Author Archives: Jawad Mian

The Party

In his 1858 “Essay on Persian Poetry,” Ralph Waldo Emerson expressed his fondness for Hafiz, one of the most beloved poets of the Persian language. Hafiz, whose given name was Shams-ud-din Muhammed, was born and lived in the beautiful garden city of Shiraz in the 14th century. His work became known to the West largely through the intellectual passion of Goethe, the most esteemed German writer to have ever lived. Goethe’s West-Eastern Divan was inspired by the mystic poetry of Hafiz and contained an entire section called “The Book of Hafiz.” Goethe claimed, “Hafiz has no peer,” and that he is “mystically pure.”

Hafiz became a life-long companion to Emerson and deeply influenced his literary career. Emerson wrote, “[Hafiz] is not to be scared by a name, or a religion. He fears nothing. He sees too far, he sees throughout; such is the only man I wish to see or be… Hafiz is a poet for poets.” The mission of Hafiz’s poetry was to express to a fanatical religious world that all things are connected to God and, therefore, all things are divine. He spoke of love, humility, and the importance of taking care of the soul through good action.

If God invited you to a party
And said,
“Everyone in the ballroom tonight,
Will be my special Guest,”
How would you treat them,
When you arrived?
Indeed, indeed!
And Hafiz knows,
There is no one in this world,
Who is not upon,
His jeweled dance floor.

Wisdom From Emerson

Emerson and I are old friends.

I first discovered him during the summer of 2009, when I took an indefinite break to connect with my self… Those little lulls in life that serve as nice, recuperative periods. Over the subsequent years, I have found plenty of answers in his Essays.

Emerson embraced change like no other poet. The great American writer devoted his young adulthood to studying Christian theology, and trained to be a Unitarian Minister at the Harvard Divinity School. It was the same path his forefathers had trod ever since the seventeenth century. On January 11th 1829, he was ordained to serve as the junior pastor at Boston’s Second Church.

He didn’t last long. Emerson had a very strong Christian faith, but found himself in disagreement with some of the church’s methods and general practices at the time. He made the following journal entry in 1832: “I have sometimes thought that, in order to be a good minister, it was necessary to leave the ministry. The profession is antiquated… I like the silent church before the service begins, better than any preaching.”

Emerson was particularly disturbed by his first experience of slavery a few years earlier. On a visit to St. Augustine in Florida, he attended a meeting of the Bible Society, while a slave auction was taking place in the adjoining yard outside. In the journal he kept during his stay, Emerson wrote, “One ear therefore heard the glad tidings of great joy, whilst the other was regaled with ‘Going, gentlemen, going!’” He couldn’t reconcile racial discrimination with Christian teachings.

Emerson fought for change his whole life. He was staunchly opposed to slavery and believed in the immediate emancipation of the slaves. At the end of January in 1862, he gave a public lecture at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., where he declared: “The South calls slavery an institution. I call it destitution… Emancipation is the demand of civilization. I think we must get rid of slavery, or we must get rid of freedom.”

Emerson’s social and religious views were often considered radical at the time. He felt the countervailing pressures of society had broken the relationship between the soul and the surrounding world. He believed the presence of God is not to be found only in heaven, but also here on earth. For Emerson, the divine was present and accessible in all things, especially in nature and in the heart of the fellowman.

Small wonder that Emerson’s central doctrine was “the infinitude of the private man.” He published his thoughts in a series of essays, and would eventually travel across the country, giving as many as 80 lectures a year. His ground-breaking work greatly influenced the thinkers, writers and poets that followed him, particularly Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau.

Emerson was a true global macro poet. He scoured the world for best ideas and opened himself gladly to differentiating viewpoints. Throughout his life, he took a particular interest in the religious writings of the East. He was an earnest student of a wide variety of books on Eastern philosophy, religion, history and poetry. He was deeply moved by “the sentiment of piety, which stoic and Chinese, Muslim and Hindu labor to awaken.”

Young sociologist Dr. Craig Considine highlights Emerson’s affection for Eastern philosophy:

“On several different occasions, Emerson singled out the Bhagavat Gita, which to him was “an empire of thought” and “the voice of an old intelligence.” Emerson, however, did not limit his non-Christian exploration to Hindu scripture. He also translated roughly 700 lines of Persian poetry, most of which was written by the Sufi poet Hafiz, whom he described as “one of the great writers.” Emerson was not afraid of turning to Muslims in the hope of gaining knowledge. His inquest into Islamic writings makes Emerson one of the leading American philosophers who encouraged his fellow citizens to understand others through reading and research. In his remarkable lecture “Religion” in 1836, Emerson even portrayed Confucius, the Chinese philosopher, as among a class of heroes who pursued virtue rather than “worldly riches.” In his essay “Essential Principles of Religion,” Emerson shows his appreciation for other religious traditions by stating that there have been noble saints among “the Buddhist, the Muslim, the highest stoic of Athens, the purest and wisest Christian…” He added that if these saints “could meet somewhere and converse, they would all find themselves of one religion,” which reminds us of Emerson’s belief in the oneness of humanity.”

