The culture of backbiting and gossip is clearly an unhealthy one, and while it is (relatively) easy to stop talking about people, it often does not mean that we are not thinking about other people in a negative light. I have seen, in the last couple of months, how poisonous these thoughts has been to previously beautiful friendships.
I recently read something that struck a chord. In the context of a letter in which the strengths of current day youth exerting every effort to build strong, spiritual communities were being extolled, this sentence popped out as if written in neon lights: “youth whose integrity and uprightness are not undermined by dwelling on the faults of others and who are not immobilized by any shortcoming of their own.” The main reason why this struck a chord is the way these two concepts are so intimately related, and how they in turn are related to a the culture of backbiting and gossip which has harmed people I love.
We know that the purpose of life is to know and worship God, and to contribute to an ever-advancing civilization through the dual moral processes of personal and community development. Oftentimes, we get caught, with the best of intentions, in the trap of dwelling. Recently, a friend of mine decided to stop spending time with a certain person because this person displayed a negative character trait this friend was also struggling with. The conversation was uncomfortably centered on the person’s fault, and it soon became clear that my friend had spent more time dwelling on this person’s fault than reflecting on the way she displays this same character trait.
Thinking about this conversation in the context of the abovementioned sentence made me realize that oftentimes, because we feel immobilized by our own shortcomings, we instead dwell on those of others. That is to say, it is easier for my friend to dwell on this person’s negative character trait because if she reflects on her own, it will paralyze her into inaction.
What seems to play a major role in this situation is the ego, which immobilizes us for various reasons, such as fear of making mistakes. Of course we are meant to make mistakes; it is in our very nature, as imperfect human beings, to make them. And mistakes teach us what not to do, which bring us closer to finding out what we should do; ergo we should be happy when we make a mistake.
So learning to stop dwelling on the faults of others could perhaps not only help decrease backbiting, which, as we know, quenches the light of the heart and extinguishes the life of the soul, but also gives us the space to work on our personal development. It might seem like an impossible task but really, as always, the spiritual solution is both simple and yet difficult to implement: stop dwelling! And one tool that I use, which I have written about before on this blog, is the use of mantras. Any tendency to dwell on someone’s faults can be countered with a simple: “I will not dwell” and by immersing oneself into whatever one is doing instead. And when one feels overwhelmed by one’s own shortcomings, one can remind oneself that “having shortcomings is not the problem; not striving is.”
Do you use mantras? I would love to hear from you!
These are Not the Tiaras You Would Want Your Toddler to Wear: Why the Sparkle of TLC’s Toddlers and Tiaras Worries Me
December 29, 2012
Until a couple of weeks ago, I had never even watched a single one of its episodes, and was already horrified by its central concept: TLC’s show Toddlers and Tiaras documents pageants in which little girls, some as young as one, dress up (or down, at times) and, their faces caked with makeup and bodies covered in paint, compete to win prize money based on their looks. Then I figured that I was being unfair; how could I have an opinion about a show I had only heard about? Surely there had to be something good about it, if it was still on air after its January 2009 debut.
But after watching a couple of episodes, I have to say, there really does not seem to be anything good about it, other than to bring to light the systematic sexualisation of little girls for the sake of winning money. These pageants teach girls that sexualising oneself at an age where sex is something one cannot understand for the sake of winning money is commendable.
It would be easy for me to start railing at how horrifying this is, but I don’t think such an attitude would help. It’s also easy to portray the parents that not only allow, but encourage their children to enter these pageants as evil and self-centered. But I do not think that is the case. I honestly believe that a majority of these parents do have the well-being of their children in mind. The questions rather is to figure out how this came to be.
All species have in mind their survival, and for that reason, the adults teach their young ones skills to survive in this world so that they can, one day, also procreate and so, ensure the survival of the species. With this in mind, one only has to look at the decadence in society to realise that perhaps this is what these parents are doing. So perhaps this culture of pageantry is just a way for these parents to introduce and hone skills their children would need to thrive in a world that is increasingly rewarding sexualisation. These parents could simply be empowering their daughter to use their beauty in a way to get them the money needed to live a secure life.
So railing against these parents would not only alienate them out of a much-needed conversation. It would also deter from addressing the core issue: there is something wrong about a society that not only allows for, but rewards over sexualisation. This is all the more problematic that humans have a noble purpose of knowing and worshipping God. Humanity is not supposed to be led by its lower nature; rather, it is supposed to be controlled by its higher nature. This higher nature allows for the lower one to be expressed in a way allowing humans to still be as noble as they are meant to be. A beautiful little girl, appropriately well dressed, is after all a sight that touches most hearts.
A species survival is guaranteed by the way it nurtures its young ones. Sexualising little girls and further toying with them for the sake of our collective entertainment is wrong. Perhaps this is what the books in the Hunger Games trilogy really are about. Stripped from the outward glitz of Toddlers and Tiaras, it feels like these pageants are in essence doing the same thing to our children as the people in Panem were doing to theirs. We all need to look at ourselves and at our contribution to this kind of society, and reflect on what we can do to create a society in which skills honed in pageants as they are currently held are not only unnecessary, but harmful.
November 10, 2012
It feels like an increasing number of my friends are battling the blues. Having the privilege of being a confidant to many of them, I have had many occasions to reflect on what causes said blues. Reflecting with my friends, we realized that often, they become blue because they dwell on unpleasant things.
We know that we shouldn’t dwell on the unpleasant things of life. While it is essential for our survival to know what can go wrong so that we can avoid it, dwelling on these things entrenches pattern of negative thoughts in ourselves, patterns that sap our energy. And yet, as recently posted by Things We Forget, “for every minute you are angry, you lose sixty seconds of happiness.” Dwelling wastes precious time we could instead spend on being happy.
A subset of things we dwell on seems to be the wrongs, real or perceived, others have wrought on us. The abovementioned applies: why dwell, which saps our precious, limited energy, and waste time being hurt instead of happy? Furthermore, when relationships become difficult, it is usually related to a lack of maturity on both parts. We should perhaps then remember that “an infant must not be treated with disdain simply because it is an infant.” Dwelling on negative things related to bad friendships wastes precious time we instead could spend on good friendships.
Learning not to dwell on the unpleasant things in life seems all the more important in the context of community building. A community is not built by a group of people dwelling on unpleasant relationships. Rather, it is built on a group of people who have strong bonds of friendship; these allow for consultations geared on addressing the needs of the times they live in.
So, how can we adopt a healthy mode of learning that balances the need for “survival” with that of not wasting time dwelling?
I personally think it starts with oneself; we should stop dwelling on everything we do wrong. “We must be patient with others, infinitely patient! But also with our poor selves.” Not that we should pat ourselves on the shoulder, far from that. Rather, in a spirit of constantly striving to become better, we should “persevere and add up [our] accomplishments, rather than to dwell on the dark side of things. Everyone’s life has both a dark and a bright side.” Dwelling on what we do wrong is not going to help us become better. But by building on our strengths, we can slowly overcome our weaknesses. If instead we choose to dwell on our weaknesses, it can be lead into very dark places. But, as Helen Keller said, “[k]eep your face to the sun and you will never see the shadows.”
Something else I realized through these amazing conversations with my friends is that if one manages to learn how to focus on what is important, the rest will fall away and will become easy to shrug off, even self-doubt, self-guilt and dwelling on other unpleasant things in life. Think of yourself walking on a path. The slower you walk, the more you have time to notice details on the sides of the path that will distract you from getting to your final destination. But the faster you walk, focusing on the quality of each step, learning to walk more and more efficiently, focused on the end goal, the more the side paths, the distractions, the unimportant things become a blur, and the sharper and clearer your goals become.
And so, which path will you choose? And how will you walk it?
November 2, 2012
Ever heard of the expression: “Jack of all trades, master of none”? It is an expression that hits a pretty resonant chord in a world moving at an ever increasing speed. Wanting to read everything, to attend everything, to fight every injustice, to back up every cause, we end up doing nothing, for the simple reason that we do not have time to do it with the level of attention and excellence required to create sustainable change. At the level of the individual, it can cause frustration, distress, anger, and exhaustion, which further undermines attempts to make the world a better place.
I wonder if this habit is even more problematic when one is part of a community-building process focused on achieving the spiritual and material well-being of all. With the best of intentions, we participate in every activity, we back up every cause, we attend every rally, etc. It seems doable, since, even if we hold a full time job, there are five evenings available every week, and two full days over the week-end!
But what about the strong bonds of friendship which are the building blocks of community-building? What about the conversations between two souls at the basis of these bonds of friendship? When we are trying to deepen our friendship with 30, 40, 50 people, are we creating conditions in which we can have strong bonds of friendship based on conversations between two souls? What about the other aspects of our lives – family life, work, school, health: are we achieving excellence in all of these areas, and, if we are not, how is it affecting our community-building efforts?
Service requires sacrifice, and just like with everything else in any Holy Scripture, it cannot be taken out of context. We are asked to strive for excellence; we are advised to delve into Holy Writings; we are counseled to take care of our health; we are encouraged to create a harmonious family life. All these aspects of our lives should be aligned with the purpose of our creation, that is, to know and to worship God, which expresses itself in a life of service, requiring sacrifice. Namely, we should set aside what we would like to do and focus on what is needed.
It’s fascinating how all the topics featured on this blog keep coming together. Sacrifice is needed to focus on what will best help bring forward an ever advancing civilization. But moderation is key, which will help us increase our ability to serve. By striving to excel in one’s chosen field, one can learn to translate the Writings into action and to have a positive influence on its discourse. By taking the time to eat well, to exercise, to sleep enough and to meditate, our bodies will remain at peak efficiency, and we can remain lean, mean service machines well into our golden years.
We should therefore exert all efforts to bring forth an ever advancing civilization, and not just focus on, say, only activities directly related to community-building. On the one hand, this immoderate focus makes us forget about other equally important parts of our lives. On the other hand, it decreases our ability to form solid bonds of friendship based on conversations between souls. Both of these turn said activities into events that do nothing to weave tightly together the fabric of our society. Should we instead choose to do less but increase the time, effort and commitment to each, the changes that we will bring to our relationships will be deeper, and will go a very long way in helping carry forward an ever-advancing civilization.
One of the aspects of spiritual development is that of excellence, which is a challenging goal to aspire to. It is of course much easier to strive for spiritual excellence when one is part of an institution that promotes it. Let’s go for an extreme example: being chaste is a lot easier in a nunnery than a strip joint.
What happens when one wishes to strive for excellence in a morally lax environment? Moral laxity implies a lack of discipline towards spiritual development, which hinders the quest for spiritual excellence. In other words, moral laxity is the kryptonite to striving for spiritual excellence.
I have come to wonder if avoiding this kryptonite is the reason why many of my friends, who try so hard to be spiritually excellent while living in morally lax societies, have become so hard on themselves, almost cruelly so. They beat themselves down so much that at times, they seem to forget all that is good in them, and only see the bad.
And so, while fear of the influence of society’s moral laxity is understandable, being this hard on oneself can nurture deep, destructive feelings of guilt. Ironically enough, this drains us of the energy we need to remain firm in the quest for spiritual excellence in such a society.
While striving for spiritual excellence is a powerful engine that can help us overcome our egos for the sake of our moral development and that of our community, it has to be done right; we should be focusing on the movement towards excellence rather than excellence itself. Furthermore, we should not forget the context within which we are striving.
Those who are hard on themselves have often been told they should not treat themselves so. But I think we should indeed demand the best of ourselves; but rather than to encourage self-complacency, perhaps we should be encouraged to also learn, hand in hand with excellence, to be compassionate, just and kind towards ourselves. After all, just like with everything else in the Holy Writings, we are striving for excellence in a bid to know and worship God. Are we worshipping God when we are putting ourselves down and demeaning ourselves? Or are we worshipping God when we bring ourselves to account every day, being frank and honest with ourselves on both what we did right and what we did wrong, and make new goals for the next day?
So while well-intentioned, being too hard on ourselves is not the right way of dealing with living in a morally lax society. What is? I would love to hear your thoughts!
September 16, 2012
Yesterday’s post does not imply that I have not been writing at all. Interestingly enough, I have been writing a lot, in the context of small projects with deadlines and specific content (which of course makes me think of Leigh Anne Jasheway-Bryant’s fantastic post). So here are links to the six articles I wrote for The Journey West.
- The Spirit of Transformation
- Talk at the Brotherhood Church
- Address to a Women’s Suffrage Meeting
- The Nature of Unity
- The Spiritual Destiny of America
- Vignettes from the Master’s Visit to Montreal
March 14, 2012
I just wrote a post about prayer for The Journey West, which should be posted sometime today. In it, I reflected about how our understanding of prayer evolves with time. And it really is incredible how the same prayer, which you have perhaps said a thousand times, suddenly looks completely different – that’s when you know your understanding has been furthered, even if just by a tiny smidgen.
I was reciting one of the many Praise and Gratitude prayers in my prayer book and fixated on this line: “I entreat Thee, O my Lord, by Thy Most Great Name whereby Thou didst separate light from fire, and truth from denial, to send down upon me and upon such of my loved ones as are in my company the good of this world and of the next.” And it hit me: the light of the truth is only a breadth away from the fire of denial.
Perhaps this is the reason why science and religion need to go hand in hand. For if the truth that science uncovers isn’t examined in the light of religion, the fire of denial will consume us.
February 4, 2012
I have come a long way when it comes to mantras. At first puzzled by what they were and how they were used, I became curious and starting researching them. As I read and heard about some interesting experiences both strangers and friends had had using mantras as part of their personal spiritual development, the inevitable happened: I started trying them out, albeit a little skeptically at first. Then, as their usefulness in my own spiritual development was demonstrated again and again, I slowly came to respect this tool.
While there is still a lot more for me to understand regarding the use of mantras, I regularly have insights into yet another way they can help my spiritual development. For example, if life is a constant struggle to become better, we cannot embark on a life-long, eighty-something year long semi violent struggle with our insistent self, whacking it down like a mole. To have the strength to carry on for long periods of time with a joyful attitude, as, for example, the Greatest Holy Leaf did, one needs to develop an attitude that combines both striving and contentment. Somehow, we have to learn to both accept who we are and strive to change ourselves for the better. It is not accepting that who we are today is who we will remain forever, but being ok with being that person – for now.
I realized that in many ways it is a relatively simple process difficult mostly in its meticulousness, as it is based on the constant repetition of simple things. This is why mantras can be so useful. For example, if you always scream when you are upset, a mantra can help you, at first, delay the point at which you start screaming by a couple of seconds to a couple of minutes to a couple of hours, etc – until the day, perhaps years later, when you realize that you do not have anymore the desire to scream, this is how mantra can become that lifeline on which you can pull, one centimeter at a time, even in the middle of a terrible storm.
August 5, 2009
I love music. I really do. I don’t play any instrument, and I definitely do not sing, but there is always music in my head and, when appropriate, on my laptop. I have so many songs that I purchased a pretty big external hard drive just for my music. I have hours upon hours of music that I go through at least once a month without ever (or almost never) pushing the ‘next’ button on my player.
But lately, as I have been delving more and more into the topic of transforming indivudals and neighborhoods, I find myself discontent with many, if not most of the music that I have. I can’t stand the sappy, superficial ballads about love anymore; they seem to make light of something much deeper than a mere physical and emotional relationship. Don’t get me started on the rap songs; even those with social messages are starting to get to me, since they all seem to weave swear words in their lyrics. My tolerance for angry rock songs is also abating; what’s the point of stroking my anger against all the social injustices to the point that I can’t think straight anymore?
All in all, most of the music available to us is hardly conducive to inspiring the inner nobility within each and everyone of us to come out.
Which is why I went on a search for inspirational music. While I love gospel songs, I wanted something other than the typical ‘inspirational’ music that seems to be out there. I might not like the lyrics, but I love good hip hop beats, and my foot always taps in rhythm with good rock beats.
Remember the series of posts on Putting the Humanity back into the Arts? Well, consider this the next stage: using arts to promote the inner human nobility. I turned back to my friend, MJ, and was delighted to find out she was part of the Fair Gardens initiative, which is: “a not-for-profit, grassroots organization that supports the development of the appreciation, explorations and utilization of the arts as essential aspects of spiritual empowerment and community building”.
I didn’t know what to expect when I first visited the website. Would I be disappointed at yet another thinly disguised artistic attempt at moralizing me? Or would I finally find songs that would answer to both my need for good music and lyrics that would inspire me rather than leave me in a status quo?
Suffice to say that I’m writing about it, so you can guess how the visit to that website turned out!
But, while I purchased most of the songs and play them continuously, I found a part of me missing good old hip hop beats and quality rapping. Which is where my friend Nabil steps in. Him and Karim have created a wonderful collection of songs that are totally unlike other uplifting songs you might have heard before. You might even hear a little Justin Timberlake-ish vibe in there. Check it out – you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
I’m going to continue my search for nobility-inspiring songs; if you find any, please let me know! Until then, here are two of my favorite Nabil & Karim songs – enjoy.
O God Guide me
If Thou Lovest me
‘For an organized religion, we’re quite disorganized’: Rainn Wilson’s take on the Baha’í Faith, Spirituality and Dwight Scherute on Oprah’s Soul Series
March 11, 2009
While I had heard of Oprah’s Soul Series webcasts before, I never had taken the time to watch any of them. It mostly has to do with the fact that, when it comes to thought-provoking material, I’m more of a reader (it’s so much easier to pause and ponder while reading I find). But when I heard that Rainn Wilson was the featured guest on March 9th, I just had to check it out – because I love to hate his Dwight Scherute on The Office or because he’s a Bahá’í, or (most probably) because of both.
First off, what is Oprah’s Soul Series? The Woman-Who-Can’t-Be-Stopped (a.k.a. Oprah) created them as part of her many efforts to bring spirituality back into the lives of people. She refers to them as uplifting, enlightening and truly powerful conversations with interesting people. So she meets all these amazing thinkers and doers, talks to them and shares the experience with us via satellite radio and her website.
Seriously, does Oprah ever sleep?
Rainn Wilson came to Soul Series to talk about his big project: SoulPancake (www.soulpancake.com), a website designed to encourage big debates on life’s big questions (some examples of recent questions: Why is talking about God so dang awkward? Should we be afraid of death? If you had one hour left on earth, how would you spend it? And the list goes on). This website aims to make spirituality less lame and Rainn Wilson does so by contributing his own spirituality as well as his creativity.
This is probably the most unique and original feature of this website; it doesn’t just host discussions, it also hosts creative ways of expressing these ideas and makes liberal use of humour. Don’t think that this site is the usual airy-fairy hippie type of spirituality, nor that Rainn Wilson is trying to convince you to become religious or become Bahá’í. I spent a couple of hours on SoulPancake trying to get a feel of it, and to be honest, not only did I have a lot of fun, but had I not known he was a Bahá’í , I would never have guessed. It seems that the only thing Bahá’í about this site are two concepts at its core: to independently investigate the truth about spirituality (there are all kinds of opinions posted) through a process of consultation. I have already learned a couple of things during the research I did for this post. I might even have created myself an account and posted some comments of my own, who knows?
