24 February 2016

Rural America and Federal Land

Oregon. The southeast counties right to left are Malheur, Harney, Lake.
I have had a good life. I was born in a small university town in Oregon to well off parents. Turning fourteen I got to live in Mexico for half a year and experience a new culture, but I also learned a lot about my own country by leaving and observing it from afar. It was while living in Mexico that I realized the United States is the preeminent and most affluent country in the world. This was a rather shocking revelation to a teenager who never really thought about the freakishly lucky conditions of his birth.

My life continued to get better and I continued to appreciate traveling and exploring the world's mix of peoples. I spent a summer in Spain, then joined the US Air Force, which took me to Texas and Mississippi for almost a year. The military sent me to Qatar for half a year where I baked in the sun with camels and worked alongside people from the Philippines, Bangladesh, and Palestine. I went to college as an electronics engineer then lived in China for a year before starting a wonderful job for a power utility in Portland, Oregon. I've also seen Nicaragua, Ecuador, Greece, and Israel thanks to my access to wealth and a US passport.

In all my travels and studies, I've only increasingly appreciated the peace, stability, fairness, and economic opportunities in the United States. Even if China surpasses the US in GDP, it will be decades before it can become a more desirable place to live.

Visiting America

Then I visited a new culture that presented an interesting challenge. My wonderful job took me to field offices all over the northwestern United States in small remote towns that most people would never pass through. I did not have any trouble associating with people of different backgrounds. But I had just come out of a decade of international travel and university study, where people talk about technology, sustainability, and how to fix the world's problems. What I ran into in rural towns were discussions about what to do when the government comes to take away all your guns and serious opinions about Obama being born in Kenya. It was a culture shock.

As a visitor to this new culture, I could see what was happening and what the issues were. The longer you live in the rural country, the more individualistic you become. The longer you live in a dense urban city, the more socialistic you become. A common plea I heard from people in the country was that they wanted the government to just leave them alone. This makes some sense in remote areas where you're mostly isolated and see government decisions as intrusions into your personal space. However, those attitudes would quickly die in a city surrounded by a million people who have to deal with each other. In my experience city dwellers would prefer to limit access to weapons, whereas rural folk think everyone should have an assault rifle.

The other force driving people was economic hardship from a new world economy that abandoned them to misery.

The vast majority of people I ran into were good, friendly, loving, and hard working people. But just like on the urban left, there were extremists who were angry, racist, ignorant, and talked about overthrowing the government, or stashing food, weapons, and gold for when society collapses in a cannibalistic dystopian future.

Barack Hussein Obama

Then I noticed a sharp change in tone when Obama was elected in 2008.

In 2009 I had a three month tour in Redmond, Oregon, a definitively small rural town surrounded by small rural towns. The conservative right in the country were being whipped up into a frenzy against an enemy that didn't actually exist. It got even worse when the health care law was being debated. Conservative radio hosts and Fox News in general were profiting from fear and spreading misinformation. They were not very different from the Interahamwe radio from Hotel Rwanda, except it was in my backyard. The level of outright lying and manipulation was staggering. 

I heard Glenn Beck talk about his "movement" of protesters as if it was a growing militia that he was leading to save the country from internal enemies that have "abandoned the rule of law." I heard Rush Limbaugh say that Obama was, "actively working in opposition to the Constitution." I heard Laura Ingraham say that ACORN is a "criminal organization." I heard Sean Hannity tell everyone that the health care bill is "a total lie and deception on the American people", that it's a Nazi policy, and that it will have death panels killing people off to save the government money. They defended the right to torture. They encouraged listeners to rise up in creative ways in opposition to the government. They said that Obama "has a deep seeded hatred for white people." They played a song on the air called, "Barack the Magic Negro" to the tune of "Puff the Magic Dragon".

Their followers in rural America went to Obama rallies with weapons and wore signs that read, "It is time to water the tree of liberty" (Thomas Jefferson: 'The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants'), it was their followers that shouted outside the White House "Hang the lying Muslim traitor!", it was their followers that started declaring themselves "sovereign citizens" and decided to not pay taxes, and it was their followers who stockpiled gold, weapons, and ammunition as soon as Obama was elected and reelected.

I gave a lot of honest reflection to the issues people were bringing up. I considered whether there was any real injustice or government overreach or any breaches of the US Constitution (I read every word of it). My conclusion: absolutely not. Any perception of totalitarianism only came from half-truths or outright lies. This creates a serious problem for the United States.

True Patriots

It only got worse.

As seen on the internets
In the 1990s Cliven Bundy decided that he could ranch on federal land without paying grazing fees. After almost twenty years of letters, warnings, court orders, and fines accumulating to over $1M, federal agents came to seize his property and were met with a bunch of rifles pointing at them. Bundy had created a fictional story about how the federal government is not allowed by the Constitution to own the land, and further fooled locals into believing that the feds were coming for no good reason. Like a Ponzi scheme that went on too long, Bundy could not have possibly paid the fees so he latched on to any idea that could save him. After two separate courts decided against him, federal agents stood down and did not seize his property. This successful defiance lit a fire under a bunch of anti-government groups that believed that an inevitable showdown loomed large in their future.

Where have I heard this phrase before?
Then last month Bundy's sons and a dozen others showed up at a federal wildlife refuge in rural Oregon, a short distance from where I had worked in 2009. They repeated Cliven Bundy's claim that the federal government has no authority to own and manage large tracts of land in the western states and demanded that the two men who received jail sentences for setting fires on the land be set free. This grew into them demanding that the refuge be returned to "the people".

As an outside observer familiar with the delusional paranoia on the far right, I was honestly sad that this had gotten so far. The people at the refuge believed what they were preaching, along with thousands of others in small towns throughout several states. Liberals and the mass media thought the whole situation was hilarious and expected them to be under arrest or dead within a short amount of time.

After three weeks of largely leaving them alone with their snacks, the FBI arrested the leadership during a traffic stop in which one person, LaVoy Finicum, was killed. Within hours a supporter who had been in the vehicles during the shooting claimed that their vehicles were riddled with bullets (turned out to be stun grenades) and that LaVoy was shot with his hands in the air. The FBI soon released video showing LaVoy avoiding arrest, almost running over an agent, and reaching for his gun before being shot. The people who wanted to believe in the conspiracy continued believing that LaVoy was killed outside of the law. An investigation will take another month to complete, but the conspiracies are running wild and LaVoy is being declared a "patriot" that was "executed".