Emerson believed that all religions have great value and are thus more similar to one another than they are dissimilar. Yet, even during his time, Emerson felt that: “We are now so far from the road to truth, that religious teachers dispute and hate each other.” I wonder what he would he think if he saw the world in its present condition.

What we need now more than ever is for people to embrace Emerson’s thoughts on religious tolerance and spiritual understanding. Unless we change, things will not change; and the disharmony of the world—caused by the ever-growing chasm between the West and the East—will only get worse.

Blasphemy

God is in a bear market.

Religious affiliation in the US is at its lowest point since it began to be tracked in the 1930s, as per the General Social Survey (GSS) conducted by the prestigious National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. One-fifth of the American public (and a third of those between the ages of 18 and 30) do not belong to a religious group—more than double the number reported in 1990 and up significantly from 1972, when only 5% of those polled claimed no religious affiliation. According to author James Emery White, the single fastest growing religious group of our time is those who check the box next to the word “None” on national surveys. In the last five years alone, the nones have increased from just over 15% to 20% of all US adults. The unaffiliated, at 1.1 billion, has also become the third-largest religious group worldwide, behind Christians and Muslims.

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life has found evidence of a softening of religious commitment in the US public as a whole. A third of US adults say they do not consider themselves a “religious person” and seldom or never attend religious services. The GSS also shows that the percentage of Americans who were raised without an affiliation has been rising gradually, from about 3% in the early 1970s to about 8% in the past decade. Americans’ level of religious involvement peaked in the 1950s, based on research by sociologist Claude Fischer from the University of California Berkeley. Nearly three-quarters of the public (72%) now seems to think religion is losing influence in American life, and most people who say religion’s influence is waning see this as a bad thing.

If Ralph Waldo Emerson—one of our favorite American writers—were alive today he would surely be among those that disapproved. He believed: “[W]hat greater calamity can fall upon a nation, than the loss of worship? Then all things go to decay. Genius leaves the temple, to haunt the senate, or the market. Literature becomes frivolous. Science is cold. The eye of youth is not lighted by the hope of other worlds, and age is without honor. Society lives to trifles, and when men die, we do not mention them.”

To be sure, the US still remains a highly religious country compared to most of the advanced world, both in faith and in practice. The Pew Research Center surveys find that the number of Americans who currently say religion is very important in their lives (58%) is little changed since 2007 (61%) and is far higher than in Britain (17%), France (13%), Germany (21%), or Spain (22%).

The Fall from Grace

The rise of science and discoveries in new medicine has allowed God to take a backseat in our increasingly busy lives. We are living through an age defined by the cult of happiness in which the “self” is the new god. French writer and philosopher Pascal Bruckner explains:

“On August 21, 1670, Jacques Bossuet, the bishop of Meaux and official preacher to the court of Louis XIV, pronounced the eulogy for Princess Henrietta of England … The wonder of death, Bossuet exclaimed, citing Saint Anthony, was that “for the Christian, it does not put an end to life but rather to the sins and perils to which life is exposed.” … The good death was a door opened on eternity, a passage to that “true, eternal life.” In this life, by contrast, agony was expected. Is it possible to imagine an attitude toward happiness and living further from our own? The eighteenth century saw the rise of new techniques that improved agricultural production; it also saw new medicines … Suddenly, this world was no longer condemned to be a vale of tears; man now had the power to reduce hunger, ameliorate illness, and better master his future. People stopped listening to those who justified suffering as the will of God. If I could relieve pain simply by ingesting some substance, there was no need to have recourse to prayer to feel better … In the 1960s, two major shifts transformed the right to happiness into the duty of happiness. The first was a shift in the nature of capitalism … Working no longer sufficed; buying was also necessary for the industrial machine to run at full capacity. To make this shift possible, an ingenious invention had appeared not long before, first in America in the 1930s and then in Europe in the 1950s: credit. … [C]redit changed everything; frustration became intolerable and satisfaction normal; to do without seemed absurd. The second shift was the rise of individualism. Since nothing opposed our fulfillment any longer—neither church nor party nor social class—we became solely responsible for what happened to us … Happiness is no longer a matter of chance or a heavenly gift, an amazing grace that blesses our monotonous days. We now owe it to ourselves to be happy, and we are expected to display our happiness far and wide. Thus happiness becomes not only the biggest industry of the age but also a new moral order. We now find ourselves guilty of not being well, a failing for which we must answer to everyone and to our own consciences. … To enjoy was once forbidden; from now on, it’s obligatory.”

