Monday, September 30, 2013

Public Speaking

The other day I had the wonderful opportunity to give a short talk at the public library in downtown Victoria. When asked in advance about what my topic would be, I said, "Finding hope in a hopeless world." After all, 'Abdu'l-Baha said that we must "make hopeful the hopeless ones".

And while I had originally thought to write some of the ideas from the talk in an article here, I realized that I've actually said most of what I wanted to say in previous articles. Why repeat myself?

Instead, I thought I would share a little bit about what I learned from it.

To start, though, here are as few things I've found useful when public speaking. First, pray. Pray before opening your mouth, for it is only by the inspiration from the Realms on High that you will say anything that will touch the hearts, and I find the hearts far more important to address than the minds. "Turn thy face toward the Kingdom of God," are 'Abdu'l-Baha's words, "ask for the bestowals of the Holy Spirit, speak, and the confirmations of the Spirit will come."

The second thing is kind of odd, but makes sense when you see it in action: Refer to something that is present. Of course, this isn't a hard and fast rule, but just something that I try to do on a regular basis. I look for something that connects to my talk and try to refer to it. For example, in my recent talk, I turned to Shoghi, my son, who was sitting in the front row, and asked him how old he was. Of course, I already knew his age, but this gave the audience something real to refer to. This is something that I picked up from Abdu'l-Baha's talks and have seen work quite well with others. In fact, if you look through Promulgation of Universal Peace, the record of His talks in the US and Canada, you will see that He often begins His talks with a reference like that.

The third is to prepare. Research your topic, plan an outline, rehearse it. And then, on the day of the actual talk, go with the spirit. No matter how much you prepare, you never know who will be in your audience, and you are talking to real, actual souls, not a faceless mass of bodies. (Yeee. That's a gruesome image, talking a faceless mass.) There have been many times when I've planned multiple talks, including memorizing three talks from the Master, only to scrap them all at the last moment. Of course, if you don't prepare, then you're just not ready. The tool, so to speak, has not been prepared for the task. So I feel that planning and preparation is essential, even if what you prepared is not used in the final talk.

Now, those are all things that I already knew ahead of time.

One thing that I didn't consciously know was how important humility is. I mean, I guess I did, in the abstract, but Marielle was chatting with people afterwards and made this observation. She said that in most of my previous talks I had not talked about how it was just "my own opinion", but she noticed that writing this blog and regularly making that disclaimer seemed to carry over. There were a number of times when I said that in my presentation. And the reaction? Quite interesting. It seems that this very honest disclaimer helped people lower their internal walls. She said that by claiming my talk was only my own opinion, and nothing official, I allowed the audience the opportunity to dispassionately examine what I was saying. They were free to decide for themselves if they agreed or not. Even if they disagreed, they did not feel threatened, and therefore those internal barriers never came up.

She also said that my informality helped people relax. I did not come across as a big shot who was there to tell them something. I came across as just a regular guy who had an idea that he was asked to share. And you know what? That's all I am. It's kind of cool that it came across.

One thing that I consciously did was embed quotes in my talk. I would sometimes say, "Baha'u'llah said", or something similar, followed by a quote. But more often I would paraphrase a quote in my own words. After all, not everyone like being quoted at. Oh, and an example of this would be like using that first quote in the Ruhi Books. You know, the one that begins, "The betterment of the world can be accomplished..." Instead of using that quote, I think I said something like, "When you do good deeds, pure deeds, and act in a commendable way, you help make the world a better place."

Finally, I answered questions people asked. And while I didn't claim to have "the" answer, I answered them to the best of my ability. Of course, this often began with a moment of silence while I said my favorite prayer for this sort of occasion quietly in my own heart: "Oh God, HELP!"

For example, one person said, "For Baha'is, hope comes from the promise of the Golden Age of Baha'u'llah. Can you tell us when this will happen?"

My immediate thought was to say, "No, I can't", and move on to another question.

Instead, I realized that this would be a dis-service to the one who asked. So I said my favorite prayer (see above).

"That's a very interesting question", I began. "It is the same question as asking about the Lord's prayer 'Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is heaven'. I think they are describing the same thing."

This was when I turned to Shoghi and asked him how old he was. "8 years-old, Papa."

I then turned back to the man who asked the question and asked him, "When will Shoghi turn into an adult? What is the exact day? How old will he be? In truth, there is no exact time. It is a process that occurs over a length of time. For now, we don't need to be concerned about when it will occur as much as what we can do to help bring it about."

That, to me, was the answer to my prayer, for there is no way that I would have come up with an answer to that question on my own.

So there it is. Just a few things I learned from giving a public talk and reflecting on it. I hope it was useful.

Is there anything you have found that helps make talks more effective?

Monday, September 23, 2013

Everything Between

As I said in the previous article, there is so much more to talk about regarding "heaven and earth and all that lies between" them.

I already mentioned how it can relate to the image of the ringstone symbol, but there is another one that comes to mind: the human being.

