles, the drive towards world unity is one of the dominant, pervasive features of life on the planet during the closing years of the twentieth century.

The experience of the Bahá’í community may be seen as an example of this enlarging unity. It is a community . . . drawn from many nations, cultures, classes and creeds, engaged in a wide range of activities serving the spiritual, social and economic needs of the peoples of many lands. It is a single social organism, representative of the diversity of the human family, conducting its affairs through a system of commonly accepted consultative principles, and cherishing equally all the great outpourings of divine guidance in human history. Its existence is yet another convincing proof of the practicality of its Founder’s vision of a united world, another evidence that humanity can live as one global society, equal to whatever challenges its coming of age may entail. If the Bahá’í experience can contribute in whatever measure to reinforcing hope in the unity of the human race, we are happy to offer it as a model for study.

(Universal House of Justice: The Promise of World Peace – 1985)

Just as I have drawn immense encouragement and inspiration from reading this account of the Cultural Creatives, which I wholeheartedly recommend, hopefully increasing numbers of people will draw similar inspiration from the Bahá’í community to which I belong. We have a model which contains a crucial missing dimension in the work of many Cultural Creatives – and I don’t mean a belief in God. Many Cultural Creatives share that perspective in their diverse ways. I mean an institutional framework, centred around a vision of unity in diversity, through which to disseminate and consolidate the gains that have been achieved through effortful experience in different places and at different times.

So, definitely read the book but don’t just stop at that. Come and have a look at what we are doing too. There are, almost certainly, Bahá’ís near where you live. We’ll all be immensely more effective working in synchrony.

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[We are also facing] a breathtakingly dangerous tipping point for our civilisation and our planet. Our need to discover a way through is the most urgent, most central question of our time.

(Cultural Creatives: Page 236)

In the consciousness movement, the people who can persevere for ten, twenty, and thirty years are the ones who can have a dramatic impact on the culture – because that is the true time horizon of effective action.

(Op. cit.: page 203)

I realise that my current sequences of posts are very much focused on the individual life and its traumas, only incidentally bringing in the context of our lives as a consideration. To redress that imbalance I am republishing a sequence on The Cultural Creatives by Paul Ray and Sherry Ruth Anderson.

Recently I reviewed a book I hadn’t even been looking for before I bought it. It was Where on Earth is Heaven? Towards the end Stedall mentions a couple of books that ignited my interest. The first of these I’ve now finished reading: The Cultural Creatives by Paul Ray and Sherry Ruth Anderson. I did a post in November as a taster, promising to follow it up if the book as a whole proved as good as its beginning. It did and here’s the follow up.

It’s a fascinating analysis, based on detailed surveys, of how the balance of American culture, and by implication Europe’s as well probably, has shifted since the 60s. There will be much to say about that later.

When I decided to do a full review of the book I thought I’d do just one post and that would be enough. The more I thought about it, the more impossible that seemed. I felt that its compelling fascination would be conveyed better if I took my time. Of course, that could well be the wrong decision and terminal boredom could have set in for everyone else long before I get to the last post on the subject. It’ll be more of a last post in a different sense in that case.

To convey why the book resonated so much with me it made sense to start, not at the beginning of the book, but nearer to the end. It’s towards the end that the authors convey a sense of the exact nature of the cultural change we are all experiencing but from the point of view of the Cultural Creatives.

A Tipping Point

This group, who constitute 25% of the population of America (i.e. about 50 million people), feel we are in a period of transition. The authors call it the Between.

The Between is the time between worldviews, values and ways of life; a time between stories. The transition period, [John] Naisbitt concluded, “is a great and yeasty time, filled with opportunity.” But it is so, he added, only on two critical conditions: if we can “make uncertainty our friend,” and “if we can only get a clear sense, a clear conception, a clear vision of the road ahead.”

(Page 235)

Ray and Anderson (page 236) are cautious and see this period as a ‘dangerous tipping point.’ They describe the position of Cultural Creatives (page 40) as seeing ‘an antique system that is noisily, chaotically shaking itself to pieces.’

This is not all negative (page 33):

. . . this era is at least as much about cultural innovation as it is about decline and decay of established forms.

This, for Bahá’ís, has echoes of what our Teachings repeatedly emphasise. For example:

“Soon,” Bahá’u’lláh Himself has prophesied, “will the present-day order be rolled up, and a new one spread out in its stead.” And again: “By Myself! The day is approaching when We will have rolled up the world and all that is therein, and spread out a new Order in its stead.”