No god but God

Whether we like it or not, religion is still hugely influential worldwide. More than eight in ten people claim to identify with a religious group. The belief in a deity has shaped the identity and values of people and communities at every stage of the evolution of humanity. And yet, we can’t ignore the fact that religion has also been used to promote controversy, violence, and hatred throughout much of recorded history. For whatever reason, our world today is increasingly fractured along religious lines. In our highly charged societies, religion cuts more deeply, arousing such powerful sentiments among people from different backgrounds that we are unable to put aside our differences. The whole world is fighting and devastating itself just because it cannot embrace diverse religious interpretations in an honest and calm
way.

According to the Pew Research Center’s latest annual study on global restrictions on religion, nearly three-quarters of the world’s population (73%) are grappling with high levels of religious hostilities within their borders. This is up from 52% in 2011 and 45% in 2007. Christians and Muslims—who together make up more than half of the global population—faced harassment in the largest number of countries. Harassment against Jews also reached a seven-year high. Some of the countries in this category include Israel, India, Pakistan, Nigeria, and Russia. The share of countries where religious restrictions of some kind (related to either government or social groups) are either high or very high has also been rising. The tumultuous Middle East—where Christianity, Judaism, and Islam originated—still leads the world with some of the highest levels of restrictions on religion. China tops the list. Europe’s median score on Pew’s Social Hostilities Index (2.3) is also well above the global median (1.6). Harassment of Jews and Muslims is particularly widespread on the continent. Based on the study, Jews and Muslims experienced harassment in 34 and 32 of the region’s 45 countries, respectively, a higher share than in any other region.

We, with our narrowness of mind and faith, agnostic or believers, have erected barricades of race and creed. What we really need is to break down these walls of falsehood, so that we can once again strive to learn to live in harmony with each culture. Just like each language has its own word for “mother,” it is only natural that each culture has its own word to refer to the One which can’t be defined— God, Elohim, Allah, Ik Onkar, Jah, Khuda and many more words have all been used to mean exactly the same. For how long will we continue to make a graveyard of the globe?

Come, let us all be friends for once,
Let us make life easy on us,
Let us be lovers and loved ones,
The earth shall be left to no one.
—Yunus Emre

The Fault In Our Stars

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players.
- William Shakespeare

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, for we are underlings.
- William Shakespeare

This world is a tamasha, a grand show. In this hullabaloo, we all have our part to play. But what makes for a great performance?

1. Be in the moment.

The finest movie scenes are usually those where the actor is fully absorbed in the shot. He is not distracted with thoughts of the scene just wrapped up or the one that comes next. The actor is lost in the current moment. We, on the other hand, rarely ever live the life that is right in front of us. Our days are spent extolling the virtues of our past or making future plans. Our happiness is not now. We either were or soon will be happy. We wait on it like a delivery from Amazon.

Shams, Rumi’s spiritual mentor, guides us to a better life: “The past is an interpretation. The future is on illusion. The world does not move through time as if it were a straight line, proceeding from the past to the future. Instead time moves through and within us, in endless spirals. If you want to experience eternal illumination, put the past and the future out of your mind and remain within the present moment.”

2. Don’t pretend.

As per two-time Oscar winner Glenda Jackson, “Acting is not about dressing up. Acting is about stripping bare.” The most celebrated performances are the ones where the actor does not seem to be acting at all. He stays true to the character. It feels honest and real, even under imaginary circumstances.

Instead of authentically acting out our parts, we usually just pretend. We make it up as we go along, leading a double life. We shroud our thoughts and intentions. Hypocrisy and deception becomes the norm. We get so deep in the habit of pretending before others that we forget our own character. Strangely, we appear disguised before ourselves.

3. Embrace uncertainty.

Great actors take risks, and they are not afraid to fail. They must face numerous rejections and disappointments before they are given an opportunity. Acting is a really tough way to make a living. There is no stability or predictability of earnings. This forces them to improvise, but it also gives them complete freedom.

We can’t run from what’s comfortable. Because we’re so afraid of the unknown, we wish to have a clear-cut idea of how our story will unfold. We want to be in full control. Not knowing it is an illusion. So when things come at us from out of left field, we curse the universe.

Blogger Tim Hoch writes: “It is little wonder that you believe the world revolves around you. After all, you have been at the very center of every experience you have ever had. You are the star of your own movie. You wrote the script. You know how you want it to unfold. You even know how you want it to end. Unfortunately, you forgot to give your script to anyone else. Among the many shortcomings of your family and friends is the harsh reality that they cannot read your mind or anticipate your whims. As a result, people are unaware of the role they are supposed to play. Then, when they screw up their lines, or fail to fall in love with you or don’t give you a promotion, your movie is ruined. Lose your script. Let someone else star once in awhile. Welcome new characters. Embrace plot twists.”

Soon the curtains will be drawn.

Grattitude

Artists have no choice but to express their lives. Peter Tunney is one such man. His life story is as colourful as his highly acclaimed art.

Tunney nearly died at the young age of 13 in a car accident, before springing back to life. He turned into a professional magician as he got out of the hospital, and barely got through high school. He would go to college, only to be thrown out, and began selling cars in a dealership. He was invited to work on Wall Street, which he did successfully for a number of years, before getting bored and deciding to spend time in Africa as a photo curator instead. After ten years in the savanna, he still felt unfulfilled and started making art as a form of nourishment.

