Spiritual Human is proud to present a guest blog from educator Steve Merifield. Steve was born in Hartlepool in the North East of England. He graduated from Leeds Metropolitan University with an Honours Degree in Physiology/ Psychology and a PGCE; later he went on to complete a Masters Degree in Education at York University. Steve started his teaching career as a graduate of P.E. and spent some time playing professional sport. In the intervening years he has worked at a number of schools in Yorkshire and the North East. He has held a range of positions including Head of department, Head of Year, Vice Principal. He has been a Principal for over a decade in a number of schools, many in challenging circumstances.
Musa Askari invited Steve to write a personal piece about his life in education. The challenges faced and overcome. As you will discover Steve surpasses these expectations and brings us closer to the life of an educator. He has taken his reflections to insights often overlooked from which we could all benefit by valuing education in wider society as a public good. At times one is moved to tears by the beauty and pain of the Steve’s experiences and at others our eyes are opened to new understandings. Throughout it is the story of a person devoted to their sense of duty to countless students. Thank you Steve.
Special thanks to the legacy of the late Tony Hanson, MBE, for connecting Musa and Steve. A lamp that shines bright.
What Value Education
Having spent almost 30 years and, by far the vast majority of my working life as an educationalist, I feel reasonably well placed to make a comment on the value of education per se, and the value that our community places upon it. Views are my own! I shall address the following questions; Has formal education improved overtime? How valuable is a good formal education to our broader communities? Has the profession been undermined over time? Does education improve social mobility? Do we become more human if we are better educated? Are we hopeful for the future?
Prior to my working life, of course, I spent my formative years ‘being educated’ in the late seventies and early eighties. This was within an inconsistent and largely unregulated system that was effective for some but, contentiously, I argue, failed a great many others. My particular secondary school experience, in the North East, was in a comprehensive school that in today’s climate, would be in a category of ‘special measures’. With hindsight, and the standards to which I work today, the quality of teaching was often poor and professionals were not held as accountable as they should have been. The first Ofsted inspection was not carried out until 1993 and, despite a view that this system is overbearing, I argue that it has been a force for good.
I faired reasonably well at school and kept motivated and inspired largely through a love of sport and the introduction to Basketball by a committed PE teacher. In addition, I was blessed to have parents who valued education, had books in the house, encouraged ‘being interested’ and, with very little money, enriched my life as far as possible. They taught me that the saviour of any society is the intelligent working class wo(man) and living life as a ‘good person’.
I take an informed view as a former student, as we all once were, and as an experienced teacher and Headteacher. Most people are an expert in education of course, as most have been to school! It requires though, a highly skilled teaching and support staff to secure effective outcomes for young people, something that maybe not enough people acknowledge. The role of the school is increasingly held to account, through the trial of media, for a broad raft of societal issues; youth crime, mental health and well-being, obesity, teenage pregnancy, poor literacy and numeracy and lack of basic values to name a few. This is before any mention of an academic curriculum!
As long as educations remains a political football, and there is no long term cross party agreement, these are issues that school leaders will need to shoulder. Policies continue to be devised on the basis of ‘ I think that…’ rather than ‘we know that…’.
Fact is, on objective measures, young people have become more educated over time. The media loves a headline; ‘exams have got harder/ easier’, ‘young people are not as resilient as they used to be’, ‘basic skills are lacking’! Young people are working harder than they ever have and manage to navigate their way through a system victim of constant meddling by policy making adults. Less than 20% of people graduated with an honours degree (or equivalent) in the 1980s, today it is over 50%. Technological advancements are moving at an increasing rate and most innovation is driven by young people. I have always been a little confused with the term that was pushed by government through schools and linked to outcomes. When people are asked what they feel this means the answer is usually one of two possibilities. One is that young people can choose to move somewhere else, usually to find employment, and maybe somewhere better than where they started. Secondly, that people have the chance to be upwardly socially mobile and move from working class to middle
class and beyond. I have an issue with both views; how do we regenerate and invest in local communities if we encourage our good young people to move away from them and contribute as a citizen somewhere else? Secondly, what is wrong with being ‘working class’? Who makes a value judgement of one profession over another? Fact is that we do not have a total meritocracy and large parts of the population comprise of good, very hard working people in very honorable professions who only earn a modest living. This continues to be the backbone of our society.
With respect to social mobility it must be then that if we are becoming a more educated society then surely people have the choice to be more socially mobile?
Increased accountability and challenging targets does lead to progress, if implemented in a supportive and humane way. We all need targets and all benefit from competition. For example, reducing waiting times in A&E, on time trains, cleaner beaches, faster wifi and increasingly effective medicines, we can go on forever. We should continue to believe in the impossible as we have been proven right over generations. Physicians said it was impossible for a human to run a mile in under 4 minutes. With self-belief and enormous effort Roger Banister achieved the impossible on May 6 1954. A year later it was so commonplace that 3 people did it in the same race!
We owe our largely comfortable existence to educated and curious people. We live in an age where there are fewer conflicts, many major diseases have been eradicated, people earn more, have more leisure time and we care more and act upon global issues. Democracy is growing around the world and there are clear links to a democratic world and a more empathetic, caring and progressive one.
I have spent the majority of my career leading schools in disadvantaged areas in what are termed ‘challenging schools’. In those circumstances one often finds below average attainment of the students, poor behaviour and a despondent staff. It is always a tough environment but leading a school to arrive in a position where both students and staff have self-belief and become effective and productive, is immensely rewarding. Ongoing investment is needed as it is not a level playing field. We need the very best working in the most difficult schools as I would argue, though some will disagree, it is harder as a member of staff working in challenging schools, in areas of high deprivation, than places that serve more affluent areas.
