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Can You Hack It? Living As If Spirit Was, Y’Know, A THING

[NINE-DAY READ. Okay, not really, but you *could* take each of the 9 spiritual life hacks below and make it your daily focus. Or take the 15 minutes or so now!]

“You can’t hack it!”

This was as derisive as we could get. This was contempt, as close as a small-town kid in the 1970s could come to putting a rival — and sometimes, painfully, even himself — in his place. You don’t have what it takes. You’re not tough! You just quit when things don’t go your way. (Later on, “You suck! took over, with more vulgarity and less nuance.) You get the idea. “Hacking it” was the idea of fighting one’s way through heavy undergrowth with a machete; for me, though, a more apt metaphor was less exotic — hoeing and hilling the backyard potatoes, maybe, or raking all the humps and stones out of the Edinburgh Square infield so the ground balls wouldn’t bad-hop us in the head. “Hacking it” meant taking your figurative least-blunt instrument and swinging, cutting, hacking our way through obstacles.

This isn’t about unscrewing jars or getting free stuff, but it might be useful anyway.

I suppose it later had the same connotation for the computer geeks looking to break code or bypass cybersecurity, hence “hackers”, which led inevitably to the concept of LIFE HACKS. Reddit forums, podcasts and twitter feeds offer all kinds of hacks and short cuts to living well. Video gamers exchange cheat codes that allow a player to jump past problems. Rami Malek won an Emmy for portraying a disturbed Hacker-As-Hero in Mr. Robot; we all want to hack the system, at least the unjust ones. (Okay, or watch movies where somebody prettier than us does.) But life hacks? Cheat codes to goodness? Can a few simple tricks pave the way to a life of nobility and genuine accomplishment?

Well, mostly no. “Life is suffering,” the Buddha persists in reminding us. (All the Buddhas have, in one language or another.) Looking for shortcuts and easy ways out doesn’t make for great leaders, inspiring artists, brilliant chemists or superb athletes, let alone someone on the “straight and narrow” path of spiritual enlightenment and wisdom. But while a life of goodness, higher awareness and peace of mind isn’t EASY to build, it also doesn’t have to be super-complicated. There are actions we can take, habits we can develop over time, that really do lead to contentment, to Soul Success.

Or, at least, this is what I’ve READ.

Still, my wife and I were inspired by an off-hand comment that Rainn Wilson made on a podcast. He mentioned that he has sometimes given “fireside chats” in which he shares his own “Spiritual Life Hacks”, though he didn’t mention what they were. We were intrigued, and we brainstormed nine of them to share during a laughter-filled, fire-crackling winter evening in our cozy living room. As are we, the Nine Hacks were inspired by the Baha’i teachings, but they are confirmed both by age-old practice and by cutting-edge thought…

So, are you ready? (Me neither, but I can certainly explain what we talked about!) In no special order, here’s what EnviroBride and I came up with as keys to living the Truly Good Life:

  1. CHOOSE PAIN & DIFFICULTY.

Wait: we should go looking for trouble? Not exactly. I’m not recommending that we all go out and pick up some fancy addictions or purposely make Bad Life Decisions. But I am saying, Don’t shy away from the tough stuff. LIFE will challenge us anyway, so why not toughen ourselves up by our own choices? It ’s not really so strange: artists, athletes, and scientists willingly, eagerly, take on tough challenges in order to grow in their work. It builds character! Tests help us to grow! (No, really!) Famously, basketball coaching icon John Wooden put “competitive greatness” at the top of his Pyramid of Success; he argued that “real love of a hard battle” made basketball players and teams, or anybody striving to do anything worthwhile, better and stronger. The finest steel goes through the hottest forges. The Baha’i Master ‘Abdu’l-Baha put it this way:

“The more difficulties one sees in the world the more perfect one becomes. The more you plough and dig the ground the more fertile it becomes….The more you sharpen the steel by grinding the better it cuts…”

He even said we should “bring [children] up to work and strive, and accustom them to hardship.” Baha’i kids love to hear that one! But it’s true.

  1. SPEAK TO THE UNIVERSE. YELL HELP! BEFORE YOU NEED IT. (Yup, it’s PRAYER.)

Pray every day whether you think you need it or not. I am still a novice at this after decades, but things somehow go better when I put some energy and thought into stating my requests to the universe and my condition within it. Praying. Whether we are basically saying Thanks!  or Help! or Wow! there is real value to voicing our innermost thoughts to our best selves, to the Universe, to our ancestors, to the Creator. We get out of our own heads. We consult powers higher than our own. We ASK. We put ourselves humbly in our place before The World has to do it, or seek understanding after life has smacked us down. It’s all good! And try not to think, I gotta get God to change His mind! Or make sure She knows what’s up!  It’s mainly our own minds we’re trying to change. Or at least, that’s the attitude that works best for me: try to feel connected with, and be mindful of, and maybe even ask for help from, a Higher Power. It’s one good way to get things off your chest.