Federal Lands

Those hurling ridicule at the anti-government crowd also have an obligation to investigate their concerns and address them. Those protesters sincerely believe that they were fighting against a tyrannical government and they used the language of the American revolutionary war. It is in everyone's interest to listen to their grievances.

If you want to wade through constitutional law regarding federal land ownership, here is an excellent and relatively short article by the Heritage Foundation. In short, there are two clauses of the US Constitution that are relevant: the enclave clause,

The Congress shall have Power To ...exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever, over such District (not exceeding ten Miles square) as may, by Cession of particular States, and the Acceptance of Congress, become the Seat of the Government of the United States, and to exercise like Authority over all Places purchased by the Consent of the Legislature of the State in which the Same shall be, for the Erection of Forts, Magazines, Arsenals, dock-Yards, and other needful Buildings.
And the property clause,

The Congress shall have Power to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States....
The first addresses the sovereignty of the capital district, military installations, and other strictly federal land purposes, and guarantees that those properties that are purchased by and for the good of the United States are not subject to the whim of state governments. The second addresses non-state territories and "other property" belonging to the federal government. The federal government has sovereignty over new territories, but when they became states, the federal land became state land and then would be subject to the enclave clause. The federal government may also have "proprietary" ownership of lands, just like a private citizen may own land, but the states have sovereignty over that land.

So there goes an argument that in between territory and enclave, the federal government lacks constitutional authority to manage state lands that are not enclaves. However, the property clause mentions "other property" and this has always been a squishy area for interpretation. If a state petitioned to have the proprietary land ownership transferred to the state, they would almost certainly be able to, and over one quarter of the land in the United States could change hands this way. But states generally want to retain those lands as public and enjoy the benefit of not having to pay for their management. A second question is whether Congress can manage the use of the lands and, for example, ban or regulate hunting on them.

The ultimate arbiter of constitutional interpretation, the Supreme Court, has unequivocally supported the basic right of federal land ownership, and stated that the authority to manage the use of the lands is "without limitation". The non-enclave land is still under the jurisdiction of the state and they also ruled that the state does not need to actively consent in order to retain federal land.

And here is the huge gaping hole in the argument of the Bundys: the Supreme Court is the only institution that can interpret the Constitution authoritatively to resolve disputes, and the Supreme Court very clearly disagrees with them. They are trying to enforce their personal (erroneous) interpretation of the Constitution in a way that benefits them financially and they are disregarding the system of law. There is a kind of cognitive dissonance in calling yourself a patriotic supporter of the Constitution while ignoring court orders and resisting the government by force.

The Bundys also tried to bypass state ownership and asked for federal land to go straight into private or some kind of community ownership. Their methods, ideology, and demands were incoherent and fruitless, bordering on communism or anarchy. Their dialogue sounded like the ramblings of the communist party.

Despite the rhetoric, the fights are not about the Constitution and freedom, they are about access to wealth.

The Timber Industry

The demands and grievances of the Bundy clan were hollow and their methods brought ridicule from the left. However, there is another storyline in this debate that should not be overlooked.

Rural economies have been left in the dust. Numerous small towns around Oregon were built up around the timber industry over a hundred years ago. My grandfather and great-grandfather worked in mills in three areas of the state, (Enterprise, Dallas, and Coos Bay) moving to where the jobs were. Several forces ground the timber prosperity to a halt.
  1. The easy money that came from harvesting mature virgin forests was unsustainable and couldn't last indefinitely. 
  2. The timber industry was largely unrestrained and unregulated until the 1960s. Throughout the 1970s the industry was hammered with several state and federal laws that forced them to harvest responsibly, or not at all when it interfered with endangered species or the other environmental concerns. 
  3. Globalization provided new markets for the timber, but also brought competition.
  4. Forest fires destroyed vast amounts of the best timber in the world. The timber industry both started the fires during operations, and contributed to their intensity by suppressing small fires.
  5. Most importantly, technology advances reduced the manpower needed to harvest trees. A single operator can harvest 2,000 trees in a day with a machine that efficiently processes an entire tree into board lengths in a single sweeping motion. 
The decline of the timber industry and unskilled labor was practically inevitable. The counties in Oregon that couldn't integrate into the modern economy saw a decline in wages and population. In Coos County, where my mother grew up, the public school was recently dropped to four days a week to cut costs, contributing to a spiral of decline.

The Rural Divide

Harney County was once the most prosperous in the state, per capita. Now the old decommissioned lumber mill sits empty and rusting and incomes are second worst in the state. In 2008 the last timber company in the area, and a manufacturing plant both shut down and laid off a few hundred people out of the 7,000 that lived in the county. The only bright spot in the economy is ranching, thus the desire to confiscate federal lands for private use.

Paradoxically, federal grazing fees are cheaper than private ones, and management prevents destruction from overgrazing, keeping the land viable. But federal management also comes with bureaucracy, and somewhat arbitrary limitations like when some obscure insect might be mating. This can infuriate ranchers who take a financial hit. Or in the case of what sparked the Malheur Wildlife Refuge takeover, the jail sentences for two ranchers seemed excessive for the crime. One rancher in Oregon wrote that, "Utilizing federal land requires ranchers to follow an unfair, complicated and constantly evolving set of rules."

People are suffering and losing access to education and jobs, and nobody is paying attention to their plight. In the middle of that comes a wave of Mexican migrants appearing to undercut their pay, a President whose middle name is Hussein, media lying to them for profit, and an inefficient bureaucracy that makes it harder for them to eek out a living in order to save some animals.

No politician can replicate the miracle of the 1950s and bring back widespread middle class jobs where someone can work in a factory and make $80,000 a year. Some people are having to adjust to a lower standard of living. That makes them pissed off and more likely to fall for simple answers to complex problems. That's why populism and protectionism are so strongly felt now on both the right and left. But there is a particular virulent brand of it on the right, one that points blame at progressivism, regulation, and foreigners.

In western states this political divide follows population density.

