Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Universal House of Justice’

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)

Given my current sequence on Charlotte Mew it seems a good idea to republish this one on Emily Dickinson. As Fiona Sampson indicates in Two-Way Mirror, there is a strong link between them: ‘Among the many women readers Aurora Leigh will influence around the world and who subsequently become poets [are] Charlotte Mew… and Emily Dickinson.

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 things to 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.

Read Full Post »

There are spiritual principles, or what some call human values, by which solutions can be found for every social problem. Any well-intentioned group can in a general sense devise practical solutions to its problems, but good intentions and practical knowledge are usually not enough. The essential merit of spiritual principle is that it not only presents a perspective which harmonizes with that which is immanent in human nature, it also induces an attitude, a dynamic, a will, an aspiration, which facilitate the discovery and implementation of practical measures. Leaders of governments and all in authority would be well served in their efforts to solve problems if they would first seek to identify the principles involved and then be guided by them.

(Universal House of Justice: The Promise of World Peace – page 9)

Four years ago I posted a sequence titled ‘From Veils to Values’ which included quotations from Steven C. Hayes, Kirk D. Strosahl and Kelly G. Wilson’s Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. I was focused on the idea of withdrawing our identification with false ideas of our self. To help people step back from such identifications Hayes at al liken the mind to a chessboard. We mistakenly identify with the pieces, not realising we are also, perhaps more truly the board.

The point is that thoughts, feelings, sensations, emotions, memories and so on are pieces: they are not you.[1]

They place store by this aspect of the self, the one that remains the same as changing experiences flow past: they call it the observing self and believe, rather implausibly, that it derives from language. They believe that operating from the observing self enables us to unhook ourselves from disabling scripts and discover, choose to live by and enact our deepest values in spite of all the discomfort that inevitably attends upon such a commitment. Our lives become value- rather than language-centred.

In my draft of the post on my laptop I included a footnote which read:

Their thinking in this area is influenced, I think, by someone they don’t acknowledge in their references anywhere as far as I can so far tell. Stephen R. Covey, in his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (Simon & Schuster: 1992), has a Chapter on Principle-Centred Living (Habit Two: pages 97-144) interestingly titled ‘Begin with the End in Mind.’

That chapter deals at length with the importance of rooting your life in true values. More of that in a moment.

Time Management

What is of interest to me now is that in a conversation recently I was trying to help someone work out what their priorities should be if they were to disconnect from a chronic sense of anxiety about all the possible things they should be worried about. As I spoke I remembered a two-by-two table in Covey’s book.

I promised I would scan the table from the book and send it them. As I flicked through the pages I noticed a number of highlights, many of them to passages of which I had no memory at all. Not really surprising since it is 27 years since I read the book.

When I found the table I was looking for and read quickly through the surrounding text I realised there was an important, somewhat counterintuitive point about the way to use the table that I had completely overlooked:[2]

Effective people stay out of Quadrants III and IV because, urgent or not, they aren’t important. They also shrink Quadrant I down to size by spending more time in Quadrant II.

Quadrant II is the heart of effective personal management. It deals with things that are not urgent, but are important. It deals with… all those things we know we need to do, but somehow seldom get to doing, because they aren’t urgent.

This enables us to ‘think preventively,’ to be truly proactive, in a way that saves us from time-consuming remedial work at a later date, and more importantly enables us to truly match our efforts to our most important priorities, rather than mainly to priorities that have been imposed on us.

Values and Principles

I sent the table off, and knew at the same time that I must read this book again to find out what else I had failed to pick up on the first time round or forgotten about with the passage of time. In re-reading Donaldson’s book Human Minds, prior to my most recent sequence, I believe I have finally learnt the value of revisiting seminal books rather than constantly chasing the latest apparently promising publication in a chronic state of FOMO.

I can pick up this thread of mislaid insights fairy early on with Covey’s emphasis on our having only maps of reality which are not reality itself; as he puts it[3] ‘these maps are not the territory.’ I’ve held onto that idea with help from various quarters explored already on this blog. A distinction he makes which I had failed to hold in mind relates to the difference he defines between values and principles:[4]

Principles are not values. A gang of thieves can share values, but they are in violation of the fundamental principles we are talking about. Principles are the territory. Values are maps. When we value correct principles, we have truth – a knowledge of things as they are.

While it is possible to use the word ‘values’ in a way that suggests it means the same as ‘principles,’ on re-reading this again I could see the usefulness of making this distinction. We are prone to mistaking our subjective values for objectively valid principles by which to live. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, whose relative importance I have explored elsewhere on this blog, seems almost to collude with this. Hayes et al describe[5] morals ‘as social conventions about what is good’ whereas ‘values are personal choices about desirable ends.’ The therapist is encouraged to see ‘valuing as essentially a personal exercise.’