  1. SPREAD COMPOST ON YOUR MIND. LEAVEN THY BRAIN.

As is manure to a field, or as yeast is to bread (it’s the leaven, the thing that makes it rise), so is the input of Words of Power to our hearts and minds. Reading It lifts us, nourishes us. Like most people, I have too many days where I feed my Best Self nothing but the spiritual equivalent of junk food — trivia and rumours and rehashed gossip, stuff that doesn’t nourish me at ALL. So I try to give myself at least a couple of high-fibre, vitamin-enriched mental inputs per day. I allow myself to think and rehearse the greatest thoughts of the greatest Minds. Apply. Rinse. Repeat. It doesn’t need to take long. The Prophet/Founder of the global Baha’i community offered this challenge:

“Immerse yourselves in the ocean of My words, that ye may unravel its secrets, and discover all the pearls of wisdom that lie hid in its depths…. Say: Through it the poor have been enriched, the learned enlightened, and the seekers enabled to ascend…” Baha’u’llah

And right now, for another instance, I’m reading — just a little bit, most days — the gorgeous, nature-adoring poetry of Mary Oliver. At the end of “The Summer Day”, she grabs me by the shoulder and looks me in the eye and says, “Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? / Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?” Now, that is a healthy snack for my head.

  1. “BE STILL AND KNOW”. MEDITATE.

Sometimes our hyperactive minds, our pinball attention, need to be stilled. Regularly, in fact.) There are many forms of meditation: from the active pondering of a problem, asking ourselves questions, to the emptying or quieting of the mind. Sometimes it’s a long look back, or imagining our way into a future. (Sometimes, even now, it’s an empty gym, a hoop, and a ball.) Religious traditions have always, in various forms, advocated this quietness. (The snippet above comes from Psalm 46, verse 10, in the Old Testament.) We recently heard Daniel Levitin speaking on and around his new book, Successful Aging. The neuroscientist points to the science of meditation and its demonstrated benefits to brain health and psychological well-being. Strong advice, given in a church sanctuary to a nodding host of mainly non-church-going white-haired well-to-dos. My wife commented, “Well, it’s great that he’s advocating it, but religions have been telling us this forever!”

“The spirit of man is itself informed and strengthened during meditation; through it affairs of which man knew nothing are unfolded before his view….Meditation is the key for opening the doors of mysteries…” ‘Abdu’l-Baha

  1. STUDY ACCOUNTING! (KEEP SCORE, but BE KIND.)

We can learn. We believe. We plan. We are doers. We are HUMANS being. But if we don’t examine all these things for ourselves, we’re barely half alive. The unexamined life is not worth living, said Socrates. We need to pause for reflection a whole lot more than most of us do. We need to know the score, not of the most recent Raptors game but of our own lives. The great sportswriter Grantland Rice (in a long poem, about football, of all things!) concluded as follows: “For when the One Great Scorer comes / To write against your name, / He marks–not that you won or lost– / But how you played the Game.” And that score is not measured, it goes almost without saying, by comparing ourselves and our material well-being to others and their treasures; as the Indigenous prayer says, we ask assistance and take stock of our lives “not to be superior to my brothers, but to be able to fight my greatest enemy, myself”. Yes: know thine enemy. So we should find some way to get to better know ourselves, in some semi-organized way. We can reflect according to whatever schedule works, but the foundation is some brief DAILY accounting.

Bring thyself to account each day ere thou art summoned to a reckoning; for death, unheralded, shall come upon thee and thou shalt be called to give account for thy deeds.” Baha’u’llah

Well, that was blunt!

  1. THANKSGIVING IS EVERY DAY.

Maintaining an “attitude of gratitude” breeds humility, respect, openness, and love. We might ask, What am I grateful for today? The mirror image of thankfulness is generosity. So we Thank. And we Give. Thanksgiving. It works. It’s one of the principal reasons to pray, has been forever, but it’s also a great way to train ourselves to habitually think and behave. Christian pastor Charles Swindoll said it well: “The only thing we can do is play on the one string we have, and that is our attitude. I am convinced that life is 10% what happens to me and 90% of how I react to it.” Thanksgiving is a CHOICE. Many life coaches preach the importance of the “attitude of gratitude”, and there are all kinds of scientific studies that prove it: people who are grateful are just happier, more contented, more likely to see their circumstances in a positive light. (They’re also NICER.) Thanksgiving is a renewable resource, and we should mine it daily.  