Speaking of his journey in one of his interviews, Tunney said: “I went to a party when I was 13 and I came home when I was 43. I was running, trying to get stuff, accomplish things. When I got sober, I gave up all that. I just let the whole world come to me. And once I surrendered and let go of everything, good stuff happened to me.”

Tunney’s artwork imitates life. It shows you that when one door closes, another will open. You just have to “REMAIN CALM” and persevere. His thought is to create a body of work which mirrors his own life’s experiences. Tunney captures everything: heaps of trash, scraps from his travels, pages from magazines, newspapers, books he’s read, gifts from nature, old photographs, and giant impressions in his mind. He combines them all with bold typography into a massive collage or a mural using his inimitable perspective.

What I love most about Tunney’s work is that he stands outside the conventional boundaries of art and design. He won’t conform. I respect that. He watches only the trend of his inner need which is reflected in his work as a spiritual impulse. His creative endeavours are infectious and can be found in numerous private and public installations around the world. His Miami gallery is situated in the very heart of the trendy Wynwood neighbourhood. The studio is his free space to express and be realized, to once again create magic, to indulge the viewer into finding an independent point of reference.

Tunney has found aesthetic bliss. He is filled with high hopes, and bursts with an incredible amount of energy. If you visit his studio, you can often just find him cycling around. He is every bit as inspiring as the refreshing phrases from his billboards that are placed in parts of the US and Canada. “I was driving into NYC, and everyday, I’d see the same billboards. And it all felt so fake… The messages you’re getting are drink, go to strip clubs, and take Prozac. I just want to put up a big billboard in Midtown that says “EVERYTHING IS OK”. Someone has to say that.”

Throughout his work, Tunney evokes a positive attitude to life with slogans such as: “BELIEVE”, “COURAGE”, “DON’T PANIC”, and “CHANGE THE WAY YOU SEE EVERYTHING”. All messages a trader would be well-served to place above his Bloomberg screen.

If you are wondering why “GRATTITUDE” is spelled with two T’s? It’s because in Tunney’s world, gratitude is an attitude! And this goes all the way back to the time when he was riding his bicycle home from a tennis match and got struck by a car. He reflects about the incident with a clarity of mind that was not always available to him before he started to crank out art to fill his void: “There are no accidents in the universe… If you’re in touch with gratitude, it almost doesn’t matter what happens to you—because shit is going to happen to you—it’s how you respond to it… if you’re grateful, then I think you’ve got everything.”

Amen.

The Seeker

Siddhartha is an allegorical novel by Hermann Hesse written in 1922. It deals with the story of a restless Indian boy named Siddhartha, who leaves the comfort of his home and embarks upon a spiritual journey in search of peace and wisdom.

On his quest, he first spends time with the Samanas, who encourage him to live a life of deprivation. He practices fasting, meditation, and self-denial, but all his efforts are in vain. He feels no closer to enlightenment. He tells his friend Govinda, who also accompanied him on the journey, of his doubts.

“I find only a short numbing of the senses in my exercises and meditations and that I am just as far removed from wisdom, from salvation, as a child in the mother’s womb.”

His unrelenting search for a universal understanding of life takes him to Gautama, Buddha himself. He had heard that he was a man of bliss, and that Brahmans and princes would bow down before him and become his students. He decides to walk over to the town of Savathi to meet the exalted one.

“He looked at Gautama’s head, his shoulders, his feet, his quietly dangling hand, and it seemed to him as if every joint of every finger of this hand was of these teachings, spoke of, breathed of, exhaled the fragrant of, glistened of truth. This man, this Buddha was truthful down to the gesture of his last finger. This man was holy.”

Never before, Siddhartha had venerated a person so much, never before he had loved a person as much as this one. But Siddhartha felt little curiosity for his teachings, he did not believe that they would teach him anything new. He felt strongly that true wisdom can only come from within. So while Govinda chose to stay and sought refuge with the monks, Siddhartha moved on.

He ventures into the city where he meets Kamala, a courtesan, who sends him in the direction of material pursuits. Even as a rich man, however, Siddhartha realizes that the luxurious lifestyle he has chosen is merely an illusion, empty of spiritual fulfillment.

“He had been captured by the world, by lust, covetousness, sloth, and finally also by that vice which he had used to despise and mock the most as the most foolish one of all vices: greed. Property, possessions, and riches also had finally captured him; they had become a shackle and a burden.”

With a gloomy mind, Siddhartha leaves everything behind, and decides to live the rest of his life by the presence of a river, where he had earlier met Vasudeva, an enlightened ferry man. He becomes an observer of Nature, and the river teaches him many lessons, with Vasudeva as his guide. He learns from it continually. Above all, he learns from it how to listen. The quieter he becomes, the more he is able to hear. Siddhartha also realizes that he had learned something new from everyone he met on his path. There is Truth all around. From that moment, Siddhartha ceases to fight against his destiny and thinks only of the Oneness of all life.