It would be far healthier, it seems to me, to subject our values to careful scrutiny before awarding them the accolade of truth. This does not mean we will have to fall into the trap of preaching to others about the values they should espouse: rather it means there should be a willingness to join together with others in our collective attempt to ensure that we are using a properly calibrated compass to navigate our way through life.

Covey is clear that connecting with our validated values helps us define the direction we wish our lives to travel along. Our happiness depends upon choosing wisely, in a way that helps us overcome the tendency of our primate brains to value immediate satisfactions over long-term gains. Covey doesn’t buy into the primate trap:[6]

Happiness can be defined, in part at least, as the fruit of the desire and ability to sacrifice what we want now for what we want eventually.

This was not an unfamiliar idea to me even on first reading. As a psychologist, I was well aware of our default position in this respect. Every smoker I knew, including myself in earlier days, was more than happy to forfeit future health and a longer life, for the instant nicotine hit.

What he goes onto to describe as the stages of maturity, an important variable to add into the mix, highlights a key goal to aim for that will enable us to overcome this deficiency:[7]

Dependent people need others to get what they want. Independent people can get what they want through there and effort. Interdependent people combine their own efforts with the efforts of the others to achieve their greatest success.

More on interdependence much later. The next post will focus on some of the early beneficial habits he describes.

References:

[1]. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: page 192.
[2]. The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People – pages 153-54. Unless otherwise indicated all references are to this book.
[3]. Page 33.
[4]. Page 35.
[5]. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy – page 230.
[6]. The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People – page 48.
[7]. Op. cit.: page 49.

Read Full Post »

Religion and Science are inter-twined with each other and cannot be separated. These are the two wings with which humanity must fly. One wing is not enough. Every religion which does not concern itself with Science is mere tradition, and that is not the essential. Therefore science, education and civilization are most important necessities for the full religious life.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá, from ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in London – page 28

At the end of the previous post I concluded that we are still a long way from having redressed the balance between an overvalued materialistic science and a discounted spirituality and religion. What other challenges lie ahead in Margaret Donaldson’s view, as explained in Human Minds: an exploration, if we are to correct this bias?

The Need for Hard Work

To foster this aspect of our potential being requires great effort,[1] it is likely that its ‘cultivation, like that of the intellectual modes, calls for steady work, sustained over many years; that it is hard to achieve in any circumstances; and that it is even harder to achieve without the full support of the resources of one’s culture.’ And the full support of our cultural resources is clearly lacking in this case.

In addition,[2] ‘[a] certain level of material and social security is necessary.’ This applies to both sides of this divide: given that the intellectual mode is more generously rewarded in our culture, it would seem to have the edge in that respect as well.

If the educational system does not nurture an appetite for understanding of any kind it is unlikely to prosper. Teachers are the ones who can hold such long-term benefits in mind[3] ‘in ways that children are unable to do themselves.’ A particularly interesting point she makes here concerns ‘the importance of stepping back further still [beyond the self] to recognise yet another point of view: the legitimate interest of all humanity.’  This involves ‘decentring’ sufficiently, in Piaget’s sense of the word, ‘to avoid being bound to a single point of view.’ This maps closely onto the concepts of reflection and disidentification which have featured often on this blog already, so I won’t rehash them here.

Goals such as these must not be imposed on pupils. They must be[4] ‘taken over by the learners as their own in the end’ in such a way that ‘discipline’ becomes ‘self-discipline.’ She makes a telling point when she writes, ‘Consequently special educational effort must be devoted to making comprehensible those purposes that are most likely to seem obscure.’ Materialistically minded teachers are unlikely to be able or willing to achieve that in terms of the value-sensing transcendent mode.

The key question therefore becomes: ‘How do you give them some sense of the experience that comes with developing spirituality as it aspires towards transcendence?’

Her answer is to suggest that[5] ‘if we are wise enough and sufficiently serious about the enterprise, our schools can offer intermediate goals in a well-planned sequence so that each achievement is also an opening which reveals new challenges not too far out of reach.’ For this to work, she argues,[6] ‘since the new goals cannot initially be understood by the novice, the first step on the way has to be an act of trust… This trust is encouraged and endorsed – or otherwise – by attitudes that are widespread in a society.’

Which is precisely the problem:[7] ‘if children are to be encouraged to direct their efforts towards achievement in these modes, they need to be shown that high proficiency in them is valued.’

We are here in the same kind of bind that I described in an earlier post which explored how we might better balance matter and spirit. I argued that a key pair of requirements was: first, co-ordinated institutions strong enough to mobilise change, and second, a level of global consciousness clear and strong enough to create those institutions. There is a chicken and egg problem there, however. Until we have an educational system that helps create such a consciousness, how will we have the effective motivation to create the institutions that we need if we are to develop such an educational system? My focus in that post was on reversing the negative effects of our economic system. The problem here is related to that but not identical.

What does Donaldson have to say about this aspect of the issue?

