Thursday, March 31, 2011

Advancing the frontiers of learning

We have a conceptual framework within which we act. This framework helps us focus our efforts, and it also provides us with a language with which to express our thoughts and actions. This same framework helps us think of the instruments that we deploy, of methods that we use, and to see progress in our work. We can describe our work in terms of development, and devise measures to read our society and its needs. We can also analyze our conditions and the results of our actions so that we learn what might best advance the interest of our communities. We can speak about community building, and about service to all members of our community in each neighborhood.

Such a framework is neither a rigid solid nor a shapeless liquid. It is not solid because it has to adapt to local conditions. We would like it to have a structure, but this structure should not be so rigid that it can not respond to particular circumstances in each cluster. So flexibility is built into its structure from the outset. And it is not a liquid, because liquids have no shape of their own, they adopt entirely to the shape of whatever vessel they are poured into. Our framework should help us transform our thoughts and actions, so it should not be so shapeless as to take the shape of whatever we were doing before. We cannot carry on with the same set of activities and in the same mindset and merely change the labels of these activities and call them with new names that conform to the new language.

So now the question arises that if our framework is not rigid then how and under what influences should it change and adapt to particular conditions? The answer to this question will have to be that our framework is an organic one, and it can evolve in response to our continued learning.

During the time of the Bab the mode of operation had to do with a call for a New Day. thousands responded to such summons. And they boldly proclaimed the advent of a New Day. Heroism and sacrifice on a grand scale was called for as the new community was oppressed and suppressed only to re-emerge more triumphantly. It penetrated other countries and found new adherents during the ministry of Baha'u'llah. It reached the West and was no longer an Eastern Movement during the time of the Master. It spread to much of the world, found its early supporters from every tribe and every country, and became a World Religion during the time of Shoghi Effendi. At each stage a different approach was adopted as the community learned to respond to the opportunities for transformation.

In US for example the number of adherents went from some 17000 to about 70000 during a brief period of 5 years, from 1968 to 1972. People in every state and from every walk of life were looking for something new. It was a period of confusion about distant wars and their long summer of discontent. Surely the message of universal peace resonated with their hopes and aspirations. They were young and restless and everything was possible. Once again from 1988 to 1992 some one million people around the world embraced the message of a new day. Growth is never steady or linear.

The framework for action should be flexible enough to respond to these needs, and yet structured enough to make sure the transformation has long term positive effects for community building. What we learn in one time period informs how the framework will evolve in a subsequent period.

The Universal House of Justice in its letter of 28 December 2010 describes a dynamic pattern. It starts in paragraph 4 to describe a program of growth starting with the introduction of one single person in a virgin cluster. It then describes the intensification of this program and traces its organic development through two milestones. Of all the clusters in the world that are engaged in this process of community development some will be at the very frontier of learning. It is here then that we must learn to advance this frontier. This then brings us to paragraph 12, which describes the historical context and the necessity for further evolution of the framework. It writes: "That the current approach to growth, effective as it is, must evolve still further in complexity and sophistication once it has taken root in a cluster, demonstrating ever more notably the "society-building power" inherent in the Faith, few would fail to recognize.”

Study of this paragraph suggests the following two questions:

1.     Describe the organic process comprising a series of approaches for the growth of the Faith from the time of the Bab to the present day. 

2.     How might “the current approach to growth” “evolve still further”? 

Abdu'l-Baha, while speaking in Paris, said: "Some men and women glory in their exalted thoughts, but if these thoughts never reach the plane of action they remain useless: the power of thought is dependent on its manifestation in deeds." [Abdu'l-Baha, Paris Talks, page 19]

Monday, March 28, 2011

Creating vibrant communities

The Universal House of Justice in its letter of 28 December 2010, paragraph 11, wrote: "New frontiers of learning are now open to the friends, who are asked to dedicate their energies to the creation of vibrant communities, growing in size and reflecting in greater and greater degrees Baha'u'llah's vision for humanity."