  1. DIVORCE YOUR STUFF.

At LEAST get a firm pre-nuptial agreement, so you don’t get to the point where your stuff owns YOU. (‘Cuz you can’t take it with you…!!)

MATERIALISM IS A BEAST, and it doesn’t take days off. We need to tame it. Face facts (it won’t hurt, honest!). We are tempted (constantly! everywhere we walk or scroll, by the entire machinery of our so-called civilization!!) to worship things: from big bank accounts, private jets and exotic vacations to sports franchises, sneaker collections or the obese menu of our favourite foods and drinks. It’s the human condition, after all. We do live a material existence, and I’m not suggesting AT ALL that we lead some weirdo, shadow existence that denies the basic facts of bodies. But we all know that at our best, we don’t become slaves to our possessions, our selfish desires, or our pleasures, for that matter. We should try to do better than merely “amusing ourselves to death”, as the late great Neil Postman wrote. Meanwhile, the Baha’i Teachings refer to “materialism: rampant, crass and brutal” (!!) as one of the modern “false gods” that we unconsciously substitute for real spiritual longing, for a genuine reverence. The globally elected international council of the Baha’i community — it’s amazing — warned in 2017:

“The forces of materialism [say to us]…: that happiness comes from constant acquisition, that the more one has the better, that worry for the environment is for another day. These seductive messages fuel an increasingly entrenched sense of personal entitlement….Indifference to the hardship experienced by others becomes commonplace, while entertainment and distracting amusements are voraciously consumed. The enervating influence of materialism seeps into every culture…” 

It’s hard not to let it swamp us. If we can’t exactly divorce our stuff, maybe we could try to just be friends?Baby steps: a little detachment goes a long way.

  1. HUNT GOODNESS! BE A HOPE DETECTIVE.

My best buddy and his wife have long worked hard at a thing they call valuing. It’s their antidote to the relationship-killing tendency to find fault with and backbite about everybody, but especially about the ones we should most care about. Does “seeing the good” make us wilfully blind? Not really; it actually clarifies our vision. Chronically seeing the negative is NOT “reality”, but just a bad mental habit. Instead, work to find what is best about spouses, or colleagues, or situations. Apply ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s simple foundation of psychological health: the 10 and the 1. (Simple, but not easy!!)

“If a man has ten good qualities and one bad one, to look at the ten and forget the one, and if a man has ten bad qualities and one good one, to look at the one and forget the ten.” ‘Abdu’l-Baha

Naive and “super nice”? Hopelessly optimistic? Pretending that everything is just fine even when it clearly isn’t?

This is NOT what I mean, or what “look at the ten…look at the one” means. More like this, as sadly departed writer David Foster Wallace urged in his only commencement address: “Learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed…” Being positive is good hygiene! Filling our thoughts with what is NOT — negative situations or characteristics that lack the goodness we hope for — is not nearly as nourishing as seeing what IS. Seeing the positive this way (think: our kids, our students, the girls on the basketball team) helps others to be the best of themselves, even as it makes it easier for us to gather a little joy and discover more fuel for the warming campfire of gratitude. Everybody wins!

  1. TURN HUMAN NATURE ON ITS HEAD.

The ancient theological doctrine of original sin, compounded by any number of modern arguments for cynicism and chronic disappointment, has been profoundly confusing and destructive. Have you noticed? When people shrug and say, “It’s only human nature”? it’s always after someone gives in to temptation, or steals, or cheats on a friend, or erupts in violence. But if human nature is essentially negative and destructive, how come most of us have family and friends that we love and trust? When we look at the people we know best and care about, we might see the flaws (see no. 8) but we’re more likely to notice that most people are mainly good most of the time. We’ve ALL seen it: people help one another, at need; they’re friendly, if given half a chance; they build, they make art, they love children, and they aspire to goodness even when they’re far from it. This is also human nature! We need to learn a new reflex, so here’s my challenge: whenever you notice a small kindness, or witness people helping each other after tragedy, or consider that young person who dies in tackling the creep who’s killing kids in a school, announce it to everyone who can hear you: WELL, THAT’S JUST HUMAN NATURE RIGHT THERE!

