religion

And why I think we do care
Added: Friday, 25 June 2010

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“Who cares what anyone says” is what I recently told a friend of mine who was suffering from a classic case of peer pressure. In the academic circles she’s in, raising kids is seen as a task for day-cares or willing fathers. Despite wanting to stay home with her child and halve the time she spends on her PHD thesis, she felt judged by women who had chosen their career over their kids. One particular friend had put one toddler in 12 hour day-care and the other (the younger kid) with the father for a year, while she left town and focused on her work. My friend was torn between her desire to succeed and follow her ambition and her desire to be a good mom and be with her kid.

But this blog post is not about women, child-care or the issues involved with the dilemma that women have with their careers. This blog post is about why we care about what other people think. Sometimes what they think seems fundamentally contrary to our truths and sometimes what they think seems fundamentally right, making us feel guilty deep down. And very often, we’re caught in the middle with a little bit of both, not knowing what to do and caring about how the world perceives us.

While it is probably wise to go with your inner truths and act according to the principles you have chosen to live your life by, it’s worthy to reflect for a moment on the value of caring, nonetheless, about what other people think. I personally think that the bright side of caring is that it reflects an inherent desire to be in harmony with other people.

In other words, I believe that there is an inherent longing for people to come together. When you look at how we’ve developed over history, you’ll see that we’ve moved from tribal units to city-states, to nation-states and that now we are developing a global consciousness. We create communities that function around a specific set of values, so that we can flourish in harmony. Disarray is usually counter-productive. So we seek to gather around our commonalities, celebrating our constitutions and our national, corporate or religious values! This longing is what has taken us so far as a human family. It’s driven us towards being one reality.

Even the bloody, brutal and dark ways in which we’ve tried to achieve oneness (namely through colonialism and forced conversions) are nothing more than the inverted (or sick) version of this desire to share common values. While this inverted energy has, perhaps, contributed to more sameness that oneness, the positive version of it has made our diversity more apparent. And it is in diversity that you have real harmony. Anyone playing music will tell you.

While I believe that it’s great to stand up for what we believe, I also think that it is valuable to recognize the drive towards sharing a common framework of thought. We can strive, by trying, communicating, learning, cooperating, and retrying to move towards a more complete truth. One that is shaped by all our diverse voices, perspectives and experiences.

When the mic does not switch off
Added: Wednesday, 2 June 2010

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How does the whole privacy debate around social networking sites and the web affect you? Personally, there are days when I’m tempted to remove myself off Facebook and times when I leave my cell phone at home or just fall off the radar. Because it’s not just the web. A cell phone can be a constant indicator of where you are too. These days instant messaging programs, Twitter and other cell phone applications like The Grid enable you to share exactly where you are on the map at any given time – sometimes without your knowledge. I find that a little discomforting. As do many of you, I’m sure.

But then again I can’t remember a time in my life when comfort led to anything good. In my experience discomfort is a much better path to take. So here I am, looking for the benefit in all this “invasion of privacy”.

I once read that privacy is a relative term. If you believe in the inherent oneness of the human family, then even the most private decisions of others are no longer entirely a matter of each to his own, but rather a matter of collective implication. On a societal level this is not so hard to accept: if a nation decides on an energy policy, for example, this naturally affects all other nations - especially if they have to pay the price for it. In this age of political, social and environmental interdependence, the consequences of our decisions don’t stay within our national borders.

But when the theory extends to an individual level, it gets more complicated. If you stay with the theory that we’re all one, then if someone decides to, say, kill themselves, it’s not just his or her own business but everyone’s. Now that’s a little harder to digest. But the thinking is that even those whose lives don’t seem to be directly connected to the person's are ultimately affected by his or her decision. This is because life is like a delicate ecosystem. Every individual is a cell, and each cell is necessary and vital for the functioning of the whole. What you do affects the human organism as a whole. This is a bold ideological position to take. It means that we don’t only have rights, such as the right to live the way we want or the right to do with our lives what we want, but also a responsibility – a responsibility towards others and towards the whole.

I think that many of us believe this and don’t believe it at the same time. On the one hand we’re more or less happy to exercise some responsibilities by paying taxes, by not littering, by obeying traffic laws or other laws. But we resist being answerable to anything "bigger" than ourselves, when we feel that our own personal comfort or sense of self-determination is compromised.

