Posts Tagged ‘words’


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For a poem that will give some background to this one see Try the Emptiness

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At the end of the previous post I reflected on the following quotation:

CXXXIX: . . . Beware . . . lest ye walk in the ways of them whose words differ from their deeds. Strive that ye may be enabled to manifest to the peoples of the earth the signs of God, and to mirror forth His commandments. Let your acts be a guide unto all mankind, for the professions of most men, be they high or low, differ from their conduct. It is through your deeds that ye can distinguish yourselves from others.[1]

ACT ManualIt is important that we remain true to our deepest self. While we can correct the way that we use words, and if that is done for the right motive it will change us for the better, it is just as, if not more important to align our inner being with spiritual lines of force.

It is easy to see how certain words in that quotation lend force to what Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) prescribes. ‘Strive’ embodies the idea of commitment. ‘Commandments’ suggest the idea of values, so important in ACT. And the emphasis on ‘acts’ makes the connections obvious.

In this way we may not be subject to Bahá’u’lláh’s stricture concerning those whose words outnumber their deeds, that is if, and only if, our words, our deeds and our inner being – note that word ‘mirror’ again – are all of a piece and in tune with the spirit of the Faith.

This creates inner and outer unity such as Bahá’u’lláh described in the Hidden Words:

O CHILDREN OF MEN! Know ye not why We created you all from the same dust? That no one should exalt himself over the other. Ponder at all times in your hearts how ye were created. Since We have created you all from one same substance it is incumbent on you to be even as one soul, to walk with the same feet, eat with the same mouth and dwell in the same land, that from your inmost being, by your deeds and actions, the signs of oneness and the essence of detachment may be made manifest. Such is My counsel to you, O concourse of light! Heed ye this counsel that ye may obtain the fruit of holiness from the tree of wondrous glory.[2]

And in His Tablets He laments the lack of this unity:

No two men can be found who may be said to be outwardly and inwardly united. The evidences of discord and malice are apparent everywhere, though all were made for harmony and union.[3]

And, as ‘Abdu’l-Bahá further explains, there is only one truly effective way out of this impasse:

Let all be set free from the multiple identities that were born of passion and desire, and in the oneness of their love for God find a new way of life.[4]

My very battered copy of this classic.

My very battered copy of this classic.

Eric Fromm, a psychoanalyst, explains how this makes sense even in more materialistic terms[5]:

Man needs an object of total devotion to be the focal point of all his strivings. In being devoted to a goal beyond his isolated ego, he transcends himself and leaves the prison of absolute egocentricity. He can be devoted to the most diverse goals and idols but the need for devotion is itself a primary, essential need demanding fulfilment.’

When we dismantle the barriers within us, often mediated by language, we can also become better able to dismantle those between us.

Of course we must refrain from lying, criticism and backbiting. Of course we must strive to practise true consultation. But we must not observe these verbal obligations divorced from basic processes of spiritualisation such as those the Universal House of Justice draws our attention to as Bahá’ís (though these are written for Bahá’ís you could apply them to any benign spiritual path):

  1. The recital each day of one of the Obligatory Prayers with pure-hearted devotion.
  2. The regular reading of the Sacred Scriptures, specifically at least each morning and evening, with reverence, attention and thought.
  3. Prayerful meditation on the Teachings, so that we may understand them more deeply, fulfil them more faithfully, and convey them more accurately to others.
  4. Striving every day to bring our behaviour more into accordance with the high standards that are set forth in the Teachings.
  5. Teaching the Cause of God.
  6. Selfless service in the work of the Cause and in the carrying on of our trade or profession.[6]

to which have now been added the sacred right and responsibility of Huqúqu’lláh, enabling us to enhance our use of material resources, and the daily recitation of Alláh-u-Abhá 95 times[7], a form of meditative discipline. It is important to note that it is not just what we do but how we do it that is of paramount importance: when we pray, it should ideally be with ‘pure-hearted devotion,’ when we reading Scripture it needs to be with ‘reverence, attention and thought,’ and meditation on the Teachings has to be ‘prayerful.’ Not an easy ask.

If we are sincerely treading this path to the best of our ability, then perhaps our words can exercise the influence described by Bahá’u’lláh when he writes:

No man of wisdom can demonstrate his knowledge save by means of words. This showeth the significance of the Word as is affirmed in all the Scriptures, whether of former times or more recently. For it is through its potency and animating spirit that the people of the world have attained so eminent a position. Moreover words and utterances should be both impressive and penetrating. However, no word will be infused with these two qualities unless it be uttered wholly for the sake of God and with due regard unto the exigencies of the occasion and the people.