I have found over time that a school is full of children who, in the main, wish to do well. They have abilities and aspirations that are the same as all other young people. The crucial difference is that a proportion have arrived at that point without having had the scaffolding throughout their short lives that has moulded them into confident, assured and resilient children. There are families, in the broadest sense that hold a bracketed morality that many people reading this would not recognise. There are more children than you would care to imagine who have experienced, and continue to do so, treatment that any ‘normal’ person would deem unacceptable. Schools are often a sanctuary for some young people who know that for that period each day they will be safe, cared for and be well fed. These children often arrive very early in the morning, poorly equipped, looking tired and with ill-fitting uniform. These are the basics we attend to each day. Imagine a household where conflict is commonplace, profanity is the language of choice, animal faeces on the floor, visitors arrive with drugs and there is no semblance of structure? I don’t have to! Many children arrive in secondary school with an enormous literacy deficit. Research has shown that there can be up to a 30 million word gap (words experienced by children from childhood to secondary) between affluent families and those below the poverty line. In addition that children who have had more of a challenging upbringing hear negative as opposed to positive words, in a proportion of 3:1. Some children are born holding a string of aces, others are gambling with a weak hand from the day that they are born.
Incidents of emotional, physical and sexual abuse are more common that most people would think, and higher in areas of deprivation. Thresholds for support are high and support services are overwhelmed. It leads to a blame culture of social services, police and schools. Unfair on any level as these are the people who care passionately and are on the front line every day. We all bear a level of responsibility in our personal and professional lives to effect change and support our most vulnerable. At the same time however we must not extend total excuse to adults who perpetrate such abuses and inflict great damage.
The causes are complex and as with life there is no panacea. The link with poverty is real there is no doubt but I know correlation doesn’t mean causation. The hope is this. There are a great many more children, who live with families on the poverty line, who arrive at school every day on time, fully equipped, looking as smart as they can. They smile and say good morning, they work tremendously hard each day, they respect others and contribute to a positive community. Their families love them like we love ours, they support the school and have a healthy regard towards education. A single interaction each day with one of these kids is enough to sustain me. We must address the serious issues presented by the minority but not let it cloud all the good work that is happening.
I frequently experience verbal abuse and physical threats from both pupils and parents/carers and, on a daily basis, deal with behaviours that are unacceptable and often irrational. Some parents/ carers can appear to be entirely ‘anti-education and disagree strongly with what is a very reasonable moral code. Pupils can display aggressive behaviour and can find it difficult to control their own emotions. Often this is learned behavior. There can also be a culture of individual rights above responsibilities, in a misguided way. Parents choosing to not send children to school because they disagree with the uniform policy or wish their children to wear false nails as ‘it doesn’t affect their learning’! A uniform doesn’t make someone a better nurse but represents a professional and cultural expectation that is positive and productive.
I suppose this could be a little disheartening, as the only aim is to provide a good education and keep children safe and secure. The reality is that these dealings absorb a large amount of time but do not represent the majority. Most young people wish to come to school, feel a sense of belonging, be cared for and to work hard. Most parents/ carers wish the best for their children but sometimes are unable to engage with the process. There is no doubt that this is a challenge. You can work harder and work more hours but, unlike an input, process, output model this doesn’t equate to better outcomes. We generate an interest in learning within our young people through relationships and a fundamental human connection. Children don’t work too well for people they don’t like! Teachers are simultaneously responsible for engaging 30+ young people, all with different personalities, abilities and needs. Some who want to be there and some who may not, it is a unique profession.
The drive then is to ensure that systems, policies, practices and an unwavering moral purpose develop a school environment in which all of this happens. A culture with which many children are not familiar with, but one that will insist on basic values, good manners and a positive work ethic. Education plants seeds of change that will flourish and grow at different rates. Some lying dormant for a long time, the fruits of which may not be seen by those that have sown them. I keep doing it as I know that people will receive ‘benefit in kind’ due to the work of good people in schools.
I have experienced the depths of sadness and the heights of great joy throughout my career. From having a student die in my arms to celebrating the start of an ex student’s married life as his best man. There are thousands of anecdotes and each one serves as a lesson for me to become a better person and a better teacher. This is the tapestry from which I gain my strength. ‘Teaching is the profession that creates all others’; I believe that, education transforms lives and communities.
There is enormous hope and our future is in the hands of young people. I work in multi-cultural schools were race, creed, colour, sexuality and religion blends into a melting pot of acceptance. Children are much better at this! They are more creative and capable of people of my age and generation. Greta Thunberg a 16 year old child has managed to mobilise millions of people in addressing climate change, meeting with Barack Obama and becoming a Nobel Peace prize nominee. Joshua Wong is a 22 year old poster child for democratic dissent, going head to head with Beijing, already with an impressive record of effecting positive change.
Each year, in every school, there are students who leave with a solid educational and personal foundation. Many will go on to making the world a better place, it is an ongoing privilege to be a small part of this.
Can I distil it down to one thing? I still have possession of a card, of some 20 years, from a Mum of two young people, who had to battle with many issues. It simply says ‘Thank you for being kind to my children’.
By Musa Askari
ONE OF MOST BEAUTIFUL ENCOUNTERS OF MY LIFE. This is the beauty of trying to notice people. Everyone has a story so moving to their lives. Last night I had the privilege to meet a stranger and I was brought to tears. He inscribed in to the rock face the love in his heart to his departed beloved.
My two sons and I went to the movie The Current War last night. The late show. We walked in to the theatre and there was an elderly man sitting alone in the middle of the theatre. My sons and I took our seats and doing so I said hello. He smiled and we chatted a little.
I had an inclining he was a special Soul when to my amazement he said this was the first time he had visited the cinema in 40 years. He remarked he wanted to see the story of Tesla and how influential Tesla was. I was still trying to take in not been to the cinema for 40 years. Little did I know before the night was over his story would electrify us all more than the one we had come to see.
The movie started but I could not stop thinking about this humble man. I felt so privileged that we could be there with him to share this moment after 40 years. Why this late show I wondered? We four were the only ones in the theatre. Any other show we would have missed him. Later he said he came for the earlier show but missed it and so waited in his car for two hours reading his book so that he could see the after ten pm show. As it happens my sons and I were thinking of going to the earlier show but changed our minds and decided on the later one.
The movie ended and now began perhaps one of the most memorable 25-30mins of my life of encountering Humanity. As we left the theatre, out in to the corridor, walked through the foyer and outside we did not stop talking and listening to one another all along that path until we stood outside continuing the dialogue. He opened his heart slowly and nothing could have prepared us for the transformation about to come our way.