It’s one of the ways that the Baha’i Teachings keep turning my head around, and have so much healing wisdom and energy. They say: humans are essentially good, but we can go horribly wrong if we’re poorly trained or left to our own selfish tendencies. In other words, the human spirit is a noble thing, but we can turn towards lowdown thoughts and things and, yes, we can use our superpowers for some pretty crappy purposes: 

“O SON OF SPIRIT! Noble have I created thee, yet thou hast abased thyself. Rise then unto that for which thou wast created.” Baha’u’llah

 “Man is the supreme Talisman. Lack of a proper education hath, however, deprived him of that which he doth inherently possess….Regard man as a mine rich in gems of inestimable value. Education can, alone, cause it to reveal its treasures, and enable mankind to benefit therefrom.” Baha’u’llah

This last one is the touchstone of my life. “The root cause of wrongdoing is ignorance.” We need to KNOW BETTER, and help everyone — but especially the young, and those who raise them — to recognize these “hidden gems” that are inside us, and help them to be discovered, polished, and displayed. EDUCATION IS EVERYTHING.

 

Early this morning I walked long as snow built up on the trees, and it occurred to me that my bride (a dancer, a skier, a lover of movement and stretching and fitness and did I mention MOVEMENT? — came up with NINE WAYS TO LIVE LIFE BETTER and not one of them was EXERCISE. (Or even avocadoes.) Our spirits tend to get lifted by the gym workout, the brisk walk, the game of footie or even hacky-sack at lunchtime. So that was a miss, and no doubt you can come up with other “spiritual hacks” that have worked (or could) for YOU.

These things WORK! Let’s not fool ourselves into thinking any of this will be easy, but it’s not string theory! Every guru reminds us: “Step by step. Little by little. Day by day…” Thanks for paying attention!

Paradise Is Always a Garden: The Baha’i Thing, From Then to Nearly Now

After finishing this piece, I learned of the passing of a great pillar of the Canadian Baha’i community, not to mention an internationally renowned painter. His name was Otto Donald Rogers, “Don” to most who knew him. He was a quietly magnificent human being, and I’d like to retroactively offer this as a small tribute to a great man. Peace to his family and friends.  
[12-minute read]
A rather different (shorter) version of this piece appears at the Baha’i Teachings website: click here for Part 1, here for Part 2

Maybe you’ve been obsessing about the NHL or NBA playoffs. (No Canadian teams left in the quest for the hockey grail. No LeBron, no more Spurs.) Or wondering if spring will ever come. (Spoiler: it will. It’s underway. Just ask flood victims all over everywhere, but don’t mention climate change. That would be rude!) But for the Baha’is, it’s coming near the end of the “Most Great Festival” of the Baha’i calendar, and I’m all in.

This is not the original Najibiyyih Garden that Baha’u’llah called Paradise, but it evokes the same spirit.

This festival is called “Ridván”, an Arabic word meaning “paradise”, and the best my Canadian mouth can manage is something like ‘Rez-VAHN’. It’s a 12-day period that celebrates the public “mission statement” of the Faith’s founder, Bahá’u’lláh, in a Baghdad garden in 1863. This Persian nobleman, already stripped of wealth and social status and banished from his homeland, was turning a supposedly humiliating further exile into, well, a mighty big party now celebrated by millions around the globe. It’s Day 11. Two nights ago I prayed and partied with a small group not far from my house. I’ll do it again tomorrow night on Day 12, but on April 21, I joined in with a big crowd of Baha’is and their friends for the Big Ridvan Opening, where we were invited to consider how the Baha’i community got from 1863 Baghdad obscurity to the world-wide reach it has today. I’ve been trying to follow Baha’u’llah’s mighty System of knowledge and practice for a long time now. Sometimes it feels I haven’t gotten very far, but I’m still walking, and the Baha’i Big Picture is bright and ever-developing.

Anyway, it all got me thinking about histories: my own, that of the Baha’i community over the past century and a half, and even of earlier crossings into New Millennium territory.

And I thought: I would have made a very poor 1st– or 2nd-century Christian. I would’ve wanted the Kingdom to come NOW! But the growth of Christianity was slow, and the times were confusing. Heck, Pope Gregory wouldn’t be born for centuries, so the Gregorian calendar that dates our lives based on Jesus’s life hadn’t been invented; 100 years after Christ, the word “Christian” was just beginning to distinguish this tiny community from the many other Jewish cults and sects that had arisen. Even 300 years after the life of Jesus Christ, His followers were found only in tiny pockets in what we call the “Middle East”¹, Turkey, northern Africa and southern Europe, basically within a few donkey-days journey of the Mediterranean Sea. They were just beginning to organize their scriptures and get their doctrines and dogmas together, 325 years after Christ’s life, and the Christians wouldn’t become a major population even in the Mediterranean region until the 6th century. Today, it’s the most widespread religion in the world, of course, and we all take its supernatural degree of influence and prestige for granted. But I would have been so impatient as an early Christian!

