30 June 2010

Does motivation matter? Motivation, incentive-based policies, and their interconnectedness.

The following is a free-flowing essay I wrote in May of 2009 after reading a post from a friend of mine on facebook which included a discussion on the effects of motivation. It turned out to be about a lot more. While I've thought about the topic very much since writing this piece perhaps it is of some use to stimulate thought and discussion. (The original post is here).

The question you raise about motivation is interesting. It seems to me that there are cases in which motivation has actual consequences, and they are particularly evident when the sphere of action is complex. Giving to a charity is an extremely simple form of action that one can engage in. And in today’s world of reducing everything to commodities the question is unfortunately rarely raised as to where/how the money came from/about. Of course, I’m not suggesting that we somehow ‘track’ motivations to money and only accept those which pass some kind of ‘test’. It just seems to me that even at this simple level, however, the motivation has a spiritual effect on the one who performs the deed and on society (e.g. directly or indirectly reinforcing particular motivations and/or contributing to the casting aside of sacredness). This idea requires further elaboration and thought.

In more complex forms of action, motivation can have more tangible, short-term effects. For example, a teacher who is motivated solely by their paycheck will likely teach differently than one who is motivated to engage students in an individually and socially transformative process. My discussion assumes that the purpose of education is more along the lines of the latter. Unfortunately, neoliberalistic approaches to solving problems reduce everything to the paycheck and depend on “getting the incentive structure right.” But how do you get the incentive structure right for an inherently creative and transformative process?

Healing and the Power of Prayer

For centuries, even millenia, science and religion have conducted an on-going dialogue over a number of issues. One of them that has received a great deal of attention in recent years is the relationship between prayer and healing. In this interview, Dr. Harold Koenig, a leading researcher on the topic discusses his own work examining the health benefits of religion. He also delves into some of the methodological issues that naturally emerge in this line of investigation. I think there's a lot to like and not to like in the interview. If you'd like to read you can come to your own conclusions. Personally, I enjoyed it because I came away feeling Dr. Koenig has an appreciation that there are a number of philosophical complexities connected to the topic.

One of the frustrations I've always had with research into the health benefits of prayer is that it's always presented by the media in a way that cheapens the significance of prayer. Magazine articles and TV news segments always seem to reduce prayer to a way to extort more personal benefits from God. Death is presented as a curse to be avoided at all costs, not as it is presented in scripture, as a gateway to the afterlife or the act by which a human communes with her creator.

According to the Baha'i writings prayer is perhaps the most profound act a person can perform. There's so much more to it than simply "what do I get out of it?" I'm attracted to what the Bab has to say about prayer in a particular passage from the Persian Bayan.

29 June 2010

In her shoes

What do other people feel? what is it to step
 into another person's shoes and
 see the world through their eyes, feel with their heart 
and touch with their hands? 

Love in a Life of Service

How good it is if the friends be as close as sheaves of light, if they stand together side by side in a firm unbroken line. For now have the rays of reality from the Sun of the world of existence, united in adoration all the worshippers of this light; and these rays have, through infinite grace, gathered all peoples together within this wide-spreading shelter; therefore must all souls become as one soul, and all hearts as one heart.
'Abdu'l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of 'Abdu'l-Baha, 36.3 p.76
A united effort of service and collaboration requires qualities such as teamwork, devotion, sacrifice, sincerity, and taking joy in the well-being and progress of others. Furthermore, these qualities are also requirements of a good marriage. Little wonder then, that it's easy to be confused about our feelings toward the people we serve alongside, and to mistake simple feelings of love for being in love.

28 June 2010

A Religion for Atheists?

"Most contemporary governments and even private bodies are devoted to a liberal conception of help, they have no "content," they want to help people to stay alive and yet they make no suggestions about what these people might do with their lives....
There is a long philosophical and cultural history which explains why we've reached the condition known as modern secular society. Yet it seems there's no compelling argument to stay here." 
This is the concluding statement in an article by Alain de Botton about the prospects of a new secular form of religion. He argues that modern secular society has done a great job at improving the material lives of many, but it has had far too little to say about what meaning to ascribe to it. While finding the belief in divinely inspired religion untenable, he nevertheless makes the case for a religion for atheists.  