In Oregon, half of the state's population lives in two large metro areas, and elections play to the left. Laws that regulate the rural economy are made by people who have never been there. It takes a toll when you see elections going the "wrong way" all your life with no hope for change. This has led to a statehood movement in eastern Oregon and Washington. A national debate about how to administer and manage western lands would be appropriate, and chopping up the state borders should be in the forefront of options. After all, they are largely arbitrary, and the Constitution provides methods for changing them.

On the topic of proper state borders, I already made an attempt to redraw them in a previous article, 29 Nations of the Earth. That article also redraws national boundaries, but you can ignore that and focus on the five states in the northwestern United States. I proposed that land would be better administered by dividing the Columbia River basin into an upper Columbia (western MT), Snake River (south ID and east OR), middle Columbia (central WA and OR), lower Columbia (west OR and SW WA), and Puget sound area. The Klamath River basin and some of the endorheic lakes would be another state, and the list could go on.

The point is, the arbitrary nature of the current state boundaries has a lot to do with the feeling of helplessness and disempowerment that is compounding the anger coming from economically depressed counties. 

There are four things that governments can work on to fix the problems in the rural west and avoid conflict. 

  • Improve rural economies. This is truly difficult, and there are no simple solutions.
  • Change the political landscape. Creating new states would resolve a lot, but it is almost unheard of and beyond most people's conceptions of what is possible.
  • Changing land from federal to state ownership could resolve some issues, but requires more resources from the state. 
  • Make the BLM more friendly to locals. Changing the laws and regulations for federal land is the easiest adjustment. With power comes great responsibility. The BLM is holding all the power, and should have more consideration for the human cost of their policies. 

If nothing changes, expect more armed conflicts. 

21 January 2016

The End of Nuclear Weapons and a New World Order

"There is in existence a stupendous force, as yet, happily undiscovered by man. Let us supplicate God, the Beloved, that this force be not discovered by science until spiritual civilization shall dominate the human mind. In the hands of men of lower nature, this power would be able to destroy the whole earth." 
Abdu'l-Baha to a Japanese Ambassador, 1912 

The World
With North Korea detonating their fourth nuclear weapon and Iran's standoff over its nuclear program, it's time to address once and for all the US policy toward nuclear weapons. It is time for the United States to unilaterally renounce the use of nuclear weapons, then systematically destroy its nuclear arsenal.

I expect the typical American will think that disarming would be suicidal and ludicrous. The typical American is wrong. Nuclear disarmament is in the best interests of the people and government of the United States, not to mention the whole world. The world order that has been in place since the end of World War II is fraying at the edges. To secure the future, the US needs to help mould a new order before the old one unravels completely.

10 January 2016

15 Great Group Games

My first junior youth group, 2003
Over about 12 years of facilitating junior youth groups in various forms, I made a growing list of the best group games I've encountered. I'll provide details below on how to facilitate the games, and what worked well in different situations.

The spiritual empowerment program for junior youth is intended to provide a rough balance between study, service, and recreation. To be successful, the group should not focus on one of those exclusively, or ignore one entirely. With that in mind, the recreational piece can be defined pretty broadly, and incorporate anything from crafts to sports, hiking, or trips to the zoo. Many of these games have the advantage of being short and easy to organize, so they could be added to every gathering. 

Junior youth groups are meant for ages 11-15, during a time of growing social awareness. Especially in the first few meetings after a group forms, it's important to establish an attraction and desire to participate. While the facilitators should be careful not to make it a group who's only purpose is to play, recreational activities are great for establishing friendships and leave people with a good feeling about the group.

Please leave comments if you have more to add.


The tricky part of this game is that you need to create a repetitive beat that everyone participates in. For example, slap your legs, clap, snap, pause. Repeat. 

Once everyone gets the pattern, pick a category, such as animals. As the facilitator, you'll start, and on the "pause" beat you'll say the name of an animal. On the next beat the person to your left will have to say the name of an animal that hasn't been said already, then the person to their left, and so on. If someone hesitates or repeats on their turn, they get eliminated and the next person in order continues.

Eventually you'll have two people going back and forth one after the other until one fails. The game goes fast, so don't be afraid to eliminate people and start a new category. If people are having a hard time, practice first with the alphabet as the solution set, or say that the game has to go around the circle once before anyone can be eliminated.

Try another round with the category plants, or states, or countries, or names of people you know.

05 January 2016

5 Tips for Raising Toddlers

A combination of professional advice and my personal experience.

And one more coming!

There are not many things as challenging or rewarding as raising a child. Soon my oldest girl will turn 5, my second girl will turn 2, and my son will be born, all in February. And while raising these cute little monsters, I've compiled my own list of parenting advice.

Before you roll your eyes and say that all children are different, I know. While there is a plethora of emotionally charged parenting advice that amounts to personal ranting, there is also a well studied and researched discipline on early childhood development. These recommendations are standard fare for the experts and have serious consequences on development.

1. Enough Sleep

As every parent knows, sleep is precious. Children sleeping not only allows you time to do the laundry without "help", but it is also the greatest tool to keep your child from having meltdowns. A tired four year old can crumble into a sobbing pile of tears when they can't find their favorite shoes, but with enough sleep they will be adorable little angels.

They're so peaceful when they sleep
A newborn baby will sleep for two thirds of the day! The trick comes later when they SHOULD be sleeping half of the day, including naps, up to the age of 6. But getting in that 12 hours requires the parents to really be on top of things, especially at nap time. This is one of the most frustrating things for parents to deal with, because you have to make your child want to sleep. And this at an age and time of day where they are irrational and emotional.

I recommend reading through lots of detailed advice on getting children to sleep, like this article from WebMD. This is an area where authors vary significantly. You'll get a lot of recommendations, and then you have to see what works with your particular child. Here are a few tips that have worked for myself and some friends.
  • Use a routine. Once you get into the habit of letting children put themselves to sleep, you'll have to reset that expectation when you change the routine. My almost five year old still takes naps for up to two hours during the day. I tell her she needs to lay in bed and rest for one hour, and if she gets up and runs around, then the timer starts over. Almost every time she falls asleep while laying there, but it took months of setting expectations and being consistent for it to work.
  • They need more sleep. If we get our kids to bed an hour earlier than normal, they go to sleep without noticing the difference and wake up at the same time. They just get more sleep. The problem is usually the parents, who are slow to get the bedtime process started, or who keep their kids out late at a party.
  • Make a dark, quiet room. We have always covered venetian blinds with an extra set of blackout curtains in the kids' rooms. When you pull the shades and the room goes dark it knocks them right out. The curtains also prevent them from waking up super early in the summer. Danger: you may find it hard to get them to sleep in other spaces, like visiting relatives.