But while we don’t want anyone else reading our personal messages on Facebook, we get upset when Gordon Brown slips up as he’s getting into his car with the mic still on. But how many of us talk about our own family members in worse ways than he did about that voter? We don’t always mean it that way. We allow ourselves to let off steam in private. And so beyond the danger of credit-card fraud or identity theft, the “invasion of privacy” - the availability of our info to third parties; the microphone that is left on at all times – has a tendency to shed a light onto the discrepancy between who we are and who we profess to be. It exposes our hypocrisy and amplifies our mistakes or shortcomings - sometimes in cruel and disproportionate ways.

I know that there are many dangers and fears involved with the abuse of privacy. But with the mic being on at all times, one advantage is that we are pushed to live lives that are more conscious and in line with what we believe is right. It can help us narrow the gap between our theoretic values and our actual application of them. It may help us exercise more caution and wisdom in what we say and how we act. And this means that we as a human family can move towards more refinement and unity.

Haiti, Iran and what’s in between
Added: Monday, 25 January 2010

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It’s amazing to see the world responding to what is going on in Haiti. Even if you’re a cynic, you have to admit that this kind of reaction is unprecedented in the history of humankind. Never before have we been this exposed to the most personal and immediate stories from people on the other side of the world. We “feel” for perfect strangers more tangibly than ever before. Some of my friends based in the United States are flying to Haiti to lend a hand. Others in places like Bahrain are raising money and say that the city mosques are continuously singing prayers for the wounded and affected. Yes in many ways these are the end-times. But those who “perish” are not those who are dying. What perishes in this fire is our old way of thinking and “humanity's stubborn clinging to old patterns of behavior”. Love is the pillar of our salvation and unity is the arch that will shelter us. I see a tremendous shift in the right direction in these days of hardship.

In all of this heart-wrenching chaos a friend of mine, for whom Haiti occupies a special place in his heart, is frustrated with how major news networks report of “looting” in Haiti. He says it’s just wrong for “Western” media to report on people’s desperation in that way, when the West has spent a life-time looting Haiti. From a place of compassion and emotion for the individual circumstances of people I completely agree with him. It really feels insensitive and out of place to use those terms. From a place of “principle” perhaps, it raises another interesting question – independent of the given circumstance:

How do our principles and deepest convictions pan out in times of adversity? Do we always try and live by our convictions or only when things are relatively balanced? Because in my mind, it’s precisely when the going gets rough that our principles matter the most. If you’re never exposed to another, highly attractive and intelligent woman, you’re probably going to be faithful to your wife. If you’ve always got enough food on the table, chances are, you’re not going to break into someone’s house, put a gun to their head and ask them for their cash. People who commit “transgressions” are always under some kind of pressure. It can be survival, it can be lust, it can be greed, it can be desperation. My point is: our principles are what carry us through the rough times, not the good. They are what matter most when everything else falls apart. Wouldn’t you say?

Even if we employ compassion and understanding in individual circumstances, shouldn’t we strive to hold our principles dear on a collective and societal level - as a compass that directs our course?

The subject is very close to my heart, because while people are sending money and prayers and flying in to help the people of Haiti, there are things we need to do on a day to day basis, that can change the world on a profound level. Let us not think that giving money and sending a check, but then living our lives the way we’ve always done will do any good. Change needs to happen regardless of whether there is an earthquake or not. And the question of having principles, values and laws as the foundation of any functioning society or institution is one of the most relevant ones to ask ourselves as we try and build a new world.

***

The trial of the 7 Baha’i leaders in Iran has begun. Baha’is have been subjected to human rights violations for over a century. Even though their government does not respect them or their rights (or the rights of their own citizens); even though their government will bend its own rules and ignore international conventions, to which it is a signatory, Iranian Baha’is choose to obey the law of their country as a matter of principle.

What do you think about principles and their relationship to our lives?

What you do for your body, do for your soul
Added: Monday, 9 November 2009

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Whether you’re religious or absolutely not, you most definitely “believe”. Beliefs are what shape our realities. If we believe we are worthy and noble, we live a different life than if we believe we’re unworthy and low. And our thoughts have a huge impact on our beliefs, because whatever we perpetuate we internalize and after a while we eventually believe. That is why it is very important that we focus on positive things all the time – and look for the good in people, even if it means we have to do some diggin’!

But there are times in our lives where “faith” or “belief” in “goodness” or “Godness” (you pick what works best for you) becomes extremely difficult. When we are pushed to the limits of our mental and spiritual capacity we find it difficult to “believe”. A mother whose child is taken from her and perhaps tortured before her or kidnapped never to come back again may not immediately regain the kind of faith she had while she was sitting over a turkey at Christmas last year. Of course there are those whose faith is fuelled by hardship and who embrace the extreme situations of life with open arms according to the motto “with fire we test the gold”.