First we notice that all of our activities are expressed in terms of learning. This is not merely a new language, but a new way of thinking about ourselves. Learning is not just about acquiring a few interesting facts. But beyond facts are concepts. When we learn new concepts our mind broadens and our consciousness expands. This is an essential feature of human life. And it is the source of our inner motivation. When we learn new concepts, and experience a broadening of vision, to that extent we are alive. Among the people who are most directly and immediately engaged in building new communities, those who experience this aspect of learning find that they do not need any other external motivation.

Next to attraction to beauty, thirst for learning is an inexhaustable source of motivation.

The second point to keep in mind is that we are called to dedicate our energies to the creation of vibrant communities. It is only natural that some may think of the word community as referring to the Baha'i community. But how can we create vibrant communities if people from the wider community are not included? It should be clear then that this word refers to all people who are interested to be part of a growing and vibrant community in each neighborhood or on any block or street.

Finally it is worth mentioning that Baha'u'llah's vision for humanity is expansive and all embracing. The principles and practices of the Baha'i community are such that it can easily and deliberately embrace people of all persuasions. People of any faith or no faith often feel quiet comfortable participating in the activities of Baha'is because they are designed to appeal to all people. The discourse is devoid of dogmas, doctrines and rituals, and is focused on service and on spiritual susceptibilities.

There are some 16,000 clusters in the world. Some 10,000 of which have little or no Baha'is in them. Therefore expanding the program of growth, to attain or surpass the first milestone, in over 5000 clusters is a formidable task in front of the community for the next 5 years. But such a goal speaks of the confidence and trust with which the Head of the Faith views its rank and file. It will represent a significant achievement of consolidation of unity within the Baha'i community itself as well as in thousands who participate in its activities. To what heights of service and sacrifice will the community rise, and to what levels of maturity its institutions will be called upon!

Baha'u'llah wrote: "This is not a Cause which may be made a plaything for your idle fancies, nor is it a field for the foolish and faint of heart. By God, this is the arena of insight and detachment, of vision and upliftment, where none may spur on their chargers save the valiant horsemen of the Merciful, who have severed all attachment to the world of being. These, truly, are they that render God victorious on earth, and are the dawning-places of His sovereign might amidst mankind."

The study of this 11th paragraph of this magnificient document from the inspired and unerring pen of the House of Justice suggests the following questions:

1.     What are the two tasks assigned to the friends who reside in any of the 1600 clusters with intensive programs of growth?
2.     What form of pioneering is largely called for in this Plan?
3.     How are we supposed to come up with 5000 clusters that have reached the first milestone or beyond?

Sunday, March 27, 2011

A dialectic of crisis and victory

Organic systems have certain properties that are specific to that domain, and which are very different from inanimate objects. The world of cold mechanical parts is a very different world than that of living things, those things that grow or decay. One of these differences is in the element of time.

Every system is made up of components. And these components will have to be connected together, and work with each other, in relationship with one another. There is also the concept of cycles or seasons, and a set of relationship. While cycles start and end, and there are new cycles, no two cycles are identical, and there is not a concept of senseless repetition. 

For instance if we think of a machine, it is certainly critical that all of its elements be of the right proportion, and fit together. When we are to construct this machine, we can make one part or another, then if we are interrupted and leave all the parts on the floor of a garage and we go away and come back weeks later, if no external factor has intervened those parts will be exactly where we left them, and we can just pick up where we left and continue our work. Progress is predictable and linear in time. We go only in one direction as we advance in building our machine. Tomorrow is always better than today.

However the condition of an organic system is quite different. You cannot start to build an organic system, then leave everything for a few weeks. If you do that when you return nothing will be the same. Parts will begin to dissolve and rot sets in. Even when you are always paying attention and making an effort, still things do not move in a linear fashion. You do not get uniform progress. But even temporary set backs, which are essential to the long term progress can be regarded as moving forward. Crisis itself has value. Mistakes are welcome. If our expectations are mechanistic then the process appears to us to be up and down, two steps forward and one step backward. But if our vision is comfortable with organic processes, with a measure of ambiguity, then all we see is up and up, forward and forward.

