independent consciousness

Here’s a neat little synchronicity between science and religion I noticed while reading on Wikipedia about near-death experiences (the emphasis at the end is mine):

The first clinical study of near-death experiences (NDEs) in cardiac arrest patients was by Pim van Lommel, a cardiologist from the Netherlands, and his team (The Lancet, 2001). Of 344 patients who were successfully resuscitated after suffering cardiac arrest, 62 (18%) expressed an intraoperative memory and among these, 41 (12%) experienced core NDEs, which included out-of-body experiences. According to Lommel, the patients remembered details of their conditions during their cardiac arrest despite being clinically dead with flatlined brain stem activity. Van Lommel concluded that his findings supported the theory that consciousness continued despite lack of neuronal activity in the brain. Van Lommel conjectured that continuity of consciousness may be achievable if the brain acted as a receiver for the information generated by memories and consciousness, which existed independently of the brain, just as radio, television and internet information existed independently of the instruments that received it.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but doesn’t the object of the conjecture in that last sentence seem rather similar to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s description of the relation between the mind and the spirit?

The human spirit which distinguishes man from the animal is the rational soul, and these two names—the human spirit and the rational soul—designate one thing. This spirit, which in the terminology of the philosophers is the rational soul, embraces all beings, and as far as human ability permits discovers the realities of things and becomes cognizant of their peculiarities and effects, and of the qualities and properties of beings. But the human spirit, unless assisted by the spirit of faith, does not become acquainted with the divine secrets and the heavenly realities. It is like a mirror which, although clear, polished and brilliant, is still in need of light. Until a ray of the sun reflects upon it, it cannot discover the heavenly secrets.

But the mind is the power of the human spirit. Spirit is the lamp; mind is the light which shines from the lamp. Spirit is the tree, and the mind is the fruit. Mind is the perfection of the spirit and is its essential quality, as the sun’s rays are the essential necessity of the sun.

This explanation, though short, is complete; therefore, reflect upon it, and if God wills, you may become acquainted with the details.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions, pp.208-209

a day at a vietnamese kindergarten

My sister-in-law, Quyên, runs a kindergarten out of her home in Danang, Vietnam. She and her husband had to take a trip to Huế this weekend, so Quỳnh and I came over to help out. Here’s how the day went.

classClass starts early in the day. It’s 7:30 AM, and a table’s worth of children, aged around 4-5 years old, have already arrived and have started studying, dotting their i’s, crossing their t’s, and hooking their ơ’s. Quyên teaches handwriting, which is a bit advanced for kindergarten, but appeals to many Vietnamese parents who want their children to be well-prepared when they get to primary school. That’s her specialty, but it’s not all she teaches. Children learn reading, writing and arithmetic, sing songs and listen to stories. This year, Quỳnh’s brother Nu (who studied architecture in Ho Chi Minh City) has also started teaching art classes after hours, to which parents can send their children separately (although the classes happen in the same place).

Some children start studying as they arrive. Some of them have signed up to have breakfast in the morning, so they sit at the table and eat first. Some of them are playing together in another room, using building blocks to make and break fanciful contraptions. A few others sit and watch children’s programming on television—although they’re restricted to short, intermittent periods of screen time, until the next activity starts. All together, it gives the schoolhouse—Quyên’s home—a playful, varied ambience, as a kindergarten should have.

I get a lot of amazed looks from the kids due to my height (nearly 6″). One of the children gazes at me and mutters quietly, “cao quá… (so tall…)” Another asks why I’m so tall, and one of the teachers insists it’s because I ate all my vegetables when I was young. (I did, too.) I try to kneel down and squat a little more to make them feel a little more comfortable with me. After a while, the children get used to my presence, but I get a lot of attention. Many of them may never have seen another foreigner in their lives, so I try to leave as good an impression as I can. That I can use my (still broken, but sufficient) Vietnamese to communicate with them helps a lot.

classThe morning rolls on, and around 10:30 it’s time for the children to eat. Lunch is served in the dining room, between the classroom and the kitchen; it’s a typical meal of rice, vegetables, and various bits of seafood, all served in the same bowl. When they finish eating, children sit back against the classroom wall to rest and digest, and prepare for what comes next: the several-hours-long naptime that’s common to almost every Vietnamese work day. Wooden pallets are laid out, and upon them, woven bamboo mats. After taking their potty breaks and washing their hands, the children settle in with their pillows, the curtains are drawn, and massive mosquito nets are strung up. Naptime lasts from around 11:30 to 2:30 PM—a bigger lunchtime break than any Canadian worker (barring CEOs) could ever dream of. During the break, the teachers and helpers—five of us in total—hang out in the dining room, watching over the children and having our lunch of bún cá, or fish with rice noodles. Something doesn’t quite sit right in my stomach, though, so I go home to pop some antacids and take a nap myself, returning around 3:00.