But for those of us who find it more difficult to respond with such excitement in times of hardship, there is one little thought I’ve found helpful when there seems to be nothing around me but darkness. That thought is the inspiration I get from the physical world. When our bodies - our physical lives - are acutely endangered there comes a surge of extreme power, when we find it in us to hold on, with the last of our energy, to the straw, to the branch, to the rock, to the shred of wood that may keep us alive. And I believe that when our faith is acutely endangered we need to do the same – we need to hold onto whatever piece of hope we can find to keep us going until help comes and we can begin to recover. It reminds me of when we first switch off the light and the darkness that envelopes us seems so absolute. But with time, our eyes can discern some nuances of light. With time, things become a little better.

My wings if I were a butterfly
Added: Tuesday, 20 October 2009

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In his four part history of the Baha’i Faith, “Baha’u’llah’s Revelation”, Adib Taherzadeh makes an excursion into the marvelous world of butterflies. For me, his account of the process of metamorphosis is one of those buoys I can hold on to when waters get rough.

Taherzadeh explains that caterpillars are wrapped so tightly in their silk cocoons, that they’re forced to exert an unimaginable amount of energy to break free in the process of becoming a butterfly. They literally push and kick and beat about their frail little legs. It’s a heart-wrenching process to witness. Imagine watching a loved one wrapped tightly in sheet of silk, struggling to get out. What would you do? Wouldn’t you want to grab a knife and tear the thing open? I’ve wanted to help many a loved one out in that way.

Well that’s just what a handful of scientists did. They took a bunch of caterpillars and basically sliced their cocoons open in an effort to ease their transition into butterfly-hood. But the result was dismal. All the butterflies emerged weak, limp and on top of that pretty ugly too. They barely had any designs on their wings. As it turned out, the process of struggling, of beating about their insect-limbs, of suffering through what it was they had to get through, actually built the strength and character of those little beauties. And the tighter and tougher the silk mummy had been, the more beautiful the design on the butterfly’s wings turned out. There was a direct correlation between the scale of struggling the insects went through and their level of physical refinement.

*

The older I get, the more acutely aware I am of my own shortcomings and those of the people around me. We are all imperfect and we don’t always know how to respond to the cocoon that is the life we’re in. Each one of us faces a unique set of circumstances and we wonder how to maximize the time that we have here. In all that we do, we try, we make mistakes, we regret, we try again, we make headway, we fall back again, we try again. We ask ourselves what is right and what is wrong? We look across to a loved one and wonder how we can ease their enigmatic struggle…

But perhaps, as long as we’re trying - that is in itself the right response.

The best and worst of human conditions
Added: Monday, 31 August 2009

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I'm sure you've sat in the sun and enjoyed its warmth, soaking in the energy and enjoying the bright colors of the world around you. You've heard the sprinklers, smelled the grass and felt so alive you could split an atom. No matter how many tests you may have in your life, how much trouble may weigh on your shoulders, when you come across a sunny day that makes the colors jump out of their skin, nothing can stop you from smiling.

And then a cloud comes along. And instantaneously the world is dull and dark and horrid. You cannot believe your eyes, but you can feel it in your heart. It's like a lever is being pulled and you're going from elated to depressed. The colors fade, a chilly shiver runs down your spine and the very scene that so inspired you now looks depleted. Even hostile.

And then the sun emerges again and the lever is pushed back and you instantly forgive the clouds, for now everything is great and beautiful and good again...Have you ever felt this way?

This week a dear soul passed on to the next realm. She was a member of our community and struggled with cancer for many, many years. You would think cancer, illness, disease, war, hunger, poverty – these are among the worst things to befall any person or family. You would think it would have clouded and shrouded her sunny disposition. But far from it – she always had and gave plenty of light to those around her. So much so, that I, in fact, was among the few not ever to notice that she was even sick!

When death, or life after death came so suddenly to her it got me thinking. How was it, that in her life and in the lives of her dear husband and children one couldn't detect those large, dark clouds? And I realized that I was wrong. Illness, disease, poverty, misfortune – these things are not the clouds in our life. The clouds are when we don't have unity in our family. When we have unity in our family, it is as though the sun were shining brightly. When the sun shines I smile even though I have problems and life isn't perfect. And when your body is ridden with cancer, you still smile, because your family is coloring the world BRIGHT and beautiful.

But not all of us have unity in our lives. I'd say most of us don't. It starts with our families, but that sunshine or lack thereof continues in the reality that is our community, our nation – and of course – our world. We live in a world that is covered with clouds. Our world is a shadow of what it could be. We're a human family that is broken, estranged and divided. Our kids are rebelliously pubescent and our marriage is breaking up.