18 September 2015

Two Could Have Defeated Thousands

Back in 2003 my friend's father, Amir Badiei, compiled Stories Told by `Abdu'l-Baha, but it wasn't until this year that I got a copy and started reading. I have been impressed from the start with its witty, funny, and insightful stories, not about `Abdu'l-Baha, but told by him to illustrate a point.

One of the stories that I had never heard before was about a time when thousands of people came to kill Baha'u'llah in Baghdad, providing a close parallel to the gangs of armed men who followed Muhammad to Medina to exterminate the early Muslims. This was, of course, before Baha'u'llah declared publicly and renounced holy war.

Two Could Have Defeated Thousands
[Edited for clarity]

When the Islamic clergy and Nasiri'd-Din Shah sent `Abdu'l-Husayn to Iraq, he began agitating against Baha'u'llah. He gathered many clergy at Kazimayn, near Baghdad, and began talk of waging a holy war. Soon a large number of Persians and Shi`ih Arabs congregated there.

Those gathered in Kazimayn then arranged to come two days later and attack us. We were only forty-six in all and our strong man was Aqa Asadu'llah, whose dagger would dangle and touch the ground.

There was a certain Siyyid Hasan from Shiraz. He was not a believer, but he was a very good man. One morning, when Baha'u'llah had been up and about, this Siyyid Hasan came knocking at our door. Much agitated, he asked, 'Where is the Aqa [Baha'u'llah]?' I said, 'He has gone to the riverside.' 'What is it that you say?' he responded. I offered him tea and said, 'He will come back.' He replied, 'Aqa! The world has been turned upside down... It has become turbulent... Do you know that last night they held a council... How is it that Baha'u'llah has gone to the riverside? They have decided to start their attack tomorrow.'

Whilst he was telling me what had happened, Baha'u'llah came in. Siyyid Hasan wanted immediately to express his anxiety. But Baha'u'llah said, 'Let us talk of other matters', and went on speaking. Later, Siyyid Hasan insisted on unburdening himself. However,  Baha'u'llah told him, 'It is of no consequence.' So Siyyid Hasan stayed for lunch and then went home.

Later in the afternoon the friends gathered around Baha'u'llah. Amongst them were two who were double-faced. He turned to the Friends and said, 'Have you heard the news? The [clergy] and the Consul have come together and gathered ten to twenty thousand people round them to wage jihad against Us.'

Then He addressed the two double-faced men, 'Go and tell them, by the One God, the Lord of all, I will send two men to drive them away, all the way to Kazimayn. If they are capable of accepting a challenge, let them come.'

The two hurried away and repeated what they had heard. And do you know, they dispersed!

31 August 2015

Update on Bryan

As the majority of a year has passed since the last post, I want to send a quick update to let people know that there are live bodies still thinking about the blog.

For the last 4 years most of my life has been taken up with children and my wife's medical residency. Now that we are transitioning into a somewhat normal life, I anticipate more time to blog, and I have a sizable list of blog topic ideas that get me excited when I look at them. Our third (and maybe last) child is due in February, so my goal is to get out all my ideas before then.

I've been pondering whether I should start a new blog for my posts, or continue with the Baha'i Coherence format. I like the idea of several writers contributing content together, but this forum hasn't been used in a few years now.

Another reason for my lack of time is that one of my posts (that was never shared) from 4 years ago grew and took on a life of its own. I submitted 110 pages to George Ronald for publication and I'll hear back by the end of September whether they'll publish it. I wrote on the Baha'i perspective on evolution, and much of that time I was waiting for the new translation of Some Answered Questions, which came out last March. Most of my writing time has gone into that project, but I still have a passion for sharing other topics of reasonable length.

Below are a few topics that I want to address. Any thoughts?
  • Group games for junior youth groups
  • Gun rights in America
  • Jesus' parable of wineskins
  • The end of nuclear weapons
  • UN Security Council reform

03 October 2014

There is no clean intellectual coherence...

The frustration we feel when trying to explain or justify God, whether to ourselves or to others, is a symptom of knowledge untethered from innocence, of words in which no silence lives, of belief occurring wholly on a human plane. Innocence returns us to the first call of God, to any moment in our lives when we were rendered mute with awe, fear, wonder. Absent this, there is no sense in arguing for God in order to convince others, for we ourselves are not convinced...

There is no clean intellectual coherence, no abstract ultimate meaning to be found, and if this is not recognized, then the compulsion to find such certainty becomes its own punishment. This realization is not the end of theology, but the beginning of it: trust no theory, no religious history or creed, in which the author's personal faith is not actively at risk.

Christian Wiman - My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer

...And Wiman quoting Rainer Maria Rilke

The comprehensible slips away, is transformed; instead of possession one learns relationship, and there arises a namelessness that must begin once more in our relations with God if we are to be complete and without evasion. The experience of feeling him recedes behind an infinite delight in everything that can be felt; all attributes are taken away from God, who is no longer sayable, and fall back into creation, into love and death.

...And Further Wiman

16 September 2014

10 Meditation Techniques that I Have Found Helpful

In the past year I have gotten into meditation and have experimented with a number of techniques. While there is great value in going deep with one method, I have also found value in becoming comfortable with many, having many tools in the toolbox, so to speak. Over time it becomes natural to switch among them, to mix and match, even in the course of a single sit. Here is the list of boiled down techniques and tips that I wish I would have had from the beginning.

14 August 2014

What Would an Agnostic Spirituality Look Like?

Sam Harris, an outspoken atheist, is coming out with a book titled "Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion". I will be interested to read because, while I consider myself more of an agnostic, I relate to his interest in meditation and higher states of consciousness while at the same time being skeptical of the metaphysical implications that can be drawn from the phenomenology of it. He has come out with a precursor article that I highly recommend. His discussion of the various philosophies/methods of awakening to the realization of "no-self" (for Baha'i's, read "the death of the self"), particularly Theravada Vipasssana compared to Advaita Vedanta and Dzogchen direct inquiry, squarely hit home what I have been pondering lately. I was also surprised to hear that he doesn't believe consciousness is limited to the 5 senses, which makes him kind of an outlier among atheists.