The afternoon proceeds much like the morning. Children continue to copy down letter forms in their books, in neat little rows, while others play. They repeat sounds out loud as they write down different combinations of letters, to help them learn proper Vietnamese pronunciation. A few younger children—siblings of the older students—have arrived too. A couple of three-year olds tag along after me, shouting to get my attention and offering me cups. I thank them, pretending to take a drink, and they move away. Then they come back again, offering the same deal. And so it continues for the next half-hour, every twenty seconds or so (I timed them). As in all cases with very young children, you gotta adapt, so we gradually turn it into an opportunity for them to practice addressing their elders politely: “Chú ơi (Uncle)! Please have some water!” instead of shouting. They eventually get sidetracked by other things, and I manage to go back to the classroom where I assist Quyên’s boys, who are off to the side learning English. What’s a table? What’s a chair? What’s an eraser? And how do you spell it? The silent e’s in “make a circle” cause no end of confusion. Oh, English. You crazy, haphazard patchwork of a language. How exactly did you become so universal? Don’t answer that.

classThe afternoon is drawing to a close, and parents will soon come to take their children home. The benches are rearranged to form rows, and Lâm (Quỳnh’s mother) takes center stage for game time. The game is some sort of traffic police game: someone acts as a traffic cop, and the rest are all sitting on their benches, riding motorbikes. As far as I could tell, the traffic cop gives directions (like “turn left”, “stop”, and so on) and the rest of the players have to follow the directions. If the traffic cop catches anyone who misses a command, they have to come up and pay a fine(?), which amounts to singing a song. I’ll have to inquire further to see if we could use this game in our children’s class back home. Anyway, little by little, parents drop in to drive their children home. One by one, boys and girls graciously go to each of their teachers to announce their departure—“thưa bà, con về”, “thưa cô, con về”—as the Vietnamese culture of respect for elders demands. Eventually, only Quyên’s boys remain, along with one more girl whose parents let us know that they would be at work late. We sit down for dinner—bánh canh cua, or thick noodles with crab. By the time I Ieave the schoolhouse, it’s past 6:30 PM, for a work day of eleven hours.

classEleven hours and sometimes more, six days a week. And yet Quyên doesn’t complain. Not only because she enjoys teaching, but because it supports her family quite well. Teachers are generally well-respected and well-paid in Vietnam, but Quyên is particularly respected by parents for her teaching skill, her sense of discipline and her trustworthiness. People simply know she does a good job, and they’re proud to send her their children.

Trustworthiness, I’m coming to believe, is one of the keys to sustaining prosperity. Since the turn of the 21st century, we’ve seen ample evidence of the opposite—untrustworthiness—everywhere around the world, from Enrons and Worldcoms through Fannie Maes and Freddie Macs. How long do you think economies, which are fundamentally based on trust, can keep going when the people and institutions that make up those economies are not worthy of that trust? The alternative, says Bahá’u’lláh, is to “be worthy of the trust of thy neighbor”. This, He says, is “the supreme instrument for the prosperity of the world”, and “the greatest portal leading unto the tranquillity and security of the people”. Beyond her teaching skills, her smiling face, and her beautiful handwriting, that’s what impresses me about Quyên—how trustworthy she is, and the effect that has on the people around her. She may only teach kindergarten, but the whole world has a lot to learn from people like her.

good morning vietnam: observing the baha’i fast

In 2012, Media Makes Us put out a call for Bahá’ís around the world to film their experience of the Bahá’í Fast, which takes place from March 2–20 every year, for inclusion into the documentary Fast In A Day. I recorded a bunch of footage in March 2012, hoping to send it over, but due to personal circumstances, I couldn’t submit it in time for inclusion. Instead, I gathered it together and presented it here.

The first time I observed the Fast in Vietnam was in 2010—the year Quynh and I were married. In fact, our wedding was during the Fast, because that was the only time one of our witnesses could make it (during the March Break). A lot of our Bahá’í friends joked that we must have been trying to save on food costs by holding a wedding during the Fast—if only! Because so many members of Quynh’s extended family attended—and very few of them are Bahá’ís—we had to provide lunch anyway. After all, getting married is hungry work for all involved. In fact, it was so hot on the day of the ceremony (upwards of 35°C) that I started getting faint, so I decided to break the Fast discreetly with a small bowl of soup. I figured it was either that or falling over during the reception.