‘Gradgrind’s Class’ from The Illustrated Hard Times by Nick Ellis (for source see link)

Achieving a Balance

Even though she accepts that[8] ‘intellectual competence is not widely understood or valued for what it is.. . . the case is much worse when we turn to a consideration of the advanced value-sensing modes.’ In effect,[9] ‘our value-sensing capacities are being put quite firmly into second place.’ It would be breaking fundamentally new ground to have ‘a culture where both kinds of enlightenment were respected and cultivated together.’ She then asks, ‘Is there any prospect that a new age of this kind might be dawning?’

She accepts there will be[10] ‘a span centuries’ before we can ‘see any change at all.’ This anticipates the point made by the Universal House of Justice in a letter written in 2013 where it states, concerning a closely related issue:

[H]owever promising the rise in collective consciousness may be, it should be seen as only the first step of a process that will take decades–nay, centuries–to unfold. For the principle of the oneness of humankind, as proclaimed by Baha’u’llah, asks not merely for cooperation among people and nations.  It calls for a complete reconceptualization of the relationships that sustain society.

The value-sensing mode similarly runs counter to many deeply established prejudices in contemporary society, even to the extent that ‘Experiences in the value-sensing modes run the risk of being confused with madness.’[11]

Just as in the past, she feels, it took time and effort for mathematics to be distinguished from magic,[12] ‘it was achieved’ in the end, and now ‘[f]or our part we shall have to achieve a similar distinguishing of experiences in the value-sensing modes from magic on the one hand and madness on the other if we are ever to correct the imbalance between intellectual and emotional development that exists today.’

Her position is therefore ultimately optimistic by implication: humanity came to realise mathematics was not magical mumbo-jumbo, so it will do the same for mysticism eventually. She fails convincingly to explain the educational path that will enable that to happen. Even so, I find her overall exposition of the problem rewarding and illuminating.

The closest I have got myself to attempting an explanation of how such a much-needed transformation might come about is my discussion of how to move forwards from a competitive materialistic economic culture, using key points made by Karlberg in his richly rewarding book Beyond the Culture of Contest.

In describing ‘strategies of social reform’ he draws the following distinction:[13]

 . . . many people have viewed the development or transformation of individual consciousness as a path to meaningful social change. . . . [alternatively] many people have historically viewed the reform or transformation of basic social structures as the path to meaningful social change.

He offers the Bahá’í perspective as synthesis:

In this context Bahá’ís believe that individual psycho-structural development and collective socio-structural reforms are both necessary but that neither one is sufficient by itself. They therefore advocate a twofold process of change involving both.

He discusses this in more detail, first at the level of the individual, and emphasis on education is key here, as is the fact that the Bahá’í community is developing institutions for whom this is a main focus:[14]

On the individual level, Bahá’ís pursue social change primarily through educational processes. . . . [At the time his writing] out of 1700 social and economic development projects Bahá’ís are currently engaged in around the world, more than 750 are education projects. Bahá’ís also conceive of education in terms of individual, moral or spiritual development.

Next he turns to systemic interventions:[15]

The Bahá’ís are simultaneously pursuing collective strategies of socio-structural transformation. The entire administrative order…, with its non-adversarial decision-making methods, its non-partisan electoral model and its globally coordinated institutional structure, is not merely a theoretical construct for Bahá’ís. Rather, Bahá’ís have been actively building this administrative order for more than three quarters of a century…

The ultimate goal for Bahá’ís, he states with reference to Building a Just World Order,[16] is for ‘the administrative order’ to provide them ‘with an institutional framework within which they can further develop the skills, capacities and attitudes that they believe are needed to manage processes of social change in an increasingly interdependent complex world.’

Among those requisite social changes is the basic Bahá’í principle that science and religion are fundamentally compatible. The sane and effortful development of both these fields of exploration are fundamental to the creation of a more harmonious and constructive social order.

The Bahá’í world website pins this down precisely:

Taken together, science and religion provide the fundamental organizing principles by which individualscommunities, and institutions function and evolve. When the material and spiritual dimensions of the life of a community are kept in mind and due attention is given to both scientific and spiritual knowledge, the tendency to reduce human progress to the consumption of goods, services and technological packages is avoided. Scientific knowledge, to take but one simple example, helps the members of a community to analyse the physical and social implications of a given technological proposal—say, its environmental impact—and spiritual insight gives rise to moral imperatives that uphold social harmony and that ensure technology serves the common good. Together, these two sources of knowledge are essential to the liberation of individuals and communities from the traps of ignorance and passivity. They are vital to the advancement of civilization.

Even so, clear as that is, at least to me, there seems to be a long and bumpy road to travel before that vision of the future can be realised, and there has been much to reflect on recently about the ways we could get seriously derailed if we do not wake up soon enough to the realities that challenge our current self-centred and consumerist way of life.

