Wednesday, August 27, 2008

music for the soul

music has been very important to me this year. and i go through distinct phases in the type of music that seems to feed and nourish me. my most recent phase satisfies a hunger for soothing meditative music for the soul. i just love how diverse cultures around the world have music to take one to that place of peace, that can accompany a person on an inner journey.

"We, verily, have made music as a ladder for your souls, a means whereby they maybe lifted up unto the realm on high..."
(Baha'u'llah, The Kitab-i-Aqdas, p. 38)

Tibetan singing bowl

Cistercian monks

and today's purchase/iTunes download which i so ADORE: "The First Flute" by Kevin Locke the renowned Baha'i musician and cultural ambassador for native peoples in North America.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

societal transformation in China

I have just been reading a paper about "market transition" in China.

Nee, V., & Matthews, R. (1996). Market Transition and Societal Transformation in Reforming State Socialism. Annual Review of Sociology, 22, 401-435.

I would have to read it several times through very carefully to grasp the content adequately. But I am intrigued by this paragraph in relation to China's approach to rural development:

"Byrd and Gelb (1990) show that market-oriented rural industrialization is advantageous for rural communities as a whole and for the cadres who oversee them. First, salaries of local officials are closely tied to revenues generated from township and village enterprises...Ironically, in localities where township and village enterprises are well-developed and profitable, local cadres have an incentive not to be promoted to higher salaried positions in the state heirarchy because this would result in a reduction in their incomes...Local cadres thus have an incentive to improve the general standard of living in their area through development of rural industry. In this way, the relationship between local cadres and rural residents is becoming less vertical as local cadres focus efforts on marketizing community production."

I have all kinds of questions about examples of how this is occurring and the impact on the environment and land use patterns and loss of agricultural land and so on... but still I cannot help but be intrigued by the fact that in China there is still so much space for grass roots innovation and development. I have certainly witnessed this myself in my trips to the rural parts of Northwestern China. Seems to me there is more to be learned and understood about this state of affairs.

Another fascinating point relates to the Chinese approach to economic reform as compared to other postcommunist governments such as the states of the former Soviet Union which applied "textbook economics" to dismantle old institutions and replace them with market institutions--probably adapted from the West. In China, however, "reformers emphasized piecemeal incremental change, not by design, but by trial and error, resulting in an open-ended evolutionary process of institutional change."

Ha! How about that? They adopted a "posture of learning" and it paid off in many respects. How wise.

[All pictures taken during my stay in China, in Gansu province in Fall 2004]

Saturday, August 23, 2008

"why should a mature humanity not be able to develop an economy with a totally new logic?"

I have had a lovely time reconnecting with an old dear friend of mine who is working on a paper about Baha'i views of social and economic development. We are trying to help each other over our writing hurdles. I recommended to her a talk given by Dr. Farzam Arbab and in the process I was thrilled to rediscover the talk as I had never read it carefully myself. The talk is entitled The Process of Social Transformation.

It touches on themes I ponder regularly regarding the Baha'i view of social change.

The first point is that Baha'is view social change as resulting from an organic and complex set of interactions between profound changes in the individual and deliberate attemps to change the structure of society. Arbab defines change in social structures as not merely political change but change in mental, cultural, economic, social structures and also in the "very concept of political leadership and power".

Individual spiritual transformation and illumination frees the individual "from the bounds of oppressive social forces" !! and the continued spiritual growth of these liberated individuals can only occur as they arise to make efforts to create and strengthen new social institutions. Real social change is therefore an iterative process over several generations-- "organic change in the structure of present day society, a change such as the world has not yet experienced" (Shoghi Effendi, World Order of Baha'u'llah, p. 43). Arbab describes this process as "the mystical-practical path of social activity and individual transformation".

He goes on to introduce the notion that there are "twin processes" at work in the world at large--the destructive processes and the integrative processes. There is no need to participate in the processes of the destruction of corrupt and outdated structures. These are collapsing on their own. He quotes at length from the writings of Shoghi Effendi. I love this quote--it is a bold and confident vision for the future world society--I have abbreviated it somewhat:

"The unity of the human race, as envisaged by Bahá'u'lláh, implies the establishment of a world commonwealth in which all nations, races, creeds, and classes are closely and permanently united and in which the autonomy of its state members and the personal freedom and initiative of the individuals that compose them are definitely and completely safeguarded. This commonwealth must, as far as we can visualize it, consist of a world legislature, whose members will, as the trustees of the whole of mankind, ultimately control the entire resources of all the component nations, and will enact such laws as shall be required to regulate the life, satisfy the needs, and adjust the relationships of all races and peoples. ...

A mechanism of world inter-communication will be devised, embracing the whole planet, freed from national hindrances and restrictions, and functioning with marvellous swiftness and perfect regularity. ...