The Great Being saith: Human utterance is an essence which aspireth to exert its influence and needeth moderation. As to its influence, this is conditional upon refinement which in turn is dependent upon hearts which are detached and pure. As to its moderation, this hath to be combined with tact and wisdom as prescribed in the Holy Scriptures and Tablets.[8]

This spells out that the power of such words derives from the Word of God and that its efficacy depends upon the purity of our inner lives. We also have to be sensitive to what psychologists have called the pragmatics of communication, i.e. the need to tune what we say to the receptivity of the listener.

Within that framework we also need to be aware that not all words are equally benign:

Every word is endowed with a spirit, therefore the speaker or expounder should carefully deliver his words at the appropriate time and place, for the impression which each word maketh is clearly evident and perceptible. The Great Being saith: One word may be likened unto fire, another unto light, and the influence which both exert is manifest in the world. Therefore an enlightened man of wisdom should primarily speak with words as mild as milk, that the children of men may be nurtured and edified thereby and may attain the ultimate goal of human existence which is the station of true understanding and nobility. . . . . It behoveth a prudent man of wisdom to speak with utmost leniency and forbearance so that the sweetness of his words may induce everyone to attain that which befitteth man’s station.[9]

It is therefore impossible, according to my understanding, to separate words from enacted values. If we do, words then become barriers to insight and wisdom.

Hauser bookThe Bigger Picture

Obviously the ground this sequence of posts covers constitutes a minute fraction of the terrain mapped out in the Bahá’í Writings. All of this has to be placed in that wider context.

For instance, certain kinds of language are particularly toxic. One example of this are the denigrating labels one group of people can use against another. Referring to others as ‘rats,’ ‘cockroaches’ or ‘a swarm’ are typical examples of this abuse. This denigrating terminology usually triggers the deep-seated disgust response in the group who uses it and places the people of whom the words are used in a non-human category: once this manoeuvre is performed the usual restraints of conscience that prevent one human being from degrading, raping, torturing or even murdering another human being are suspended and the newly classified non-human being can be maimed and slain with a clear conscience.

This point is succinctly made by Hauser in his book Moral Minds (page 199)[10]:

Disgust wins the award as the single most irresponsible emotion, a feeling that has led to extreme in-group/out-group divisions followed by inhumane treatment. Disgust’s trick is simple: Declare those you don’t like to be vermin or parasites, and it is easy to think of them as disgusting, deserving of exclusion, dismissal, and annihilation. All horrific cases of human abuse entail this kind of transformation . . . .

However, there are other setting conditions for this kind of behaviour which relate to other Teachings of the Faith in a way that illustrates the beautiful coherence and interdependence of the various aspects of the whole of Bahá’u’lláh’s revelation. Take economic inequality. The Faith emphasises the importance of reducing such inequity. This would of course be important simply to alleviate the effects of the resulting extreme poverty on the disadvantaged such as greater health problems and a shorter life. However, inequality also has implications for the issue of denigrating language and persecution.

Chua bookChua pursues a complex argument which links a minority’s economic dominance with a savage backlash from the deprived majority[11]. Of course Chua is not claiming that extremes of wealth justify the extermination of the wealthy by the impoverished, nor is she arguing that such extremes are the only motive for genocide. She is, though, saying that extreme inequality is an important but previously discounted factor that has to be added into the mix. The inequality is what needs to be eliminated not the people!

So, indeed we do need vigorously to pursue our spiritual development, both as individuals and communities: this is done by turning away from words as veils and using values as our compass. This redeems words and makes them a force for good.

But that in itself is probably not enough. It important also not to lose sight of the wider picture.

We need to hold in mind a vision of the completely different kind of civilisation towards which we are all aspiring, one based on humanity’s essential unity, the supreme value that co-ordinates all our other values. We need to see how all its aspects, individual, community, institutional, systemic, local and global, are linked together. The state of the world as a whole will either inhibit or enhance the impact of our efforts just as much as our efforts will either help or harm the world. Our efforts are aimed at the ultimate transformation of the world, though as ‘Abdu’l-Bahá wrote:

. . . peace must first be established among individuals until it leadeth to peace among nations.[12]

It is imperative though that we continue to strive to bring both our speech, our actions and our inner beings into line with the spirit of the age as expressed by Bahá’u’lláh so that we may avoid contention and achieve the level of unity required for the problems of the world to be resolved [although His words may sometimes seem to be addressed mainly to Bahá’ís they are to be taken to heart by everyone]: in this way we will complete the process of shifting words from truth-concealing veils to world-transforming values.