27 June 2010

The Question: "Why not hedonism?" then some words of Baha'u'llah

A Baha'i friend recently asked me: What's wrong with hedonism? Why is it not okay that we just bliss out? He was looking not just for a demonstration from the Baha'i writings but for a full explanation as well. I wasn't quite sure what to tell him. The problem, as he saw it, was that Baha'is take for granted not to live a lifestyle of heavy pleasure, and build from there; while all the while, the most important question is left unasked: why not hedonism? I found that, I too, had been glossing over that fundamental point. I took some time to think. No passages from the Baha'i writings came immediately to mind. But I had just been reading a section from Plato's Republic that takes up the question. So I drew from Plato. For him, pleasure cannot be the Good because, though pleasurable things appear to be good, they are often harmful for us. I told my friend pleasure can be deceiving. For that reason, knowledge must be the basis for a good life, inasmuch as knowledge is what cuts through the illusions covered over by appearances. Both of us found that satisfying.

Since then, this has led me into an inquiry into why Baha'u'llah writes against hedonism. First, I went to  The Hidden Words and then to his Kitab-i-Iqan. I'd like to share some quotations, and a few words in commentary. The topic is of course inexhaustable; so the aim  here is just to stimulate thinking.

25 June 2010

Prayer is a duty but more importantly it is a blessing.

Throughout the millenia, God has sent his messengers to teach humanity how to pray. This is one of his many gifts to his creation. Sometimes the heart is not inclined towards prayer. But that's why we're taught to do it frequently. Practice makes perfect, and with experience it springs from deep within the heart and not from feelings of guilt and compulsion. I bring this up because it is a topic that has been on my mind. I was travelling recently, and because I was out of my daily routine, I often forgot to pray. This has given me an opportunity to hold my ingrained habits at a distance and think critically about why I choose to pray on a daily basis. It seems to me one important thing to keep in mind is that God gives humanity laws not to hold us down, but rather to build us up spiritually and lead us on a path towards him.

23 June 2010

Working and Serving

Let each one of God’s loved ones centre his attention on this: to be the Lord’s mercy to man; to be the Lord’s  grace. Let him do some good to every person whose path he crosseth, and be of some benefit to him. 
'Abdu'l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of 'Abdu'l-Baha, p. 3

In the past decade, participation in the plans of the Universal House of Justice has revolutionized the way  Baha'is spend time outside of work. Whereas before, they might have spent an evening zoning out on Facebook or watching television, now they're more likely to be promoting spiritual education in their neighborhoods or working with community members to apply Baha'u'llah's teachings to social needs. Baha'is have greatly enhanced their capacity for being "the Lord's mercy to man" in their free time. And it is empowering hundreds of thousands of people around the world to promote the material and spiritual prosperity of their communities. But however transformative these developments have been, there is also the matter of how we spend our time before five p.m. The Baha'i world may be doing new and exciting things in the evenings and on weekends. But for the vast majority of us, work continues much as it always has.

I'd like to take some ideas from this emerging framework for action and apply them to the way we think about paid work. In particular, I'd like to explore what it might me to approach paid work as service to humanity.

22 June 2010

'Abdu'l-Baha on Spiritual and Material Civilization

This is a good passage to think about the next time you hear a Baha'i talk about how important it is for material and spiritual development to go hand in hand. As is evident from this quotation, the idea isn't a recent innovation, probably originating in Colombia. It frames a much broader vision for how 'Abdu'l-Baha envisions the progress of humanity.

In the western world material civilization has attained the highest point of development, but divine civilization was founded in the land of the East. The East must acquire material civilization from the West, and the West must receive spiritual civilization from the East. This will establish a mutual bond. When these two come together, the world of humanity will present a glorious aspect, and extraordinary progress will be achieved. This is clear and evident; no proof is needed. The degree of material civilization in the Occident cannot be denied; nor can anyone fail to confirm the spiritual civilization of the Orient, for all the divine foundations of human uplift have appeared in the East. This, likewise, is clear and evident. Therefore, you must assist the East in order that it may attain material progress. The East must, likewise, promulgate the principles of spiritual civilization in the western world. By this commingling and union the human race will attain the highest degree of prosperity and development.