References:

[1]. Human Minds: an exploration – page 236: unless otherwise stated all references are from this text
[2]. Page 254.
[3]. Page 256.
[4]. Page 259.
[5]. Page 260.
[6]. Page 262.
[7]. Page 262.
[8]. Page 263.
[9]. Page 264.
[10]. Page 265.
[11]. Ibid.
[12]. Page 266.
[13]. Beyond the Culture of Contest – page 156.
[14]. Beyond the Culture of Contest – page 157.
[15]. Beyond the Culture of Contest – page 158.
[16]. Ibid.

Read Full Post »

Coronavirus Structure (for source of image, see link)

Although, as mentioned in the previous post, the desirability of us all accepting responsibility for the welfare of every human being, as the Universal House of Justice urges on us, seems obvious enough in theory, unfortunately it proves to be easier said than done. Blind spots, as Ziya Tong explains, are one problem:[1]

To see the world clearly, we must first become aware of the veil; we must recognize our blind spots. The way we’ve come to perceive reality is so deeply ingrained, so socially and inter-generationally rooted, that we’ve lost sight of the manner in which we think. This is important, because what we think creates reality.

Our biases are one such impediment. Jennifer Eberhardt in her book Biased quotes Lippman’s interesting definition of stereotypes as ‘impressions that reflect subjective perceptions but stand in for objective reality.’[2] To create a stereotype, the important link here is between harbouring an impression and mistaking it for truth. Not surprisingly stereotypes can blind us ‘to information that [doesn’t] conform to what [we] already believe.’[3] This ‘confirmation bias is a mechanism that allows inaccurate beliefs to spread and persist.’ It is also not surprising to know[4] that ‘studies confirm that biased parents tend to produce children who are biased as well.’

This problem is so intractable partly because, as Tom Oliver explains in The Self Delusion[5], ‘the moral compass of humans hasn’t evolved to intuitively respond to harmful impacts on such global and long timescales. While in the last few hundred years our transport and trade networks have expanded to encompass the entire earth, our sense of moral responsibility hasn’t kept pace.’

Our primate brains have not evolved to cope with long time scales, vast distances and complex situations, an obstacle to our achieving collectively the necessary level of understanding to motivate us to effective action. Ken Whitehead expresses it better than I can:

This pattern reveals a fundamental characteristic of how our brains work; we tend to focus on the short term, and have little thought of the long-term consequences of our actions. The early hunters devised ever more efficient ways of killing the existing inhabitants of the new lands they occupied. There was no thought of long-term consequences. Why should there be? The supply of prey animals was believed to be inexhaustible. Yet one day they were all gone!

The problems we face in today’s world suggest that little has changed in the last fifty thousand years. In his 2004 book “A Short History of Progress”, Ronald Wright describes human beings in today’s world as running 21st century software on fifty thousand-year old hardware. Our brains have evolved to react to short-term crises, such as an attack by a hungry lion. The more subtle cognitive abilities which would allow us to assess and respond appropriately to longer term threats are much less developed within the human brain. As a result we are very good at responding quickly to an emergency, but we are hopelessly inept, both as individuals and as a society, when it comes to taking effective action to head off threats which are perceived as being distant.

The compass of our compassion therefore tends to be similarly constricted.

It takes great effort to transcend these limitations as Kahneman has explained in detail in his book Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow. His contention, on the basis of hard evidence and a lifetime’s exploration of the issue, is that we have two ways of thinking. The first, System One, is our default mode. It operates too glibly and too fast, as against more effortfully and more slowly, which makes the understanding of complex situations almost impossible. He writes:[6] ‘associative memory, the core of System 1, continually constructs a coherent interpretation of what is going on in our world at any instant.’ It[7] ‘operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control.’ System 1 is no good for long term problems or situations that are unfamiliar and inconsistent. It can lead to impulses and impressions that may be compelling but are also dangerously misleading. His conclusion about its limitations is:[8] ‘System 1 has biases, however, systematic errors that it is prone to make in specified circumstances. . . . . it sometimes answers easier questions than the one it was asked, and it has little understanding of logic and statistics. One further limitation of System 1 is that it cannot be turned off.’

That doesn’t bode well, but there is an alternative.

He describes System 2 as one that[9] ‘allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations. The operations of System 2 are often associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice, and concentration.’ He adds[10] ‘The highly diverse operations of System 2 have one feature in common: they require attention and are disrupted when attention is drawn away.’

As if that was not enough to confuse us there is also the invisibility factor, as Ziya Tong explains:[11]

Our food comes to us from places we do not see; our energy is produced in ways we don’t understand; and our waste disappears without us having to give it a thought. … humans are no longer in touch with the basics of their own system survival.

We cannot, though, use this as an excuse for carrying on as we are. The system we have created is seriously at fault:[12]

The system . . . is our life support system. . . . The irony is that our survival is merely incidental to the goal of the system: ownership.

