Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Via BNASSAA: Lessons Learned: BNASAA after 20 years

Mary K. Radpour

            This paper summarizes my personal understanding of some of the lessons learned in the 20 years of BNASAA’s service to a population of Bahá’is facing the challenges posed by HIV-AIDS, and issues of sexuality, addiction, and abuse.
            The first lesson can be summarized in the Master’s words in the Tablets of the Divine Plan: “Fellowship, fellowship!  Love, love! Unity, unity!”   BNASAA can be congratulated upon its conscientious and creative efforts to foster unity with a population of people whose painful pasts could contribute to a high degree of reactivity.  In spite of this potential for conflict, BNASAA has created a spirit of community which is extraordinary.  In fact, as civility and connectedness become issues of national concern, it becomes all the more useful to inquire into how such a phenomenon has been fostered.
Despite some complaints about the “alphabet” of issues BNASAa addresses, it appears to have been wise to include all these issues under a single umbrella, as the people impacted by them share a common history of oppression.  The last 40 years in North America have involved the emergence of  “identity “ politics;  those who have been voiceless have joined together to claim a right to be heard, whether with regard to issues of race, gender, sexual orientation, or religious and ethnic origin.  Because a history of oppression engenders a hyper-vigilance with regard to issues of power, consultations among those voiceless souls are fraught with the risk of irrationality and reactivity. BNASAA has developed an exceptionally cooperative process which protects against these risks, ensures safety and is captured in the guidelines used to open every BNASAA sharing circle.  Its success is measured by the atmosphere of spirituality which characterizes BNASAA workshops, by the sense of intimacy engendered, by the sense of community which evolves, and by the deep commitment to a process of transformation which characterizes those who participate.
What learning has shaped this process?  How do we restore power to the powerless?
·         We provide not anonymity, but confidentiality, through emphasizing repeatedly the importance of caution in sharing the stories of others. In some cases, we have used a process of screening attendees at conferences to ensure that no one comes as an observer.  We have also asked some persons not to attend conferences when we felt they were unable to honor confidentiality.
·         We offer an uninterrupted opportunity to speak; through the use of a feather or an object which confers upon the speaker the right to the floor, we support the right and the importance of giving each person a chance to share what is in his/her heart.
·         We ask traumatized people to take responsibility for their own healing process. We provide opportunities for private conversations with members of the Coordinating Committee, but these must be sought by those who wish them.
·         We assert the right of each person to determine whether they may be touched or hugged and offer them a model for setting limits, clarifying the difference between intimacy and familiarity.
·         We recognize the essential role of truthfulness in healing and growth, even when that truth concerns the speaker’s struggle to understand the laws of Bahá’u’llah; we assign the opening speaker in the sharing circle to someone who models this virtue.
·         We understand the essential nature of compassion.  Without the presence of compassion, the truth will not be spoken, as is reflected in Bahá’u’llah’s description of these virtues: “The heaven of divine wisdom is illumined with the two luminaries of consultation and compassion…” Compassion therefore becomes a norm within each BNASAA event.
·         Participation in the sharing circle does not involve “confession,” which implies a request for forgiveness. Instead, it is a truthful effort to explore the dynamics of our own behavior, to take personal responsibility and to seek the path to nobility.
·         We faithfully uphold the Covenant and trust that obedience to the law brings blessings, and disobedience invites challenges: “the canopy of world order is upraised upon the two pillars of reward and punishment.”  We recognize that growth is painful and that mutual support fosters steadfastness through that pain.
·         We share our understanding that the Bahá’i Revelation brings a new model of morality to the world.  This model forbids coercion and therefore eliminates shunning and shaming others.  It recognizes that all spiritual growth involves movement from imperfection to greater perfection. It informs us that great spiritual lessons result from making mistakes and reflecting upon their outcome. It frees us from paralyzing shame and guilt and encourages us to keep striving for excellence. Moreover, it grants the gift of teaching to those who can guide others as a result of the mistakes they have made. It acknowledges that true spiritual progress results from a process of reflection as to how to apply spiritual principles to practical challenges.
·         In the sharing circle, we learn two important principles: 1) that every soul has its own journey and that no one has the right to tell another how to walk its own path, and 2) that to turn our hearts away from God is to be estranged from our own selves. 