The worldwide undertakings on which the Cause of God is embarked are far too significant, the need of the peoples of the world for the Message of Bahá’u’lláh far too urgent, the perils facing mankind far too grave, the progress of events far too swift, to permit His followers to squander their time and efforts in fruitless contention. Now, if ever, is the time for love among the friends, for unity of understanding and endeavour, for self-sacrifice and service by Bahá’ís in every part of the world[13]

[Oh, and by the way, in relation to the problem I described right at the beginning of this sequence, the question to ask one of the guards is: ‘If I asked the other guard which door leads to freedom, what door would he point to?’]


[1] Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh.
[2] (Bahá’u’lláhArabic Hidden Words No. 68)
[3] Baha’u’llah, Tablets of Baha’u’llah Revealed After the Kitab-i-Aqdas, pages 163–64.
[4] Selected Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá – page 76.
[5] Anatomy of Human Destructiveness – page 260.
[6] Messages from the Universal House of Justice: 1963-1968 (BPT: US): page 588.
[7] The former became obligatory as of Ridván 1992 (Universal House of Justice Ridván Message 1991) and the latter in December 1999 (Universal House of Justice to the Bahá’ís of the World: 28 December 1999).
[8] Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh page 173.
[9] Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh pages 172-173
[10] Published by Little, Brown 2006. These issues, and other related ones are also extensively and illuminatingly discussed by Phillip Zimbardo in The Lucifer Effect (Rider: 2007 – pages 308-311).
[11] Amy Chua World on Fire (Heinemann: 2003) pages 111-112.
[12] SWAB: page 246.
[13] Universal House of Justice 1994 – letter to the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the USA concerning Rights and Freedoms, Paragraph 19. This is downloadable from http://bahai-library.com/published.uhj/irf.html.

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Words & Selves

Clearly then, if we accept the arguments put forward in the previous post, we are not reducible to speech: there is far more to us than words. And we already know that words cannot capture the essence of reality in any of its aspects. We can perhaps get a glimpse of the attributes of a flower or a gazelle, and that is useful, but we are nowhere close to its deepest reality. Physics has had to accept this experience as a given of the universe. It is time we did also especially when it comes to descriptions of other beings and of ourselves. We can’t take our descriptions literally.

ACT Manual

A more accessible version of ACT

In their explanation of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), that I referred to last time, Hayes et al, who feel language does well with practical realities, deal with one of its major limitations:

The fact is that language has a very limited capacity to apprehend and decipher personal experience, but we are taught from the moment of first consciousness that language is the tool for developing self-understanding.[1]

In discussing their clinical work they write:

Most clients are initially so thoroughly trapped by this conceptual prison that they do not know and do not believe that they are imprisoned. The conceptual world in which they live is taken to be a given.[2]

What is true for a client is, in my view, true for all of us and they put that same position elsewhere in the book.

There usually comes a point in therapy where the conversation between the client and the therapist (I’m not fond of that word for reasons I won’t bore you with right now: see my sequence of posts on An Approach to Psychosis) when the lack of literal correspondence between world and words becomes painfully obvious. Our descriptions don’t work anymore. In fact, believing them keeps getting us into more and more trouble. They use a very simple metaphor, worked out by a client confronted by this very issue, to illustrate the point and make it memorable. They describe a chair experience to demonstrate that you can’t sit in the description of a chair.

This sceptical attitude towards descriptions has to be maintained equally if not more strongly in relation to descriptions of the self:

. . . when a person identifies with a particular conceptualisation, alternatives to that conceptualisation can seem almost life-threatening. The . . . frame here seems to be “Me = conceptualisation” [i.e. I am exactly what I think I am] and its entailed derivative “Eliminate conceptualisation = eliminate me” [i.e. If you destroy my idea of myself you destroy me]. [Thus], we are drawn into protecting our conceptualized self as if it were our physical self.[3]

To help people step back from such identifications they 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.[4]

For source of adapted image see link

For source of adapted image see link. It’s a fascinating article by Sam Harris.

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 in my view, that it is formed through our use of 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.

The Faith uses a different and an altogether more powerful image and sees its origin very differently:

O My Brother! A pure heart is as a mirror; cleanse it with the burnish of love and severance from all save God, that the true sun may shine within it and the eternal morning dawn. Then wilt thou clearly see the meaning of “Neither doth My earth nor My heaven contain Me, but the heart of My faithful servant containeth Me.”[5]

Mirroring the Light

Mirroring the Light

Words, Deeds and Inner Being

The image of the mirror makes it possible for ‘Abdu’l-Bahá to say:

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; if you put it before earthly objects it will reflect them. Therefore if the spirit of man is contemplating earthly subjects he will be informed of these. . . .

