Monday, August 26, 2013

The Ocean's Shore

"No man", writes Baha'u'llah at the very beginning of the Kitab-i-Iqan,"shall attain the shores of the ocean of true understanding except he be detached from all that is in heaven and on earth." In the opening paragraphs He goes on to explain a little bit about what is meant by detachment, so, fortunately, I feel no need to go into it here.

But what did catch my attention, about this sentence, is the phrase "the shores of the ocean".

I live on the shore of an ocean: the Pacific Ocean. And when reading this passage, I always imagined myself lost in the woods struggling to find my way to the water. To explain, most mornings I find myself walking a path through the woods on my way down to the beach. It's a beautiful walk and is very refreshing for both body and spirit. So when I read this passage, this is what I imagine.

In the mornings, I can hear the crashing of the waves in the distance, and if I didn't know the path, I would most likely end up on a cliff overlooking the ocean, not on the shore at all. But fortunately I do know this path and I can make it down to the beach without too much difficulty. (Well, except that time when I ran into a cougar, but that's another story altogether.)

Anyways, what caught my attention was just an odd little thing about the quote: the letter "s". You see, when I said that I live on the shore of the Pacific Ocean, you really don't have any idea where it is that I live. I mean, unless of course you know me, or have been reading this blog for a while. I could be living in Peru, or California. I could be on the west coast of Canada, or on the little island chain of Hawai'i. I could be in Viet Nam, China, Japan, up in the northern reaches of Alaska or way down south in Australia. The Pacific Ocean is huge.

And let's be clear: Baha'u'llah doesn't say the "shore" of the ocean. He uses a plural.

That little "s" sure is a fascinating thing.

I think, and this is just my own opinion, of course, that Baha'u'llah is very careful in His use of the plural. He seems to be telling us that we could be coming from just about anywhere.

In fact, He doesn't even specify that we are on the land. We could be floating out at sea, for all I know. Doesn't that give a whole new meaning to attaining the shore?

This little passage, with the inclusion of the tiny little "s" reminds me so much of that celebrated, and yet often overlooked passage from the Bible, John 14:2, in which Jesus talks about there being many dwellings in His Father's house. (I leave it to you to decide on the translation you wish to read.)

But let's presume for a moment that we are actually on land, and that we are searching for this ocean of true understanding. I mean, doesn't that just sound like a great place to go for a vacation? Or even better, to set up home? Sure does to me.

So there we are, trekking through the woods, trying to get to that ocean that we can hear so clearly, so nearby. We push through the undergrowth, avoid the thorns and brambles, carefully ensure that we don't get caught by the cougars (trust me, we do be careful about this). And then we likely end up at the top of a cliff. We can see the water tantalizing below us, but unreachable from where we are. We head back into the woods, after noting our location, and deciding which direction will likely get us to the water.

On the way, we probably trip and scrape ourselves a few times. We see some muddy streams making their own way down, but we are not able to follow these paths.

Eventually, though, with perseverance, we make it.

Now what? Do we sit there and say, "Hooray. We made it." And then turn around and go home?

No. Of course not. We explore the beach and get the full enjoyment out of it. We go swimming. We dive into the water. We dive deep into the ocean, exploring its depths to the best of our meager ability.

And this, of course, is just one beach. One beach of many in Canada, where I live, that I described. What about those other beaches in Canada? What about those beaches on the Cook Islands? Or the ones in Micronesia? Or on the northern straits in Russia?

Every beach is different.

Every beach is beautiful.

And there are truly a world of them to explore, more than can be seen in a single lifetime.

And then, just in case we forgot, there are also the other oceans on this planet.

This ocean that Baha'u'llah is referring to? It pales them all.

Oh yeah, that little "s" sure fascinates me.

And that's only the first line in the book.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The Fruit of Meditation

As you may have noticed, dear Reader, I haven't been writing nearly as much in recent months as I used to. Sorry about that. I have been caught up in trying to make a living, which isn't a bad thing, and in fact is going quite well, but still... It takes up a lot of time.

Yesterday, however, I took some time off. My wife and son are out of town visiting her family in Montreal, and I'm here on the West Coast, enjoying the sunshine, ocean and mountains. Yesterday, though, I was in Tofino, which is even further west on the coast. In fact, from Tofino, if you go even more westerly you end up in Japan, I think.

It was pretty awesome, watching the tall waves coming in, and just enjoying the beauty of nature, meditating as the frigid water washed over my toes.

At one point I was walking along the sand, during a low tide, and came across a cliff face that was covered with starfish over the bottom half meter, or so. There were thousands of shellfish clinging on, waiting for the tide to return. And there, just beyond, was the woods. As I looked up the rocks, I noticed a tiny seedling that had begun to grow, and that got me thinking.