05 August 2014

There should be a law

Poverty. Homelessness. Addiction problems. Hate. Violence. War, etc. There should be a law against them all.

Oh that's right there is---Bahai 'law'. And we need it now but---until there is a bunch of us, more than there are now, we have to pretty much live with the above. So entry troop on!

I have been writing as Portland's Addiction Examiner for over a year or more so go check it out. When you get to the site put my name Grace E. Reed and you should be able to open the articles. Let me know if that works---meanwhile I continue to work on these issues as a Bahai.


06 April 2014

God, global self-government, and male domination

Dear Ones and Friends,
One of the things I have realized about world federation theory as a result of a recent Wilmette Institute course on this subject is the extent to which both the theory as articulated by scholars and the actual efforts of good-willed people in the direction of world federation are disabled by a failure to take account of male evolutionary psychology and the ritual displays that almost all males, including human males, go through when threatened with loss of territory or control.

Just as Baha'u'llah was the prisoner of male leaders, so too world federation and His world order--the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth--are the prisoner of specifically male political thinking.

By the amount to which we fail to address and overcome typical male thinking in relation to world order, by the amount to which we fail to empower girls, women, and non-adversarial patterns and methods of self-government, by that amount we fail to appreciate the nature of the Kingdom, of the world order of Baha'u'llah, and the notion of global self-government guided by God.

The nasty, pathological aspects of alpha male evolutionary psychology are again dominating recent headlines and distracting the public from urgent issues of humanity’s future sustainability. First, there was Putin’s gesture in Crimea, then North Korean missile tests, and now Japan's reaction to North Korea.  Suddenly the world of “politics” reveals itself again as mostly a snake pit of male-psychology-driven tensions. Meanwhile, NASA and UN reports on climate change paint an ever more urgent picture of the need for massive global cooperation in human family problem-solving.

25 January 2014

Buddhism, Meditation, and the Baha'i Faith: Part 3

Part 1 here and part 2 here.  

I realize that most people go into meditation looking for stability, happiness, and comfort in the face of their own existence...I have spent many years cultivating extreme experiential instability, careful awareness of the minutia of my suffering and the clear perception that I don't even exist as a separate entity...I can honestly say that these practices are without doubt the sanest thing I have ever done in my life. -Daniel Ingram

The path of insight is not known to be easy. There are said to be many ups and downs - ecstatic bliss and energy one moment and crushing fear and misery the next. There are many maps of this territory, all different on a superficial level, yet all containing many of the same fundamentals. In the words of Ingram:

One of the most profound things about these stages is that they are strangely predictable regardless of the practitioner or the insight tradition. Texts two thousand years old describe the stages just the way people go through them today, though there will be some individual variation on some of the particulars today as then. The Christian maps, the Sufi maps, the Buddhist maps of the Tibetans and the Theravada, and the maps of the Khabbalists and Hindus are all remarkably consistent in their fundamentals. I chanced into these classic experiences before I had any training in meditation, and I have met a large number of people who have done likewise. These maps, Buddhist or otherwise, are talking about something inherent in how our minds progress in fundamental wisdom that has little to do with any tradition and lots to do with the mysteries of the human mind and body. They are describing basic human development. These stages are not Buddhist but universal, and Buddhism is merely one of the traditions that describes them, albeit unusually well.

In this post I will discuss the map, known as the "Progress of Insight", which is originally derived from the Pali cannon in the Theravada tradition, as related by Mahasi Sayada and Daniel Ingram. The part of the map that I will discuss is "1st path" (there are four successive paths) which is basically the road to initial, but not complete, enlightenment, to a point after which insight generates itself automatically whether one practices or not, beyond the "plane of limitation". I will also relate this path to the first Four Valleys in the Sufi tradition, as commented on by Baha'u'llah: Search, Love, Knowledge, and Unity. 

My motivation for doing this is simply to share something that has become a big part of my life. This is my own working model of spiritual development and I will relate some of my experiential reports traveling along this path. 

24 January 2014

Hotels, Ruhi, and an Inherently Implausible Goal

I'm paid to care about you.
Baha'is and hotels are running into similar problems

The century leading up to 1960 was an era of grand hotels. Palace-like, they catered to the rich and provided a unique, personal experience because they were mostly independently owned or part of small groups.

Then came the chains. In the 1950s a young Mr Hilton started building his hotels around the world and abandoned the grand hotel model. Soon came Mr Marriott and others with standard operating procedures (SOPs) that made every hotel in the chain conform to protocols, down to how long an egg is cooked, how many times the phone is allowed to ring before picking up, and what is available on TV. A hotel might have 2,000 SOPs to follow.

The shift from character-filled grand hotels to ubiquitous uniformity meant that the personal connections were lost. Now, customers have no fealty, and would hardly know the difference between hotels were it not for the brand name on the building.

Hotel owners are aware of the problem. The best hotels have a happy atmosphere and staff that go out of their way to be helpful, and such hotels are more profitable. Bosses have tried to manufacture this emotional connection for guests, but how would that come through an SOP? As soon as customers realize that the smile and personal note on their receipt is a job requirement, the magic is gone. Is it even possible to mass-produce genuine emotional connections?

A recent article, Be My Guest, in The Economist magazine (from which I gathered much of the above) had a great line that summed up something I haven't been able to put to words myself:
"Replicating intimate service on a mass scale is an inherently implausible goal"
If you can't see where I'm going with this, the worldwide Baha'i community has been struggling with this for decades.

Order in the New Order

The Baha'i Faith had its start in a heroic age of the central figures where intimate personal connections attracted hearts to a revelation from God. This pinnacle of emotional attraction caused individuals to sacrifice themselves for a greater cause (forget the fleeting attention that hotels are hoping for).