(Shoghi Effendi: The Promised Day Is Come – page 17)

And the similarities don’t end there. They contend (page 244):

The creative response to today’s Between is going to be one that bridges differences. . . . . .


Cultural CreativesBuilding Bridges

They draw support from William Ury’s Getting to Peace, which describes pre-agricultural societies as having worked hard at preventing and resolving conflict.

He feels that in our increasingly interdependent world, we have “the most promising opportunity in 10,000 years to create a co-culture of co-existence, cooperation, and constructive conflict.”

This issue of interdependence is key for Bahá’ís as well:

“The well-being of mankind,” [Bahá’u’lláh] declares, “its peace and security are unattainable unless and until its unity is firmly established.”

(Shoghi Effendi: The World Order of Bahá’u’lláh – page 203)

Ray and Anderson, thinking along the same lines and quoting Mary Ford, write (page 21) :

You have to have a definition of self that’s bigger than [society’s] definitions, that’s grounded in how connected we all are to each other.

The how of course is easier said than done, and we’ll be looking at that in more detail later. They describe at least one of the obstacles very clearly (page 222):

Moderns and Traditionals don’t see themselves as members of an interconnected planetary community, and don’t see their problems as interconnected either.

(We’ll be coming back to Traditionals in the next post.) Whereas Cultural Creatives, and Bahá’ís of course as well, do see themselves very much this way, Cultural Creatives (page 94)

. . .  want to see the big, inclusive picture, and they want to work with the whole system, with all the players. They regard themselves as synthesisers and healers, not just on the personal level but on the planetary level too.

The authors spell out what they feel the fragmentation of the dominant worldview of Modernism means for us all (pages 226-227):

As individuals, we know that we are part of a living system and that what we do to part of that system affects all of us sooner or later. But as a society we don’t know this.

I’m not sure how true the first part is for all individuals but it’s certainly true that our society as a whole has not grasped this holistic view yet. They place much of the blame for this on the fragmented perspective of modernism (page 92), which they see as the dominant worldview in the States, both in terms of the percentage of the population who strongly subscribe to it (48%) and in terms of control of the media:

Cultural Creatives are sick of the fragmentation of Modernism.

Even more damningly they write (page 294):

Modernism lives with a hole where wisdom ought to be.

Cultural Creatives strive for a more integrated perspective.  They think of themselves ‘as an interwoven piece of nature’ (page 9). In ways reminiscent of  Iain McGilchrist’s descriptions (see review on this blog), they have a right-brain feel about them (page 11):

. . . . they want the big picture, and they are powerfully attuned to the importance of whole systems. They are good at synthesing from very disparate, fragmented pieces of information.

The writers quote Parker Palmer approvingly (page 20) when he states:

. . . . that movements begin when people refuse to live divided lives.

But they acknowledge it is hard to see how this can be applied to building a new society (page 64):

. . . we are in the midst of a transition. Mapmakers must be content with seeing the new territory from afar – which means their map will have serious limits.

But we cannot simply leave it there (page 234):

. . . because all of us now are ‘people of the parenthesis,’ as Jean Houston calls us, we must break free of our restricted worldview and make our way into new territory.

And those are the ideas that are developed throughout the book as a whole. Consideration of them must wait till next time.

Bahá’ís share this perspective and these aspirations while recognising that Bahá’ís alone can never bring about such changes:

To say that the process of building a new civilisation is a conscious one does not imply that the outcome depends exclusively on the believers’ initiatives. . . . emphasis on the contributions Bahá’ís are to make to the civilisation-building process is not intended to diminish the significance of efforts being exerted by others.

(Paul Lample: Revelation & Social Reality – page 109: see review)

It is hugely encouraging to feel that there are up to 50 million people in America alone working towards broadly the same ends, manifesting the spirit of the age

working through mankind as a whole, tearing down barriers to world unity and forging humankind into a unified body in the fires of suffering and experience.

(Universal House of Justice Messages : 1963-1986, page 126)

Even at this stage then it should be clear why I was excited to find this book. Whether I have made it as exciting for you as yet remains to be seen.

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Had the life and growth of the child in the womb been confined to that condition, then the existence of the child in the womb would have proved utterly abortive and unintelligible; as would the life of this world, were its deeds, actions and their results not to appear in the world to come.