About what, you may ask. (Go ahead. Ask. I dare ya.) (Thanks.)

It got me thinking about God and meditation, and the general purpose of meditation for most people, namely that of being present.

Which got me thinking about time, and creation, and God, again.

You can begin to see my train of thought.

There I was, on the beach, enjoying the incredible beauty of the moment, realizing that many folk dream of going there some day, and that many who are there are thinking about how they have to leave soon. They are dwelling on either the past or the future, never quite living in the moment.

Then there is meditation, which for many people is all about experiencing the moment. Not the past, nor the future, but the present. And isn't one of God's titles the Omnipresent? (It is, but more on that particular title in a prayer later.)

And this was one of the things that passed through my consciousness.

God is a presence. He is here. He is now. He is the Most Present. And I realized that perhaps this is yet another reason that He is unknowable. Our mind tends to move from the past to the future, rarely dwelling in the now. We either celebrate or lament that which is gone. We anticipate or worry about that which is to come. And yet we often miss that which is here, and end up dwelling on that which we missed.

Even science, that great child of our collective intellect, cannot focus on the now. The Uncertainty Principle is the ultimate expression of the limitations of that branch of the Tree of Knowledge. This principle, by the way, can be generally thought of as the more we can determine the position of a particle, the less we can determine its momentum, and vice versa.

But living in the present, being in the now, is something we can cultivate. We can plant the seed of meditation deep within the dark soil of the heart. We can nurture it with patience, water it with silence. And when we do, we should remember not to fret. Don't dig it up to see if it's germinating.

Let it be.

One day, without any warning, it will break through the ground, and you will suddenly discover a simple shoot, a tiny sprout.

But still continue to nurture it. Continue to water it. Let it grow.

Watch as the leaves begin to develop. Marvel as its branches begin to spread, overshadowing more and more of your heart, more and more of your life. Feel as those leaves begin to draw upon the light and energy of the world.

And continue to nurture it with patience, water it with silence, for it is fragile.

Then, one day, without any warning, you will notice a tiny little bud on one of those branches. A flower will form, a flower that will attract so much around it. Its scent will be beautiful, its colour majestic.

The Bab, with His majestic presence, or perhaps I should capitalize Presence, gave off such an aura that Qudddus was able to recognize Him by His very gait (pun intended).

"Let those who meet you know," said 'Abdu'l-Baha," without your proclaiming the fact, that you are indeed a Bahá'í." He said that we should "shine out like a lighted taper", giving off our light for the world to see, just as a flower gives off its aroma to the winds.

But still, during this time, we must be careful to continue to nurture it, continue to water it, for without this, the fruit will never develop.

During this time of attraction we can easily become distracted by the ego. We can think that this attraction, the way that people react to us, respond to us, is somehow of our own doing. We can easily confuse ourselves for the flower, instead of the soil. We can begin to fall into the trap of pride, easily becoming impatient with those who don't recognize what we have to offer. We can forget to be silent in our own hearts, thrilling instead at the sound of our own internal voice. But if we avoid these pitfalls, then the fruit of the flower can most easily develop.

Through this cultivated stillness, this carefully tended silence, we can better hear the divine. We can better experience the rich Voice in the Writings. We can more readily see how this all applies in our actions. We can become closer not only to our own heart, but to those around us, to God around us, to God within us.

It is probably no coincidence that the only prayer I have found that uses the Name of God, the Omnipresent, is a marriage prayer, a prayer for greater unity between two people. (See? I said I would get to that later. And later is now.) What better way to develop and strengthen a marriage than to be truly present with each other.

And what is the fruit of this tree, born of the seed of meditation? A greater discovering of the present, of life, of God.

The present is the unity of the past and the future. To stay in the present, as one author has said, requires dedicated one-pointed focus.

It is one.

God is one.

But whereas the present, for us, is a constantly moving point along the axis of time, God is the axis.

He is the Ever-Present.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013


What do I know about maturity? Well, depending on who you ask, probably not a lot.

But one thing I have been thinking a lot about lately is the whole concept of maturity. As you may guess, not only am I watching my little son, 8-years old for now, growing up, but I am also looking at Ruhi Book 5 again. There are so many quotes in there about the importance of this particular stage of human development.

'Abdu'l-Baha talks about how the period of youth, beginning around the age of 15, is "characterized by strength and vigor and stands out as the choicest time in human life". He points out that it is at this time in our life that our "former conditions and needs are superseded by new requirements". Our "faculties of observation are broadened and deepened". Our "intelligent capacities are trained and awakened, the limitations and environment of childhood no longer restrict" us. He says that when we reach this stage in our development we acquire "the capacity to manifest spiritual and intellectual perfections."