Then the Baha'i world entered a new phase. When Shoghi Effendi took office as the first Guardian, there were just over 100,000 Baha'is spread out in about 35 countries, and just a few National Spiritual Assemblies. A haphazard or passive approach to teaching would leave a slow trickle of new Baha'is. Shoghi Effendi quickly began building institutions and organizing the work of teaching, which was previously very informal. Soon the elected institutions that Baha'u'llah envisioned were formed around the world. Donations flowed into official funds, and committees formed to assist the expansion work that was already going on. In eloquent letters Shoghi Effendi communicated a vision for growth with clear goals and maintained extensive correspondence with individuals around the world. The effort was incredibly successful and spread the Faith to every nook on earth.

Systematizing the intimacy needed for transforming souls fell foul with some of the early Baha'is in Europe and America who thought that the Baha'i club could not be "organized". Many westerners who were attracted to the magnetic personality of `Abdu'l-Baha, yet lacked an understanding of the Covenant, simply fell away into obscurity.

Fast forward several decades and you will hear a similar tale. In America few Baha'i communities had more than fifteen people until the 1970s, as they were encouraged to spread around and not congregate. Annual gatherings dominated by charismatic presenters were the staple for isolated Baha'is, who maintained deeply intimate relationships with any new converts. Teaching projects, deepenings, and children's classes were haphazardly put together. This model was excellent for that stage of growth, but it could never satisfy the needs for large-scale expansion. In the late 1980s the Universal House of Justice encouraged training programs that would systematically deepen believers and stir them to action. Out of that came the success of the Ruhi Institute and its adoption as the primary training tool for Baha'is worldwide.

A robot kind of mind

Putting up this framework for action fell foul with some of the long-time Baha'is who bemoaned the lack of emotion and spontaneity that they previously felt from charismatic deepenings or from smaller groups. This problem was exacerbated by early tutors who themselves lacked an understanding of how the system was supposed to work and implemented Ruhi like a college course. Again, some Baha'is thought that real teaching could not be "organized". Like a chef who didn't want to conform to the omelette SOP because it lacked character, they viewed the study circle practices as empty motions. In my lifetime I've seen many fall away into obscurity.

Those frustrated with the process had something right, but they were also missing something huge. Genuine caring and intimacy are needed for teaching, and "replicating intimate service on a mass scale is an inherently implausible goal," but without structure nothing would be sustained. I have witnessed countless attempts at enthusiastic teaching projects that lost steam after weeks or months or years. The institute process, the sequence of courses, the children's and youth classes, and devotional gatherings are a framework for action. It's just a framework. Without the frame, all that genuine desire to better the world cannot be realized, and without the intimacy and affection in small groups, the framework will be empty. It takes individuals exemplifying the eternal principles of God working within a framework of action for these teachings to spread.

By 2003 I was just finishing up the sequence of courses, and I, too, was skeptical of its ability to carry the emotional connection that attracts hearts to God. A few years later, after going through the courses again as a tutor or participant, I started to notice that the texts themselves were advocating for the attitude I was trying to promote. The Ruhi texts often basically say, "Hey! Don't be a robot! Build skills and knowledge, and apply them with wisdom to each situation! And don't be a robot!" When I began tutoring study circles myself, I felt free to be creative and implement them as my conscious dictated, but all within the study circle model.

I also came to realize that even though it was organized, I was engaging in more action. For example, in my normal life I don't put aside time to memorize, sing, practice telling stories, or scope out my neighborhood for opportunities to spiritualize children. But within the framework of the institute process, I had something prodding me along toward what I know is good for me.

Bring on the emotions

The emotional failure of uniform hotels has caused a new era of hotel building that started in the 1990s. SOPs are being relaxed, and more stress is placed on improvisation and flexibility. Now boutique hotels try to have a theme, such as Chinese hospitality, heavy metal, fashion, eco-friendliness, families with children, or retirees. The attempt to manufacture connection has been a success. I stayed in one such hotel in Seattle about 4 years ago, and I can still remember the layout of the room. I can't say the same for that other hotel I stayed in 3 months ago.

For the institute process and hotel chains, striking the balance between rigidity and flexibility has been one of the keys to success. Like the corporate hotel management, Baha'i institutions can build a framework that individuals work inside. If the framework is too rigid and specific, it stifles creativity and individual initiative. If the framework is too flexible and vague, it stifles growth. If hotels get it right, the economy grows a little. If Baha'is get it right, the Kingdom of God is a little more established on earth.

09 January 2014

10 of My Favorite Posts From Other Baha'i Coherence Bloggers

There has been a lot of great blogging here over the last few years. In the the spirit of nostalgia I felt compelled to highlight 10 of my favorite posts by other bloggers, although many others could have easily made the list.

1.) Aria's post Montessori, Evolution, and Spirituality
2) Daniel's Post Animal Companions in Life and Death, Part II
3) Greg's post Some Thoughts on how Baha'is Approach Moral and Social Questions
4) Bryan's post 29 Nations of the Earth
5) Kat's post On Behalf of the Village: Neighborhood Children's Classes and the Baha'i Child
6) Bryan's post The End of War
7) Jakes post Why should we REALLY Care about Poverty
8) Ryan's post Does motivation matter? Motivation, incentive-based policies, and their interconnectedness.
9) Mary's post Benjamin Franklin's America
10) Greg's series on Christianity and the Baha'i Faith 1 2 3 4

31 December 2013

Buddhism, Meditation, and the Baha'i Faith: Part 2

-Part 1 Here-
And if we turn inward and prove our True Nature, that True Self is no-self, our own self is no-self, we go beyond ego and past clever words. Then the gate to the oneness of cause-and-effect is thrown open. Not two and not three, straight ahead runs the Way. Our form now being no-form, in going and returning we never leave home. Our thought now being no-thought, our dancing and songs are the Voice of the Dharma. How vast is the heaven of boundless Samadhi! How bright and transparent the moonlight of wisdom! What is there outside us? What is there we lack? 
-From the Song of Zazen

The Baha'i Faith is a mystical religion. Baha'u'llah describes the spiritual seeker in the Valley of Knowledge - "the last plane of limitation" - as one who has "passed over the worlds of names, and fled beyond the worlds of attributes as swift as lightning" and has "made their dwelling-place in the shadow of the Essence." 

It is also a practical religion. Baha'u'llah emphasizes the need to be "anxiously concerned with the needs of the age ye live in, and centre your deliberations on its exigencies and requirements."