What he shared of his life was deeply moving, a dedication to life, a simple life, a deep life, a love story, poetry, humanity, anti-war (he despised how in history it is the everyday people who are sent to war, not the sons of the rich and powerful). He admired the story of the “Fastest Indian” motorcycle speed record and highly recommended the book. He spoke of his £15.00 weekly wage decades ago and his ask of a fair wage rise from his employer. He advised it was better for a person to have a steady, fair and dependable wage to live on rather than uncertainty. It reminded me of the unpredictable and worrying nature of zero hours contracts.
He spoke of his three sons and how immensely proud he was of them.
His dear departed partner of whom he carried a picture. Her name was Pauline. His name is Ted. It was all there.
It was what I had dreamed and hoped for throughout my own life; that to meet someone in their authenticity and in Peace. Share the beauty of your life and if so willing some of the pain, walk away enriched. I was renewed innerly by meeting him, that there was hope in abundance in the goodness of Life in the midst of all the divisiveness. It is when meeting as individuals we encounter more deeply.
I was so happy my sons could meet him. I cried innerly standing there before him as I looked in to his eyes and behind them I saw my friend. My late father witnessing this encounter. Only hours earlier I had messaged a friend about meeting “Hasan” again.
I asked Ted how he occupied himself and enjoyed life. He told me he was retired and wrote poetry. He reached in to his jacket pocket and took out some papers and in between them were some photographs.
It was as though by the act of reaching in to his pocket we had elevated to another level of consciousness. As though he had reached in to the inner dimension of spirituality and clutched some of the treasures he had within him to share with us. What treasure he showed us indeed.
He showed me a fading picture of his love, Pauline. He carried it always near his heart after she had sadly passed away. She was beautiful. I said hello Pauline. There was another photograph. It was of a rock face on a cliff. I asked what is the writing on the rocks?
It was his poem to Pauline chiseled in to the rock by him after she passed away. I was taken a back. He recited it to us and I cried. I looked at him, he looked at me. I looked at my sons. We were speechless. The words, the act of inscribing. Leave your mark on the World they say. Here was Ted a living embodiment of that par excellence. What a man, what a Soul.
He allowed me to take a photograph of his work of art. He did not want to have a photograph of himself. He wanted the anonymity. I did not ask him his last name. Then in the paperwork he opened up newspaper cuttings from last year. It was all about him and his poem to beautiful Pauline. He had asked the paper to respect his privacy. The photograph in the newspaper was of him from the back and here we were face to face. What joy, what a gift.
I asked him how long it took him to inscribe in to the rock face. He said it was a couple of months or so. He would start early mornings. He stencilled it first and then started the carving. I imagined what must have been going through his heart and soul each morning. In secret to carve the love of one’s love upon the face of the earth. What dedication, what perfection. What artistry of life. I wondered how it must have helped him to plow the seeds of his sorrow in this Act to beautify the World. I was so humbled he shared with us his life so deeply. He was a man of great heart and made my heart more lighted. I needed it. God Bless You Ted and Pauline.
My late father once said in a speech on spirituality in 1995,
First Jesus, then later the Prophet of Islam and much earlier Buddha in India. These three taught us how to greet one another. When you say Salam, when you say Peace, when you say Namaste one soul greets the other soul. You are paying tribute to your mutual recognition as the miracle of self conscious organic thinking Life.”
That speech transformed my life. It was an honour to be with him as he delivered that speech. And here almost a quarter century later I was meeting those words as a living being. An honour once more.
Life is so softly powerful. It is not fragile because it is weak but because it is Beauty.
It was a bright spark from the home of Beauty to meet Ted at that hour past midnight. In the darkness of night his Love for Pauline was a Star that shone brightly. It was his inner North Star about which he navigated his life now I felt. What he inscribed but a glimmer of what was inscribed upon his Heart which we will never know and should not know for that is his inner sanctuary. A safe haven.
In the newspaper article Ted says,
I think he has built a magnificent monument to Pauline within his Heart.
(See PD Ouspensky’s account of seeing the majestic Taj Mahal for the first time and the tombs of the King and Queen).
By Musa Askari
Was it not an act of peace I brought you water – you refused.
Was it not an of peace I stood watch over you – you turned away from me.
Was it not an act of peace I respected your silence – you never acknowledged.
Was it not an act of peace I supported your cause – you did not make me an ally.
Was it not an act of peace we laid to rest those dearest to us – yet never to visit their graves again together.
Was it not an act of peace I trusted you – despite the doubts.
Was it not an act of peace I kept my own counsel – yet others traduced my name.
Was it not an act of peace I asked for repeated dialogue – yet that olive branch never grasped.
Was it not an act of peace when I said let us make peace if not now but in the future – yet you admonished my invitation.
Was it not an act of peace I listened to your grievances and injustices suffered – yet you waged a war up on my soul.
Was it not an act of peace I embraced you and comforted you – yet you assaulted me.
Was it not an act of peace I shed tears before you – you did not give me your shoulder.
Was it not an act of peace I wrote to you words of peace, of vision, of soul and immortality – yet it was the fears of this life you sought to appease ignoring my call of transcendence.
These were acts of peace and many others. Acts of ablutions I performed over my life to wash away the pain as like a worshipper before the act of prayer washing away the dust of life. You may have performed such ablutions/acts of peace yourself over your life.
Now I turn inwards, lift my gaze upwards from there, higher, where all the sacred places are within reach. In search of a new Life. A new place of peace where heaven and earth meet.
That “place” where the bowing forehead of a worshipper touches the ground in salat, dua-prayer, in zikr-remembrance. That “nuqta” scribed by the pen which is our prayerful self. There we may write upon the scroll, if permitted, to be unfurled as witness. It is at that point I wish to reside awake, asleep, upright or upon my side. The flute returned to the reed bed. Lay me there to rest innerly waiting to depart I ask the Lord of All Being.
You will remember me as I you and that will be the final Act of Peace unspoken. Remembrance that this life and name and identity and history are but impermanence mixed with the shadow cast by Soul’s association with Body. Let us not be hypnotised by shadows and look instead for Reality. For there is peace in abundance even at this late hour and setting sun of our lives. Peace to be had in solitude. In the sound of silence.
Let us pilgrimage there innerly, silently, in prayer, in tears, in meditation, in love, in remembrance.
The life was what it was, a shadow, yet purposeful. There is “little” else to say…..