“There shone in his face the serenity of knowledge, of one who is no longer confronted with conflict of desires, who has found salvation, who is in harmony with the stream of events, with the stream of life, full of sympathy and compassion, surrendering himself to the stream, belonging to the unity of all things. He was an inspired man.”

Years later Govinda, still restless in his heart, comes to the river after hearing talk of an old ferryman who is regarded as wise. He asks Siddhartha to ferry him over, not recognizing him at first as the friend of his youth. As the two old friends begin their trip across the river, Govinda asks Siddhartha to share some of the things he learned on his journey.

“What could I say to you that would be of value, except that perhaps you seek too much, that as a result of your seeking you cannot find… When someone is seeking, it happens quite easily that he only sees the thing that he is seeking; that he is unable to find anything, unable to absorb anything, because he is only thinking of the thing he is seeking, because he has a goal, because he is obsessed with his goal. Seeking means: to have a goal; but finding means: to be free, to be receptive, to have no goal. You, O worthy one, are perhaps indeed a seeker, for in striving towards your goal, you do not see many things that are under your nose.”

Don’t we all spend our life searching for something? We write our goals, design our path, and then chase after it with everything that we have. We pursue our objectives aggressively and directly, ignoring all other possibilities, and try our best not to deviate from the plan.

In place of hurrying on the path with our hands stretched out, reaching for the goal—which always seems farther out in the distance, fleeing from our grasp even as we get closer—perhaps we should walk through life, with our arms wide open, and our palms tilted toward the sky. In this manner, we would be open to receiving everything that comes our way, and living in the present, as opposed to in some uncertain future. Rather than feeling tired of life and the long road we still have to travel ahead; we would be free of worry, and slowly discover the joy of surprising ourself instead. Maybe we learn something new on every step along the way. When Siddhartha glanced at the river, he realized something: “This water ran and ran, incessantly it ran, and was nevertheless always there, was always at all times the same, and yet, new in every moment!”

I’ve grown up to believe there are no coincidences in life. We are always in the right place, and everything happens at exactly the right time. Instead of obsessing about our goals or destination, maybe we should remain in the present moment, and just let the universe move about. Like the river, life has its own flow, we cannot impose our own structure upon it. We can’t control it—all we can do is listen to its current. Sometimes, when the outside noise dulls down, the quietness within reveals a lot, but only if you listen, intently.

The Gospel Of Wealth

Andrew Carnegie was once the richest man in the world. Coming from a poor background, he loved making money and he loved spending it. Yet he felt guilty sometimes about loving it so much. In December of 1868, at the age of 33, Carnegie sat at his desk at the St. Nicholas Hotel in New York and wrote a memo to himself. He had a net worth of $400,000 and received annual income in dividends of $50,000 from his holdings in sixteen companies. We quote:

“Beyond this never earn. Make no effort to increase fortune, but spend the surplus each year for benevolent purposes. Cast aside business forever except for others… Man must have an idol—the amassing of wealth is one of the worst species of idolatry—no idol more debasing than the worship of money… To continue much longer overwhelmed by business cares and with most of my thoughts wholly upon the way to make more money in the shortest time, must degrade me beyond hope of permanent recovery.”

He vowed to retire in two years. But the lure of wealth proved too strong. By 1901, he was easily worth over $250 million.

His conscience never slept. In a famous article titled “The Gospel of Wealth” published in 1889, Carnegie expressed that the chief problem of the age was the proper administration of wealth, “so that the ties of brotherhood may still bind together the rich and poor in a harmonious relationship.” We excerpt as follows:

”This, then, is held to be the duty of the man of wealth: To consider all surplus revenues which come to him simply as trust funds, which he is called upon to administer…in the manner which, in his judgment, is best calculated to produce the most beneficial results for the community. The millionaire’s wealth was not his to spend, but his to wisely give away. Rich men should be thankful for one inestimable boon. They have it in their power during their lives to busy themselves in organizing benefactions from which the masses of their fellows will derive lasting advantage, and thus dignify their own lives.”

But how do you determine what’s “surplus” in today’s world?

As of last year, UBS estimates there are 2,325 billionaires around the world with a combined net worth of $7.3 trillion. The average person in this ultra affluent tier is 63 years old and has liquid holdings of $600 million. There is a wealth “ceiling” of $10 billion with 95% of the world’s billionaires worth between $1 billion and $10 billion. Crossing the $10 billion threshold has been particularly rare.

Based purely on subjective reasoning, we can probably all come to an agreement that anything above $1 billion represents a fair “surplus”. With interest rates at 2%, this would provide an annual income of $20 million. The world would still have 2,325 billionaires and nearly $5 trillion swept aside
to spend for “benevolent purposes”.