To appreciate this we need to free ourselves from rigid thinking, from mechanistic worldview, and from influences from a secular and materialistic civilization that insists on precision, and defines progress only along one dimension. This is the theme of paragraph 10 of the letter of 28 December 2010 from the Universal House of Justice. A study of this paragraph suggests the following questions:

1.     In many clusters the friends have experienced certain “difficulties” during the implementation of their intensive programs of growth. This paragraph states that “setbacks” are not only possible, or even likely, but they are “inevitable”. Why is this the case? 
2.     What is the “dialectic of crisis and victory”?

3.     How can we address “a momentary breach in the bonds of unity”?

4.     Mention two measurements that often “fall short of the demands of rapid expansion”. 

5.     It is often desired that several activities advance together. However in practice sometimes one activity flourishes, while others lag behind, creating an imbalance. What might be the solution to this?

6.     Can one cluster learn from the experience of another? Is this the best form of learning? 

Nearly all the analogies used by Baha'u'llah or Abdu'l-Baha to describe the processes and dynamics of building a new civilization are taken from the organic world of nature. Trees, ocean, sun, flowers, birds, waterfalls and colors are among the images used. Can you find and share some of these quotes?

Saturday, March 26, 2011

A landscape of enduring fellowship

Building a new civilization is not easy. All the three protagonists - individuals, communities and institutions - should experience transformation. Such a transformation is not merely cosmetic changes. It requires fundamental change in the way we think and act. And there is a sense of balance such that it is not possible for one element to go forward for a long time, if the other elements are not keeping pace. But progress in one element cannot also be forced. That is why it takes infinite wisdom and patience to nurture this process of individual and collective transformation.

The Universal House of Justice in the 9th paragraph of its letter of 28 December 2010 refers to this process of transformation in these terms. "It signals the maturation of an ever-expanding, self-sustaining system for the spiritual edification of a population." Once again this sentence describes the dynamics of the training institute. But as we have moved from initiating a program of growth to increasing its intensity, we have moved from one milestone to the next.

You recall that the first milestone marked the initial flow of human resources to the field of action. In other words if you consider one particular neighborhood, and consider that one person, acting as a homefront pioneer, has moved into this neighborhood, then he or she started a first study circle. The participants of that first study circle learned about the power of prayer and about the life of the spirit and began to visit some of their friends and studied a prayer with them. This initial flow of human resources indigenous to that neighborhood into the field of action marked the first milestone. But still there were no tutors indigenous to the neighborhood. This meant that continued action really depended on that first pioneer, and the system, while beautiful in itself, had not yet acquired the capacity to grow.

Now some weeks or months later the number of activities have increased, more of the friends had gone through more of the books, and a few of the friends resident in that same neighborhood have completed the first 6 books, and getting experience on all the skills. Now a few of them study Book 7 with their tutor and learn how to accompany others in their acts of service. The emergence of tutors indigenous to the neighborhood marks the second milestone in the development of that neighborhood. From then on the system for the spiritual edification of a people has become self-sustaining and ever-expanding.

If we consider the level of the cluster, we can say that many of those clusters that have already launched their intensive programs of growth have already passed the first milestone, and a few among them have also passed the second milestone since we can see this element of self-sustaining and ever-expanding system. But now if you consider one particular neighborhood, the criteria becomes much harder to meet. How many neighborhoods have their own human resources - the first milestone - and how many have their own indigenous tutors that are currently expanding the system - the second milestone?

The study of this paragraph suggests the following questions:

1.     The first milestone in the development of a cluster is the “initial flow of human resources into the field of systematic action”. What is the next milestone? 

2.     What does "launching of an intensive programme of growth” represent?
3.     We sometimes hear that an A cluster is operating more like a B or even a C cluster. What is meant by this statement? Are these categories fixed or flexible? How best can we see the development of a cluster in terms of a continuum?

