Spiritual Human Interview with David Bates

David Bates is a lecturer in Culture Studies and a member of the Labour Party, who lives in Stockton-on-Tees. He has previously worked as a youth and community worker, and for a Labour member or Parliament.

For further reading please see his recent article “Labourism and the Local: The Situation on Teesside.”  

Musa Askari: What would describe as your most formative political experiences that have brought you to where you are today in your thinking? Is there any event or series of events that awakened within you a wider consciousness about social justice? How did you fuse them together in to a critique in your mind?
David Bates: I think it was listening to music which first prompted me to take politics seriously – from about the age of 15, I started listening to bands whose lyrics and interviews addressed social issues, such as Nirvana and the Asian Dub Foundation.  I can remember seeing Tony Benn on TV in the late 90s and being inspired by what he was saying.  I gradually became a socialist but my understanding of what that means has changed down the years.  Learning about Marxist theory at University was very important and I later worked at a refugee-supporting charity in Middlesbrough which made me think even more critically about racism, borders and capitalism.  This was at the same time as Bush and Blair’s “War on Terror” which also had a very marked effect on me.
Musa Askari: In your recent article “Labourism and the Local: The Situation on Teesside” you reference a conservative culture. What is Labourism and its conservative culture? Are they one and the same?
David Bates: They’re not quite the same but they are very closely related.  To use Ralph Miliband’sphrase, Labourism is essentially defined by the Labour Party’s “devotion to the parliamentary system” with all its archaic, elitist, undemocratic features. Obviously some variants of Labourism will be more conservative than others, but ultimately it is constrained by the parliamentary framework it operates in. This is based on a very limited notion of what “democracy” entails, namely that the public votes for representatives every five years and those MPs are then free to manage our public affairs however they see fit. I would argue that we need to implement a far more expansive model of democracy and that’s what socialism is about: extending collective, democratic processes to workplaces and communities.  It also means democratising the Labour Party, but this is a mammoth task given the influence of Labourism on the party’s ideas and practices, particularly the Parliamentary Labour Party.
Musa Askari: Without reading your fascinating zine “Teeside A Radical History” I would have no clue that members of the International Working Men’s Association (IWMA) provided support “for French refugees from the Paris Commune who were made welcome in Middlesbrough in 1872.” I did not know about the migratory history of Middlesbrough from its humble beginnings in the 1820s as a farmstead to the arrival of Jewish people in the 1860s to a Black and Asian presence from the mid 19th century.
What was your inspiration for composing the zine and what can be done to engage people more with place? I mean beyond celebration of diverse identities that make up a place in a particular moment. To be born somewhere to settle somewhere to migrate to and from somewhere would you agree we should know the journey that place has been on?
David Bates: Yes, I definitely agree.  The biggest influence on the pamphlet was probably EP Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class.  But I was also inspired by sociologist Satnam Virdee’s historical work on migration, race and the working class.  The idea is that there has never been a single, “authentic”, homogeneous working class — the working class is constantly being made and re-made, and includes people of all faiths and ethnicities, many of whom are marginalised at various points by the British state. 
In Britain, race and racism have traditionally been used to undermine internationalist class solidarity, hence the emergence of the category of the “white working class”.  150 years ago, working class people in England weren’t always considered to be part of the so-called “white race” and nor were Irish people: they were only “absorbed” into whiteness when it was politically expedient to do so (leading to the marginalisation of other groups, such as post-war migrants).  This gradually happened as a means of popularising the British Empire and the “white man’s burden”.  It’s fascinating to me that you can see these struggles playing out on Teesside, which had a huge Irish population in the 19th century, some of them political radicals.
Musa Askari: What are the essentials that every community must have in place to ensure stories of struggle on workers and human rights won are preserved? Which of those essentials does Teesside have and lack in your view?
David Bates: I suppose people need resources, awareness, confidence and leadership too.  The first problem is that people aren’t really encouraged to engage with this kind of history: instead we’re all bombarded with stuff about Captain Cook and the Stockton Darlington Railway.  Meanwhile, public commemoration focuses largely on war heroes and businessmen.  So there needs to be greater education and awareness, but of course that means time and resources.  I think the labour and trade union movement could be more proactive in this regard.  I’d like to see local Labour branches doing more on this — there’s been some great work done in Billingham on ICI history, for example.  On the bright side, we some brilliant local historians and film makers like David Walsh and Craig Hornby who have unearthed fascinating stories.  It’s really important that these are disseminated.
Musa Askari: In an age of instant messaging, instant responses, likes and dislikes are we at risk of losing touch with the slower stories? Ones that are passed down between generations, between friendships, between family. Have we lost them already like a dying art only to be resurrected for show in some niche tourism? Is social media anti-social? By engaging with it “unconsciously” are we engaging in anti-social behaviour of sorts?
David Bates: I think this is true in some instances: social media is perhaps not conducive to prolonged, in-depth dialogue and debate.  But it is very useful for sharing ideas and linking people together in other ways.  There’s a really interesting debate about this in academic literature on media and politics.  The social theorist Manuel Castells has written about the liberatory potential of online social networks; others like Jodi Dean and Christian Fuchs are far more sceptical.
As for me, I have mixed feelings on it!  Facebook I find intrusive in terms of the personal information which is collected and shared, but I do acknowledge that it’s good for keeping in touch with people, and for sharing memories and experiences.  I find Twitter extremely useful for finding links to interesting stories and articles, but it is not a good platform for arguing with people.  I suppose, given that this is a relatively new invention, we’re still learning about what its implications are.
WATCH DAVID BATES SHORT FILM ON “THF LOST HISTORY OF THE TEES

What Value Education, Reflections by Steve Merifield

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’.

Steve Merifield

See also on this blog Musa Askari’s interviews with photojournalist Jeff Widener (Tank Man image) and film-maker Antony Thomas (The Tank Man).

To carve the Love of one’s Love upon the Face of the Earth

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,

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.

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 wanted to do something different and I couldn’t build her the Taj Mahal.

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).

Was it not an act of peace?

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…..

Austerity

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.”

The words of the great mystic-philosopher Plotinus (father of Neoplatonism) are a good place to start in my view. He writes….

“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)

Vision As The Goal

By Syed Hasan Askari from “Alone to Alone” published 1991.

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.”

Memorial of Tony Hanson, MBE

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. TonyLook 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“): soul-being“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.

TonyHWe 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.” 

Musa Askari 

Happiness & Wellbeing: An Act of Contemplation

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.

From my article, Weapons without Boundaries: A Spiritual Humanism Response to Terrorism: 

“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.

My seven thoughts on Love are that it is a Constant, Non-Material, A Remembering, A Returning Home, Forsaking of Love (paradoxically), It is Pure, It is Beautiful.

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.

 

 

 

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