¹ Ever noticed how Eurocentric that term is? As if everyplace should be measured from London or Paris (which, for many centuries, it was.)

So listen: when I joined the Baha’i community as a 1970s teenager, I began to wonder, Why are other faith groups, often younger than we are, seeming to grow so much faster than we are? I was noticing the Hare Krishna chants on Toronto streets, or the sudden North American splash, in news media and in recruitment, of the Unification Church, the so-called “Moonies”. I wasn’t tempted to join them, or even emulate their methods, but their bursts of public prominence bugged me.  A wise Baha’i elder answered our youthful questions in his deep, heavily accented but utterly logical way. (If you want to channel the voice of Dr. Danesh, imagine American diplomat Henry Kissinger, but with a Persian rather than a German accent, and with a devotion to the psychology of peace and justice rather than to strategies of conflict.) He calmly explained it this way: Think about what we are trying to grow. If you look at two plants in their first season of growth – one of them a pumpkin, one of them an oak tree – your conclusion might be easy. The pumpkin is obviously more impressive, vines and bright flowers and, within months, gigantic orange fruits! Meanwhile, the oak looks like a tender, fruitless twig. The community of Baha’u’llah is growing like an oak tree; as impressive as pumpkins seem to be, at the end of a year you have a few pumpkin pies and maybe a rotting jack-o-lantern, and that’s it.

That made sense to me then. (The reference to pie and jack-o-lanterns is probably mine, but you get the point.) There must have been a host of movements, 1900 years ago, that would have soundly defeated the Christians on a “Most Likely To Succeed” ballot. But the followers of Jesus, in the above analogy, were a slow-growing but eventually mighty oak tree, not a flash-in-the-pumpkin-pie-pan. I still have a lot to learn about patience, but the evolution of the Baha’i community, from its quietly intimate beginnings in the rose-coloured Garden of Ridvan to what I see now, is enough – barely – to keep me hopeful and sane. It’s over 150 years since Baha’u’llah announced his mission in Baghdad, which isn’t as long ago as our present-focussed obsessions and shortening attention spans can make it seem. His writings confidently predicted the growth of world-wide attention to his teachings and of the community that would arise in his name:

It is incumbent upon all the peoples of the world to reconcile their differences, and, with perfect unity and peace, abide beneath the shadow of the Tree of His care and loving-kindness….Soon will the present-day order be rolled up, and a new one spread out in its stead.

The original “Ridvan” garden, on the shores of the Tigris River in Baghdad. There were roses, roses and nightingales, and joy.

Ridvan now feels like a mighty Declaration, but back then even an attentive neutral observer might have missed the planting of that seed. Baha’u’llah confirmed publicly, to only a few people, what many of his family and friends had quietly known: that he was the one who would lead us to the long-promised day of peace and justice. He thus transformed his upcoming banishment into his modern community’s greatest festival. So how did we get HERE from back THERE? The Baha’is then were few in number, decimated by persecution, and frankly their fellowship seemed like a rather hopeless little twig. I seized on five pivotal years in the steady, seemingly unspectacular growth of the Baha’i community into the beautiful young tree it is today. Here is annual snapshot number one:

 

1892. My father’s parents were young, and would soon meet each other. It’s a little over 125 years since then, the year when Baha’u’llah passed away, leaving his son and family and a still-tiny band of followers to carry on the astounding, world-changing mission he had described and put into motion. Baha’u’llah (an Arabic term, meaning “splendour/light of God”) was not much more widely known than Jesus Christ (“the anointed one”) had been on the cross. His son, ‘Abdu’l-Baha, still a prisoner of the Turkish empire, was left to encourage and inspire a few thousand believers, in a few Middle Eastern countries, to live as his father had prescribed, and to tell the world of Baha’u’llah’s message of world peace, world unity, and the essential oneness of humanity. Good luck with that, folks! But listen: they began.

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Two Centuries Back: Anniversary for the World

[5-minute read. A different version of this same piece appears at www.BahaiTeachings.org, always a good place in which to wander about and think.]