For example, there is the head, which contemplates heaven, and there are the feet that walk the earth. Between them is "That which He hath reserved for Himself... the cities of men's hearts". And where the centre line in the ringstone symbol represents the Message that connects the three levels of creation, it is also the same Message that connects these three levels within us.

Like the ringstone symbol, we can see ourselves simplistically in terms of three levels all contained within a single unity which is the symbol itself. We can be seen as the micro version of the ringstone symbol. In fact, Baha'u'llah Himself says "Man is the supreme Talisman." And a talisman, as you know, is a symbol, an object thought to have magical powers and producing miraculous effects. Doesn't that describe the miracle of the human being quite well?

When speaking of the hearts of men, He says "Open, O people, the city of the human heart with the key of your utterance." And again, "The Word is the master key for the whole world,", He says, "inasmuch as through its potency the doors of the hearts of men, which in reality are the doors of heaven, are unlocked."

The doors of the hearts are in reality the doors of heaven. Wow. I had never really thought of my heart in that way before, but it does add a greater significance to that aspect of the human being when teaching.

In many other posts I have referred to the importance of the heart, such as how the unity prayer, the one that begins "Unite the hearts of Thy servants...", both begins and ends with the heart.

But again, looking at this quote about heaven and earth and all that lies between, and comparing it to the human, we can start at the beginning and see what happens. Now I'm not saying that this an authoritative way of understanding this. It is, after all, only my personal opinion, and you can take it or leave it, but I find it useful to try looking at the Writings in this way.

So, let's start with the mind. "God's greatest gift to man", said 'Abdu'l-Baha, "is that of intellect, or understanding." He points out that the intellect is not for "the purpose of making instruments of destruction; but that we might become diffusers of light; create love between the hearts; establish communion between the spirits and bring together the people of the east and the west."He describes the intellect as "supernatural", the one power of humanity that is neither "hereditary in origin" nor the outcome "of nature's processes". It is through this power of the intellect that we are "able to receive a larger share of the light Divine". In the human being, He says, "the intellect occupies the supreme station", for through it we can distinguish truth from superstition. Through it, "sciences and arts, all inventions, crafts, trades and their products" have been discovered and produced.

And yet, this power has its limits. "(B)y means of intellect alone he cannot accomplish the progress effected by religion." It is not perfect, nor eternal. "Human intellects themselves must change and be subject to the universal reformation". This is a point where the analogy breaks down, but I think it is still useful. It does highlight the importance of the intellect in recognizing the divine.

From there, let's go to "the earth", or the feet. Now again, it may just be me, but when I think of the "feet", I think of movement, action. I think of deeds. And, naturally, when I think of deeds, I think of that line from the Hidden Word, "Let deeds, not words, be your adorning." But I also think of another line from the Hidden Words, "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." You see, we won't be called to give an account for our thoughts, or our intentions. Instead we shall be asked about our deeds. What did we actually do in our life? So many of the greatest ideas in the world remain there, in the realm of ideas. They are never put into action, for whatever reason. They stay there, in the head, so to speak.

The question, of course, is how to remedy that. How can we move our ideas, our intentions, from the head down to the feet? That image of the ringstone symbol, the concept of ""heaven and earth and all that lies between" them, gives to me the answer: through the heart.

There is so much in the Writings about putting our noble ideas into action, and the effect this can have upon the world. In The Advent of Divine Justice, Shoghi Effendi dedicates a very lengthy paragraph to this theme, beginning on page 23 and going for more than entire page. It is in this paragraph that we find such gems as "The betterment of the world can be accomplished through pure and goodly deeds, through commendable and seemly conduct." Here he quotes the passage in which it says that Baha'u'llah's "object is to array every man with the mantle of a saintly character, and to adorn him with the ornament of holy and goodly deeds." On and on he goes about this extremely important theme, far too long for me to quote here.

Another passage that comes to mind is that celebrated quote from Epistle to the son of the Wolf in which Baha'u'llah describes His receiving of the Revelation. He says that He "felt as if something flowed from the crown of My head over My breast", or that which is in between. Note how it moves from the head and over the breast, the seat of the heart. It seems to trace the passage of that central line from the ringstone symbol, and we find that same passage within ourselves, too. As we study the Writings, as we dive deeper and deeper into their meaning, our hearts become ever more touched. And as we become more inspired by what they contain, we find ourselves motivated to do more out of our love for this Faith of ours.

No matter where we enter this vast ocean of Baha'u'llah's revelation, we will find pearls of priceless value. And they will always lead us on to greater action. We begin with the ideals of heaven, as espoused in the Writings, and find our own clumsy way of striving to put them into action, here on earth. And somewhere in between, we find our hearts are touched, inspired, and that is where we will find the King of Kings sitting, smiling in appreciation of our efforts.

Of course, in my case, that smile of His is probably hiding a snicker.

Monday, September 16, 2013

An Interesting Phrase

Have you ever noticed that there are some things in life that become so commonplace that we no longer notice them? Like the noise from the buses going outside my window, or the persistent buzzing of the lights in the other room. These things are always there, and after a while I just become immune to their presence; my brain just filters them out.