(‘Abdu’l-Bahá in Bahá’í World Faith: page 393)

This is the last of three posts originally published in 2012, then again in 2014 and 2015. It seems doubly appropriate to publish them yet again, both because they follow on naturally from the recently republished posts on the currency of suffering and because Emma’s recent comments on my blog reminded me yet again of the value of his perspective. 

In the previous two posts, I have been looking at Dabrowski’s Theory of Personal Disintegration (TPD) most particularly for what it has to say about suffering.

Both TPD and a rich and interesting approach to psychotherapy – Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) – owe much to existentialism. Mendaglio acknowledges his debt in the last chapter of the book he edited on this subject (page 251):

However, there is a great deal of similarity between existential psychology and the theory of positive disintegration. Both emphasise similar key concepts such as values, autonomy, authenticity, and existential emotions such as anxiety and depression. A more fundamental similarity is seen in the philosophical underpinnings of TPD, which is in large measure existentialism.

In spite of my own immense debt to existentialist thinking, only rivalled by my debts to Buddhism and to the Bahá’í Faith, I have certain reservations about Dabrowski’s take on the degree of choice we are able to exercise.

Crucial Caveats

His take on suffering is truly inspiring. Care needs to be taken though that we do not adopt this view in a way that assumes that those who are crushed by their sufferings are somehow to blame.

It is true that his model presupposes that each of us will probably meet a challenging choice point sometime in our lives, where we can either cling to the familiar comfortable half-truths that have failed us or strive to rise about them to higher levels of understanding. It is also true that he feels that many of us are capable of choosing the second option, if we only would.

However, not everyone is so lucky. I include here a brief summary of the life history of Ian – the man whose interview I have quoted extensively in the first three posts on An Approach to Psychosis.

His history shows very clearly that he could only make the second choice at times and then meet the pain and work through it to alleviate his tormenting voices. At other times the voices were preferable to experiencing the guilt and he chose what we might call madness rather than lucidity. Given the horrors he had faced it was clear that he should not be thought a failure. I would probably have done the same had I gone through what he had experienced in his life, from his earliest days.

Dabrowski seems to feel that our capacity to choose is genetically determined. Mendaglio explains (page 250):

Dabrowski . . . . postulated the existence of a third factor of development, representing a powerful autonomous inner force which is rooted in the biological endowment of individuals.

It seems to me that it would have taken a truly exceptional individual to make the choice to experience Ian’s level of pain in order to progress. If that does not seem quite convincing, there is another case history I would like to share very briefly.

Among the sequence of posts related to mental health there is a poem called ‘Voices.’ The woman upon whose experiences that poem is based, was brutally abused by her father, sexually, and by her mother, physically, from her earliest years through her mid-teens.

She came to us to work on her father’s abuse. We developed a safe way of working which involved starting with 15 minutes exploring how things had been since we last met. Then we moved on to 15-20 minutes of carefully calibrated work on the abuse. Then the last half hour of the session was spent helping her regain her ordinary state after mind after the work on her early experiences had intensified her hallucinations.

After almost a year of this work things seemed to be going well. Then came the unexpected. She found herself in a building that closely resembled the building strongly connected with the worst episode of abuse she had experienced at the hands of her father. Just being there was more than she could cope with. She became retraumatised in a way we none of us could have anticipated or prevented. The next time we met she could not stop sobbing.

We discussed what she might do. There were two main options.

She could, if she wished, continue on her current low levels of medication and move into a social services hostel where she would be well supported while we continued our work together, or she could be admitted onto the ward and given higher levels of medication in order to tranquillise her out of all awareness of her pain.

She chose the second option and I could not blame her in any way for doing so. It would be a betrayal of the word’s meaning to suppose she had any real choice at that point but to remain psychotic while the medication kicked in rather than deal with the toxic emotions in which she felt herself to be drowning.

It is when I consider these kinds of situation at my current level of understanding of his theory, that I feel it could leave the door open to destructive attitudes.

He believes, if I have understood him correctly, that some people’s genetic endowment is so robust they will ultimately choose the harder option regardless of the environment in which they grew up. Most of us are in the middle and with an environment that is not too extreme we will do quite well. The endowment of some is so poor, he seems to be saying, that it requires an optimal environment if they are to choose to grow even in a modest way.

This approach, if I have got it right, has two problems. The first, which is less central to the theme of this post, is that it is perhaps unduly deterministic because of the power that is given to inherited ‘endowment’ to determine the life course of any individual. The second problem is more relevant to current considerations in this post, though related to the first point. By placing such a determining role upon heredity, the force of the environment may be unduly discounted.