4.     What is meant by “an ever-expanding, self-sustaining system for the spiritual edification of a population”?

5.     What example might exist in nature that includes an organic system from which we can learn about the characteristics of systems? How might such an analysis be helpful to our understanding of the dynamics of our system of growth? 

Working side by side and learning from intense action creates a sense of fellowship, and as this is multiplied and expanded to all those who wish to serve humanity selflessly at least a few hours each week, we will get a landscape of enduring fellowship. 

Abdu'l-Baha wrote in the Tablets of Divine Plan: "O ye friends! Fellowship, fellowship! Love, love! Unity, unity!—so that the power of the Bahá’í Cause may appear and become manifest in the world of existence. My thoughts are turned towards you, and my heart leaps within me at your mention. Could ye know how my soul glows with your love, so great a happiness would flood your hearts as to cause you to become enamored with each other."

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

An environment conducive to mutual support

The structure of the present day society is lamentably defective. Nearly all of our institutions and social structures are designed to operate in a culture of contest. Many teach their children from an early age to compete with others in order to get ahead. Even if many people in their early life as young children may be inclined to play together in a cooperative way, the adults often teach them the opposite. At school this sense of competition is further strengthened. Cooperative games give way to competitive sports. Economic life further reinforces this mindset of scarcity. The legal system is firmly entrenched in contest among opposing set of lawyers. In extremes even when everyone - including the judge - knows that someone is guilty, it is still considered irrelevant. It is about winning and losing in a zero-sum game. Education, economic activity, political discourse, and even the arts and justice all become victims of a culture that promotes success of one person at the expense of others. In such an environment it is impossible to serve the cause of community building, since the notion of community itself is marginalized.

It is easy to believe in and to pay lip service to cooperation and collaboration. But even the most well meaning individuals often tend to say one thing and then act a different way. The real reason maybe that we do not have good models of a society in which the requisite characteristics exist. How can we practically construct a community in which progress is made but the dominant mode of activity is cooperation, collaboration and mutual support? 

The unerring pen of the Universal House of Justice, in its letter of 28 December 2010, paragraph 8 describes this as an  "environment conducive at once to universal participation and to mutual support and assistance." It describes the "nature of relationships among individuals in this environment, all of whom consider themselves as treading a common path of service." It speaks of "a humble attitude of learning" that should characterize the posture of those intent on service. It asks that  they "should come to view every task, every interaction, as an occasion to join hands in the pursuit of progress and to accompany one another in their efforts to serve the Cause." 

If institutions and their members view themselves as somehow higher than those operating in the field, this may lead them to provide instruction, to explain things, to write manuals, and to provide formula and to-do lists, reducing a highly organic process of learning to a lifeless mechanical procedure. The Baha'i community is currently learning how to avoid this tendency and to create this environment of mutual support and accompaniment in every neighborhood and cluster. This effort will provide an invaluable model for all people, Baha'i or not, who want to build healthy communities.

The following questions are suggested by the study of this paragraph. 

1.     What are some of the “requisite characteristics” of the “administrative structures being forged in the cluster”? 

2.     Who is responsible to ensure that the Area Teaching Committee and the institute coordinators have the “requisite characteristics”? 

3.     What is conducive to “universal participation and to mutual support and assistance” among the friends working in a cluster?

4.     What is the proper “nature of relationships among individuals” in a cluster?
5.     What are the implications of “a humble attitude of learning”? 

6.     Comment on the “impulse to over instruct”. Why a “manual” for instruction of the members of core teams may not be appropriate?
7.     Describe the environment that leads “to a healthy pattern of growth”.

On the subject of humility and service to the world of humanity Abdu'l-Baha said: "O God! Make this assemblage radiant. Make the hearts merciful. Confer the bounties of the Holy Spirit. Endow them with a power from heaven. Bless them with heavenly minds. Increase their sincerity, so that with all humility and contrition they may turn to Thy kingdom and be occupied with service to the world of humanity. May each one become a radiant candle. May each one become a brilliant star. May each one become beautiful in color and redolent of fragrance in the kingdom of God."