In these twenty years, BNASAA has learned some specific truths about the issues it concerns itself with:
Though HIV/AIDS is less immediately life-threatening than it was 20 years ago, nevertheless those who suffer from this illness are in need of compassion and support from the Bahá’i community.  Moreover, the Bahá’i community itself needs these souls so as to refine its capacity for compassion.  When the Bahá’i community found itself flirting with the desire to pretend that our community had no homosexual believers, it was putting itself at risk. Truthfulness about the challenges we are facing is in itself transformative. A community must be capable of responding compassionately, or it will turn upon itself.  It cannot sustain the fiction that it is possible to be insulated from tests. 

            We have learned that it is in issues of sexuality that the spiritual life is most intimately and subtly refined, for true spiritual intimacy cannot flower in the presence of any kind of abuse of power.  Understanding the law of chastity involves far more than abstaining from sexual intercourse outside of marriage; it involves using our power of attraction with a clear sense of healthy boundaries.  It has far-ranging implications for language, dress, humor, and entertainment, and it requires a refinement of taste in the use of the arts.  Frank consultation about these implications bestows a deeper understanding of the “choice wine” in the laws of Bahá’u’llah.

            We have learned a great deal about homosexuality in general as well as in particular.  Despite current political posturing about homosexuality, we have learned that homosexuality is not solely genetic or the result of “recruitment.”  We understand homosexuality to result from a subtle combination of forces, including but not restricted to the following:
  • gender stereotyping and a widespread cultural prejudice against feminine qualities,
  •  the impact of genetics and its intersection with social bias;
  • variations in fetal development which contribute to variations in perceived masculinity and femininity;
  • family dynamics related to rigid or confusing gender roles;
  • emotional abuse in the family, leading to sexual confusion;
  • harsh and rigid attitudes about sex and sexuality;
  • toxic sexual ignorance about normal sexual development and body functions;
  • premature sexualization and sexual abuse;
  • compulsive sexual behaviors adopted to cope with generalized anxiety;
  • the accessibility of pornographic images, especially as they impact children and pre-adolescents.

We accept that confusion about sexuality is the norm among adolescents and that a hyper-sexualized society aggravates this confusion. We understand that sexual orientation is fluid and changes over time.  We have learned that certain aspects of sexuality, such as sexual orientation or certain sexual practices become more resistant to change when they have a long history; they become “cemented,” as it were, in neural pathways and are experienced as fixed and unchangeable.  It is therefore not helpful to suggest that these can be easily changed, nor is it helpful to argue that they cannot be changed.  For some people, overcoming homosexuality means overcoming fears which have blocked heterosexual attraction. For others, overcoming homosexuality means accepting same-sex attraction as a permanent burden, such as blindness or being hearing-impaired.  What is helpful is learning that we are not alone in the struggle to make sense of such things and that each person’s sexual history is unique as is each person’s self-perception and sense of identity. Also, there are significant differences between male and female sexuality.  Therefore, there will be wide variations in how challenging it would be to make a commitment to change.  True respect for each soul’s journey involves standing by to be supportive in all instances.    
            We have learned that secrecy and a sense of shame are disabling and that telling the truth in a safe, supportive and confidential environment is liberating.  “Coming out” about one’s sexual orientation can be an affirmation of a truth about oneself. While it may appear to be a step toward embracing a gay identity, it also is a step toward claiming responsibility for oneself, which is ultimately a spiritual virtue.  It can therefore be a step toward exploring the context of that truth and seeking to change that orientation, or it can be a move toward self-acceptance and an increasing capacity for celibacy. Movement toward obedience to the Covenant with regard to homosexuality may proceed through these stages: 
  • coming out and committing to truthfulness;
  • understanding the dynamics of homosexual attraction,
  • reflection upon the relationship between body and soul;
  • setting limits on promiscuity;
  • moving toward celibacy;
  • exploring the possibility of heterosexual relating;
  • committing to marriage and the nurturing of a family;
  • committing to a life of service, regardless of sexual orientation.