The point I’m trying to make here is really simple: There is enough money in this world to solve all of our problems. It’s just that the money doesn’t flow to all the right places. There is no shortage of food either. No one should sleep hungry. Yet, food just doesn’t pass on to where it’s needed most. As Gandhi once said, the earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not every man’s greed.

How do we unclog this world?

A new Oxfam study found that—based on current trends—by next year, 1% of the world’s population will own more wealth than the other 99%. According to the report, 80 people now own the same amount of wealth as more than 3.5 billion people, down from 388 in 2010. This has sparked a futile debate on rising global inequality and on ways to correct such imbalances. I for one don’t believe in government’s interjection or redistributive taxation. The laws of distribution should be as free as the laws of accumulation. We just need to break down our ego-shell and awaken our conscience.

Peter Buffett, Warren Buffett’s son, wrote an op-ed for the New York Times in June of 2013 titled “The Charitable-Industrial Complex”. We quote:

“As more lives and communities are destroyed by the system that creates vast amounts of wealth for the few, the more heroic it sounds to “give back.” It’s what I would call “conscience laundering”—feeling better about about accumulating more than any one person could possibly need to live on by sprinkling a little around as an act of charity. But this just keeps the existing structure of inequality in place. The rich sleep better at night, while others get just enough to keep the pot from boiling over. Nearly every time someone feels better by doing good, on the other side of the world (or street), someone else is further locked into a system that will not allow the true flourishing of his or her nature or the opportunity to live a joyful and fulfilled life.”

Excluding future pledges, billionaires, on average, donate just over $100 million cumulatively over their lifetimes. This is equivalent to 3% of their net worth. Why can’t we give as extravagantly as we spend? And why do we wait till the end of our lives? As Peter Tunney says, “THE TIME IS ALWAYS NOW”. I truly believe (excessive) savings weakens the soul.

We marvel at the “giving pledge” of billionaires, and yet, it is those who have little and give it all who are the true believers in the bounty of life. As per Khalil Gibran, their coffer is never empty. You often say, “I would give, but only to the deserving… The trees in your orchard say not so, nor the flocks in your pasture. They give that they may live, for to withhold is to perish. Surely he who is worthy to receive his days and his nights, is worthy of all else from you.”

I have come to realize that my earnings are not just my own. Mixed in my purse is the right of many others who earn too little or nothing at all. We are all but trustees for the poor and dispossessed. This is the real test for mankind. The river of money should always flow, with no forcing, and no holding back. What’s your surplus?

What Babies Teach Us

Zaynab turns two this month. As a first time father, I also turn two in my experience as a parent. I feel like we are growing up together.

For the last two years, I’ve watched Zaynab marvel at this world of sights and sounds in what was without question the most accelerated period of learning in her life—putting everything she can into her mouth as a way of connecting with it, pushing her explorations further as she learned to crawl, stand, and walk, establishing her individual identity as she distinguished between this thing called “Zaynab” (she refers to herself in third person) and everything else, and now, using the gift of speech to make sense of her surroundings and negotiate her existence in the world. She is absorbing new observations a mile a minute and developing an awareness of herself as an autonomous, self-determining being.

With all the hours of attention we give our children, we naturally think we are the ones teaching them. But if we dare to pay close enough attention, they have a host of important lessons for us too.

One of my greatest joys is to watch my parents spend time with Zaynab. How she folds into their arms so neatly, and how they shower her with endless warmth and affection. It allows me to imagine something that just never occurred to me before: how thirty years ago, it was probably me they had in their arms and were obsessing over. As a witness to their incredible outpouring of love for their granddaughter, I just feel humbled by how much love they must have felt for me, even if my mom was crying when I was born (she desperately wanted a girl, and I was her third boy, can you blame her?).

Back to the point, it makes me sad for ever raising my voice at my father in a heated argument. And it makes me appreciate my mother’s sacrifices even more, which continue to this day. I should, perhaps, be more kind and say, “I love you” more often.

However different we may all be now, we were all babies once. It’s easy to play it tough now, to overdo our independence, but we have all been recipients of continuous selfless and exhaustive attention, at all hours and in multiple ways. And therefore, no one made themselves. Babies are a reminder that we’re dependent creatures. Today, they need us. Tomorrow, we will need them. Now we hold their hand. Later they will hold ours.

As adults, we struggle to make someone happy or even feel happy ourselves. But ostensibly minor things please babies. Things that have become boring to us, perhaps unfairly so, excite them to no end. Zaynab encourages us to celebrate even the most ordinary experiences of life as precious divine gifts. It’s so easy for her to put a smile on someone’s face.

Philosopher Alain de Botton believes we should hang out with babies as a corrective, to remind us of what really matters. “It’s easy to get sickened by our species: the greed, the status consciousness, the vanity… [Babies] don’t care if the car is big, they don’t pay attention to what one’s job is or how much one’s making. They teach us about the truest, purest, ego-free kind of love, which is about giving affection without an expectation of receiving anything in return.”