As mentioned in the video, sometimes people wonder how Bahá’ís can survive when observing the Fast—abstaining from food and drink during the daylight hours. The fact is, though, it’s not too bad under normal conditions: I usually do fine if I make sure to eat enough oatmeal and drink enough water before sunrise. And for those who are worried that fasting causes harm, there’s plenty of evidence to the contrary—that is, occasional fasting may actually improve your health and help you to live longer. There are some cases where fasting is less than ideal, of course, and the Bahá’í Fast takes these into account. Bahá’u’lláh has exempted those who are ill or who perform strenuous physical labour from fasting, as well as women who are pregnant or menstruating.

Ultimately, it’s up to each person to study the Bahá’í teachings so that they can understand the significance of fasting and how it applies to their life. Fact is, it’s not just about not eating and drinking. During the Fast, we pay special attention to the life of our soul, avoiding doing things that will drag down our spirits and spending more time doing things that will help our souls grow. Bahá’u’lláh calls fasting and obligatory prayer “two wings to man’s life” that enable us to soar to the heights of spirituality. Fasting also helps us remember our blessings, and to better understand “the woes and sufferings of the destitute”—those for whom hunger is a day-to-day thing.

the value of sharing

Quote

Here are the words of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá to noted philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, author of the essay The Gospel of Wealth.

O respected personage! I have read your work, The Gospel of Wealth, and noted therein truly apposite and sound recommendations for easing the lot of humankind.

To state the matter briefly, the Teachings of Bahá’u’lláh advocate voluntary sharing, and this is a greater thing than the equalization of wealth. For equalization must be imposed from without, while sharing is a matter of free choice.

Man reacheth perfection through good deeds, voluntarily performed, not through good deeds the doing of which was forced upon him. And sharing is a personally chosen righteous act: that is, the rich should extend assistance to the poor, they should expend their substance for the poor, but of their own free will, and not because the poor have gained this end by force. For the harvest of force is turmoil and the ruin of the social order. On the other hand voluntary sharing, the freely-chosen expending of one’s substance, leadeth to society’s comfort and peace. It lighteth up the world; it bestoweth honour upon humankind.

I have seen the good effects of your own philanthropy in America, in various universities, peace gatherings, and associations for the promotion of learning, as I travelled from city to city. Wherefore do I pray on your behalf that you shall ever be encompassed by the bounties and blessings of heaven, and shall perform many philanthropic deeds in East and West. Thus may you gleam as a lighted taper in the Kingdom of God, may attain honour and everlasting life, and shine out as a bright star on the horizon of eternity.

Selections From the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, pp.114-115

anticipating the fast

dawn of a new dayFebruary rolls around, and the groundhogs have poked out of their holes and carried about their business. Shadows or no shadows, we know the spring is coming, and with it, a busy season for Bahá’ís: First, Ayyam-i-Há, a time for fellowship, generosity, and hospitality; then the Feast of Loftiness, which opens the 19-day-long month of fasting from March 2nd–20th, during which Bahá’ís from the ages of 15 to 70 years abstain from eating or drinking from sunrise ’til sunset. The Fast comes to an end with the celebration of Naw-Rúz on March 21st. Falling on the spring equinox, Naw-rúz is a celebration of revival, renewal, and springtime, in both the physical and spiritual senses. Fasting is a period of preparation for this springtime, during which we not only fast physically, but pay special attention to our spiritual life as well, in order to come into a new year with our souls refreshed and strengthened.

Interested in finding sunrise and sunset times for the Bahá’í Fast? Check out the list of Bahá’í Fasting Times for 2013, complete with links to Fasting calendars for major Canadian cities and selected cities worldwide, and a ready-made chart for Ottawa.

temps d’espérance

igloo inspectionVivement le temps des fêtes! Cette semaine il a fait très froid (vers les -15 à -20 degrés C) et on voit partout les signes d’un Noël blanc: des belles plaines enneigées, et des glaçons qui pendent du bord des toits. Bien que ma famille n’a plus l’habitude de fêter avec un arbre de Noël ni avec des cadeaux, on a fêté quand même en partageant l’esprit de la saison. La semaine dernière, on a aidé un groupe de pré-jeunes dans notre quartier avec un projet de service ayant un thème de Noël. Avec notre aide, le groupe s’est arrangé pour cuire et décorer des beaux biscuits de Noël, qu’on a par la suite distribué parmi leurs voisins avec des cartes de Noël qu’ils ont dessiné eux-mêmes. Le but, au-delà de partager l’esprit des fêtes, c’était de démontrer l’esprit d’amitié et de fraternité avec les gens du voisinage, et de partager de l’espoir—le thème du livret que le groupe est en train d’étudier ensemble.
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