            What have we learned about addiction?  We have learned that addiction is fundamentally about a lack of trust, isolating ourselves, choosing to numb out our pain, not believing that the world is a safe place in which we can reveal our struggles and ask for help, from God and from those who love us. We know that humility and truthfulness are essential pre-conditions to recovery, as without truthfulness, progress is impossible.
            We have learned that the world is built upon the principles of reward and punishment, that there are built-in negative life consequences to avoiding reality through addiction.  We have learned that these negative consequences can be a blessing and that lying to ourselves or others can be toxic. Despite our fears that we cannot handle negative consequences, we discover that we have more resilience than we once expected and that our self-regard grows as we courageously face life’s challenges. We have learned that everywhere we go, there we are; there is no escape from ourselves, but we always have access to spiritual power to resist the pull toward selfishness. We have learned that the more times one resists the pull of addiction, the greater the likelihood that we will succeed in overcoming it. 
            We have learned that service to others is an essential element of recovery.  We have learned that the best distraction from the siren call of self-pity is active concern for the well-being of others, and that undertaking service to others is transformative.  We understand that self-hatred is founded upon an untruth – that we are defined by our failures.  We know that within each of us is a God-given capacity to mirror forth nobility and that when we honor this truth in service to others, the light generated by that service eliminates all the shadows of unworthy deeds.

            We have come to understand that the most destructive legacy of abuse is the belief that one deserved it.  When those of us with a history of abuse realize that this belief is both untrue and destructive, we move toward spiritual freedom, we are freed from shame, and we acquire an understanding that our voice matters. Once we speak, we can discern the difference between the then of abuse and the now of safety with those who are willing to offer support.  We learn to accept that, while caution is manifested in our bodies, our soul can be courageous and transcend fear. Gradually our capacity for trust is reborn and we have the confidence to step forward into service to others. We begin to understand that our abuse has heightened our capacity for empathy and granted us expertise as healers. We begin to understand that we have sometimes been participants in our own humiliation, by choosing to associate with those who continue the pattern of abuse, and we begin to make new choices which involve asking for respect and fairness.  We learn from others what it means to be able to set limits.  We have learned from participation in the BNASAA sharing circle how to take responsibility for our own healing and how to ask for assistance in recognizing the possibilities within us. 