When reading the Writings I often fall prey to the same filtering process. There are some things in the Writings that tend to get lost when I'm reading, such as the regularly occurring "this of one that"s. You know what I mean, all the times that Baha'u'llah says, "the leaves of one tree", "the waves of one ocean", "the flowers of one garden", "the fruits of one branch", "the fries of one happy meal". (Just kidding. I made up that last one to see if you're paying attention.)

It's not that these phrases aren't important, just that my deficient brain filters what sometimes appears to my dim sight to be common. Fortunately I have a wife who keeps me on my toes and has been training me to recognize when I'm skipping over things like that. You can see a good example of her pointing this out to me here.

Anyways, I was reading a prayer the other day, by the Bab, when I realized that I was doing that filtering thing again. What, you may wonder, was I filtering? Great question.

You know that prayer for protection written by the Bab, the one that begins, "In the Name of God, the Lord of overpowering majesty, and All-Compelling"? The one that was written in the shape of a pentacle? Well, towards the end of it, and all throughout the middle, He regularly uses the phrase, "heaven and earth and of everything between them", or some variation thereof. In fact, if you go through that prayer and only look at that (or those) particular phrase (phrases), this is what you will see:

  • the kingdoms of Revelation and Creation and whatever lieth between them.
  • the kingdoms of heaven and earth and whatever is between them
  • the treasures of earth and heaven and everything between them
  • the Creator of the heavens and the earth and whatever lieth between them
  • all that dwell in the heavens and the earth and whatever is between them.
  • the keys of heaven and earth and of everything between them.
  • the power of His hosts of heaven and earth and whatever lieth between them

And then it finishes with this interesting sentence: "Protect us from what lieth in front of us and behind us, above our heads, on our right, on our left, below our feet and every other side to which we are exposed."

Heaven and earth and everything between them? What does that mean? And why is the first line so different? Why is the third line reversed? Why are the fourth and fifth referring to heavens as a plural when the rest are singular? What does it all mean?

At first glance I just sort of presumed that it meant all of creation. But you know what happens when we presume. We make a pre out of Sue and me. (Or something like that.) (Apologies to Abbott and Costello.)

Now I wonder.

It seems as if He is telling us a story, relating something important to us in that unusual varying of it. The "kingdoms of Revelation and Creation" seem somehow more majestic than "heaven and earth". They seem like a capital version, as opposed to a lower case version, and, in fact, they are. It is as if He is going from macro to micro, somehow, in those first two instances. And, of course, He seems to be giving preference to the heavenly by placing it first.

Also, there seem to be a series of couplets there, after the first oddity. The kingdoms, heavenly first, followed by their treasures, which appear to move from the earth up towards heaven. For some reason this reminds me of that Hidden Word that begins, "Holy words and pure and goodly deeds ascend unto the heaven of celestial glory."

The next couplet refers to the Creator and the creatures. Then come the keys, and the power they unlock. "Unlock, O people,", says Baha'u'llah, "the gates of the hearts of men with the keys of the remembrance of Him Who is the Remembrance of God and the Source of wisdom amongst you." When you unlock the the heart, then the innate power of the individual can come to life.

Overall, when I read this prayer it is as if my vision goes up and down, up and down, up and down, and then hits that last sentence. In front, behind, above, to the right, the left, below, "and every other side to which" I am exposed. What a path! I always seem to trace it mentally as I read it. It's almost like a three-dimensional labyrinth that explodes outward into a sphere, with little old me in the middle.

But back to that phrase: heaven and earth and of everything between them. Above, below, and in the middle.

Reminds me of the Ringstone symbol.

The heavens are the top line, while the earth would be the bottom line. And then there is "everything between them". So what would that be? Well, in the ringstone symbol, that middle horizontal line would be the world of the Manifestations.

In the Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, Baha'u'llah says that God "bade Me lift up My voice between earth and heaven". In the Kitab-i-Aqdas, He refers to Himself as He "Who lifteth up His voice between the heavens and the earth." To the Bishops of the world He proclaims, "He Who is the Everlasting Father calleth aloud between earth and heaven." He opens the Suriy-i-Haykal with, "This is the Surih of the Temple which God hath ordained to be the Mirror of His Names between the heavens and the earth".

Time and again He refers to His proclamation, His Station as being between heaven and earth.

In another place, the Suriy-i-Vafa, He quite interestingly refers to His Revelation as that "which God hath ordained to be the Sword of His Revelation between heaven and earth, and through which truth is separated from error". Looking again at the ringstone symbol above, I can so easily see this cleaving between that which is above from that which is below., which also reminds me of Genesis 1:18, in which the Two Great Lights separate light from darkness, a job which was previously God's, back in Genesis 1:4.

Yes, it is an interesting phrase, "the heavens and the earth and whatever is between them".

I'm sure I could go on and on with this, but I have to go a conduct a meditation session now.

Perhaps I'll meditate more on this phrase while I'm there.