I find them to be the utmost spiritual teachers. No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. Babies only care about being with people who are nice to them whatever they look like. From three months of age, research has found they actually understand the difference between ‘mean’ and ‘helpful’ behaviour and have a natural instinct to favour the latter.

Most of all, they’re messengers of hope, testament that no matter how much hate there is in the world, love will never be defeated. To the point that even faced with death and destruction, they have the power to prevent us from feeling too disenchanted with the state of our world.

While we try to teach our children all about life, our children teach us what life is all about.
- Angela Schwindt

Ahsan

I’d like to tell you a story.

By 2006, it had been four years since I visited Pakistan. I was twenty-two and change and I had kept myself busy in Toronto with a work and study routine that had not allowed me to travel anywhere. But thankfully, my eldest brother was getting married there in August and I was really looking forward to going back. I had particularly wanted to spend time with my grandparents as they were aging quickly and I felt that I had so much to talk about with them. I wanted to hear stories about their childhood, the colonial and partition era, their views on religion, and learn what they felt to be some of the very basic lessons of life.

I still remember the March 18 night in Canada when I got a message from home that Dada Abu had passed away (urdu for my grandfather from my father’s side). I immediately broke down. All of a sudden, I felt so far away from all that really mattered. The news shook me very hard. I think somewhere deep inside this had been a fear of mine. I knew that Dada Abu was getting weaker but I did not like to imagine that life could end. Though I had not spent much time with him, I felt very attached, and in an instant I was filled with regret at not having gone back to Pakistan earlier and speaking with him the way I had wished. Now it was too late.

A couple of months later, my Nana Abu (my grandfather from my mother’s side) came to Canada for a visit and to live with his son for a brief while. I promised myself that I am going to make the most of this opportunity and spend as much time with him as possible. Nana Abu was used to praying in the mosque five times a day, a routine which was not possible during his time in Canada. So I decided with my uncle that I would pick them both up very early in the morning and we would then pray Fajr together in the mosque, pick up some breakfast from Tim Hortons, and then go for a walk by the lake before I make my way to work each day.

As we watched the sun rise, I would press my grandfather with questions about his past. It was on these lovely, long morning walks that Nana Abu opened up and first started sharing his stories. I was hooked. Almost every day I would return from work in the evening and head over to my uncle’s apartment to spend time with Nana Abu and hear more about his life. Little by little, it grew upon me that I don’t want to forget these amazing stories, and perhaps that others in the family may not have heard them before either. With that in mind, I began jotting down his thoughts and life experiences.

My grandfather had no clue of what I was up to. Slowly, my notes took the shape of short stories, and then I got the idea to turn it into a little book that I could distribute to the whole family (my mother has eight siblings). The whole process, from beginning to end, took a little over a month. The book was edited and printed just a few days before I was going to leave for Pakistan to attend my brother’s wedding.

To this date, giving that book to him has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. I still vividly recollect his reaction. He had the most incredible smile on his face – he was beaming!

He said to me: “On the Day of Judgement, angels will hand us a book with a full list of our deeds in this world. You have given me that book right here, in this life, in this world.” He made me sit right next to him while he read the entire book from cover to cover. He laughed out loud, corroborated the stories told, and spent the evening entranced with joy. From that day onwards, the book would always be by his side. He would take it with him everywhere – like a prized possession – and never fail to tell people about it. Without doubt, it brought him a tremendous amount of happiness.

Almost five years later, on an April morning in 2011, my Nana Abu passed away in Faisalabad, Pakistan. My last meeting with him was less than two months prior in February when I was in Islamabad for a short visit.

One afternoon during that stay, he called me into the study room where he was engaged in a discussion with a friend. As I walked into the room, he raised his hand towards me and asked the gentleman if he knew who I was. The visitor hesitated to answer and then Nana Abu proceeded to say: “He is Nusrat’s son; he is the one who wrote that book about me.” I could sense that he was very proud.

The following morning I went over to Nana Abu’s room to say good-bye. I had lunch plans elsewhere and was not going to return. As soon as I spoke of my departure, he felt disturbed. He was not feeling his best and he grabbed me by the arm. It was Friday and he asked me to take him to Friday prayers, “I will feel stronger with you next to me.” I told him of my lunch plan and tried to excuse myself. I re-assured him that my young cousin would take him to prayer, like he always did, and that he will be just fine, there is nothing to worry about. He did not want to hear that, he asked again. Once more I tried to find a way out. But Nana Abu was adamant, he insisted yet again.

And then, at that moment, suddenly, I was overcome with an incredible sense of guilt. I couldn’t believe that I was being so selfish. Thinking about it now, I still can’t believe it took three attempts from him to ask me before I decided to finally change my mind. How ridiculous! In any case, a few hours later, we went together for Friday prayers along with my cousin. Nana Abu held my hand as we walked. We prayed and returned home right after. He thanked me and I felt extremely ashamed. I kissed him as he got into bed to rest and that was the last I saw of him.