Your retroactive invitation. Festivity’s over, but the party doesn’t end.

October was a big month in my little world. (Ah, but I’m always working to See the Big Picture, and to train my eyes on a World-Embracing Vision. In between laundry loads, basketball practices, and grinding away at That Book.) Just to be annoyingly clear, I’m not referring to the retail assault that was Hallowe’en, that will be BlackFriday/Thanksgiving in the Excited States of America, and which already hounds us to be frenzied consumers so baby Jesus can lay chocolate eggs under the reindeer tree — this, all over the “Christian” world and well beyond it.

No, the event I’m talking about didn’t make anybody any money. There was growing public awareness and appreciation, tributes from heads of state and spiritual dignitaries, but no ad blitzes, no junk-food tie-ins or “free” vacations on offer. No price of admission, either: come as you are, dress up if you’re able. Full disclosure: I think my wife did buy a new pair of shoes, and I bought a Dairy Queen ice-cream cake for my basketball boys. Heck, it was a celebration…

And on an October Saturday night, our family hosted a dinner party for a wonderfully mixed-up group of neighbours. Some had been our friends for a decade and a half, while others were in our home for the first time. Of course, we were celebrating the bicentenary of the Birth of Baha’u’llah. (Wait, WHAT? You didn’t hear about the 200th anniversary? Man, woman, hey kid! come ON! This wasn’t on CNN or Fox News, Al-Jazeera or ‘The World at Six’ on CBC Radio, but it’s the biggest and best behind-the-news story there IS. Seriously.)

(And I hear you over there, saying, “So how come you know about this supposedly ‘IMPORTANT’ event that most people are either totally oblivious to, or just sort of shrug about?” Answer: dumb luck.)

After my love’s famous Thai soup and other delicacies, I tried to explain what the Baha’is are so excited about. You see, I’ve been hanging around the Baha’i community for years, as many of my readers know. I try (and often fail) to live up to Baha’u’llah’s call for personal and societal transformation. I do my bit here and there, I guess, but it seems like pretty small potatoes sometimes. In October, though, it didn’t. It felt like being in a junior church choir that got to sing with a massed chorus from many congregations, one small voice in a great big HALLELUJAH! Right? So I talked about what this anniversary means to Baha’is and to the world. By doing so, at least I gave our friends a few minutes to do some main-course digestion before the unveiling of Diana’s Apple Cheesecake. I wanted to say something like this:

Friends and neighbours, as you know, Diana and I are members of the Baha’i Faith. It’s a worldwide movement dedicated to a few gigantic ideas: that the human race is one family, that we have to start ACTING like it, that there are principles and mechanisms that really can make it all work, and that it WILL work.

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Enough? The Baha’i Seven Are Still There**.

**(Lest We Forget)**

The campaign is over now.

There have been several concerted efforts to raise global awareness. One proclaimed the passing of 10,000 hours of unjust, of ridiculously tragic imprisonment of seven Baha’i leaders in Iran. Many fine words were said in numerous dignified contexts, but the “Yaran” – it means “friends” in Farsi – remained in jail. The five-year mark of their astounding 20-year sentences brought another crescendo of polite indignation, but these five years of loss, not only to the persecuted Baha’i minority but to all of Iranian society, moved the Teheran government not a bit.

Will a new logo be needed for nine?

Will a new logo be needed for nine?

In May of 2015, the hashtag #SevenBahaisSevenYears achieved not quite the currency of, say, #BlackLivesMatter (to say nothing of tags for TV shows or celebrity break-ups), but it circled the globe with awareness and a renewed call for justice. Earlier this month, #EnoughIsEnough and #ReleaseBahai7Now had their moments of trendiness as the Yaran’s captivity reached its eight anniversary.

The campaign did its best. More people than before are aware of the human rights situation in Iran, one that puts the Baha’is at the centre of the issue – not that they are the only, or even the largest, group that is oppressed and unjustly incarcerated. In fact, the Baha’i community wishes only to serve the broader population, and is dogged, even when its brightest young people are excluded from university admission, in its pursuit of education for all. Their “crime” is one, plainly and simply, of belief in the teachings of the 19th-century Persian nobleman known as Baha’u’llah, considered a heretic by Shiah Islamic clerics. All the noise about “sedition” and “immorality” and “spying” is nothing but bigoted, ignorant and baseless slander; religious intolerance is the reality.

So here I am. I tweeted and liked. Did my bit, I guess. Maybe so.

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Howdy, Are You Goofin’ on Lateness? * (Hey, Baby!)