The Guardian "centers all his hopes for the future progress and expansion of the Cause" on these youth. Interestingly enough, he also lays on their shoulders "the responsibility for the upkeep of the spirit of selfless service among their fellow believers." Quite the responsibility that.

The Guardian goes on to list a number of qualities they posses that "make them potent instruments for the execution of the contemplated projects", qualities such as "vitality and vigor", "their ability to adapt themselves to local situations, to meet new challenges, and to impart their warmth and enthusiasm to those they visit". He also says that the important aspect of this time is that "the mind is most questing and that the spiritual values that will guide the person's future behaviour are adopted."

It truly is a very important time of one's life, even though it is of such short duration.

Modern science is also recognizing the importance of this time. For years advertisers knew the importance of this focus group, but didn't necessarily know why. We have now discovered that the brain itself if basically being "re-wired" at this time. Those centers of the brain that guided our emotions shift to new areas of the brain. Old paths give way to new ones. Whole sections of the brain that were inactive now turn on and take over higher functions of activity. Things that we were incapable of perceiving now come into view, and we seek to understand more. Questions that we could not even conceive of just a few years, if not months, ago come into our mind fully formed.

As a parent, I have learned that I can give most any explanation to my son and he will generally accept it as true, mainly because I have earned that trust. (Well, at least he knows when I'm only joking.) Complex questions can be answered with facile responses, which will satisfy for now, but in just a few years time he will want to know the deeper answers. When he asked me about where babies come from I was able to talk about the love between my wife and I and how we get together, each contributing a cell, to form a new life. I am certain that he will later ask about how it is that we "get together", and will probably want to know about DNA and all that other stuff, too. For now, though, that's too complicated.

When he asks me these questions later, seeking the deeper understanding, even though the facile response is true, I will need to remember that he is not questioning me, or my response, nor is he, God forbid, attacking me in his search for a better understanding of the world. No. He is, and will be, asking deep felt questions in his attempt to understand the world around him.

It is at that time, those precious few years during which his body, as well as his mind, matures, that I will most need to respond to his questions in a loving, honest and truthful manner. If I fail in this, it is only too obvious that I will no longer have earned his trust. It is through this failure, through responding to requests for information with such poor responses as, "Because I said so", or other domineering answers, that I have seen more teens rebel against both their parents and society in general. But when the responses are there, when the information is provided, then the trust has been earned, and the love blossoms ever greater.

Another aspect of the maturity that bears mentioning is the ability to think along broader lines. A youth, or young adult, has the wonderful ability to think laterally in a more natural way. As we get older, our ability to do this wanes. As one researcher said, "As we get older, it is like looking at the world through a straw."

But this is not what I wanted to talk about today.

No. What I wanted to talk about today was another concept of maturity: that of the maturing of the human race.

While many of us talk about the maturation of humanity, and the coming of age of the human race, have we ever given a lot of thought about what that means? I know I haven't, at least not beyond the concept of making better decisions as a species, or it being the reason for such a powerful Revelation as we have found in that of Baha'u'llah. In fact, I haven't even given much thought about where it says in the Writings that we have achieved this momentous stage in our development.

But fear not, dear Reader, Baha'u'llah did say that humanity has "attained the stage of maturity". (Really. He did. Right there in Gleanings number 33.) (You're welcome, o ye readers who regularly request the source.)

'Abdu'l-Baha takes this concept and gives us a bit more of a vision of what it means: "That which was applicable to human needs during the early history of the race could neither meet nor satisfy the demands of this day and period of newness and consummation. Humanity has emerged from its former degrees of limitation and preliminary training. Man must now become imbued with new virtues and powers, new moralities, new capacities. New bounties, bestowals and perfections are awaiting and already descending upon him."

The Guardian, as we would expect, takes the same concept and further elucidates it for us. "The long ages of infancy and childhood, through which the human race had to pass, have receded into the background. Humanity is now experiencing the commotions invariably associated with the most turbulent stage of its evolution, the stage of adolescence, when the impetuosity of youth and its vehemence reach their climax, and must gradually be superseded by the calmness, the wisdom, and the maturity that characterize the stage of manhood. Then will the human race reach that stature of ripeness which will enable it to acquire all the powers and capacities upon which its ultimate development must depend."

So there we have it, a basic idea that humanity has left behind the stage of childhood, with all its limitations and trappings, as well as some of its frivolities, and, while we have not yet fully entered into the stage of adulthood, we have begun the process of maturation, or pubescence. While the "stage of maturity" can be a very ambiguous term, the Guardian helps narrow it for us by placing into a descriptive context. We seem to be at that very point of "youth", having come out of the stage of junior youth-ness, but not yet fully emergent into adult-ness. We are, it seems, somewhere between that 15 and 30 stage, where our powers and faculties are at their height, and yet we are still impetuous and full of turbulence.