-Abdu'l Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace p.16

the Power and Limitations of Jargon

A lot of people don't like jargon. It's often thought of as a pretentious, unimaginative substitute for actual knowledge. I understand their frustrations. But as a long-time user of a variety of jargons, I have found it can play a vital role in the advancement of knowledge. However, in order to be used most effectively, its limitations must be respected.

In my opinion, jargon is an instrument that can help us explore reality. Using technical terms can alert others to things they might otherwise overlook. This is especially the case when exploring new terrains of human knowledge.
For example, try to imagine the invention of the microprocessor if its developers only used the ordinary meaning of words. If this was the case they wouldn't even have a word for what they were inventing, let alone all the new techniques and components devised along the way. New knowledge requires new configurations of linguistic expression.

21 June 2010

Benjamin Franklin's America

I can live wild and free, or safe and secure.
The choice alone paralyzes me.

What do you want to do?What do you want to do?What do you want to do?What do you want to be?What do you want to be? What do you want to be?Make a choice, makeachoice, makeachoice. Who are you?What are you doing with your life?Time is ticking, time is ticking, what are you waiting for?join the march to the grave, in step to the tick tock, tick tock, tick tock, tick tock, into the box into the box into the box...

But, I remember. Yes! I remember! I remember the blue cloudless sky, I remember the sun on my shoulders. You remember nothing. The night is long remember your unimportance, sleep. Sleep, sleep - sleep, sleep - my brain is filled with cotton, so I will - sleep, sleep- sleep, sleep...

But! Sleep, sleep, sleep as a mute speaker does, sleep.

Personal Note

My posting to Baha'i Coherence is probably going to be light for the next three months, as I will be traveling and interning with my wife, Aniseh, researching the informal credit market in Morocco in the interest of improving micro-finance. I am going to try to post some reflections of the work and the country here a little later. In the meantime, you are invited to follow my wifes travel blog http://moroccangypsy.blogspot.com


20 June 2010


At the age of 18 I started running at night when I was stressed. I loved it. I loved the pain, the sweat, the heat... My favorite way to run was by sprinting between every other set of light poles. And when I say sprint, I mean run at max speed, like a bear is chasing you, like you're at the Olympics in a 100 meter dash. Do that for a mile and you'll be ready to drop over dead. Other times I would just keep running at a brisk pace and see how far I could go.

That raised the question: how far can I go?

Taking Requests

I'm opening the floor for requests.

I know what I like to write about. I like to write about the coherence of spiritual and economic progress, dynamics of prayer, interweaving of Bahá’í ideas and continental philosophy, and generally anything that pops into my head that I think would be good to write about. But what stimulates my thinking isn’t necessarily what stimulates yours. So I want to know what you want to read about. What’s on your mind? What do you want to see addressed?

Also, if you want to contribute posts of your own, write to bahaicoherence@gmail.com and you can get set up.

18 June 2010

Collective Gossip

In the past couple of decades, there has been a dramatic convergence between news and entertainment. Not only are celebrities professional entertainers. They are also newsmakers, as media and media-users swarm around the latest developments in their personal lives. The moralizing gaze that looks down upon and mocks takes pleasure in the very faults it condemns. At the same time, news about politics increasingly reflects celebrity gossip. Political scandals receive attention not because they reveal wounds inflicted on our society but because they serve up the latest bit of juicy gossip. Concern for the common good gives way to reporting on the escapades of individuals. Finally, the turn from policy analysis to personalities changes public affairs into private affairs, undermining efforts to use government institutions for public well-being rather than for private profit.

In my opinion, this spiritual malaise is the sort of thing Baha’u’llah had in mind when he penned these words in the Kitáb-i-Íqán;

17 June 2010

Unless you Find an Angle or Two

How can is act decisively in eyes that stare from other angles? Why does is always assume that there is time to spare? there is no more time, there is no more spare. Despair is, is it not? Unless there is time, In which case is can continue watching on the sly.
Is, the pretense past. Or is the pretense past? In any case (and at this point is can only hope) the scraping is enveloping the desolate heart; appealing to, or emoting into that rugged gatekeeper of childhood; morphology of dreamscape.
Unexpected, unassumed, and unheralded. That waffling film is being grasped. Being, with the orthodox vantage, sees is clinging, but whatever. That's and was. Being...absolute clarity, unflinching vision, pure spirit, nowhere and no chance to run. Unless you find an angle or two. Is, is it not?