The Buddha is supposed to have said that we should think of material existence as a lamp, a cataract, a star in space / an illusion, a dewdrop, a bubble / a dream, a cloud, a flash of lightning. Baha’u’llah wrote, The world is like the vapor in a desert, which the thirsty dreameth to be water and striveth after it with all his might, until when he cometh unto it, he findeth it to be mere illusion. All is illusion. It’s just a show, fairly useless and finally hollow. That being the case, of what importance is time, for heaven’s sake? (Or my own?) Another fantasy, ridiculous, so what could be the importance of phrases like “two weeks late” or “last month’s news” or “so 2015!”?

Listen, some of what I say could have been done in “January” – an invented construct, as is that of a “week” (see Genesis, Chapter 1) – or even in the earlier weeks of “Febyooary” – not only an arbitrary construct, but also tagged with an unpronounceable label – well, what could the matter be? In the view of the time-bound, the next piece I’ll post was started, oh, 13 days ago – whatever a day is! And some will argue that it should have been out within a “day” or two of the start of the arbitrary, named-after-a-pope-nobody-remembers-or-wants-to, Gregorian Year that apparently we’re calling “2016”. Silly, I know, but don’t be too hard on yourself. Lots of people pay attention to time, timeliness, days and hours, time out of mind. Sometimes I even fall into the trap myself. Though not recently.

But there is more to come.

* Extra points to those who read down to here, and ice cream if you actually got the R.E.M. reference. (In states and provinces where the ice cream provision is void by law, click here, but only if you understood my goofy title.)

Sunday School Picnic (non-Super Bowl edition)

Let’s talk about toxic religion!

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Ask the people in Peshawar. (Though they might have a different answer than you’d think.) Ask in Paris. Ask anybody qui est Charlie. We could ask those affected by the Boko Haram militias spreading like a cancer from northeastern Nigeria, I suppose, if they were still alive, or if we cared about folks so unlike us and so far away. Even in boring old Canada, 2014 brought us faithful killings and rumours of more. What to do when religion goes murderous? (Spare a thought for doctors killed by Christian fundamentalists at abortion clinics, or women abused on Super Bowl Sunday. Beware the deadly fruit of any sort of fanaticism, any belief gone sour, whether it invokes God or racial superiority or football fever.)

You may have heard of “lone wolf” acts of terror in Canada, men allegedly inspired in the name of their Islamic leanings to kill peace-time soldiers who weren’t looking. (Ah, courage.) In the news recently were reports that Muslim Imams here in Ottawa were concerned at the spike of interest in Islam in the wake of the shootings at the national War Memorial and in Parliament itself. Muslim community leaders wondered aloud about some process of slowing down the new-found ardour they were seeing, and they questioned its source. How depressing! People are so desperate for a thing they can stand up for, I thought, they’ll fall for anything! Any port of committed action, however nutty, in an existential storm.

Commentators invoke loneliness and anomie, and lament that the mentally fragile, vulnerable to the attractions of religious madness, don’t get the help they need. What we rarely hear in the public debate is mention of moral bankruptcy, how entire societies and classes and governments appear to have little on their minds other than consumerism, the almighty GDP and personal comforts. How blind must we be to not see how hungry so many people are for a sense of meaning that rises above well I got mine and we’re the greatest country in the world and what’s wrong with those crazy bastards over there? And, more unsettling, right HERE.

North America – and, no doubt, for Muslims and many other sorts of barely tolerated immigrants in France and over much of Europe – is a hard place to be if you’re not on the winning side. (This is why sports are better than real life: one percent of players, no matter how good they were, could never kick the living snot out of a team ninety-nine times bigger, and keep on doing it and doing it.) No wonder the frustrated, “lookin’ like a dog that’s been beat too much / Till you spend half your life just coverin’ up” guys, even if they were Born in the USA or Ottawa or a Paris suburb, want to do something about it. Are we so smug, so insulated in whatever socioeconomic or cultural bubble we call home, that we really find such a search for meaning and usefulness incomprehensible? Yes. I think that most of us are.