Putting these two things together requires being “in the world, but not of the world” so to speak. This requires a delicate balance and careful integration of the two modes; yet they are each distinct. They are mutually reinforcing but they also develop along different axis.

Somewhat along these lines, in Buddhism there are three types of training which reinforce and integrate with each other, yet are distinct: moralityconcentration, and insight

29 December 2013

Buddhism, Meditation, and the Baha’i Faith: Part 1

So the true goal of meditation is achieved through a dialectical process that alternates between dissolving into flowing nothingness and detecting subtler and subtler instances of solidified somethingness. - Shinzen Young
In my opinion, the Baha’i community is exceptionally well developed in two important ways. 

The first way has to do with thinking about and acting in the world.  It has a comprehensive system of morality - with laws and principles that guide personal conduct and attitude; it has a brilliant evolving mechanism for interacting in the world and trying to make it better - the institute process; it has a universal and unique system of governance; and it is philosophically and theologically rich and modern.

The second is along a mode of spiritual practice: prayer and contemplation. There are countless prayers revealed by Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l Baha, and clear instructions for ideal practice, for example in the long obligatory prayer. The writings are poetic and intriguing and, by both the content and the very structure of the language, evoke positive spiritual feelings, mystical inclinations, and realizations of oneness.  

01 December 2013

Summer of Consecration

I was raised attending Baha’i activities and associated as a Baha’i, but it wasn’t until just before my 17th birthday that I decided to take it more seriously. I had just come back from a Baha’i youth camp in southern Oregon and realized how unhappy I was. A bit odd that a Baha’i gathering would leave me depressed. Being exposed to an atmosphere of intense kindness for a week, I realized that my regular life was leaving me spiritually handicapped, and I realized that spirituality is all that matters.

After returning I knew that my happiness would soon fade away and I would return to the slog of negativity that makes up normal life. So I stayed up late one night and prayed fervently for something to change in my life. I wanted either my school friends to transform into better people, or I wanted to get rid of them and spend time with Baha’is.

Years later I realized that my prayers were answered almost immediately. Four things changed right away in my life.

30 November 2013

Another Blog Update - Losing My Faith

After seeing Bryan's post I felt compelled to update as well, after about two years of inactivity. This is essentially a coming out post. I have only told a handful of people where I am at - out of worry that I would disappoint friends. Now it has been a while, and since I helped start this blog I feel like I should use this forum to explain myself. To put it simply: I lost my faith. Since then I have regained interest in spiritual practice - but not belief in a Baha'i sense. Let me explain.

29 November 2013

Blog Update

I haven't posted anything in seven months, and the other bloggers haven't posted in well over two years, so I thought a status update would be nice.

In 2010 I started writing a book, which is sitting unpublished until the new translation of Some Answered Questions becomes available (any day now, I hear). The same year I was elected to the Local Spiritual Assembly in Portland. In 2011 I had my first child and was also elected secretary of the Assembly. Needless to say, my blogging slowed down. Since then I have squeezed out a few posts, but nothing like the 29 Nations of the Earth that I used to do. 

Did I mention my wife is in residency and working 70 hours a week? Well she is, and she is in the home stretch. In July 2014 she will be released from the prison of medical residency and enter a job where she works 24 hours a week. She is also pregnant with baby #2, so she will keep low hours for another few years until all the kids are in preschool. I hope to also lighten my load at work by then so I can take on some other projects (like blogging!).

So by the end of 2014 my life will be completely different, and you loyal blog followers will actually have something to follow again. 

I think the other contributors to this blog are long gone. There was a long run of good posts in 2009-2010. The only contributor I knew personally was Jason, who is currently finishing up a masters at Michigan State University. Baha'i Coherence was first assembled by Jason as a multi-contributor "collaborative space to share and reflect upon reality." If anyone wants to contribute posts, just email bahaicoherence@gmail.com and I will work on getting you signed up.

25 May 2013

Priority of Baha'i Funds

I found an intriguing insight while perusing the Baha'i Writings on Funds. I have known for awhile that only Baha'is may contribute to Baha'i Funds, that the act of giving is entirely voluntary, and that each Baha'i should contribute directly to the various funds (local, national, and international). I always thought that when it comes to priority, the local fund should be the most important, with the international fund receiving the smallest share from individuals. As it turns out, it's the other way around.

"At the level of the individual believer, attention to the needs of the funds of the Faith parallels the principles which govern multiple loyalties. The first loyalty of a Baha'i to the whole of mankind, for the benefit of the part is best achieved through the welfare of the whole. But this widest loyalty does not eliminate the lesser loyalties of love for one's country, for the area in which one lives, or for one's family. They all constitute a network of interdependent and mutually beneficial loyalties. So it is with the individual believer's relationship to the International, Continental, National and Local Funds."
(On behalf of the Universal House of Justice, 31 October 1993)

There is a great lesson hidden here, and it's not just about fund contributions. Our loyalty to the whole of mankind should be our highest loyalty, and a corollary is that our sacrificial giving to funds should put international concerns over local concerns. This is counter-intuitive, but absolutely correct. If everyone held their highest loyalty to their tribe, city, or state, international peace would be impossible. Everyone seeks to improve their immediate surroundings, but we also have to look beyond the things in front of our faces and seek to improve the lot of the world, and by doing so we will improve our individual lives. 

So when it comes to prioritizing Baha'i Fund contributions, the most should go to the international fund, then continental, national, regional, and least to the local fund. In this way too, the world will reduce extremes of wealth and poverty. If people gave the most to local needs, then the rich cities, counties, and states would stay wealthy, and the poor would stay poor. This was reinforced when a friend recently told me that 80% of the National Baha'i Fund of Nicaragua (a very poor nation) is paid directly by the International Baha'i Fund.

For those in the United States, there is now an online contribution system (https://ocs.bahai.us) that allows electronic contributions directly into regional, national, continental, and international funds, AND it allows automatic payments at the interval of your choosing (including once per Baha'i month). I highly recommend it.

03 March 2013

The Gift of Education

A close friend of mine, who happens to be a Baha'i, picked up and moved with her family to the Dominican Republic two years ago. They wanted to help relieve poverty on the poorest island in the western hemisphere. Avoiding the pitfalls of so many well-intentioned aid organizations, they spent those years getting to know the population and looking holistically at what is actually needed and what can raise up local resources. 