Just imagine: what chance could war, famine and disease have if we put up a united front? What chance would all the perils of the world have on us if only we strove for unity? How could those things ever defeat us and our sunny disposition if our human family was as united as my friend's family was?

Soar in peace, dear Debbie.

You strike a rock
Added: Friday, 21 August 2009

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The phrase "You strike a woman you strike a rock", has come to represent the strength of women in South Africa. On August 9th in 1956, when the apartheid regime legislated that all persons of African descent must carry special passes around with them, women petitioned against this law by marching to the union buildings in the country's capital, Pretoria. They stood outside the buildings in silence, many of them carrying their own children or those of the white family's they worked for. They then began singing Wathint'Abafazi Wathint'imbokodo! (Now you have touched the women, you have struck a rock.)

There is something graceful and noble about the pictures one sees of the time. Although it was a march or a protest, it was done with the dignity and poise that we mostly see from women. When women protest, they don't hurl rocks and they don't burn icons. They demand your respect by giving you respect. This is a quality that our society does not nurture. We live in a world that is constantly nurturing and feeding our lower or baser nature. We may learn the theory of virtues and principles, but in our societal realities, we are constantly encouraged to bend our principles and beliefs in order to achieve goals. You need only watch an episode of RUNNING IN HEELS to witness a typical professional environment that is outwardly female, but loaded with the same "male" outlook which believes that in order to excel, you have to make others look bad, stab them in the back and hold them back from progressing.

The idea of protest is in itself problematic. It's a feature of our current order and a "necessary evil", as long as our societal paradigm is based on fundamental disunity. Its aim is to make a statement, raise awareness and create leverage against those who abuse power. But the problem starts with our understanding of power. We think of it in terms of control; the control of resources. And therefore we think of (and manifest) power as potentially abusive. So by default we need to leverage that power through counter-power and that's how we get social protest or opposition. But really protest buys into the same black and white notion of right and wrong, winners and losers as it claims to defy and it limits the diverse and complex nature of reality. It also means that those with the most sticks and stones will have their way. After all a simple strike can become a threatening situation. Your are essentially threatening and pressuring a person/party into a specific action. How is this really different from the nature of the oppression you're trying to undo?

I believe that if there were more of a female voice in the way the world works, we would see a transformation in the entire paradigm that our world operates on. Women have a much more inclusive view of things. They naturally see themselves and the world as an organic entity. Women are the heart of any family, village and society.

Our role far exceeds that of marching and protesting (even if it is peacefully). We have the ability to nurture other ways of transforming society. If we raise and foster families and societies that put justice, unity and cooperation in the forefront of their agenda, we won't find ourselves in a situation where ruthless oppression – the likes of which we see in many nations right now - must be confronted with another, perhaps socially more acceptable form of oppression.

*

Women's day is a day to celebrate and explore the true and unique potential of women around the world. We have come a long way. Let's not be satisfied and let's keep walking. I know that the idiom of the woman as a rock refers to our strength. We are strong and determined as a rock. Steadfast as rock. And that is beautiful and right. But let's also look at the smoothness and softness of a rock that is slapped by the waves and toned to perfection. What can that tenderness teach us (and teach MEN) about life and existence?

Added: Sunday, 9 August 2009

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August 12 marks International Youth Day and I have a great little story to inspire us. It's the story of my friend's son. My friend and her husband were called to their son's school one day. They were both a little worried and surprised. After all, their kid is the quintessence of gentle. What kind of trouble could he possibly be in? They arrived in school and the teacher began explaining what had happened in gym.

The kids were told to line up in the yard. Each was given a ball and they were then asked to run to the other side of the yard and drop their ball on the line. Ready, steady, GO! The kids began running as fast as their little feet could carry them, but this little boy was faster than the rest.

At this point in the story my friends exchanged a confused looked and wondered where the problem was? He's gifted! God bless! But the teacher continued.

Even though this little boy was faster than the rest, he would slow down, look back and deliberately delay his arrival at the line, so that he could reach it along with everyone else. He would literally sabotage his own advantage in order to make his friends not feel so bad. The teacher then took a deep breath and begged my friends to please teach their son to harness his gift and to use it to his best ability! The others were holding him back!

And now I ask you, dear readers. Which was this youth's gift? Was it his talent for running? Or did this teacher, with all his good will, miss the boy's real gift? The gift of putting others before himself?