And doesn't this just make sense? Can't we look at the changes inherent in children as they grow towards puberty, see the new ways in which they process information, the way they behave, and find striking similarities in humanity over the past few hundred years?

With a child, we can offer them a very simplistic explanation to their sincere questions, for they are generally unable to process or comprehend the more complex answers. Similarly, a lot of the explanations of how the world works, and why we should behave with virtue, were, in the past, quite simplistic. As the child matures, those facile explanations no longer satisfy and we need to rise to the challenge of seeing the individual in their new light and providing more comprehensive answers to their questions. We have already mentioned some of the pitfalls of failing to do this. And those faith groups that have failed to give more comprehensive explanations are witnessing more and more of their members falling away in bitterness. Those that have risen to the challenge are watching the ties of love and trust growing amongst their members. We also see the same thing happening with governments and corporations. People are disillusioned with the facile explanations, or the "We said so" bullying, and want something better.

It is only in the past few hundred years that we have seen the powers of observation in the sciences of the world deepen, and look at how that has impacted the world. The impact is too obvious to go into here.

If we list some of the characteristics of this stage of individual development, we can easily see how it applies to humanity as a whole today:
  1. strength and vigor
  2. former conditions and needs are superseded by new requirements
  3. faculties of observation are broadened and deepened
  4. intelligent capacities are trained and awakened
  5. the limitations and environment of childhood no longer restrict us
  6. we acquire the capacity to manifest spiritual and intellectual perfections
  7. the responsibility for the upkeep of the spirit of selfless service among their fellow believers
  8. ability to adapt themselves to local situations
  9. to meet new challenges
  10. to impart their warmth and enthusiasm to those they visit
  11. the mind is most questing
  12. the spiritual values that will guide the person's future behaviour are adopted

While most of them, such as strength and vigor, and those dealing with heightened awareness of the world, are straightforward, there are some that bear a closer scrutiny. To me, numbers 7, 8, 10 and 12 really stand out.

Number 7, the responsibility for the upkeep of the spirit of selfless service among their fellow believers, drives home the importance of community service, especially in the core activities. Without this spirit of service, especially when it is selfless, nothing will significantly change in a community. As we have seen time and again, when the youth arise to this station, they not only teach those who are younger than themselves, they also inspire those who are older. Similarly, when we arise to this station, we have a significant impact on the community around us, helping people move beyond their self-centered isolation, at least here in Canada. I have seen very little that has united people from vastly different sectors of society than my son's service project, in which he is helping raise money for a homeless shelter. Other children are helping him make his earrings, and they are even being invited by various church groups to come in and share the project with their children. it is truly inspiring.

This ties in to number 8, the ability to adapt themselves to local situations. Shoghi, my son, is not just copying something that is happening somewhere else. He saw a principle, and figured out how to apply it in his own home town. He saw a need and figured out how to help. This shows a level of maturity that I would not have expected in a child, but hey, it`s great to be surprised. Now, when more communities do the same thing and learn how to apply these concepts in their own neighbourhood and to their own reality, then we will see greater and greater things happening. And you know what? It`s already starting. Just a few short years ago I would hear about a project that was working great in one area and then suddenly hear about all these other communities that were trying to do exactly the same thing in their area, hoping for the same results. Naturally, it didn't happen, as the communities were different. But now I'm hearing of communities that are sharing ideas and adapting them more naturally to their locale. This is a wonderful step, with greater effect in the end.

When we do this, adapt an idea from one place to our own area, then we see number 10, imparting their warmth and enthusiasm to those they visit, increasing, too. When people see things working well in their community, their level of enthusiasm goes up. Ain't that great?

But finally, number 12, the spiritual values that will guide the person's future behaviour are adopted. This helps underline the importance of the timeliness of what it is that we are doing. We are not doing all this just for ourselves, or even our neighbours. We are doing this for the future. The longer we take, the more difficult it will be to do in the future.

'Abdu'l-Baha has said , "It is extremely difficult to teach the individual and refine his character once puberty is passed."

The Guardian, in an quote cited earlier, has indicated that we have not yet passed this crucial stage in the development of humanity. But time is surely growing short. If we can help train humanity to move more and more into a greater sense of community, and away from its current tendency towards isolation, and if we can help inspire people to look at a true sense of mature spirituality, instead of the superficial tripe that passes for it in many places, then we will help ease this transition of the human race into a better and happier future.