I am not claiming that he attaches no importance to environment. In fact, education for example is much emphasised in his work and he is clearly aware that limited societies will be limiting most people’s development – and he would include the greedy materialism of Western cultures in that equation. I’m not sure where he would place the impact of natural disasters in his scheme of things.

He may though be minimising the crushing impact of such experiences as the two people I worked with had undergone, in the second case throughout almost all her formative years. Could a strong genetic endowment have endured such hardship and come through significantly less damaged? If you feel so, you may end up not so much thinking ‘There, but for the grace of God, go I!’ but more ‘They broke because they were weak.’ Empathy, which Dobrawski values so much, would be impaired because we can start to define people as essentially different from us, not quite part of the same superior species.

More Complexities

This is a truly complex area to consider though, and I will have to restrict myself at this point to a very brief examination of one approach to it which does justice to that complexity.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá, in his description of the various components of our character, suggests that what we inherit is a source of either strength or weakness (Some Answered Questions: page 213):

The variety of inherited qualities comes from strength and weakness of constitution—that is to say, when the two parents are weak, the children will be weak; if they are strong, the children will be robust. . . . . . For example, you see that children born from a weak and feeble father and mother will naturally have a feeble constitution and weak nerves; they will be afflicted and will have neither patience, nor endurance, nor resolution, nor perseverance, and will be hasty; for the children inherit the weakness and debility of their parents.

However, this is not quite the end of the matter. He does not conclude from this that moral qualities, good or bad, stem directly from the inherited temperament of an individual (pages 214-215):

But this is not so, for capacity is of two kinds: natural capacity and acquired capacity. The first, which is the creation of God, is purely good—in the creation of God there is no evil; but the acquired capacity has become the cause of the appearance of evil. For example, God has created all men in such a manner and has given them such a constitution and such capacities that they are benefited by sugar and honey and harmed and destroyed by poison. This nature and constitution is innate, and God has given it equally to all mankind. But man begins little by little to accustom himself to poison by taking a small quantity each day, and gradually increasing it, until he reaches such a point that he cannot live without a gram of opium every day. The natural capacities are thus completely perverted. Observe how much the natural capacity and constitution can be changed, until by different habits and training they become entirely perverted. One does not criticize vicious people because of their innate capacities and nature, but rather for their acquired capacities and nature.

Our habits and choices have a crucial part to play. Due weight though has also to be given to the power of upbringing and the environment (Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Sec. 95, pp. 124–25):

It is not, however, permissible to strike a child, or vilify him, for the child’s character will be totally perverted if he be subjected to blows or verbal abuse.

This theme is taken up most powerfully by the central body of the Bahá’í Faith ((Universal House of Justice: April 2000):

In the current state of society, children face a cruel fate. Millions and millions in country after country are dislocated socially. Children find themselves alienated by parents and other adults whether they live in conditions of wealth or poverty. This alienation has its roots in a selfishness that is born of materialism that is at the core of the godlessness seizing the hearts of people everywhere. The social dislocation of children in our time is a sure mark of a society in decline; this condition is not, however, confined to any race, class, nation or economic condition–it cuts across them all. It grieves our hearts to realise that in so many parts of the world children are employed as soldiers, exploited as labourers, sold into virtual slavery, forced into prostitution, made the objects of pornography, abandoned by parents centred on their own desires, and subjected to other forms of victimisation too numerous to mention. Many such horrors are inflicted by the parents themselves upon their own children. The spiritual and psychological damage defies estimation.

This position allows for the fact that we need to take responsibility for our own development while at the same time acknowledging that we may be too damaged by the ‘slings and arrows of outrageous’ upbringing to do so to any great extent without a huge amount of help from other people. And most of us are the other people who need to exert ourselves to protect all children and nurture every damaged adult who crosses our path to the very best of our ability. Maybe Dabrowski is also saying this, but I haven’t read it yet. Even so his thought-provoking message is well worth studying.

In the end though, as the quote at the beginning of this post suggests, any consideration of suffering that fails to include a reality beyond the material leaves us appalled at what would seem the pointless horror of the pain humanity endures not only from nature but also from its own hands. I may have to come back to this topic yet again. (I did in fact return to a deeper consideration of Dabrowski’s model in a sequence of posts focused on Jenny Wade’s theory of human consciousness: see embedded links.)

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

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

worm-coreIn the last post, looking at Solomon et al’s treatment of death in The Worm at the Core, I came to the conclusion that, in spite of my dislike of diagnostic language and of their tendency to overstate their case, I had to admit they are making an important point.