By Musa Askari
AUSTERITY is not a straight line. It twists and turns through local communities with the goal to hollow out oversight, investment, good governance and social cohesion. The worrying potential being of isolating communities from each other and local councils prone to what can be unfair criticism from residents.
One cannot cut local council budgets and not expect issues to develop within communities even after allowing for personal responsibility and accountability at an individual level.
If we want good local services, if we want safe communities we must invest in those communities not only financially but with our Heart and Soul. This is to me integration as an Act of Beauty from our Heart and Soul, not a demand for assimilation with all the drawbacks that invokes.
The call for lower taxes ignores the costs those (the many) unable to benefit from such tax cuts have to bear. Has this not been the undercurrent of public finances for over a decade?
Those who champion for smaller government at a local and national level cannot fail to see it is those very institutions we turn to in the public sphere as a powerful manifestation of the “Common Good”.
For that which is truly “Good” requires a Universal quality transcending boundaries of collective identity. By being Universal it will be over and above all outer identities of culture, language, ethnicity, religion or humanist. An Ideal Form.
This is the only way we may justly call it the “Common Good”; accessible to all, expressed through all. Now we may know one another better. In inter faith dialogue this comes to be known as “Encounter” and “Mutual Mission”.
The slogan of no taxation without fair representation is being replaced by simply no taxation and no representation. What then is the Common Woman and Man to do? One shudders at the question.
The challenges of the present hour for decent human material survival demand ironically that we first awaken to a vision within us all, a non-material, intangible vision of “The Common Human Good.”
“This is not a journey for the feet; the feet bring us only from land to land; nor need you think of coach or ship to carry you away; all this order of things you must set aside and refuse to see; you must close the eyes and call instead upon another vision which is to be waked within you, a vision, the birthright of all, which few turn to see.” (The Enneads)
It was during my travels in Colorado, Arizona and Utah that I was for the first time exposed to the mysteries of the Native American spirituality. I was then enabled to feel more vividly the reality of a spiritual universe which the Native American experienced all around him. For him things seen were as much mysterious as things unseen. Perception of the ordinary was mingled with visions from the beyond. Hence, he could pass from this world to the next with great ease. Death rested light like an eagle feather upon his mind, and life, all life, was a trail of a world that was ceaselessly passing into spirit.
The Native American would withdraw for days in complete loneliness, abstaining from all food and drink, waiting to receive a vision. He was not the maker of visions. He was just a recipient. All his preparation was to purify himself and to turn himself into a clean and empty cup into which a vision could be poured from above.
It appears we have lost the capacity to prepare for such an undertaking. We have even corrupted the very word, vision, at times beyond recovery.
Our visions end up in ideologies, repressive regimes, and lead up to deeper enslavement of the human spirit. We create nightmares out of our visions. Look at the fate of great ideas in religions as well as the secular life of the so-called advanced cultures. We no longer believe in the native, in the inherent and in the inalienable capacity in each one of us to aspire to a vision, strictly personal and yet of extraordinary significance for our relations with others.
We try with all the strength at our disposal to abolish from within our educational system every possibility of a visionary perspective. Our education rests on a systematic emptying of such subjective resources. We end up as slaves of an anonymous body of knowledge with which we do not have any personal relationship whatsoever. Most of us experience total exhaustion and emptiness at the end of our academic career. There remains no possibility of our intellectual discipline and all the effort that goes with it leading to a deeply felt experience of the knowledge we have tried so hard to gather.
We could have made our classroom a pathway to personal experience, our teaching an aid to expect a vision at the end of our intellectual journey. Once upon a time it was so easy, so natural. The teaching then was interwoven with a visionary preparation. We now, on the contrary, move from procedure to procedure, from methodology to methodology, from one school of thought to another. We erect insurmountable barriers between our native spontaneity as seekers of visions and our consciously acquired knowledge. We have lost the unspeakable art of forming a unity of both, wherein a rigorous intellectual discipline brings the scholar to that threshold where a vision bursts upon him with both suddenness and peace, when he as a thinker is turned in to a seer.
There are still a few teachers amidst us whose words invoke in us not only great meanings but also great vision. There comes a moment in our lives when a word becomes a vision, and a vision becomes a word, a living word.
*see also on this site, by the same author, “The Limit is the Threshold.”
On Sunday 16th December 2018 people gathered from far and wide for the Memorial of Tony Hanson MBE renowned Basketball Player, Coach, Mentor, Social Entrepreneur, Advocate for the BAME Community. A Family Man above all. He made his mark and we were about to get a glimpse of how deep and profound that mark was during course of the day.
Musa Askari was asked to speak a few words in memory of Tony along with other contributors who each spoke beautifully and powerfully on how he touched, moved and helped transform their lives positively. A day that will live long in the memory. Here is a transcript of Musa Askari’s speech….
“I am grateful to the Hanson Family for affording me this honour to reflect upon the Inner Man.
Tony and I did not talk Basketball. We spoke about the world, the uplifting power of diversity, of spirituality and inter faith. On the challenge of overcoming the hypnosis of a narrow closed identity mindset.
It was clear he had a philosophy about life and I sensed too a wider philosophical spiritual appetite. He was a Thinker. Let me be clear….
Anthony Hanson IS a Beautiful Soul.
I do not say “was” nor “had” a beautiful soul, rather he IS a beautiful Soul. Today.
For I believe Soul is the invisible, impartible, immaterial and immortal Companion to our lives, metaphysically speaking. It is a companion over and above our outer collective identities of nationality, ethnicity, culture, language and religion. Look at us here now, a principle transcending all our outer identities draws us to this moment to honour Tony. That principle I call Soul. A knowledge thereof as taught to me by my late father-teacher (Prof. Syed Hasan Askari).From those insights I am able to say with confidence that Tony is indeed a Beautiful Soul.
This is why I believe relating to people came natural to him, without hesitation, without judgement.
It was as natural to him as a single raindrop cascading from leaf to leaf, intact and coming to rest on the forest floor, nourishing whomsoever it came in to contact with. One may call it Love for humanity itself. Who can doubt Tony had an abundance of love for people. You could hear it in his special voice and see it in his smile.
One of my most cherished memories about Tony is when he received the Mayoral Award in February 2015 and he invited me to join him at the ceremony.