We cannot see the system because it exists in our blind spots. . . Today, if we fail to see our connection to the natural world, it’s because most of our products look nothing like it . . . Nature has been transformed into a product. . . . As a consequence, the economy grows, but nature dies.… None of us could have guessed that in the end we will need to pull the plug on our own life-support system, and if we don’t, it will destroy us.

It is clear now beyond all argument that our close connections are with nature, not just with our fellow human beings, and nature can bite back lethally in many ways.

Not just Tom Oliver, but many other writers also, see a deeper identification with our planet as a powerful source of the necessary insight and motivation. Jeremy Rifkin is one such, whose seminal book The Empathic Civilisation I have blogged about at length some years ago. He wrote along these lines:[13]

The more deeply we empathise with each other and our fellow creatures, the more intensive and extensive is our level of participation and the richer and more universal are the realms of reality in which we dwell. Our level of intimate participation defines our level of understanding of reality. Our experience becomes increasingly more global and universal. We become fully cosmopolitan and immersed in the affairs of the world. This is the beginning of biosphere consciousness.

This perspective is the least we should aspire to acquire and internalize as the basis for concerted action. Failure to do so will have drastic and destructive consequences within decades if not sooner. Because I am also writing from a religious and spiritual perspective as well, I question whether even that motivation will be sufficient to persuade enough of us to make the massive and necessary sacrifices and invest the huge and imperative effort to bring about a reversal of our self-destructive patterns in time.Humanity Is Our Business (1/7)Humanity Is Our Business (1/7)Humanity Is Our Business (1/7)Humanity Is Our Business (1/7)2

I suspect we will need the kind of faith in a supreme power that will convince us that, even if cannot do as much by ourselves, we can with the help of the invisible and powerful Great Being, who watches as we struggle to survive, but who, because of the nature of the worlds he has created, can only help us when we begin to help ourselves. The Bahá’í Faith offers a model, not just in terms of the underlying principles such as the oneness of humanity, but also in terms of the organisational patterns that are required. Below are a few links to previous posts that deal with this aspect of the matter.

The Bahá’í Model: 

1. Humanity Is Our Business (1/7): The Overall Vision

2. Humanity Is Our Business (2/7): The vision of Civilisation-Building

3. Humanity Is Our Business (3/7): Capacity Building (a)

4. Humanity Is Our Business (4/7): Capacity Building (b)

5. Humanity Is Our Business (5/7): Devotional Meetings 

6. Humanity Is Our Business (6/7): The Plight of Children

7. Humanity Is Our Business (7/7): What can we do for our children?

References 

[1]. Ziya Tong The Reality Bubble  – page 339
[2]. Biased – page 32.
[3]. Biased – page 33.
[4]. Biased – page 39.
[5]. The Self Delusion – page 210.
[6] Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow – Kindle Reference 282.
[7] Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow – Kindle Reference 340.
[8]. Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow  – Kindle Reference 433.
[9]. Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow – Kindle Reference 340.
[10]. Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow – Kindle Reference 375.
[11]. The Reality Bubble – page 192.
[12]. The Reality Bubble – page 341-32.
[13]. The Empathic Civilisation – page 154.

Read Full Post »

Coronavirus Structure (for source of image, see link)

At the risk of repeating what I said in an earlier post but spurred on by the strength of my reaction to this testing pandemic, I feel I need to expand on what I said then.

I’ll pick up from where I left off.

I wrote then that the very magnitude of the increasingly imminent threat of climate change and the totality of its potentially destructive power may just be the trigger to our recognising our essential unity and mobilising a more effective and unified response. As David Wallace-Wells puts it in his apocalyptic warning, The Uninhabitable Earth :[1]

If you had to invent a threat grand enough, and global enough, to plausibly conjure into being a system of true international cooperation, climate change would be it.

However, in the light of more recent experience, Covid-19 may be a better candidate for this awakening than climate change, because its impact is more immediate.

More than ever we have to transcend our divisive differences and collaborate more creatively together if we are to rise to these challenges and survive, and we must do this without causing further damage to the earth which is our home.

Ideology

An important factor which can either enhance our ability to do this or thwart all our efforts, is the ideology or belief system with which we passionately identify. As readers of this blog will already know, I am writing from the perspective of a particular religion, but much of what I say can be fruitfully applied to any belief system, even to a nihilism which believes in nothing.

Religion is often vilified as divisive as well as deluded. If you want to hear what I think about the validity of spiritual beliefs you’ll need to explore the links at the bottom of this post. There isn’t time for all that now.

It is not just religion that is divisive when it loses the plot: any ideology can become as dangerously divisive. Terrorism is not unique to distortions of Islam, as recent history illustrates with the painful consequences of bombings and assassinations at the hands of the new IRA or of right-wing extremists.