They argue that all of us tend to create destructive solutions to the existential problem of death. This comes in two main forms: meaning systems/world views and self-esteem.

Let’s take world views as an example of their case (page 131):

It is deeply disturbing to have one’s fundamental beliefs called into question. Take our meanings and purposes away, characterise them as juvenile, useless, or evil, and all we have left are the vulnerable physical creatures that we are. Because cultural conceptions of reality keep a lid on mortal dread, acknowledging the legitimacy of beliefs contrary to our own unleashes the very terror those beliefs serve to quell. So we must parry the threat by derogating and dehumanising those with alternative views of life

The same kind of process applies if our self-esteem, as they term it, is threatened.

Because their book is focused on proving the nature of the problem they don’t say much about the solutions. They make a strong case that death denial is ultimately destructive leading to problems ranging from mindless consumerism through mental health problems to outright fanaticism. They spend less time contending that a constructive acceptance of death and its integration into a viable pattern of life bears the fruits of a common sense of humanity and a desire for positive purpose. Destructive terror-reducing purposes can be avoided. They share my liking for the existential therapy model, but don’t go far enough beyond that for me.

Perhaps because they lack a spiritual perspective, they seem blind to the possibility that, for example, there are positive aspects to psychosis (I will be exploring this more deeply in later posts).

Richard House (in Psychosis and Spiritualitypage 94) quotes Levin, who ‘finally, succintly and beautifully sums up [this] position:

[S]eemingly psychotic experiences are better understood as crises related to the person’s effort to break out of the standard ego-bounded identity: trials of the soul in its spiritual journey. The modern self is nearing the frontier of a historically new spiritual existence… It is time for a real paradigm shift. (Levin, 1987)

This idea of a paradigm shift or tipping point is something I have explored at length elsewhere so I won’t dwell on it again here. A summary of one aspect of the Bahá’í position will have to suffice here.

We urgently need a sense of the transcendent if we are to be able to answer the challenge issued by the Universal House of Justice, the central body of the Bahá’í Faith, when the arc of buildings on Mount Carmel were completed. The following words were read at the opening ceremony:

. . . the time has come when each human being on earth must learn to accept responsibility for the welfare of the entire human family. Commitment to this revolutionising principle will increasingly empower individuals and Bahá’í institutions alike in awakening others to . . . the latent spiritual and moral capacities that can change this world into another world.

(Universal House of Justice: 24 May 2001 in Turning Point page 164)

The Bahá’í perspective shares Matthieu Ricard’s awareness of the need to link the local through the national to the global (Social Action):

No matter how essential, a process of learning at the local level will remain limited in its effectiveness if it is not connected to a global process concerned with the material and spiritual prosperity of humanity as a whole. Structures are required, then, at all levels, from the local to the international, to facilitate learning about development.

What might death have to do with our connection with the transcendent?

In a recent documentary on Down’s Syndrome, Sally Phillips, the presenter, exclaims towards the end, ‘Cracks are where the light gets in.’ What if death itself is some kind of light, as Bahá’u’lláh suggests, and not simply an intolerable crack in the fabric of our world view?

I’d be the first to admit that this is not an obvious option. It certainly hasn’t been for me.

I was studying for my ‘A’ levels when I heard about what someone from our school had done. His father was a farmer. He took his father’s shotgun, so they said. All we knew for sure was that, after his girl friend had dumped him, he turned up where she worked and with the first barrel killed her before turning the second on himself.

A few of us who knew him left the library and went to the nearest coffee bar in shock. The conversation settled nothing, least of all our nerves. Nothing we knew of him before explained his final acts. In the end, we shrugged it off and went back to our books.

Five years later in the second term of my first teaching job the common room was stunned after the Christmas break. Even the bridge fanatics stopped their game. A young man who had started at the school the same time as me last summer wasn’t coming back. He had thrown himself under the wheels of a tube train. Again none of us had seen it coming.

We knew he had been struggling a bit keeping his classes under control. No big deal, we thought. But we were obviously wrong. A mixture of shame and guilt now stopped us in our tracks at least for a short time. And again it was too late. The bidding at the bridge table began once more. Newspapers shuffled, teaspoons rattled in our cups, and piles of exercise books to mark took our minds off what could not be undone or understood.