The press will , under such a system, while giving full scope to the expression of the diversified views and convictions of mankind, cease to be mischievously manipulated by vested interests, whether private or public, and will be liberated from the influence of contending governments and peoples. The economic resources of the world will be organized, its sources of raw materials will be tapped and fully utilized, its markets will be coordinated and developed, and the distribution of its products will be equitably regulated." (Shoghi Effendi, Guidance for Today and Tomorrow, 1953, p. 167)

[as an aside this brings to mind the Peter Drucker quote I read this morning that "the best way to predict the future is to create it"]

Always a staunch advocate for the participation of rural populations in the larger global economy, Arbab discusses two of my central passions in life: education and agriculture from the point of view of the village community. He is writing in 1987 but all of his ideas seem so VERY contemporary as though they were written just today and we see the influences of these kinds of ideas permeating educational thought today.

" is important not to view these activities as a mere extension of the present educational system of the so-called developed world to developing rural regions. The unbridled process of transfer of technology and education, promoted vigorously by governments and churches during the past decades, has already shown its devastating effects in the creation of a most alarming state of hopelessness, alienation, and confusion among millions of rural youth who see no future for themselves either in the villages or in the marginal neighborhoods of the cities to which they are forced to migrate. It would not be an exaggeration to say that many Bahá'ís all over the world, while acutely aware of the great value of education, show profound disagreement with present educational practices. ...

The educational objectives that are being sought are integration of the spiritual and the material, the theoretical and the practical, the technical and the social, the sense of individual progress with service to the community at large, all these as opposed to the increasingly fragmented educational content of the present-day systems. The form of education is also to undergo profound change, become more participative and less autocratic, more consultative and based on joint exploration of nature and social reality. There is, moreover, an extremely strong emphasis on excellence, but not excellence exclusively for the children born to certain social classes. The educational system being sought will foster social justice and will fulfil all the requirements of universal education."

And with regard to my other passion--sustainable agriculture and its relationship to an alternative village economy and a just global economy:

"Peasant production systems all value diversity of species and include a very complex management of time and space unlike most monoculture systems of commercial agriculture. The utilization of family labour on one's own farm and on others' follows a far more complex logic than simple wage earning, work is a social process that has inherent in it interchanges with other families, a concept of reciprocity and social responsibility, and usually a deep commitment to the community. What the researchers in this field tell us then is that there is a logic to this mode of production quite different from the logic of a commercial agriculture based on the rate of return on investment, or that of an agricultural operation planned by the state to produce cheap and abundant food for urban areas and industrial workers.

My purpose here is clearly not the defense of peasant economies, which at best offer meager subsistence to people, but I would like to make two points on the basis of this short description. The first is that economies with different "logics" are quite possible, and the only choices open to humanity are not the capitalist and socialist modes of production, both of which are products of two or three hundred years in the history of the European people. There is no doubt that peasant economies are defective and that there is no use romanticizing present and past peasant societies. But why should a mature humanity not be able to develop an economy with a totally new logic that is not based on greed or false precepts of absolute equality, that allows reasonable freedom yet promotes and safeguards justice? Moreover, why should the village Bahá'ís, in their attempt to move forward, follow dreams of false modernization and become converted to the logic of one of the two dominant world ideologies?"

Thursday, August 21, 2008

gaining the victory over self

"Arise, O people, and, by the power of God's might, resolve to gain the victory over your own selves, that haply the whole earth may be freed and sanctified from its servitude to the gods of its idle fancies -- gods that have inflicted such loss upon, and are responsible for the misery of, their wretched worshipers. These idols form the obstacle that impedeth man in his efforts to advance in the path of perfection. We cherish the hope that the Hand of Divine power may lend its assistance to mankind, and deliver it from its state of grievous abasement."
(Baha'u'llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha'u'llah, p. 93)

I have had a book on my shelf for a while-- "The Wisdom of the Desert" by Thomas Merton. I felt drawn to it this morning during my morning devotions. I imagine myself to be in a battle to regain victory over my thoughts to arrive at a place of purity, independence, freedom from enslavement, strength, zeal and enthusiasm. Thomas Merton was just the thing this morning. Who better to turn to for victory over self than the wisdom of nuns and monks and mystics who devote their lives to complete transcendence over self. I have posted previously about some of the books by Margaret Funk that have helped me in these endeavors, "Thoughts matter"and "Tools matter". She also draws on the wisdom of the early Christian mystics to explore ways that we can gain victory over our own thought.