Once we have taken the fatal step into mistaken devotion we are in the danger zone of idealism. Jonathan Haidt in his humane and compassionate book The Happiness Hypothesis indicates that, in his view, idealism has caused more violence in human history than almost any other single thing:[2]

The two biggest causes of evil are two that we think are good, and that we try to encourage in our children: high self-esteem and moral idealism. . . . Threatened self-esteem accounts for a large portion of violence at the individual level, but to really get a mass atrocity going you need idealism — the belief that your violence is a means to a moral end.

My very battered copy of this classic.

Eric Fromm provides a plausible explanation for why we are drawn to seek such destructive certainty. In his attempt to understand the horrors of Nazism, he 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 our attention here:[3]

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.

His idea in this respect is also to be found at various key points in the Bahá’í Writings. For example, in this quotation from Bahá’u’lláh:[4]

Arise, O people, and, by the power of God’s might, resolve to gain the victory over your own selves, that haply the whole earth may be freed and sanctified from its servitude to the gods of its idle fancies—gods that have inflicted such loss upon, and are responsible for the misery of their wretched worshippers. These idols form the obstacle that impedeth man in his efforts to advance in the path of perfection.’

I will be focusing mainly on how to reduce the hold of this poisonous temptation in the realm of religion, but I hope I’ve said enough to clarify that this extends beyond that to all forms of belief in one way or another.

Oneness and Interconnectedness

One of the traps that religion can fall into is explained by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in a useful analogy:[5]

The Sun of Reality is one Sun but it has different dawning-places, just as the phenomenal sun is one although it appears at various points of the horizon. . . . Souls who focus their vision upon the Sun of Reality will be the recipients of light no matter from what point it rises, but those who are fettered by adoration of the dawning-point are deprived when it appears in a different station upon the spiritual horizon.

At any point in history, revelations can appear expressed in terms that the people of that place and time can understand, with practical remedies suited to their circumstances. For example, dietary laws can vary between faiths, but the spiritual core of their message, such as in the Golden Rule ‘Love thy neighbour as thyself,’ is almost identical, differing only in the terminology, not the essential meaning. To divisively reduce the religion to its local variations and to the literal interpretation of the metaphors it uses to convey the inexpressible, as fundamentalists of all faiths tend to do, is an error with huge destructive potential. It’s important to emphasise here that fundamentalists and zealots are not unique to religion, as the world I was born into in 1943 proves beyond any shadow of doubt. The atrocities committed by states in thrall to Stalin, Mao and Hitler were made possible largely by our tendency to espouse ‘insane thought systems.’ I accept that other factors such as craven conformity were also at work, but I don’t think they were the main driver.

From the Bahá’í point of view on religion, it is imperative that we recognise that all religions are in essence one:[6]

. . the time has come when religious leadership must face honestly and without further evasion the implications of the truth that God is one and that, beyond all diversity of cultural expression and human interpretation, religion is likewise one. It was intimations of this truth that originally inspired the interfaith movement and that have sustained it through the vicissitudes of the past one hundred years. Far from challenging the validity of any of the great revealed faiths, the principle has the capacity to ensure their continuing relevance. In order to exert its influence, however, recognition of this reality must operate at the heart of religious discourse . . .

If we do not, then we will fail to operate effectively at this time of crisis, and in consequence our divided world will career towards its eventual destruction.

Beyond that we have to recognise that humanity is in essence one. As Bahá’u’lláh writes:

It is not for him to pride himself who loveth his own country, but rather for him who loveth the whole world. The earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens.[7]

It is important to emphasise here that a recognition of the unity of humankind is not restricted to those who follow a religious path. We all need to accept our inescapable interconnectedness. Tom Oliver is not a believer in God. His evidence base lies in science. But he is unequivocal in his book The Self Delusion that we share the dangerous delusion that we are independent selves:[8]

. . . We have one . . . big myth dispel: that we exist as independent selves at the centre of a subjective universe.

He explains:[9]

We are seamlessly connected to one another and the world around us. Independence is simply an illusion that was once adaptive but now threatens our success as species.

If we can bring ourselves to accept that consciousness-raising truth, something which the impact of Covid-19 should help us do, then certain potentially life-changing implications follow.

The Universal House of Justice addressed the following words to all those gathered on Mount Carmel to mark the completion of the project there on 24th May 2001 (my emphasis):

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.

There is no get out clause here. We cannot draw arbitrary convenient distinctions between people of the kind that help us ignore their obvious needs. It doesn’t matter if they are of a different colour, nation, faith or gender: they are human beings like us and deserve the same compassion and support as we would wish for ourselves. The Universal House of Justice made this explicitly clear in an earlier message:[10]

The primary question to be resolved is how the present world, with its entrenched pattern of conflict, can change to a world in which harmony and co-operation will prevail.

World order can be founded only on an unshakeable consciousness of the oneness of mankind, a spiritual truth which all the human sciences confirm. Anthropology, physiology, psychology, recognize only one human species, albeit infinitely varied in the secondary aspects of life. Recognition of this truth requires abandonment of prejudice—prejudice of every kind—race, class, colour, creed, nation, sex, degree of material civilization, everything which enables people to consider themselves superior to others.