Of course, I did not think that would be our last meeting. And now, imagine not having this memory of him. I would never have forgiven myself. I almost feel that Nana Abu purposefully exonerated me from the feeling of life-long guilt by insisting repeatedly that I accompany him to Friday prayers. There is something to be said about that. I should have been the one thanking him.

As I reflect on my relationship with Nana Abu, I have much to be thankful for. But for me, the one thing that stands out most – in terms of his contribution to my life – was learning what little I could of Allama Iqbal from him. Nana Abu was the first person to really properly introduce me to Iqbal’s works. He read me his poetry and beautifully explained the seminal piece Shikwa (Complaint to God) during which he would breakdown and weep.

As time rolled on, my own personal interest in Iqbal eclipsed the very basic introduction I received from him during his summer visit to Canada. Nana Abu would repeatedly say that we must strive to be Iqbal’s Shaheen (an Eagle). His avian symbol that carried a number of inspiring features: independence, self-respect, self-control, character and honor, courage, lofty thinking, spiritualism over materialism, constant struggle and endurance, perseverance, and purity of soul and passion. I did not understand the full-weight of what he meant at the time, I do now.

You ask me of the marks of a man of faith?
When death comes to him, he has a smile on his lips.
- Allama Iqbal

The Elegant Universe

Sonder
n. The realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.

We grow up thinking the universe revolves around us. Who can blame us? From the moment we open our eyes people start cooing over us. “Look how beautiful.” “She’s so special.” Friends and family hanging in our immediate orbit fight with each other to hold us for just a few seconds.

A sneeze, a cough, a stifled cry, and our poor parents drop everything and run to us in a heartbeat. We are their masters, wielding invincible power. We constantly keep them on the edge, making sure they don’t get enough sleep or leaving them with just enough guilt to make them doubt if they are doing a good job. But for all the trials and hardship, we give them plenty of love in return. We’re not inconsiderate, at least not yet…

For the first six months, the world, as we know it, is only as big as our mother’s embrace. We are always wrapped in her arms. It is only after we crawl out of the comfort of her bosom that we understand our place.

As we walk around to explore, we realize that there are restrictions to where we can go and what things we can pick up and put in our mouth. We are not free to do as we please. But the real shocker is to discover that we share our parents’ love with Pippen, the family dog. That’s an enormous blow to our ego.

When we turn five and our mother tells us that we’ll get a baby brother soon, we sense trouble. Our worst fears are confirmed when everyone seems excited even though he looks like a smurf when he is born. Slowly things begin to change around the house. We get kicked out of our parents’ bed and are forced to sleep alone in the dark. We notice we have to cry louder and longer to get their attention. And we are scolded for biting our younger brother to see if he is actually real.

Our universe starts to crumble before our eyes. How can we not be at the center of every experience?

Once we move into our teenage years, life gets even more complicated. We’re so full of it, full of ourselves that we struggle to reconcile with other people’s wants and desires. Personal wants reign supreme. So when we don’t get selected in the basketball team, or don’t get the girl of our dreams, our sense of entitlement feels bruised.

There comes a point when we stop believing what we know about the universe and its movement. We all, in one form or another, search for a new meaning. We are told our life’s purpose is waiting for us in the real world, at our places of work. So we morph into this high-tech race of cyborgs looking to leave an indelible mark on the universe—much like the message we carved on our classroom desk: “Jawad Was Here, 11/8/97”

Years go by. We lose ourselves in the din of time and routine, and become ghosts in shells—warding off boredom by scrolling through email, Facebook, and other social media platforms. Thanks to our damn phones jammed in our fists, we live increasingly virtual lives, too busy and absorbed in our tiny cocoons. All the while, there in the background, faint and out of focus, the elegant universe moves in ecstatic motion. Sonder.

Fortunately, we are not journeying in the universe but with the universe. “Whether we are aware of it or not, we are all in a silent conversation,” writes Elif Shafak in The Forty Rules of Love, echoing the wisdom of Shams Tabriz. “Everything and everyone is interconnected through an invisible web of stories… Do no harm. Practice compassion. And do not gossip behind anyone’s back—not even a seemingly innocent remark! The words that come out of our mouth do not vanish but are perpetually stored in infinite space, and they will come back to us in due time. One man’s pain will hurt us all. One man’s joy will make everyone smile.”

It’s poignant, humbling, and thought provoking.

We are all engaged in a dance fully choreographed by God—our caring parents, that snarky Pippen, our annoying little brother who is actually better looking, the beautiful girl who broke our heart, the guy on the train who can’t stop staring, the Starbucks employee who is always smiling, our old fart boss we’re avoiding, the homeless man singing, that couple over there fighting, the wind that is blowing, the kids going to school in the morning, Salma Hayek, me writing here, and you.

The entire universe is one being. To quote Alan Watts “Each one of us is a very very delightfully undulation of the energy of the whole universe. Only by our process of miseducation, we’ve been deprived of the knowledge of that fact.”

When will we take notice?