Therefore let us keep this faculty rightly directed — turning it to the heavenly Sun and not to earthly objects — so that we may discover the secrets of the Kingdom, and comprehend the allegories of the Bible and the mysteries of the spirit.

May we indeed become mirrors reflecting the heavenly realities . .[6]

Every experience we have is but a reflection in the mirror of our souls, which of course are reducible neither to language, to any experience nor to the brain.

Koestenbaum, an existential philosopher, in his penetrating analysis of the human condition[7] , expresses fundamentally the same truth when he writes of the process of reflection as ‘separating consciousness from its contents’[8]  and how reflection, or, to use Assagioli’s term in Psychosynthesis disidentification, leads into the deepest levels of our being: ‘The name Western Civilisation has given to . . .  the extreme inward region of consciousness is God’[9]. It is crucial that we do not mistake consciousness, the mirror, for its contents, ie what is reflected in it.

The purpose of this mirror in Bahá’í terms is to reflect divine light. We must not mistake ourselves for the earthly things we reflect: that drags us down. Neither must we mistake ourselves for God when divine light is reflected from our hearts: that way lies one of the most spiritually corrosive emotions – pride.

It is important that we remain true to our deepest self. While we can correct the way that we use words, and if that is done for the right motive it will change us for the better, it is just as, if not more important to align our inner being with spiritual lines of force. This involves action.

CXXXIX: . . .  Beware . . . lest ye walk in the ways of them whose words differ from their deeds. Strive that ye may be enabled to manifest to the peoples of the earth the signs of God, and to mirror forth His commandments. Let your acts be a guide unto all mankind, for the professions of most men, be they high or low, differ from their conduct. It is through your deeds that ye can distinguish yourselves from others.[10]

It is easy to see how certain words in that quotation lend force to what ACT prescribes. ‘Strive’ embodies the idea of commitment. ‘Commandments’ suggest the idea of values, so important in ACT. And the emphasis on ‘acts’ makes the connections obvious.


[1] Steven C. Hayes, Kirk D. Strosahl and Kelly G. Wilson Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (The Guilford Press: 1999) page 151. There is a website at http://www.contextualpsychology.org. However, be prepared for a severe attack of jargon-shock. It is best to dig down into the Discussions/Forums link to get at more accessible material. The ideas are well worth grappling with.
[2]  Ibid: page 183.
[3] Ibid: page 182.
[4] Ibid: page 192.
[5] The Seven Valleys (SV) by Bahá’u’lláh: Wilmette (1984) pages 21-22.
[6] Paris Talks by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá – page 176.
[7]  The New Image of the Person: the theory and practice of clinical philosophy
[8] Ibid: Page 69.
[9] Ibid: Page 99.
[10] Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh 

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Beneath the Debris

Some years ago I prepared a talk that was never delivered in full. Recently I rediscovered my notes and they seemed worth pulling together into a sequence of posts. So, here it starts.

The Limits of Language

A good place to start[1] is with a brain-teaser that’s even older than I am.

You are a prisoner in a room with two doors and two guards. One of the doors will guide you to freedom and behind the other is a hangman – you don’t know which is which.

One of the guards always tells the truth and the other always lies. You don’t know which one is the truth-teller or the liar either.

You have to choose and open one of these doors, but you can only ask a single question to one of the guards.

What do you ask so you can pick the door to freedom?

This little puzzle, which you can find at this link (do not click if you want to work out the answer for yourself – I’ll be including it at the end of the last post anyway), contains the three elements we are going to be most concerned about: reality, minds (or selves) and language. It won’t have escaped your notice, though, that in the puzzle all of these are rather simplified: they’re basically binary. Two doors and two guards.

Our reality is more spectral both in the sense of ghostly and along dimensions rather than in boxes. Our minds are more subtly diverse. Our language is capable of infinite variations. But it’s a good lead in because in the puzzle we have to do in simple form what we are constantly seeking to do in more complex ways with words in the real world of things and people: relate to others and develop a useful model of the world as it is. And all of these endeavours have a great deal to do with identity in the sense of who we think we are and our assessment of others as well.

Language though is anything but a straightforward ally in this endeavour. Graves was very suspicious of it:

There’s a cool web of language winds us in,
Retreat from too much joy or too much fear:
We grow sea green at last and coldly die
In brininess and volubility.
But concluded that we couldn’t stay sane without it:
But if we let our tongues lose self-possession,
Throwing off language and its watery clasp
. . . . .
We shall go mad no doubt and die that way.

'The Ready-Made Bouquet' by René Magritte

‘The Ready-Made Bouquet’ by René Magritte

And a system of psychotherapy (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: ACT), which draws on many traditions of psychology, philosophy and spirituality, shares this same suspicion about language and seeks to undermine our simple confidence in it in various ways. For instance they point out that it can lead to such circular and irresolvable torments as:

This statement is false.