            As we reflect upon these lessons learned, it becomes obvious that the unifying element to the work of BNASAA is the nature of the human soul.  Regardless of the nature of the challenge faced by a suffering soul, his or her spiritual identity transcends all other identities, and the process of growth is universal.  Every human soul needs to have our personhood mirrored back to us if we are to understand who we are.  When others recognize and affirm our generosity, our courage, our compassion, our stead-fastness in service or our humility, these become essential elements of our personal identity. When we become encouragers of the spiritual reality of others, we are ourselves transformed through this refined capacity for perception. This spiritual identity remains with us even when the trappings of success in the material world are gone, and when age or illness diminish our material power. A materialistic society celebrates only power – the power to coerce, the power to attract attention, the power to seduce or manipulate.  When we create a community in which such values are disdained and instead the virtues of transcendence and nobility are celebrated, we are truly engaging in the spiritualization of humanity. Whatever lessons we have learned in BNASAA gatherings about abuse, addiction, sexuality, and facing the challenge of HIV/AIDS also apply to all the other spiritual life challenges: overcoming disunity, mastering the impulse to backbite, and struggling to find our path in service to our Beloved.  As the Master encouraged us:
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.  Let all be set free from the multiple identities that were born of passion and desire, and in the oneness of their love for God find a new way of life.”
            We have been blessed to be witness to the process of spiritual transformation. It has given us a much deeper understanding of what is meant by the verses:
  • God doth not burden a soul beyond its capacity.”
  • O Thou Whose tests are a healing medicine to such as are nigh unto Thee”
  • “He that is exalted among you shall be abased, and he that is abased shall be exalted…”
  • “If ye meet the abased or the down-trodden, turn not away disdainfully from them, for the King of Glory ever watcheth over them and surroundeth them with such tenderness as none can fathom except them that have suffered their wishes and desires to be merged in the Will of your Lord, the Gracious, the All-Wise.  O ye rich ones of the earth!  Flee not from the face of the poor that lieth in the dust, nay rather befriend him and suffer him to recount the tale of the woes with which God's inscrutable Decree hath caused him to be afflicted.  By the righteousness of God!  Whilst ye consort with him, the Concourse on high will be looking upon you, will be interceding for you, will be extolling your names and glorifying your action.  Blessed are the learned that pride not themselves on their attainments; and well is it with the righteous that mock not the sinful, but rather conceal their misdeeds, so that their own shortcomings may remain veiled to men's eyes.“

We pray that these insights may serve as a guide and a comfort to others who may never have entered the safety of a BNASAA event.  We hope that the lessons learned may contribute to the healing of the world and the creation of a true spiritual community.                                                                                                       MKR

Via Gay Poltics Report:

  • Barney Frank to end congressional career
    Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., the longest-serving openly gay member of Congress and among the most high-profile LGBT advocates in America, has decided not to stand for re-election to the U.S. House next year, citing redrawn congressional districts that would make it much tougher for him to win another election. First elected in 1980, Frank came out while serving his fourth term in 1987. "His decision to come out as gay more than two decades ago gave LGBT Americans an authentic voice and a persistent champion in Washington. ... We will miss that voice," said Chuck Wolfe, president and CEO of the Victory Fund. Frank said he expects he’ll write and teach, but vowed not to become a lobbyist. The Boston Globe/Political Intelligence blog (tiered subscription model) (11/29), Washington Blade (11/28), Gay City News (New York) (11/28) LinkedInFacebookTwitterEmail this Story
  • Gay, lesbian House colleagues laud Frank's leadership: Openly gay and lesbian U.S. Reps. Tammy Baldwin, Jared Polis and David Cicilline praised their colleague, U.S. Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., following his announcement that his current term in Congress will be his last. "Barney Frank was a groundbreaking pioneer and one of the most insightful, knowledgeable and humorous people ever to grace the halls of Congress," said Polis, a Democrat from Colorado. Metro Weekly (Washington, D.C.)/Poliglot blog (11/28) LinkedInFacebookTwitterEmail this Story
  • Frank wants to debate Gingrich on marriage: Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., this week said he'd like to debate former House Speaker Newt Gingrich on the issue of marriage. "I look forward to debating, to take one important example, the Defense of Marriage Act with Mr. Gingrich. I think he is an ideal opponent for us, when we talk about just who it is, is threatening the sanctity of marriage," Frank told reporters assembled to hear his announcement that he would not seek re-election. The Huffington Post/Gay Voices (11/28) LinkedInFacebookTwitterEmail this Story

Incantation for Peace on Vimeo - Kathmandu

Via Tricycle Daily Dharma:

 November 29, 2011

Let Your Practice Come Alive

We can choose to get lost in our personal terror, but the fact remains that we are the only ones who can heal fear, anger, and pain by the way we use our minds. The ten thousand things, all the barriers, all the peace and the joy of this world, are nothing but the self. The question is, how do we understand it? Now more than ever we need to trust ourselves and let the years we have put into our practice come alive.
– John Daido Loori, "Between Two Mountains"
Read the entire article in the Tricycle Wisdom Collection