Their conclusion: a library.

They are currently fundraising for the project and they're almost halfway to their goal of $19,000 to get it funded sustainably. 

Please consider giving. Here is their indiegogo campaign:

The video below documents their thought process and goals. 

In case you want to "follow the money", they provided this pie chart of their budget.

24 October 2012

Paid Service

The first Local Spiritual Assembly of Bekune, Cameroon (1960)
I previously wrote about the changing role of Baha'i Centers and how they are no longer central to the model of Baha'i community growth. Changing how we meet our space needs could (on paper) reduce costs by around $25k/year. That amount of money is just enough to hire someone full-time.

I also previously wrote about the problem of incumbency in Baha'i elections and how current membership status should not be considered when casting votes.

These offer a backdrop to a related topic that has the potential for significant positive change in Baha'i communities. There is a stumbling block lying ahead for communities as they grow, but the bump is avoidable.

Oregon currently has three large Baha'i communities: Eugene, Beaverton, and Portland. These have at least 100 active participants, a Baha'i Center, and a history of many decades. Each city has for the last 15+ years had a dedicated Assembly secretary who acted as a workhorse, providing upwards of 15 hours every week of their free time (aka, retirement) serving the local assembly. Within a few years of each other, all three left their posts due to retirement or other work. Filling in behind them was a cadre of working parents and others who looked on the appointment with a kind of horror realizing the magnitude and criticality of the work.


Here is roughly what happened in Portland. The new secretary looks in the Guidelines for Local Spiritual Assemblies to see what to do. Can't resign from Assembly, but can resign from being an Officer. Ok. But Shoghi Effendi really really doesn't like that. Ok. Guidelines outline duties of Secretary. Yep, the duties are well articulated and extensive. Aha! There it is!

08 October 2012

Baha'i Centers & Growth

In November, 2007, the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha'is of the United States wrote a letter to all local assemblies addressing the role of Baha'i Centers as physical assets of communities. The letter announced the formation of a Baha'i Center Assistance organization, with a manual of strategies for Baha'i Centers. I highly recommend reading the letter from the NSA (only 1.5 pages), but I'll share some of the highlights.

It is time to take a fresh look at the role of buildings in building Baha'i communities. Our most precious asset is the vibrancy and love reflected among Baha'is, and our intense focus is currently on large-scale growth. Physical assets and funds must be aligned in support of these goals, and Local Spiritual Assemblies are responsible for maintaining focus.

Assemblies should also maintain a realistic appraisal of the cost, time, efforts involved in purchasing, renovating, and maintaining a Baha'i Center. Building ownership is not an investment, since the day-to-day operating costs will easily swamp any perceived long-term savings. Fundraising, renovations, and "prolonged debates about location, design, and usage," can be detrimental and distract from core activities and growth.

Baha'i community life is moving away from the model of a large area commuting to a central location. Instead, Baha'is are increasingly promoting decentralized activities at the grass roots that serve a much larger population. Considering this shift, Assemblies interested in purchasing or renovating should "give careful consideration to the question of whether such action would support or detract" from the goals of the current Plan of the Universal House of Justice. In most situations, Assemblies should use personal homes and daily rentals for their needs. If a more permanent fixture is desired, a long-term lease of a facility would be appropriate.

05 July 2012

Carmel Baha'i School

Last week I spent 7 days working alongside 30 other staff to facilitate a Baha'i camp for over 70 youth. There is much to share. I attended the first Carmel session ever in 1995 as an awkward 13 year old and I've only missed two or three years since, transitioning along the way from a camper to a counselor to an organizer. It was this camp, plus a few other annual events, that brought me out of my spiritual lethargy. They inspired me to actually sit down and read a Baha'i book just before my 17th birthday and get involved throughout the year with other Baha'i youth.

For those who don't know, the Baha'i camps in Oregon have always been pretty advanced compared to the rest of the country. Just a few years ago, there were four in the state (now three) plus another two on the Washington side not far from Portland. Most states have only one or two, if any. Going back even further, there was an old camp called "Lobstock" in Lobster Valley (you can tell some hippies were involved in naming that one!) that galvanized dozens of youth into direct travel teaching projects around the state. There were also other smaller intermittent youth gatherings. Back in the 1980s when only a small section of the public knew of the Faith, these periodic gatherings provided a dose of medicine to isolated believers who were starved for the fellowship of other Baha'is. Annual gatherings became the focal point for growth over a large area, providing a Baha'i education and facilitating social connections between hundreds of people.

But that was the eighties. Around the year 2000 things started to change in the worldwide Baha'i community. In the United States, public recognition of the Faith grew dramatically, so Baha'is were no longer worried about people thinking they're in a weird cult. The Baha'i community grew dramatically, maybe even doubling in some towns and cities. The Universal House of Justice announced the new administrative structures of the Regional Council and the Cluster, providing groupings of states or counties with corresponding institutions to manage growth. They also announced as far back as the early nineties the formation of Training Institutes that would provide systematic growth instead of the haphazard stumbling along that is characterized by spontaneous bursts of energy.

06 June 2012

The Future of Power

Having worked in the power industry for six years after completing a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering, I have noticed a few common misconceptions about power generation. I also live in one of the more progressive and environmentally conscious cities in America, and see a lot of misdirected energies when it comes to saving the world. Here, I'll try to describe how to fix some of the long-term problems facing the planet.

First let's talk about "the grid". My company is the grid. We control the vast majority of high voltage transmssion lines and substations across Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and western Montana. Power flows dynamically, so energy goes in at many different points on the grid, and energy comes out at many different points. At any given point, you can measure the flow of energy, but all the electrons are mixed together. I think a good comparison is a lake. You have one person dumping a galon of water into the lake and getting paid by someone pulling a gallon out. Technically they didn't pay for the exact same water that went in.

This is important because I frequently see utilities advertising a "green" option where you can pay an extra $6/month and your electricity will come from renewable energy. That is almost a lie. What's really happening is you are making a donation of $6 that is then earmarked for the purchase, construction or maintenance of renewable energy. The electricity you get is exactly the same as you did before.