So moved was I by the event that the following day I emailed a letter to the Mayor copying Tony. I said…..
“One of the biggest tributes I can make about Tony is through the eyes of my sons.
I can see they truly value and feel uplifted when he offers praise on their play in basketball. Such appreciation, even a phrase “good job”, or a whispering word of advice makes those that respect him and value his word feel that little bit taller. It makes them believe positive things are possible, and such kind of belief in one’s inner ability is a powerful thing in my view.
For me the Act of Inspiring is second nature to Tony, it is his sixth sense. I see him in another way also.
From one of my late father’s books on Islamic mysticism of India I offer this quote on Spiritual Masters (taken from the book “Alone to Alone“, story “If You Find Me“): “Masters are of four kinds: Some are like gold and they, like gold, cannot transform others into gold; some are like the alchemists; whoever comes into contact with them turns into gold; some are like sandal-trees, and whosoever remains in their company becomes like them, and some are like the lamps from which thousand lamps are lighted.”
For me Tony is a “Lamp”.
He beautifully lit many lamps by small acts of generosity, acts of kindness, a peaceful word.
We need more role models and we desperately need more bridge builders between communities.
The abiding thought I am left with about Tony is that of “Bridge-Walker” holding his inner lamp aloft in the morning mist, at sunrise, at mid-day, sunset and through the night. The inner Lamp of the Soul always alight irrespective of worldly circumstance.
He built bridges and left an example of how it is possible to transport ourselves across them in our lives. I find it even more fitting he received the Mayoral Award of a place whose emblem is the “Transporter Bridge” not but a glance over our shoulders.
Dear Tony, Soul Brother.
The Lamp of your Friendship will burn always within my Heart. God bless you.”
By Musa Askari
Delivered at “Happiness & Wellbeing Conference” Birmingham, UK. 16th June 2018.
I would like to begin with one of the happiest moments in my life, nearly a quarter century ago. It was in 1995, in the city of Hyderabad, India. Syed Hasan Askari, my late father-teacher, delivered his speech on Spiritual Humanism, an alternative to secularism and religious fundamentalism, charting his life journey as a pioneer of inter-religious dialogue and the pursuit for the revival of the classical discourse on soul.
From that speech I share his words as follows:
“Each one of us sitting now in this hall shares without qualification a principle. Irrespective of age, race, gender, culture, language or religion. And that principle is so obvious and self-evident that we don’t even look at it. When you don’t look at it you become unconscious of it but philosophers start with the obvious…..The principle which all of us share without qualification, without exception is that of “Life”. Just reflect on the word Life!”
Hasan Askari continues:
“The first definition of life according to Aristotle is that all life somehow involves voluntary movement however undeveloped or developed. As soon as you raise your hand, such an ordinary taken for granted image, you have given testimony to voluntary Life. This voluntary life is not the characteristic of any material principle. It should come from a non-material source. In other words it should have a meta-physical origin. That is the first proof that all of us have a soul which is both one and many at the same time.”
“You meet someone on the pavement passing by you, you meet someone in the corridor you look at him he looks at you; both are Soul-Beings.”
“First Jesus, then later the Prophet of Islam and much earlier Buddha in India. These three taught us how to greet one another. When you say Salam, when you say Peace, when you say Namaste one soul greets the other soul. You are paying tribute to your mutual recognition as the miracle of self- conscious organic thinking Life.”
It was an honour to have been there with him at that time.
The voluntary act of greeting another for me is an occasion of happiness. In its essence, when uttered with sincerity, what else could it be but happiness to consider the well-being of one’s neighbour.
For me the idea of a “neighbour” is also spiritual. One of the interpretations to “love thy neighbour” may be understood to love that other who bears no resemblance to one’s collective identity of nationality, language or religion. Equally on the inner plane, on a deeply personal level, there is a “neighbour” who in principle also is free of such identifications.
“It is a neighbour we take for granted. When it has moved from its proximity to ourselves do we notice its absence. We abuse it, terrorise and torture it. We pay lip service to it and do not value it universally. It is all about us, it is all within us. Without this neighbour even our negligence of it is not possible. We raise countless tributes to it openly, only to betray it in secret. We honour it at one moment and in one place, at the same moment in a different place we dishonour. It has remained our constant companion even when we did not give it due recognition in ourselves and in our neighbour. Who is this “neighbour” which has every right to seek justice for every injustice?”
“It is simply and wonderfully, Life!”
“From the sunrise of humanity, each day, each night it is Life that is our nearest and dearest. Our true next of kin. A kinship that bonds us to each and every human being. A wondrous kinship that breathes through all divisions, through all diversity. It is the unity that binds us to each other. It is the Life of Humanity.”
This “kinship” being our spiritual trans-national connection.
Spiritually for me gratitude for “Life” itself is a state of happiness. A gift. Being grateful innerly, in the act of prayer, in the act of remembrance of God, in everyday life for “Life” itself is tremendously moving.
I have found it generates a state of well-being independent of physical wellbeing. And depending upon the degree to which one is grateful it can help us transcend and overcome the difficulties of life. The experience of wellbeing, coming out of a sense of gratitude, despite moments in my outer life of great strain and heartache, has never abandoned me. It remains available irrespective of outer circumstances that are either favourable or otherwise.
Ingratitude for Life for me is one of the sources of unhappiness.
Hasan Askari reflects in his book “Alone to Alone” that,
“Gratitude is faith. It is the cornerstone. It is the bridge. Without gratitude there is no strength in patience and no pleasure in remembering. Gratitude is for both material and spiritual gifts, but there is another far higher gratitude, gratitude to the Supreme who is all possessing and yet, what is in reality His, He calls it ours.”
The Quran reminds the reciter:
“And unto everyone who is conscious of God, He always grants a way out of unhappiness, and provides for him in a manner beyond all expectation, and for everyone who places his trust in God, He alone is enough.”
One of the most deeply moving examples of gratitude, trust and patience we find in the words of Imam Hussain, son of Imam Ali b Abi Talib from whom sufi traditions draw their spirituality. Imam Hussain being the grandson of the Prophet of Islam.
Anyone who knows the story of Hussain and what transpired cannot help but be moved. Despite the intervening thirteen hundred years the power of the story of Hussain continues to resonate.