Even the jobs we hate are acts of worship.

O people of Bahá! It is incumbent upon each one of you to engage in some occupation—such as a craft, a trade or the like. We have exalted your engagement in such work to the rank of worship of the one true God. Reflect, O people, on the grace and blessings of your Lord, and yield Him thanks at eventide and dawn.
                          -Baha'u'llah, Kitab-i-Aqdas 33
Everywhere in the world, Bahá’ís are increasingly active in sharing Bahá’u’lláh’s message with others and working to put it into practice. The progress that has been seen, especially in the past four years, is quite remarkable. However, some parts of the world are advancing at a quicker pace than others. There are many reasons for this; and it varies from nation to nation, community to community. The United States Bahá’í community has always been one of the world’s most dynamic. It has had its tests and difficulties, but the fact remains that whenever the US Bahá’í community get its act together, its members tend to be staunch and energetic servants of Bahá’u’lláh. However, one obstacle that has consistently come up in recent years is that US Bahá’ís don’t tend to have a great deal of free time.

15 June 2010

The World Cup and an Emerging Sense of Global Citizenship

 I'm curious about the possibility that the World Cup is building a sense of global citizenship among the peoples of the world. And I'm not going to pretend to be knowledgeable about soccer. But a quick trip to Google can give me access to reflections on the topic by someone far more knowledgeable than myself. So voila! Here's some food for thought on the role of the World Cup in building a sense of global citizenship. This was posted to the website worldchanging.com during the 2006 World Cup hosted by Germany. In it the author David Hsu shares his thoughts on the place of sports within our society. This is how he begins his essay.
Since going to my first World Cup this summer, I've been deeply conflicted about the meaning of sports, as sports this summer seem to have taken on all of the best and worst parts of an increasingly fast-moving, technological, competitive, and globalized society. What I'd like to examine today is, do sports have any role to play in building a global society?
Hsu clearly has mixed feelings about the World Cup. To frame it using Baha'i concepts, we might say that it is playing a role both in the breakdown of the current society and in the construction of a new one.

14 June 2010

A Wrinkle In Time

cranberries on my grape vines
there's got to be a better wine
sauerkrauts make bad girl scouts
and i have all i need

stupendous i can't say the word
without a trip and stumble
journeys go way much too slow
i'm fretting over stubble

needs to bleed grab greedy seeds
it's all a heart was made for
peel the skins and press and grind
suddenly knew what you were there for

Beyond Utopia and Myopia

Will Wikinson leads us on a thought experiment about the role that future events (such as developments in technology) might play in changing our standards of the ideal social order:
"Suppose that in the future an unpredictable advance in technology fundamentally changes the way humans are able to relate to one another, and this changes not only how we are brought up, but also changes what kind of society seems desirable, and what rules of the social interaction strike us as reasonable. Suppose we would, given our present values, consider all this an immense advance over the status quo. But it remains that we’ll probably never imagine it."

13 June 2010

Rethinking Materialism

When sharing the Baha'i Faith with others, it's always important to build on commonalities between differing points of view rather than going into attack mode. For that reason, I'm always trying figure out what kernel of truth can be found in a person's viewpoint, even if I don't agree with their conclusions. When this approach is taken, it is easier to see adoption of Baha'i ways of thought and practice as a stage of development in one's own way of thinking, rather than a replacement of one way with another. I think this helps to see the unity between things rather than set up articifical barriers such as secular vs. religious or Baha'i vs. Christian. I had this in mind one day as I saw a particularly crass advertisement for a restaurant/nightclub. After registering my disgust, I wondered to myself if there was a kernel of truth to be found in the materialism that establishment promotes? It occured to me that, yes, there is in fact some basis here upon which Baha'i ideas could build.