Young men want to kill authority figures, or go fight with the “men of faith”. They want their lives to mean something, to stand for something. (Suddenly I think of DeNiro’s Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver: “Loneliness has followed me my whole life, everywhere….There’s no escape. I’m God’s lonely man….Listen, you fuckers, you screwheads. Here is a man who would not take it anymore. A man who stood up against the scum,…the dogs, the filth, the shit. Here is a man who stood up.” Talk about jihad!) This is all I could think of, hearing of an interest in Islam that was worrisome even to Muslim community leaders. It was days before I was able to consider another way of understanding it. There have to be some people (I thought, as the lights came on) who are just curious about what Islam really is. It’s slower to filter through than reflexive religious bigotry is, but after 9-11, after Charlie Hebdo or any number of atrocities committed by those who claim to honour the Arabian Prophet, there are always the voices, not always or even predominantly Muslim themselves, who say, This is not Islam. This is religion perverted to justify power-seeking and oppression.

And people learn something about the vast majority of Muslims, and they wonder what it is that compels believers to peacefully hold on to their faith in spite of suspicion, outright bigotry, and the humiliation, the resentment, the frustration, of constantly having to apologize for the misguided hatred of the fanatical few. I’m not denying that there are Travis Bickles out there who see in jihadist extremism a convenient container for their disaffection and their revenge fantasies. But listen: religion has been around for a lot longer than the fashionably modern rejection of it. There must be something more to religion than hatred and ignorance and division, or it couldn’t have survived. We shouldn’t judge a Book because of a Bickle who carries it around with his rage.

That’s why I went to (of all things!) my local celebration of World Religion Day.

In Part Two, I wade into the teeth of a multifaith storm, and come out unbloodied, unbowed, and pretty darned hopeful. Refreshed. Coming soon. (Pinky-swear!)

Men and Guns and Murdered Sleep

UPDATE: A shorter version of this piece, with a somewhat different focus and some extra authority, also appears at the Baha’i Teachings website.

I can’t help myself. I have to say something about Santa Barbara, but what to say that others haven’t about a young “man” – oh, how that word is mutating like attention-deficit cancer cells – who so pathetically, so enragingly, so outrageously, so pitiably, so hatefully, so sadly and so narcissistically wore all his grievances on his electronic sleeve. Then he found, what – not courage, for God’s sake – enough petulance-gone-mad, enough entitlement-gone-toxic, enough Internet-chutzpah-gone-fatally-virulent, to spew the tantrums of a deeply spoiled child with the sick can-do of an adult, and with the cold metal of “equalizers” that would never require him to face his victims as an equal. God help the innocent. God help us all to sleep, and to keep finding hope and goodness.

The numbers are hard to gather, let alone fathom. Just in the USA, some dedicated carnage-counters in the gun-addled States (the on-line magazine Slate, for one) throw out statistics that mainly seem to numb us. “35,000 gun deaths since Sandy Hook”. “A mass shooting every five days.” “90 American gun deaths per day.” And so on. More than half of these are suicides without the murder, it appears, since guns are the American way to take arms against a sea of troubles / And by opposing end them… So yes, Hamlet, there’s that, but at a certain level of super-hero self-hatred, offing yourself just isn’t cinematic enough anymore.

But there’s more.

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William Butler Yeats (on perceiving beauty)

“The world is full of magic things,
patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.”

Guilty, guilty, guilty: I am a fan of W.B. Yeats, the Irish poet, and need this reminder, the all-I-need-to-know-I-learned-in-kindergarten reminder, to LOOK. Or the Yogi Berra  “dumb jock”-as-zen-philosopher koan: “It’s amazing what you can observe just by looking.” It’s amazing how much we don’t see, and discouraging how much natural, wholesome and otherworldly goodness we fail to notice because we’re fixated on the trashy, the tinsel, the temporary, the trite and the televisual. (That’s right, just call me “Mr. T”.)

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Baha’u’llah (the essence of all…)

I’ve been reading a short, incredibly dense series of statements by Baha’u’llah from “Words of Wisdom”. Each brief pronouncement names the “essence of understanding”, “the source of courage”, the “beginning of magnanimity”, “true remembrance”, and the like. It is five minutes of reading, and a lifetime of grasping. It concludes this way:

The essence of all that We have revealed for thee is Justice, is for man to free himself from idle fancy and imitation, discern with the eye of oneness His glorious handiwork, and look into all things with a searching eye.”

Baha’u’llah (1817-1892) was the Founder of the Baha’i Faith and the Author,

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Abdu’l-Baha (on peace, happiness & everything)

“The body of the human world is sick. Its remedy and healing will be the oneness of the kingdom of humanity. Its life is ‘The Most Great Peace.’ Its illumination and quickening is love. Its happiness is the attainment of spiritual perfections.”

‘Abdu’l-Baha (1844-1921) was the son of Baha’u’llah, the source of the Baha’i system of knowledge and practice.

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