Merton writes a nice introduction to the collection of wisdom that he has compiled. I found the end of the introduction compelling! Here is an excerpt:

"Ours is certainly a time for solitaries and for hermits. But merely to reproduce the simplicity, austerity and prayer of these primitive souls is not a complete or satisfactory answer. We must transcend them, and transcend all those who, since their time, have gone beyond the limits which they set. We must liberate ourselves, in our own way, from involvement in a world that is plunging into disaster. But our world is different from theirs. Our involvement is more complete. Our danger is far more desparate. Our time, perhaps, is shorter than we think.

We cannot do exactly what they did. But we must be as thorough and as ruthless in our determination to break all spiritual chains, and cast off the domination of alien compulsions, to find our true selves, to discover and develop our inalienable spiritual liberty and use it to build, on earth, the Kingdom of God...we need to learn from these men of the fourth century how to ignore prejudice, defy compulsion and strike out fearlessly into the unknown."

Hah! There is much in these two paragraphs that I wish to mull over at the current point in my life.

And a few of the simple yet profound nuggets of wisdom that are contained in the book from the desert mystics:

"There are three kinds of men who find honor in the sight of God: First, those who, when they are ill and tempted, accept all these things with thanksgiving. The second, those who do all their works clean in the sight of God, in no way merely seeking to please men. Those who sit in subjection to the command of the spiritual father and renounce all their own desires."

I find such peace in the notion of a life spent renouncing desire rather than seeking to attain and fulfill our desires. Although there are desires and then there are desires.

"...whatever you see your soul to desire according to God, do that thing, and you shall keep your heart safe."

"If we but had with us these three men: Noe, Job and Daniel... Now Noe represents those who possess nothing. Job represents those who suffer tribulation. Daniel, those who discern good from evil. If these three actions are found in a man, then God dwells within him."

"There are two things which a monk ought to hate above all, for by hating them he can become free in this world...An easy life and vain glory."

I have found all these really most comforting as I meet my struggles head on today. Merton states that the "desert fathers" were "inclined to accept the common realities of life and be content with the ordinarly lot of man who has to struggle all his life to overcome himself." Merton tells the story of the "monk John, who boasted that he was beyond all temptation and was advised by a shrewd elder to pray to God for a few good solid battles in order that his life might continue to be worth something."
I embrace an attitude of thanksgiving for the battle and the struggle and the daily opportunity to gain victory over my own self.

Blog Action Day 2008--POVERTY--October 15

Get ready to do some posting for poverty this October 15 on the annual Blog Action Day. Thanks so much to Anne for reminding me of this annual event.

Blog Action Day 2008 Poverty from Blog Action Day on Vimeo.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

the crisis of "latter day capitalism"

I am struggling to attain greater understandings of our global economic and social structure. I was particularly interested in a recent post on Iguana Journal which draws excerpts from Muhammad Yunnus' book "Creating a World without Poverty" which is a book I must get around to reading.

I am just now reading excerpts from a book "The Work of Nations" by Robert Reich, former US Secretary of Labor as he wrestles with the myriad issues that have arisen in the global marketplace with relation to job creation and employment. According to his argument the US excels at cultivating "symbolic analysts" who possess the type of human capital that is valued most highly in the global labor market. Symbolic analysts are capable of "abstraction, systems thinking, experimenation and collaboration." They work in engineering, research and development, education and communication, and marketing and management industries and so on. But only one "fortunate fifth" of the US population have access to these types of jobs and a large proportion of the rest of the world's population have become "structurally irrelevant" to use Castells term. Reich also warns of the selfishness and lack of social responsibility of the section of the population who end up being in control. But what would effective "social responsibility" look like in our global village? This is the question that I ponder frequently.

A recent issue of Time magazine featured a contribution written by Bill Gates entitled "How to fix capitalism" in which he touts the idea of "creative capitalism" and says things like "...the world will make lasting progress on big inequities that remain...only if governments and non-profits do their part by giving more aid and more effective aid." This strikes me as an extraordinarily limited perspective and yet I feel that I am not possessed of a full explanation for why it is so limited. I'll just start with the sense that this seems to perpetuate a disempowering, patronizing, "deficit model"-- a term some of my dear colleagues are fond of using--and not at all a creative fact such philanthropy has been tried over and over again and found wanting.
A wise mentor of mine talks about the difference between charity and justice and I am trying to wrap my head around the idea. How is it possible to rework community and societal structures such that they become oriented around higher order values such as human health, happiness and prosperity, and environmental sustainability?