12 June 2010

Transformed by Prayer

This anecdote comes from a post shared on the blog, http://teaching.bahai.us/.
We visited him at his apartment. He graciously received us and shared a lot about his life history as well as the journey towards the Faith. He stated that he realized that after reading the Bahá’í Prayers, the very same neighbors that he was previously indifferent towards started to look wonderful to him. . . .
I think this is a great example of spiritual and social transformation going hand in hand. His soul is transformed. And in so doing, the character of his relationships with others is changed as well. He has tapped into a source of joy that can aid him immensely in advancing the material and spiritual prosperity of his neighborhood.

In my own life I've found that in prayer I discover the love of God. And when I discover the love of God, I discover other people. Prayer breaks me out of indifference to others and awakens a desire to take action.

11 June 2010

Governing Decentralized Innovation

Owen Barder, a development practitioner based in Ethiopia, has some illuminating thoughts on the need for more effective coordination and governance in the field of development. He starts the conversation by questioning why it is necessary.
Why do we need any kind of governance for development cooperation?  It is reasonable to be sceptical about any kind of authority...My inner anarchist would really like development cooperation to be like the internet.  Could development programmes be best left with as little interference as possible?  Why not leave the people and organisations involved, donors and recipients, to solve their own problems, leaving them freedom to innovate, adapt and grow?   Let people form their own networks and own arrangements that work for them?  Given that aid consists of arrangements freely entered into between consenting adults, and between sovereign nation states, why do we need any kind of interference in those relationships?
He then goes on to outline 9 reasons for developmental coordination

Chronic Unemployment and the Oneness of Humanity

As the chart to the left shows, the number of workers in the US who have been unemployed for six months or longer has risen drastically in the past two years. Not only is it hard to make ends meet when a paycheck hasn't come in for so long, chronic unemployment has long-term effects on a person't ability to lead a happy fulfilling life.  Here are two links related to the situation. The first is an issue brief  put out by the Economic Policy Institute in 2004. The second is a link to an article in the New York Times on the mounting crisis of long-term unemployment in today’s economic downturn.

This is from the Economic Policy Institute. 
The long-term unemployed face a particularly daunting array of hardships: after six months of unemployment, many workers have eroded their savings, increased their levels of family stress, and even been forced to move out of their homes. Simply put, unemployment lasting six months or more is a prolonged burden on job seekers that detrimentally affects all areas of life, even more so than short spells of joblessness. While the prospect of any period of unemployment is disconcerting for many workers, the threat of long-term unemployment during the current economy's failure to generate the necessary number of jobs has elevated anxiety levels among U.S. workers.

10 June 2010

Baha'i Faith as Derivative?

Mavaddat wrote: "Dr. Shelly Kagan energetically refutes the idea of an eternal or metaphysical soul that lives beyond the body through a series of lectures to his undergraduate class.

Since 'Abdu'l-Bahá was working within an Islamic neo-Platonic framework, he wouldn't have been familiar with the philosophical objections to the idea of the soul, and this is reflected in his writings and lectures."

A popular movement in academics is to outline the historical context and possible influences of charismatic leaders of sorts, political movements, and religious movements. By giving this explanation, and leaving it at that, the implicit message is that each of these phenomena can be reducible (and seen to have been caused) by this historical context.

Each revelation does speak in a language that takes on certain signs and symbols of historical contexts to communicate its message. 'Abdu'l-Baha did use the motifs of light and illumination to explain many metaphysics; Baha'u'llah's assertions did have certain, at-least outwardly, resemblances to some European Enlightenment philosophers as well as Islamic philosophers. Baha'u'llah also did use a number of Sufi writings and forms of thought in His writings, esp. such as the Seven Valleys and Gems of Divine Mysteries. Yet each one often re-defines these traditional terms within the context of their own writings to instill in them fresh meanings.
And so, instead of historical context, Baha'is see the main derivation of each one's writings as Divine Revelation and inspiration.

On this, I have a number of questions:
1) What are the intellectual presumptions that makes the above-described mode of research so popular right now?
2) What is a productive way for Baha'is to approach such claims of mere historical/contextual production?
3) Do Baha'is have a role in contributing to such research, not merely responding to claims we don't agree with?
3.a.) How can this be done in a way that combines in balance the claims of the Baha'i Faith and its epistemologies of Revelation and Reason?