So what’s the problem then? If it’s so obvious, why don’t we do it? That will have to wait till next time.

Some posts that suggest matter is not all there is

Psychology and Spirit

  1. Irreducible Mind – a review (1/3): how psychology lost the plot
  2. Irreducible Mind – a review (2/3): Myers & the mind-body problem
  3. Irreducible Mind – a review (3/3): the self & the Self

Self and Soul

  1. The Self and the Soul – The Ghost in the Machine (1/5)
  2. The Self and the Soul: Approaching the Heart of the Matter (2/5)
  3. The Self and the Soul: Mirrorwork Practice (3/5)
  4. The Self and the Soul: Implications of Mirrorwork (4/5)
  5. The Self and the Soul: the Promise of a Rose Garden? (5/5)

Concerning Religion and Science

  1. Where the Conflict Really Lies (1/4): preparing the ground
  2. Where the Conflict Really Lies (2/4): a superficial conflict
  3. Where the Conflict Really Lies (3/4): a deep compatibility
  4. Where the Conflict Really Lies (4/4): the deep conflict

References

[1]. The Uninhabitable Earth – page 25.
[2]. The Happiness Hypothesis – page 75.
[3] The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness – pages 260-61.
[4]. Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh – page 87.
[5] Selected Writings of Bahá’u’lláh and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá (‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Section Only) – page 255 – The Sun of Reality.
[6]. From the introduction by the Universal House of Justice to One Common Faith 21 March 2005.
[7]. Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh, from Lawh-i-Maqsúd.
[8]. The Self Delusion – page 3.
[9]. The Self Delusion – page 4.
[10]. Universal House of Justice The Promise of World Peace Section III – 1985)

Read Full Post »

In March, before lockdown, I was invited to give a talk at St Mary’s church, Tyberton, a village in the Golden Valley near to Hereford. This is the text of the talk more or less as delivered. I ad libbed a few extra bits of explanation on the day but have not included them here. I also cut the talk short just before the final two paragraphs quoted here. I’d gone past my allocated ten minutes so I thought it better to quit while I was ahead! Those paragraphs didn’t add much anyway. I had no idea, when I gave this talk, how important the connection between interconnectedness and resilience would become in such a very short period of time.

As you probably already know, the Bahá’í Faith is being persecuted in Iran, its birthplace. Our world governing body, the Universal House of Justice, has exhorted the Bahá’í community in Iran to response with “constructive resilience”[1].

Where might the roots of this resilience be found?

Bahá’u’lláh wrote that ‘No two men can be found who may be said to be outwardly and inwardly united,’ and saw this as the source of the ‘discord and malice . . . apparent everywhere.’ He reminded us that instead we should not regard ‘one another as strangers.’ We ‘are the fruits of one tree, and the leaves of one branch.’ [2] We are all, Bahá’u’lláh says, ‘created . . . from the same dust’ and must learn ‘to be even as one soul,’ so that from our ‘inmost being, by [our] deeds and actions, the signs of oneness and the essence of detachment may be made manifest.’[3]

This is why I, as a Bahá’í, feel that the roots of resilience are to be found in a recognition of our interconnectedness. To quote the Universal House of Justice again, this time from a message addressed in 2001 to those gathered for the official opening of the Terraces on Mount Carmel, ‘Humanity’s crying need . . . calls  . . . 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.’

No get out clause there!

Unfortunately all too often the divisions within us and between us, which the Universal House of Justice describes in the same message as the ‘struggle among competing ambitions,’ blinds us to this truth. we are prisoners of what ‘Abdu’l-Bahá describes as ‘the multiple identities that were born of passion and desire.’[4]

How are we to remedy this?

This is a problem that all the great world religions have grappled with, and the Bahá’í Faith recognizes that, which is what unites us across all faiths when they are properly understood. I am though going to focus here only on what the Bahá’í Faith can contribute to this desperately needed healing process, if our divisions are not going to bring about our complete destruction.

First of all Bahá’ís believe that we need to cultivate reflection in order to achieve a degree of detachment from not just the material side of existence, but also from the distorted perspectives within our own minds. If we cannot do that at least to some degree, we cannot then use the process of consultation, where we sit down with people of different views to compare notes and enhance our understanding of reality. Only in this way can we find better solutions to the problems that bedevil us.

A saying of Islam quoted by Bahá’u’lláh states that ‘One hour’s reflection is preferable to seventy years’ pious worship.[5]‘Reflection’ is also variously translated as meditation, remembrance or contemplation.

What does it mean exactly in practice?

‘Abdu’l-Bahá helps us here, when he states, ‘‘This faculty of meditation frees man from the animal nature, discerns the reality of things, puts man in touch with God. . . . Through this faculty man enters into the very Kingdom of God. . . The meditative faculty is akin to the mirror.’[6]

What exactly are the implications of this? What are the possible similarities between our mind and a mirror?