Thirteen hundred year ago on the tenth day of the month of Muharram, on the plains of Karbala, Iraq, the cavalry advances to Imam Hussain’s camp wherein are his family and companions.
Imam Hussain calls upon God:
“O Allah, it is You in whom I trust amid all grief. You are my hope amid all violence. You are my trust and provision in everything that happens to me, no matter how much the heart may seem to weaken in it, trickery may seem to diminish my hope in it, and the enemy may seem to rejoice in it. It comes upon me through You and when I complain to You of it, it is because of my desire for You, You alone. You have comforted me in everything and have revealed its significance to me. You are the Master of all Grace, the Possessor of all goodness and the Ultimate Resort of all desire.” (The Book of Guidance, al-Mufid)
Here I would like to draw attention to the words of Plotinus (mystic-philosopher) who writes about the Soul of the Proficient:
“As for violent personal sufferings, he will carry them off as well he can; if they overpass his endurance they will carry him off. And so in all his pain he asks no pity: there is always the radiance in the inner soul of the man, untroubled like the light in a lantern when fierce gusts beat about it in a wild turmoil of wind and tempest.”
From the revelatory to the religious. From the mystical to the philosophical qualities of gratitude, trust and patience carry great significance. Thereby, providing multiple sources to help awaken within us such qualities.
Is it not so occasions which are outwardly and innerly so painful are also important sources of comfort and inspiration throughout our lives? As in world history so to in our personal history.
Perhaps by the very fact of living through them, of surviving as it were, carries within it the remedy.
Therefore, on a personal note I would like to take you back to another an occasion in my life for which I remain eternally grateful. An occasion that has become a high water mark in my spiritual life. It remains a constant source of thankfulness and support to me. The occasion was deeply sad. I was honoured to have been there at the end.
It was in the early morning of 19th February 2008, around 7am. I was holding the hand of my late father. He was passing away. I thanked him deeply. I told him do not be afraid, do not worry, kissed his hand and wished him farewell.
I am utterly indebted to him for all that he offered me and showed me.
It is due to the course of his spiritual life I am able to be with you here today. It was the least I could do to be there with him as he breathed his last.
The following day we buried him. I thanked him again for everything. I knocked three times upon his coffin and tearfully spoke to him bearing witness and testifying that he had lived a great life. I said it was a Life worthwhile. I testify as such again today about a mystic who was my teacher and friend. Some considered him a Sufi.
In his 1984 interview on mysticism Karen Armstrong asks Hasan Askari, “Can anyone become a mystic and have a mystical experience?”
Hasan Askari responds, “Every man, every woman is potentially a mystic. It is more a matter of moving from a state of sleep to a state of awakening.”
Hasan Askari continues, “I made a simple discovery some twenty years ago in India that my religion was one among many. And then my journey began and now I feel at home in a Church or a Synagogue or a Mosque… a man of God should feel at home wherever one is. I should also say a man of God is never alone. The invisible Companion, the invisible Friend is always there.”
I come now to what I consider to be the heart of the mystical life.
For the Mystic, for the Sufi, Love of the “Beloved” is the irresistible undercurrent to the Act of Contemplation upon the Oneness of God, and the Act of Remembrance of God.
It is in recalling the kindness of my father that I am drawn inevitably to perhaps the most important aspect of spirituality. Namely, Love. The font of happiness and wellbeing.
It is a “constant” in that it is never failing and all embracing, crossing all categories of identification and limit.
It is “non-material”. I do not consider it a physical thing to be found in one place to the absence of it in another place. It is available to all at one and the same time despite differences in expression. It is One Love.
Leading to my third thought, one cannot speak of Love without “Remembering” one’s Being as non-material also, namely Soul. Love is an insignia and spark within the Soul which is pure “Longing”.
It is love within the Soul that compels it to yearn for and remember its Source. It is a “returning home”. A fullness of Being.
As the Qur’an reminds, “We are of God and unto God we return”.
Love is also to perhaps “forsake love”. To give it up at the final stage of Soul’s journey. After much wandering and longing, love has brought Soul from shore to shore, over still and raging oceans realising there can be no duality. “Do not say two. Say One!” recalling my teacher’s words. To return the soul as it was given, “empty” of all projections.
Remembering the Quran, “Wheresoever one looks, one sees the Face of one’s Glorious and Majestic Lord.”
It is in giving up the image we turn to the Original where Love is complete, simple, a Unity of all unities. Leading to my sixth thought, love is “pure”. After such purification of the soul there is only one thing to do. Be humble with bowed head, to wait in patience for the “Beloved” to arrive.
At that threshold one does not enter by one’s will for personal will was left far behind in the earlier stages of the journey. One is invited to enter at the behest of the Beloved – to be “in” Love.
Here, in that state of patience, the summit of zikr (remembrance) takes place in the soul. To rise one’s zikr to this station and let patience continually envelop one’s being.
And for that invitation, for that recognition, one would wait an eternity if one had to. For there is no other to turn to.
One may be wondering why I have not referred to Beauty. Ah, but what to speak of Beauty at this stage. All is Beautiful. And that is my seventh thought; “Beauty” itself.
It drew me from the First and draws me to the Last.
Plotinus, the mystic philosopher, father of Neo-Platonism, writes powerfully about the state of a Proficient Soul:
“Once the man is a Sage, the means of happiness, the way to good, are within, for nothing is good that lies outside him.…. Adverse fortune does not shake his felicity: the life so founded is stable ever.”
With such a vision, with love considered with Soul, one can engage with the world, with family, relationships, friends, neighbours, “strangers” (in truth there are no strangers to the Soul), seeing that behind all such relationships is the same Love, one-many. “In Love” there is no such thing as the “other”.
All are One. Then one may say with utmost sincerity;
“Your soul and my soul are one Soul. Your God and my God is One God.” (Hasan Askari).
How to start this quest? How to re-orientate one’s identity so to speak? Can one seek happiness within and without collective identities?
This is I how I have answered these questions to myself:
• I prefer to hold on to any identity lightly rather than tightly. It informs my thinking but is not essentially who I am.
• Spiritually, I cling to such identities lightly with the hope that eventually I may let go of them and what remains is the undivided individual sitting patiently at that threshold.