09 June 2010

Dishes in the Eye of the Storm

Cutting through the tomato and hamburger infusion of grease and gristle. Hands scrubbing not fast enough, but content, slopping around the sink full of brown-water mystery chunk. It's disgusting, that is true. But I am happy.

I remember the first times, I would cry and whine as my mom insisted with the horrible yellow gloves locked and loaded. It all seemed so cruel, so unnatural then, when so many things were on TV or alive in my closet ready colonize the floor. Sometimes my step-dad would offer to help after about 20 minutes of melodrama. Clever as I was, I would suggest that the best way to get done would be to hide some of the dirty cups and dinnerware among the mess of junk and appliances that always seemed to accumulate in every corner of the house.

08 June 2010

The New Realism

For some time, our world has been dominated by ideologies of nation, race, religion, class, and gender that represent clashes and competition as natural parts of life and cooperation and accord as artificial deviations from human nature. However, their grip on collective conscious is giving way to new ways of thinking and being in the world. Agency and Change is a blog by Michael Karlberg, author of the book Beyond the Culture of Contest. In his most recent post, Karlberg raises the possibility that humanity's increasing social and economic interdependence will drive a re-evaluation of what constitutes a "realistic" approach to addressing social issues.

07 June 2010

the Atmosphere of Joy

Words of 'Abdu'l-Baha

You are all exceedingly welcome. Do you realize how much you should thank God for His blessings? If you should thank Him a thousand times with each breath, it would not be sufficient because God has created and trained you. He has protected you from every affliction and prepared every gift and bestowal. Consider what a kind Father He is. He bestows His gift before you ask. We were not in the world of existence, but as soon as we were born, we found everything prepared for our needs and comfort without question on our part. He has given us a kind father and compassionate mother, provided for us two springs of salubrious milk, pure atmosphere, refreshing water, gentle breezes and the sun shining above our heads. In brief, He has supplied all the necessities of life although we did not ask for any of these great gifts. With pure mercy and bounty He has prepared this great table. It is a mercy which precedes asking.

Learning in Action is a Process of Forgiveness

In the past decade enormous changes have swept through the Baha'i community. A curriculum and a systematic process for its study have changed the way Baha'is relate to the Baha'i writings, to each other, and the world at large. Activities for the spiritual education of children and the empowerment of early adolescents are playing a more central role in Baha'i life. Furthermore, these activities take place less and less in Baha'i centers and more and more in neighborhoods dispersed throughout a community. In the past most Baha'i activities were primarily for Baha'is. But now the center of gravity has shifted as members of the broader community participate in greater numbers and take on greater responsibility. The changes have been as dramatic as they have been swift. Baha'is have done a relatively good job at maintaining unity throughout this process. But we have inflicted our share of wounds upon each other. Many complain that patterns of community life are changing to quickly; others that they are changing too slowly. Many wonder whether such changes are even desirable or what was such a problem with existing ways of doing things. Others have pursued change at the expense of tact and mutual respect. Throughout all of this, we have learned what it means to forgive.

It seems to me that forgiveness is not just an individual spiritual act that is essential to Baha'i life. In addition, it is inscribed into the structure of the framework for action the Baha'i world has been building since 1996. It is at the heart of what is meant by the expression learning in action.

04 June 2010

Some Thoughts on how Baha'is Approach Moral and Social Questions

The Baha'i approach to moral and social questions is distinctive inasmuch as it combines obedience to laws purportedly revealed by God with the cultivation of independent thinking. It is common for these two aspects to be considered mutually exclusive. Extreme examples privileging one side would be the English Puritans or the Taliban. While extreme examples priviliging the other would be the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche or Jean-Paul Sartre. But I don't think the Baha'i faith is taking a "moderate" course, mixing together two things as different as oil and water. Rather, I think, in the Baha'i approach obedience and independence are mutually reinforcing. Each is the key to the other. For many this seems contradictory. And certainly, such a position does not match the shared sense of things in our society. But as I think through this matter's difficulties I find it more and more persuasive all the time.