Sunday, March 20, 2011

A space for reflection

The Baha'i community has been growing and developing in many dimensions since 1921, the inception of the Formative Age. From an early stirrings it has expanded to become truly a world wide community. In addition to expansion into many new countries, and building of institutions at the local, regional, national, continental and global levels, it has paid attention to both material and spiritual well being of communities. But none of its achievements is greater than its accomplishments during the past 15 years in systematizing its experience. This world wide community now operates in over 1600 clusters according to a pattern that has the potential capacity to capture the learning that is being generated every day in the field of action. Since 1996 the training institutes have systematized the educational process for capacity building and raising of human resources. And since 2001 the operation of the programs of growth in each cluster have systematized the teaching work.

Consider the case of a neighborhood. A few of the residents in this neighborhood can engage in action to strengthen the spiritual life of some of its residents, with the vision that this development will eventually impact the whole neighborhood. A few families can take ownership of their own progress. They can come together on a regular basis to say prayers together and deepen the devotional character of their neighborhood. A class can be held for their children so that they can connect with their higher nature. Naturally these residents will want to open a space for reflection, so that they can analyze their own actions and the results thus far obtained. As these activities increase in number beyond a handful the demands for planning and decision making will increase. A more formal scheme of coordination is then required if these activities are to produce a unified and coherent influence on the lives of the residents. It is here that it is important to create a more institutionalized arrangement for reflection.

Activities are carried out in cycles of roughly 3 months each. Each cycle consists of 3 phases of expansion, consolidation and reflection. This arrangement enables the residents to act and then reflect on their action and learn from how they are building their community. In some clusters the reflection phase is some two weeks long. During this period a number of actions can be taken. Those who have been facilitating study circles can meet together and consider their service. What has been the quality of the educational process fostered at the level of the study circles? What has been the environment of these circles? To what extent have the participants taken ownership of their own progress? What have they learned from walking on a path of service related to the particular course that they have been studying?

Similarly those who have been teaching classes for the children can meet together and reflect on the quality of their classes, and their relationship with building a community in which the children are fully participating, and perhaps displaying their consciousness of the qualities of human spirit. A third set of meetings may relate to the work of those who animate groups of junior youth. A fourth set of meetings may relate to the work of those who host devotional meetings. Other specialized meetings may also relate to the nature and quality of visiting families in their homes, or engaging in meaningful conversations with friends and strangers alike. Finally the learning generated from these meetings can be gathered together and considered at the final reflection meeting for a cluster.

This systematization and institutionalization of various reflection meetings should be in response to the level of activities in any cluster. It is important that such efforts are not reduced to a set of procedures, and there are no formula for the effectiveness of these efforts. Each group of residents in any neighborhood and cluster are in the best place to determine the needed complexity of these activities in response to the level of intensity and the number of people involved. 

This then is the subject of paragraph 7 of the letter of 28 December 2010 written by the inspired pen of the Universal House of Justice. The work of this community has truly become scientific in its method even as the content remains and becomes even more intensely spiritual. The following questions are suggested by the study of this paragraph.

1.     Initially the cluster has “occasional meetings of a few believers” who are working together to implement the framework for action. What is the next stage? 

2.     As the number of teachers increases, what is the concern of “an expanding core group of friends”?

3.     As the work further gains momentum, what indications might there be that “the demands of planning and decision making” are not fully met?

4.     Once a “fully fledged scheme for the coordination of activities becomes operational” the cluster can then “conform to the rhythm established by pronounced cycles of expansion and consolidation… punctuated every three months by a meeting for reflection and planning”. In such a cluster what three things will “flow efficiently”? 

5.     Have you observed a cluster where the “scheme for the coordination” is fully established, and yet the teaching work – either expansion or consolidation – is not progressing as desired? Why do you think that this is the case?

Baha'u'llah wrote: "The first Taráz and the first effulgence which hath dawned from the horizon of the Mother Book is that man should know his own self and recognize that which leadeth unto loftiness or lowliness, glory or abasement, wealth or poverty."