The most important similarity is that a mirror is NOT what is reflected in it. Our mind, our consciousness, is not its contents. We are not what we think, feel, sense, plan, intend, remember, or imagine. We are the capacity to do all of these things. However, none of these products of our mind is necessarily real or true. They are mostly transient products of our brains.

We need to learn to step back from them all and look at them from the position of consciousness in all its purity, the closest we can get to God, to the Ground of Being, if you prefer that expression. At the very least we can connect more closely with what Bahá’u’lláh refers to many times in His Writings as our ‘understanding heart,’ a phrase that captures the critical need for us to balance our verbal analytical left-brain thinking, which has spawned our technical advances which are both a blessing and a curse, with our holistic and intuitive right-brain processes, which cannot be easily captured in words and are therefore often lying half-hidden on the edge of consciousness.

In that state of stepping back, we still know what we think and feel, and who we think we are, but we are no longer so identified with those ideas that we cannot listen open-mindedly to what other people have to say that might enrich our understanding. Only when we do this, and it takes constant practice, can we truly consult with others about the nature of reality, the truth about our problems, and develop better ways of dealing with them.

We can consult at last.

Paul Lample explained it like this: ‘[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.’[7]

Then, as ‘Abdu’l-Bahá says, this will show us ‘that the views of several individuals are assuredly preferable to one man, even as the power of a number of men is of course greater than the power of one man.’[8] He also emphasises that detachment, of the kind I have attempted to describe, is one of the essential prerequisites to the effective use of consultation. Which is why, as Lample explains, ‘‘Reflection takes a collective form through consultation.’[9]

Reflection helps us become more inwardly united and more closely connected with the divine or spiritual realms, and so we can become more united with others in our efforts to deal with problems within our family, our community, our nation and even our world as whole.

As a clinical psychologist, working in the local NHS, I found these insights of great value.

How so?

Well, I was working with a group of patients who are still regarded by many people as ‘not like us.’ They were people who carried the label schizophrenic or psychotic. They’re not like the rest of us, right? Wrong. Oh so wrong.

The basic principle of the Faith that we are all in essence one helped me see their common humanity. But more than that even. It helped me learn how their strange beliefs and hallucinations were rooted in their life experiences, how they made sense in that context once I had had the patience and humility to explore that with them and with their loved ones.

And even more than that through the disciplines of reflection and consultation, a kind of Bahá’í interpersonal yoga, I could earn their trust because I did not mock their beliefs or belittle their experiences of voices and visions, which allowed them to share their inmost thoughts, from which I learned to make sense of what they were experiencing. From there we could compare notes as equals and they could begin to find other explanations for what was happening to them.

For example, to stop thinking you are being tormented by powerful demons, who have the power to hurt you, helps you get back control of your own mind and life. I didn’t have to challenge the experience in itself, only the destructive explanations they had understandably developed for it, such as the power of the voices to harm them. Then they could move on.

After all, we all go psychotic at night in our dreams. We could many of us have ended up psychotic if life had treated us badly enough early on. The brain is good at creating illusions and delusions. In fact, a book I read recently by Tom Oliver, an agnostic scientist, explains, on the basis of strong evidence, that the prevalent idea in the West that we are a separate disconnected and individual self is a delusion, so we’re all a bit psychotic already really.

All we have is simulation of reality, a kind of trance induced in us by our culture – a materialistic, competitive and divided one in our case. And the only way we can ever correct our false perceptions and mistaken beliefs is to work together with others who do not think the same to transcend them. (And I would now add that if ever there was a time to internalise that lesson for the rest of our days on this earth, this is it.]

The mnemonic I use to remind me of all this is to say to myself ‘I must take CARE:’ the ‘C’ stands for consultation, and the ‘R’ for reflection, but embedded in a context of action and experience. It doesn’t work just at the level of theory.

As I final joke against myself I must admit that the ‘R’ also represents what are for me the three ‘Rs’ of reading, writing and reflection. Without books to breath in with and pens to breath out with my mind would suffocate, and I would never be able to consolidate my reflections into memorable and useful form. So I must thank you all for providing me with an excuse to read, reflect and write even more. Thank you for your patience in listening.

Footnotes

[1]. This phrase was first used in September 2007 in a letter from the Universal House of Justice to the Bahá’í students deprived of access to higher education in Iran.
[2]. Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh – page 163.
[3]. The Hidden Words, Arabic no. 68.
[4]. Selected Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá – page 76.
[5]. Hadith quoted by Bahá’u’lláh in the Kitáb-i-Íqán (page 152 UK Edition and page 237 US edition).
[6]. Paris Talks – pages 174-176.
[7]. Revelation and Social Reality – page 215.
[8]. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá cited in a letter written by Shoghi Effendi, to the National Spiritual Assembly of Persia, 15 February 1922).
[9]. Revelation and Social Reality – page 212.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »