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Born in the US, raised on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, lived in Italy, the US, and Canada. Lover of language, travel, colour, and the natural world.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Spiritual beings having a physical experience

I promised to write about the Association for Baha'i Studies Conference that I attended in San Francisco this past week, so here I am to fulfill that promise. The conference was entitled 'Transforming Habits of Thought,' and was about precisely that--how to re-envision everything we are doing within a spiritual framework.

There were over 1,500 individuals at the conference from all over the world. I even ran into folks there from New Zealand. There were a number of talks given in the main hall, and then in the afternoons there were multiple, simultaneous breakout sessions on rethinking our habits of thought in every area of our lives. In the evenings we enjoyed incredible music performed by professional musicians. It is hard to identify specific elements that made this conference so incredible, but I will try to mention a few things that stuck out to me, as well as my overall impression.

So many of the presentations were excellent, but a few stuck out to me, and are still making me reflect on how I think about particular issues and ideas. One was the first presentation I attended, by Keyvan Geula, a marriage and family counselor from the L.A. area. She is Iranian, and is dynamite! She addressed how to build and maintain happy, strong relationships with humour and great insight and wisdom, fully integrating the Baha'i writings into her presentation. She spoke about the importance of looking not only at whether we speak to each other, but at HOW we speak to one another; the distinction between emotions (unconscious) and feelings (emotions you are conscious of and must therefore take responsibility for); our lower, or physical self and our higher, spiritual self; the difference between empathy and sympathy; the fact that although we do have genetic predispositions, WE decide how we express our genes; the fact that marriage is a moral and social institution; the nature of our interactions--what is the spirit of our interactions with our partners/friends/colleagues, etc; and the faculty of meditation, which the founder of the Baha'i faith, Baha'u'llah, said is a characteristic of a human being (and the person who does not develop this faculty cannot be called a human being). Strong ideas to reflect on, for sure.

Another presentation that influenced me deeply was one given by a wonderful African American woman named Billie Mayo, about changing our habits of thought and practice around race. Billie has been transforming classrooms around the country through a program called Ubuntu (and I remember that word because she had the entire audience of 1,500 repeat it OUT LOUD -- I'm telling you, the woman is a genius). She is challenging educators to question their own attitudes towards children of different races, and how these attitudes influence the achievements of the children, the point being that if the teacher expects little, the children will aim low, whereas if a teacher has noble, high expectations of a child, the chances that the child will succeed are much, much higher. She followed her presentation up with having the entire room split into pairs and discuss our assumptions and experiences of people from various racial groups as we grew up. Having grown up in a country with very little racial diversity, and a lot of racial prejudice, this exercise still has me thinking about how I unconsciously treat people of different races without even being aware I am doing anything differently.Making change requires that we first become conscious of how we are thinking, right? So I guess I am on the right track. Lots to think about.

There were two other presentations that made a big impression on me. One was given by Fariborz Sahba, the architect of the Baha'i lotus temple in India and the terraces of the Baha'i World Centre on Mount Carmel in Haifa, Israel. The man has completely revolutionized what is possible in the world of architecture, and contributed works of tremendous beauty to the world. As he said, he has lovingly interpreted each place he has built in, bringing one of the names of God (beauty) into the physical realm of existence. He bases his creations on the idea, presented in the Baha'i writings by the Bab, that human beings have the duty of refinement--that it is forbidden to bring something into being in a state of imperfection when it could be made perfect. Perfection is his task rather than compromise, he explained, because beauty is a reflection of God on earth, and God is perfect.

Mr. Sahba also spoke about the four main dimensions of architecture: height, width, depth, and movement, mentioning that there is, in reality, a fifth dimension, which is the relationship between all things, because relationships are inherent in the reality of everything. He explained that for him, beauty is created through relationship, and that for him, the aim is not to have just a beautiful garden, but to have a garden that creates a space that speaks to the spirit. He highlighted the fact that God is in the details, which means that even the tiniest details that we cannot see are important. It was a truly impressive presentation, and his slide show of his creations was even more impressive. I have included some of them in this blog entry.

The last presentation that is still lingering with me is Rainn Wilson's. Rainn is an actor who plays Dwight on the T.V. show 'The Office.' He is also a Baha'i, which I think is excellent because he adds a great deal of humour to the Baha'i community. The man not only knows how to make people laugh, he knows how to make us laugh at ourselves, which is SO vital in any community. His presentation was about the intersection of art and faith, and he spoke extensively about Soul Pancake, an online community that he helped create that provides a space for young people to explore life's big questions through the arts. It is a super resource with loads of good ideas. I highly recommend checking it out if you have a minute. Rainn also reminded us of the Baha'i teaching that we are spiritual beings having a physical experience, not the other way around, and that as such we need to keep spiritual reality at the core of everything we do as artists. As Abdu'l-Baha said, "Art is Worship." To illustrate this point, he shared his favourite quote by Rumi: "The true work of art is but a shadow of divine perfection." He also encouraged the audience to allow their children to follow their hearts, quoting Oprah's favourite quote by Howard Thurman: "Don't ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and do that. What the world needs is people that have come alive." Point well taken. And well illustrated by a performer from the Canadian prairies with some powerful pipes who charmed the entire conference hall with her tunes. Munirih Sparrow is going places, fast. Check out her music here (my favourite piece is Midnight Prayer).

It was an incredibly thought-provoking conference this year, and I am happy I made the trek down to San Francisco to attend. Have you had any experiences/conversations, read any books or seen/heard works of art that have made you think differently about something lately?

1 comment:

  1. Thank you so much for writing so beautifully about my talk at the ABS conference. I am most impressed to see how much you remembered. I have since then posted two of my talks about preparing for Baha'i Marriage and another Baha'i Marriage a Fortress for Well Being and Salvation on my Keyvan Geula channel on you tube.
    I also would love to invite you to visit my two blogs www.cgie.org/blog and www.kidsidebyside.org
    By the way, I love the pictures you have posted.
    Thank you for creating such a beautiful blog.