And finally, for the avoidance of doubt. I am saying we are “more than” our outer identities of nationality, culture, race, ethnicity and religion to name but a few. For me the peak of that “more than” aspect is that we are a Soul. Immaterial, invisible, indivisible, immortal. The same Soul before birth, in life and after death.
However, for those to whom this aspect (Soul) many seem problematic I make the following appeal. Let us consider the possibility that we are at least something “more than” the sum of collective identities, even if we, for the moment, leave it unnamed.
So that in meeting one another as human beings, as travellers, seekers, peace makers and spiritual-humanists on the path we may be drawn to learn about the other before us, abolishing otherness, by transcending outward identities. It is possible.
That to me holds tremendous promise and hope. That to me is “encounter”. That to me is the foothills of Transcendence.
Fellow Contributors to Happiness & Wellbeing Conference:
(1) Emerita Professor Linda Gask (University of Manchester) “Why I’m happy to be sad”. (2) Professor Richard King (University of Kent) “From Buddhist meditation to modern secular therapy: an analysis of mindfulness in ancient and modern contexts. (3) Dr Sharada Sugirtharajah (University of Birmingham) “Understanding happiness and wellbeing: a Hindu perspective. (4) Dr David McLoughlin (Newman University) “Jesus charter of happiness”. (5) Mr Vishal Soni (Light Hall Academy, Solihull) The science of happiness: a personal journey through chronic illness. You can watch Vishal’s speech here (6) Emerita Professor Paula McGee (Birmingham City University) Happiness and health.
Recommended: “O Light of Lights – a prayer”
19th April 2007, Lickey Hills, Birmingham
It was late in the day. The sky was still bright and clear with its canvas of blue enveloping the earth in a gentle embrace. The sun where unhindered by the trees was warm and loving. The slight chill in the air was bearable. He walked, not knowing what else to do, towards a rise in the ground taking his seat upon a solitary bench shaded by a tree. Children were playing with their parents down below to his left. For a passing moment their innocent laughter was uplifting. He plucked a leaf from a near by tree and held it for a while. He looked to the sky. He looked about his feet and took to hand a bare branch slim and strong. Its bark wet to the touch. He rose and walked again with staff in hand. To sit still made it all the more unbearable. Thoughts of sorrow racing through his mind at the passing of his and his brother’s mother the day before.
Though this happens daily, the sun has seen for eons, and the earth has accepted back since the beginning, the passing of mothers and fathers and the closest of kin, it was, however, knowingly for him, the first time. It was tremendous and shattering. He was in that half way house of darkness between the extinguishing of one candle and the lighting of another. That moment where all that which is familiar is no longer visible. Where in that darkness you reach out your hands and find nothing to hold and ask for guidance.
It was then he remembered the recital taught by his teacher who spoke words from the sacred scripture:
Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth
The Parable of His Light is as if there were a niche
and within it a Lamp
the Lamp enclosed in Glass
the glass as it were a brilliant Star
Lit from a blessed tree; an olive tree
neither of the east nor of the west
whose oil is well nigh luminous
though fire scarcely touched it.
Light upon Light!
Allah Guides to His Light whom He pleases
And Allah sets forth parables for men, and
Allah is the Knower of all things
He climbed higher away from the openness and drawn to the shelter of the woods to walk among the trees. There a slender path made by the footsteps of others before him was etched out. The give of the ground on the path was different. The earth below foot was soft to walk upon. His feet sank a little each time as the earth gave way a little. The greenery on either side of the path was dense. The trees seemed countless. A bird call rang out here and there and the faint rustle of small creatures could be heard and then stop. He looked piercingly but listened more to hear the sound of the rustling. There in front of him only a few feet away, camouflaged by the foliage, was the small figure of a squirrel with hands joined holding a morsel of food. They looked at each other for a few moments. He smiled and the creature raced away. He whispered, “Go, go, climb higher, go.”
He walked on with thoughts of sorrow returning eventually coming to a stop. He was standing at a bank that slopped away steeply. He looked again at the sky and through the dense leaves the sun was breaking through. The light only broken by the swaying of the leaves. He closed his eyes and felt the warmth of the sun lapping his face and he could feel the waves of emotions building. Which shore would these waves break upon now?
He thought of her life. He thought of motherhood. He thought of her name. He thought of all the care she showered upon him. He closed his eyes recalling the memory of witnessing her body the night before, lying as if only sleeping. He recalled the coldness of touch as he bowed to kiss her forehead tearfully uttering,
“No more pain now, do not worry. The life to come will be better than the one just lived. Be at peace. Salam alia kum, salam alia kum mere ma”.
Opening his eyes he wailed out in despair in to the silence. He looked about him finding himself amongst countless trees. They looked and felt alive as people with intense concentration. He felt their presence as they stood there tall and magnificent. He raised his hands and asked the trees and all of creation to join with him as he recited the zikr for his mother, for the journey her soul was to make.
“O my Lord. Let my entry be in truth and sincerity, and my exit be in truth and sincerity, and grant me from Thy Presence an authority to support me.
There is no god but God. That is One. There is no other.
To That belongs the Creation To That belongs the Command To That belongs the Praise And That is powerful over all things. God is enough for us: God is the Best of Protectors Best of Guardians Best of Helpers”
He then kneeled on the ground and placed his right hand into the earth. He beckoned the earth to hear him and rise up and hear his words of pleading now for the soul of Liaqat Begum. He spoke aloud to the earth:
“You who are created by the Highest Soul which in turn emanates from the very Mind of God, who by His Grace gives life to all that you cradle, you who are the “mother” of all that is Nature on this earth are about to receive the body of a wife, mother, sister, grandmother, mother in-law and daughter. Who in this life was known as Liaqat Begum bint Aga Mumtaz Hussain. Do not call her back; let her soul continue to the higher ground. Let her soul travel in Light. Let it not look back and long for the care and worry of those left behind. Let her forget all that tormented her and even all that gave her happiness. Let her soul’s memory be only of the “original memory”; that it is of God and unto God it must return. Let her soul not be attached to this realm by the briefest of times in this incarnation. Oh Earth you who recite the recital of your Lord in ways unknown to humanity, send her soul from your realm to the greater realm safely. Let her soul Fare-Well. I need no witness for this plea save God Himself.”