In my second teaching job there was the sister of a student. On leave from hospital she booked into a hotel, where staff found her dead the following morning of an overdose. This was harder to understand. She had been in hospital for depression, and they knew she had plans to kill herself sometime. They clearly didn’t think it would be now.

Mary poem

These were not the only times in my life up to that point that I’d had to deal with death. There had been others – my sister’s mainly, whose lungs gave out before I was born, but the shadow of whose passing hung over my childhood. Also the war dead, like those in my father’s book – black and white images of uniformed corpses spread across the mud – and the victims of the concentration camps everyone was talking about as I grew up.

In addition, as the youngest child of youngest children, for me relatives were scarce. I knew more family graves than family members. And even some of those who had survived, were scarred by life or war. One uncle had had his right arm damaged in the First World War so he carried it rather than used it, and another had a tumour on the brain, whose pressure, they told me, had been eased by a plastic flap they’d cut into his skull. It would wear out one day, they said, and when it did he’d die. They couldn’t operate again, it seemed.

Every time I went to see him, because my mother asked, I looked anxiously at the deepening bowl in the side of his head, worried in case it wore out when I was there. I don’t remember my mother ever seeing him either with me or alone. I was her unwilling surrogate. She’d had more to do with death than she could stomach. And sometimes, to be honest, I was beginning to feel a bit the same.

It was much later that other more positive ways of seeing death became available.

dancing-past-the-darkNancy Evans Bush asks an interesting question in her masterly exploration of distressing near-death experiences (NDEs) (Dancing Past the Dark – Kindle Reference 2046): ‘What if the Void and heaven are not opposites but differing perspectives of whatever is ultimate?’

She does not avoid the crunch issue (2061-67):

Western culture is not prepared to deal easily with the Void. Further, between the religious reverence for covenant and the capitalist reverence for things, we are trained into objects. . . . Here it becomes clear why experiences of the Void create such havoc for those who have grown up in Western ways of thinking. . . . . Any NDE is a mystical experience, but with few exceptions, Western people are not educated mystics. The fear in experiences of the Void rises out of profound, fathomless detachment from self and other, for which most of us are totally unprepared.

It is not that such ideas are absent in our Western mystical tradition: it is that we have turned our backs on them for so long they have been almost completely forgotten (2068-75)

In addressing the fear produced by the Void, Gerald May quoted the fourteenth century spiritual guide, Theologica Germanica: “Nothing burns in hell but self-will.” . . . . [T]he contemplatives proclaim, with a conviction that can be absolutely frightening, that self-image must truly die… A dying image of self, or a dying belief in such an image, must be accompanied by a dying of one’s images of the world as well. It is not an easy business.

She goes on to make links between Nirvana, the Void and astrophysics whose validity lies far beyond my ability to assess but are well worth mentioning. She quotes Brian Greene (2080-82):

‘Empty space is not nothing; it’s something with hidden characteristics as real as all the stuff in our everyday lives.’

She therefore concludes (2088):

. . . [T]here is this curious resemblance among Godhead, space, the Void, and Nirvana—that what seems so empty may be full of everything there is.’

My childhood death connection obviously draws me to exploring this dimension of death, spirituality and mental health. The culture I’ve grown up in does not help, nor does my training in mainstream psychology.

Neil Douglas-Klotz (Psychosis and Spirituality – page 49) explains exactly why:

Beginning with the imperialisation of Christianity under the Roman Empire, European culture extracted a limited language concerning [spiritual & psychotic] states from an underlying Middle Eastern context, but without fully understanding the language or worldview involved. Because of this, Western culture developed a massive split between ‘inner’ psychic and ‘outer’ normative consciousness, as well as splits between cosmology and psychology, body and soul, and humanity and natural environment. . . . . . Whether by following an orthodox religious interpretation or by reacting against this interpretation in the form of the Enlightenment and the Western scientific revolution, Western culture evolves without a language or worldview that can conceptualise expanded states of consciousness in a healthy way.

Most cultures have been blind to some degree. Sadly we are both arrogant and powerful as well as blind. Still, there are hints to be found in many places, most of them off the beaten track of the market place and the hustings. I hope to follow the trail they promise towards a more satisfying truth about death, psychosis and spirituality.

I feel as though all the pennies still have not dropped. Even I though I have been so slow to see the relevance to one another of the Death Cafe and psychosis, maybe it’s not too late to get closer to the bottom of the problem.

Perhaps at the end of this sequence it will be more uplifting to confront the issue of death with a song, such as this one, powerfully rendered by June Tabor and Martin Simpson.

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