This all ties into my current listening material. I am listening to the audiobook of the Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan on those mornings when I manage to get myself out for a walk/run. Readers please note that this is another book on my "YOU-MUST-READ-THIS-BOOK" list. This book has just wowed me in terms of the complete irrationality of the US agricultural system and the extraordinarily serious implications of this set up for the national and global economy, the environment, human physical health and moral/ethical/spiritual well-being. Issues related to sustainable agriculture are a long lost passion of mine but apart from that this book really makes clear the moral bankruptcy of current societal paradigms that are set up for a few people to earn large profits at the HUGE expense of the well-being of humankind and the planet such that our very existence becomes endangered. The book does not feel polemical at all. Just a matter of fact account gleaned from careful research. It is a highly recommended look into what we eat and why. I am an ardent customer at my local farmer's market as a result of reading this book...what else can I do??
I turn to a statement from the Baha'i International Community written in 1995 and entitled "The Prosperity of Humankind" in search of some comfort and inspiration...
"This unprecedented economic crisis, together with the social breakdown it has helped to engender, reflects a profound error of conception about human nature itself. For the levels of response elicited from human beings by the incentives of the prevailing order are not only inadequate, but seem almost irrelevant in the face of world events. We are being shown that, unless the development of society finds a purpose beyond the mere amelioration of material conditions, it will fail of attaining even these goals. That purpose must be sought in spiritual dimensions of life and motivation that transcend a constantly changing economic landscape and an artificially imposed division of human societies into "developed" and "developing".
As the purpose of development is being redefined, it will become necessary also to look again at assumptions about the appropriate roles to be played by the protagonists in the process. The crucial role of government, at whatever level, requires no elaboration. Future generations, however, will find almost incomprehensible the circumstance that, in an age paying tribute to an egalitarian philosophy and related democratic principles, development planning should view the masses of humanity as essentially recipients of benefits from aid and training. Despite acknowledgement of participation as a principle, the scope of the decision making left to most of the world's population is at best secondary, limited to a range of choices formulated by agencies inaccessible to them and determined by goals that are often irreconcilable with their perceptions of reality."
"The bedrock of a strategy that can engage the world's population in assuming responsibility for its collective destiny must be the consciousness of the oneness of humankind. Deceptively simple in popular discourse, the concept that humanity constitutes a single people presents fundamental challenges to the way that most of the institutions of contemporary society carry out their functions..
...Justice is the one power that can translate the dawning consciousness of humanity's oneness into a collective will through which the necessary structures of global community life can be confidently erected.
... Concern for justice protects the task of defining progress from the temptation to sacrifice the well-being of the generality of humankind -- and even of the planet itself -- to the advantages which technological breakthroughs can make available to privileged minorities."

Friday, August 15, 2008

sacred spaces in extraordinary places

The Finns are very private about their spirituality and their religious beliefs. this is a very personal matter. They are, however, passionate about saunas and will talk to you earnestly about the sacredness for Finns of time spent in the sauna. Time spent in the sauna is time to be quiet and reverent and to sit with yourself and reflect. --a time to get naked physically and spiritually perhaps. Conversations, if any,in the sauna are serious and respectful. When the weather goes above 70 degrees Farenheit Finns are complaining about how hot it is. If the temperature in the sauna is below 170 degrees Farenheit then it is not nearly hot enough. Most people have a sauna in their home and a huge proportion of the population also have summer cottages on the lake with a separate sauna.

I had the privilege of being invited to a summer cottage on a lovely little lake. i had a sauna with my aunt and then followed her to go swimming in the lake right afterwards--still naked mind you! but it was all very modest. We tiptoed down to the lake with our towels wrapped around us and slipped in before anyone could notice--not that there was anyone else around. Wow!! did that feel so delicious!!

My aunt went back to the sauna before me and there I was all alone swimming in an entire lake by myself with the blue sky above and a ring of green forest around me. "Finns like to be alone" declared the beautiful woman on the plane next to me on my way home. I guess they have learned that because they so often have the opportunity to be alone. I have since embraced this attitude as part of my Finnish heritage and I have found it most empowering. Yes... I have discovered I DO like to be alone even more than before and I think part of it is that I allow myself even more than before to enjoy it. We often feel that we should not be alone and I rarely have the chance to be recently as I have become engaged in a myriad of diverse activities. I find I really miss the opportunity for solitude and need to engineer it back into my life.

But back to saunas. Since I came back from Finland I have been swimming weekly and there is a sauna and steam room at the pool. How disappointed I was at first with how the sauna was not hot enough and how you are not allowed to pour water on the rocks in the "dry sauna" which is at least made of wood and so feels a little like the saunas in Finland. If you want "wet heat" you are to go into the ceramic tiled environment of the steam room. Well I have resigned myself to making do with what is available. Yesterday in the steam room I got to chatting with a Korean woman who was describing with such longing the bathhouse culture in Korea-- jjimjilbang --a large complex with various different kinds of gender segregated steam rooms and saunas where families go to relax. I fully empathized with her dissatisfaction at the barrenness of steam room/sauna culture in the US.