If humanity has both the capacity for selfishness and selflessness, if we have both natures in us – which do we nurture and develop? What aspects of our character are drawn out in our current societal institutions and is it doing us any good? Is the world becoming a better place? What could it look like if we harnessed our ability to cooperate?

If Youth Day is about drawing inspiration and vision from our youth – then please, let's draw what we can from the story of this little boy (who's name will probably not remain in history) and his awesome parents, who – thank God – know to celebrate their son's gift for cooperation.

Is what we spend most of our lives doing
Added: Wednesday, 29 July 2009

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My life encompasses 3 decades so far. I spent the first decade waiting eagerly to be a teenager and adult. I spent the second decade waiting to finish school and study. I spent my third decade trying to figure out what will be my purpose and how I'll make my mark. With the exception of the first few years of my life, however, I've spent most of it waiting for something. And it's this sense of "one day..." that keeps getting worse:

"One day I'll be happy, have kids, be successful, rich..." – you fill in the blanks. We all have some vague sense of what we want and it comes down to this idea that whatever it is, it will make us happy and fill us up – "one day!"

But waiting is always tied to an outcome. You're waiting: for someone to come home, someone to grow up, someone to change, something to change; waiting to find your purpose, your dream partner, the dream life or house. And that's where things get ugly, because outcomes can disappoint – more often than not, they do. If we spend every day of our life constantly waiting for something to happen before we're happy, we'll spend the rest of our lives waiting for something to happen. Because even when they do happen, we realize that we're not fulfilled. Beyond every achievement or goal lies another horizon. It never ends and the sense of panic grows.

How about we begin today to just 'be' the happiness, the joy, we want in our life? Because these are the days of our lives! They're not growing in number, they're shrinking! If you were to be told that nothing were ever to change in your life from this day forward (externally), what would you need to work on acquiring; what virtue or strength would you need to develop in order to achieve happiness? Whatever that is, is what you should probably be focusing on. And maybe instead of 'waiting' we need to be 'patient'. Patience is not tied to an outcome. It is detached. It means that we try and we put ourselves out there, to be the best we can be, but that we find our fulfilment, our happiness, our elation today in exactly that effort and in nothing else.

If we're happy today, if we just start living and being who we want to be - today - and we start thinking and seeing the world we want to live in - today - then we will manifest that reality and things will change; our lives will change, Iran will change, Honduras will change, the housing market will change...you get the picture.

The mathematics of love
Added: Wednesday, 22 July 2009

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"Till Death Do Not Do Us Part" - That was the title of a little talk I gave the other night at a local university. We gathered in an informal venue at one of the residences and I opened with the question:

"Do you believe that once we work on and solve the issues we have in our relationships with one another, we can reach a state of unity?"

Most people thought about their girlfriends, boyfriends or spouses and said "Sure, once you solve the issues. But that's the challenge. Solving the issues...!"

I left it at that and then embarked on one of my infamous excursions into the (often unconscious) values and assumptions underlying our relationships whether they be interpersonal, institutional, political, sociological or ecological. Humanity does, after all, have a relationship with nature too – albeit a terrible one.

My deliberations concluded with the general proposition that, in a world that has literally become interdependent and one, we need to change the values and assumptions underlying our relationships and societal structures – and go from premising them on self-interest to learning how to premise them on mutualism, for lack of a better word in brevity.

And so we came back to my initial question:

"Do you believe that once we work on and solve the issues we have in our relationships with one another, we can reach a state of unity?" or:

"Do you believe that once we work on and solve the issues we have in our societies or in the world at large (such as poverty, inequality, exploitation, violence, crime etc), we can reach a state of unity and peace?"

Though hesitant this time round, most people gave me a half-hearted nod. They knew that what we had talk about probably suggested a different answer, but they didn't know what that would be, so I whipped out one of my favorite quotes of all times:

"The wellbeing of mankind, its peace and security are both unattainable unless and until its unity is firmly established."

And the consequence of this statement is that we won't ever solve our issues, whether they be in our inter-personal relationships with each other (as couples, siblings, children, parents or friends) or in our bigger relationships with one another (as communities, nations or interest-groups) until we create unity. It flips the entire equation around. We will be ailing until we tackle the underlying disease, which is lack of unity.

And we spent the last 10 minutes or more, as I now invite you to do with me, reflecting on just what this could mean in practice. What does it mean to build unity in a relationship and to solve our issues from the point of departure? What does it mean to be an institution, not two different people? What does it mean to be a rich, diversely made-up institution or entity and not a series of individuals with conflicting needs and wants? ...and finally - when will we get over our 'selves' and spend our days thinking less about 'me' and more about 'us'?

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