He raised his hands in prayer once more:
“SubhanAllahhai, walhamdulillahai, walaillahaillallaho wa Allah hu Akbar”
The sun was lower on the horizon as he descended from where knelt he yet the light seemed brighter to him than when he had set foot upon those hills earlier that April evening.
As months passed he looked for signs of his plea and prayer having been accepted. He looked for it in the faces of people he encountered in daily life. He looked for it in the passing of clouds and seasons. He looked for signs in dreams that visited him. He looked for it in the faces, voices and words of his family. His wife and children. His brothers and their families. He looked for it in the words of his mother’s brother and sisters.
He took his plea to his father-teacher and recounted to him the time spent upon the hills. He listened to his father enlighten him once again. He rested with this advice and stopped looking. If he was to know at all, he realised, he would not find it. “It” would find him.
30th August 2008, Mother’s room, past mid-night.
He rose from his slumber while his wife and children were deep in sleep about him in the room. He rose to perform the zikr in the room within the house where his childhood and youth had been spent. The room which was a repose and sanctuary for his mother. There and then he felt compelled to perform the zikr of remembrance of The Lord of the Heavens and Earth.
He began slowly, almost inaudible. He recited every syllable with deep concentration trying to connect with how they would have been uttered for the very first time centuries ago by a man known as a Mercy to Mankind. A man who used to withdraw in to the sanctuary of solitude to be found beneath the starry heavens or within a cave.
He continued past the opening of the zikr and in to the phase on entry. Each line passing beyond his lips as if for the first time. He wept and struggling with emotion continued into the phase of recital of remembrance itself and repeated this phase countless times. Time itself was forgotten. He knew not how long he sat there in remembrance. He then stopped and waited. He felt a “presence”. With eyes remaining closed he raised his face.
She stood before him as if standing in another world. She stood as Vision Complete. She was all that Grace, Beauty, Love and Compassion could endow upon the world. If but those that weep could see how She was now? They would weep anew for what She was now. Such tears that replace anguish with Pure Longing of the highest order which cleanses not a little but entire leaving no corner of grief untouched. As tall as the sky itself. As slender and elegant as the beautiful hands of her wedding day. One hand gently overlapping the other.
She was young but with none of the naïve innocence of youth. She was wise beyond any measure of wisdom we could offer. She was commanding with no want of any adoration. She was awe inspiring and yet displaying a welcoming comfort to those enchanted by her.
She was…. “Motherhood” itself.
She was…. “Motherhood” itself.
An Ideal Form. The Archetype of Motherhood. An archetype that exists by the Grace of its Prior Principle, Divine Intelligence -The Mind of God, The Light of God. Which itself orbiting about the very Source of All, The One -The Supremely Absolute One. The Un-Nameable. The Good. She was in a realm that is intangible, immaterial and placeless. A realm without which this sensible world of matter is nothing. This world a pale reflection of that which is within the Universal Soul entire. The One Soul which gives of itself through Ideal Forms to a world that is entranced by what it receives but does not know why.
Her hair long and black, sweeping though flowing in the breeze never losing its essential form. Words fail to describe not only the Vision to behold but, most importantly, her Presence before him was one of the most real things he had ever experienced. She was more real to him in that moment than when she was embodied. Though his eyes were closed he felt her before him standing tall. He felt as if he could reach out and touch her. A Reality unquestionable and true.
She was one of the perfections of Intellect. A perfection more than ideal symmetry could express. Where only The Light of The Divine has the Power to crown with what is truly noble; Beauty!
First and Last he was awestruck with how beautiful she appeared.
Her Beauty was Mighty.
A beauty which even the ancient writer Homer, on the enchanting Aphrodite, would have bowed towards, just as the magicians of Pharaoh had bowed in the presence of Moses to a Higher Reality.
She appeared untouched and unmoved by anything that we in body suffer from. What we would call as important she would not consider even as a passing thought. However her commanding presence, her gaze was upward. Her profile he would etch upon his mind forever.
She was not self-conscious. She knew there was a Mightier Power above. She bowed to it eternally. A bowing that is neither toward the east nor the west.
Perfect though she was in what she was; she longed yet for a Higher Life. To shed this greatest of lives and “Be” simpler still.
She longed for the very essence of what endowed her with Beauty. She was longing for the One from which Beauty emanates eternally. She still recited “innan lil la hai wa inna alia rajoun” but in a completely superior way to what we do here con-joined with body.
Time and his own identity had stood still for him. Was it minutes or hours he knew not. Time and his very consciousness of presence to himself were absent. As he titled his head up, with his eyes remaining closed, to witness innerly the Vision of her, a mother in this life. Her eyes were clear as crystal waters. Did she even know how magnificent she was? Did she have any idea of her commanding presence?
He felt briefly another presence behind her of his father who by now had also passed to the other side.
Her complexion was fair. She was dressed in a sari which shimmed and glistened strangely. It rippled with streams of silver, white and satin. From being draped over her shoulder to the trails at her feet it shimmered relentlessly. One moment one colour then another. Then all three at once flowing from her left shoulder diagonally down towards her right.
As the pace of the colours slowed she lowered her face toward him. Her face moving from left to right downwards and then her eyes fixing their gaze upon him. Impossible to express what now was the movement within his very soul. She smiled a little and lowered her right hand and placed her palm upon his head. Impossible to express the very state of his soul. With bowed head he sobbed for what seemed an eternity for even being noticed let alone recognised.
He raised his hands and took her hand and kissed it. The coldness of touch from the last time he had seen her was no more than a distant cloud of a memory as he felt the warmth of her hand in his. She had fared well.
Years later, approaching the tenth anniversary of his mother’s passing, he recalled the words his teacher-father (Syed Hasan Askari) had written about the great Sufi Mystic Nizamuddin Auliya and his spiritual connection with his mother who says…
“Baba Nizamuddin! Wake up! We are guests on this day in the House of God!”. And she used to glow with joy, and her hands were warm while she lifted me and held me in her arms. It was my mother who initiated me upon the path of trust and joy, who liberated me once for all from the slavery to the seasons and the conditions of this world.”
See also “A Day Like Any Other” about the passing of beloved Liaqat Begum.