The reason why Rainn Wilson decided to create this website is also inspired by a Bahá’í principle, that of service to humanity. While exploring the various possibilities of service (other than the usual ones of donating to charities, cleaning up parks etc, etc) that were opened up to him through stardom, he spent a lot of time talking to young people. One of the questions he asked them was if they believed in God. Their answer was usually something to the effect of: “Kind of, yes”, which Rainn found interesting: what these young people meant is that while they did believe in a Higher Force, they didn’t think It was an old man sitting on top of a mountain hurling lightening at offending little humans (I added that last part. I quite like the visual, to be honest).
What Rainn Wilson realized after talking to these people is that many of them aren’t taking the chance to go on a spiritual journey, apparently satisfied with their “Kind of, yes” perspective on God. But that’s not quite the case – the real reason behind why many young people aren’t taking that spiritual journey is because spirituality is often portrayed as an “airy, ippy-dippy fairy crystal” thing (check out Rainn’s take on that sentence here).
So what was needed weren’t answers; but rather, a way for young people to discuss about spirituality, air out emotions, share point of views, and investigate the reality of things. Because no young person is just going to accept something as a given anymore, especially nowadays, with Wikipedia and Google (my best friends) quite literally at the tip of everyone’s fingers. While some might say that young people are arrogant nowaways and think they know everything, I would like to counter with the argument that rather, young people nowadays have potential beyond the scope of what anyone could imagine a mere 20 years ago, and that if we adopt a posture of learning all together and develop a culture of growth… The possibilities are endless.
This seems to be part of what SoulPancake does. It doesn’t tell young people why talking about God is hard or if they should be or shouldn’t be afraid of death, but rather, it adopts a posture of learning by asking these questions, offering its own point of view and accepting the point of views of everyone else (barring disrespect, which I guess would get a comment deleted or at least edited). The culture of growth will have to be developed locally, between participants in the SoulPancake discussion; this idea probably has yet to be explored. As Rainn Wilson explained to Oprah, it’s still a work in progress.
There are different parts to the website. As mentioned above, there is one section that’s all about asking life’s big questions and people sharing their answers in forum after forum. The questions are sometimes very typical, and sometimes seem to come out of the blue. The answers are the most interesting thing though, and although most people manage to remain civil and polite, they still manage to convey a lot of emotion and stir up very interesting and animated debates. To enhance the deepened understanding of the websites visitors, there are also challenges. What these challenged do is to take the debate at another level and in other formats… which does make sense, when you remember that words are only 5% of the communication between two people. Since most of the forum participants probably will never meet, one way of compensating for the lack of 95% of the communication is through these artistic challenges. The participants are encouraged to express their opinion about something deep that has to do with some of the questions asked through pictures, poetry, music, videos etc. If it can be uploaded, it will be used. The latest challenge: to think about what your soul smells like. Yes, you read that right: “You can’t see your soul, but can you smell it? Create a 30-second video that tells us what your soul smells like and why. Be creative. Don’t just talk into the camera. After all, we can’t smell you through the screen.” And here is the video they came up with… The Features section contains a bunch of articles about various subjects that all have to do with spirituality, be it serious or totally weird. Check out the latest post: Ride the Atheist Bus. Did someone say God? No way, say United Kingdom atheists. Their message: “There’s probably no God, so stop worrying and enjoy your life.” And to make sure you heard them, they put the message on, of all things, London’s bright red double-decker busses (as well as in a couple of Tube stations) during the month of January, according to a story in The Guardian. You’d think that would be the end of it, but (shocker) the pro-God camp didn’t take the ads lying down. They countered with bus-side signs saying, “There definitely is a God. So join the Christian Party and enjoy your life.” Pretty hilarious if you think about it (and especially if you check out the pictures), and yet material for some pretty deep debates. Kind of what Sahar’s Blog is about, too. Perhaps Rainn Wilson has been reading my blog?
There is much more to say about SoulPancake, and there are probably going to be more and more pancake-inspired posts going up here. Until then, I would encourage you to give the website a go, and see how your vision might be enlightened in an amusing way.