You have only to ponder that for a few seconds to realise there is no way out!

What have the Bahá’í Writings to say about language?

People for the most part delight in superstitions. They regard a single drop of the sea of delusion as preferable to an ocean of certitude. By holding fast unto names they deprive themselves of the inner reality and by clinging to vain imaginings they are kept back from the Dayspring of heavenly signs.[2]

Language is cast here in terms that summon up the idea of ‘veils’ as used in the sense of things that come between us and the truth.

Let not names shut you out as by a veil from Him Who is their Lord, even the name of Prophet, for such a name is but a creation of His utterance.[3]

Obviously names are not all there is to language. ACT uses language to cover all symbolic activity. In which case names are an important subset of that category as they are used to label everything we know, can imagine or conceive. They are also, in one of their main aspects, the most concrete part of our vocabulary and you would think the least treacherous of all!

If you accept the possibility of a spiritual dimension, as I have argued at length elsewhere on this blog is almost certainly the case, things may not be as simple as they seem:

When we consider the world of existence, we find that the essential reality underlying any given phenomenon is unknown. Phenomenal, or created, things are known to us only by their attributes. Man discerns only manifestations, or attributes, of objects, while the identity, or reality, of them remains hidden. For example, we call this object a flower. What do we understand by this name and title? We understand that the qualities appertaining to this organism are perceptible to us, but the intrinsic elemental reality, or identity, of it remains unknown. Its external appearance and manifest attributes are knowable; but the inner being, the underlying reality or intrinsic identity, is still beyond the ken and perception of our human powers.[4]

And what is true for things outside us is even truer for what lies inside:

LXXXII. Thou hast asked Me concerning the nature of the soul. Know, verily, that the soul is a sign of God, a heavenly gem whose reality the most learned of men hath failed to grasp, and whose mystery no mind, however acute, can ever hope to unravel.[5]

The same would apply to those other aspects of our character referred to by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, i.e. the inherited and the acquired (if we assume that the soul is the innate part).

fireIn a moment we will be returning to the issue of self and identity. But first we must grapple a bit more deeply with the Bahá’í view of language.

To describe this, and the view of many spiritual traditions, as radically different from any conventional worldly view would be an understatement. Language is seen as potentially dangerous even lethal. Bahá’u’lláh wrote:

The essence of faith is fewness of words and abundance of deeds; he whose words exceed his deeds, know verily his death is better than his life.

The essence of true safety is to observe silence, to look at the end of things and to renounce the world.[6]

And as if that were not enough:

. . . the tongue is a smouldering fire, and excess of speech a deadly poison. Material fire consumeth the body, whereas the fire of the tongue devoureth both heart and soul. The force of the former lasteth but for a time, whilst the effects of the latter endure a century.[7]

If I had more spiritual insight I might well be reduced to silence forthwith. I am certainly forced to give serious thought to my speech and why and how I use it. I am also forced to revise my view of silence, something not much valued in our culture.

What can silence do? What happens when we still the chatter of the prosy mind?

Bahá’u’lláh says there is a sign (from God) in every phenomenon: the sign of the intellect is contemplation and the sign of contemplation is silence, because it is impossible for a man to do two things at one time — he cannot both speak and meditate[8].

It is an axiomatic fact that while you meditate you are speaking with your own spirit. In that state of mind you put certain questions to your spirit and the spirit answers: the light breaks forth and the reality is revealed. . . .

Through the faculty of meditation man attains to eternal life; through it he receives the breath of the Holy Spirit — the bestowal of the Spirit is given in reflection and meditation. . .[9]

Anyone interested in looking at the power of silence more deeply check out these links.

Next time the issue of self and identity.


[1] This post does not focus at all on some central and important aspects of this theme, for example the Word of God, backbiting, the new etiquette of expression including consultation, and criticism because that would be cramming too much in and I have already dealt with two of them in detail elsewhere (see links above) and others more incidentally.
[2] Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh (TB) Haifa 1978: page 58.
[3] Epistle to the Son of the Wolf: page 176.
[4] ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Promulgation of Universal Peace (PUP) Wilmette 1982 pages 421-422.
[5] Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh
[6] Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh page 56.
[7] Kitáb-i-Íqán: (KI) UK 1982 page 123-124)
[8] This is of course not to argue that we should not meditate upon the Word of God but indicating that to do so effectively we will need to still the distracting chatter of the mind.
[9] Paris Talks pages 174-176.

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For a poem that will give some background to this one see Try the Emptiness

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