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I wrote a bit about accompanying others in their path of service earlier this month. I thought I’d share some about the other side.

On Monday, I met with a friend whose service is broader than mine, both in geographic spread and in scope. We had a few hours for coffee and conversation, and it was very natural to chat about the process that she and I are both concerned with at different levels.

Me: “I’ve been thinking about what Garth [another friend] was saying in our call last month about also having personal goals for my own learning, in addition to what learning the clusters need to do. Did you have any thoughts about what I should be focusing on?”

Friend: “Well, what do you think?”

Me, internally: “Dang, I should have expected she was going to turn that one around instead of answering it. She’s too good at this.”

Me: “I guess raising up coordinators is the huge thing right now. And also creating more collaborative spaces for reflection.”

Friend: “Well, when you think about it, those are really the same goal, because those spaces are the mechanism by which people can begin to think about the institute on a different level.”

Me, internally: “How the heck did I not notice that before?” 

Me: “That makes a lot of sense.”

We went on to share what we’ve both been learning about how creating gatherings focused around specific questions leads to growth. I would share my own learning and struggles, and she would add some things that were being learned in areas where they had a little more experience with the process. She reminded me not to fall into the trap of thinking I had to do everything myself, and instead help other people arise to the challenge.

Me: “Yeah, but I still don’t even know how to do it.”

Friend: “That’s really this old way of thinking, this idea that we have to know how to do something ourselves before we can teach others how to do it. But really, if we’re serious about this idea of all of us learning together as collaborators, it’s not like that at all. It’s very different from what we’re used to, but it’s also very powerful.”

Me, internally: [sounds of brain exploding and then re-assembling itself into a new configuration]

Also me, internally: “Huh, I just got schooled on one of the most fundamental concepts of the institute process, but I’m so excited to understand this better that I’m not even embarrassed about that.”

And even though it’s clear that she’s the one accompanying me on this path of service, this conversation doesn’t feel like a series of decrees from on high. Because what I lack in skill and broad understanding at this point, I make up for in knowledge of the circumstances here in my own little sub-region. I know who the tutors are, which folks are forming teams, where there have been communication mishaps, who are the families that are really engaged, all those little details that my friend doesn’t knowcan’t know, really, from her own experience as she focuses on a good-sized chunk of North America. The same way a teacher I’m working with might know about the lives of every one of the children she teaches.

She helps to guide and educate me, yes. But she’s not my supervisor, she’s my friend.

I’m so grateful to have a number of friends who are accompanying me on this journey. David, who helps me get a regional perspective on stuff. Yaquelin, my TFF (True Friend Forever!) who answers my desperate calls asking about … just about everything. Adwoa, who helps me be a better tutor. Haig, who reminds me that maybe I need to chill out a bit and take a walk in the woods for the sake of my health and well-being. (You can tell which the physician is, can’t you?)

Most of these people have no relation to me, in an official capacity. There’s not a flow chart indicating who is allowed to learn from whom. There’s a framework to our service, sure. But then there’s friendship. Both are necessary in order for there to be progress. Neither is sufficient without the other.

Accompaniment isn’t something that I feel I’ve grasped entirely. There are still lots of unhelpful and outdated attitudes in myself that haven’t been rooted out yet. But I have faith that I’ll improve over time; after all, I’ve got lots of friends to help me on my way.

 

 

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I read a fantastic book about octopus intelligence last year. In The Soul of the Octopus, (which is a great read, by the way), the author describes an octopus’ nervous system as extremely decentralized. Not feeling obligated to keep all their thinking surrounded by bone, a good portion of their cognitive activity actually goes on in their limbs. They essentially have nine brains. This means that two of their arms could be figuring out what you’re made of, two could be getting ready to scoot in the opposite direction, and one could be sneaking into your pocket for something to eat, all at once. And the octopus has no trouble concentrating on all of these tasks simultaneously, because each arm is basically doing its own thing.

When I first became a coordinator and realized what it entailed, my first thought was, I really wish I were an octopus. Nine brains would come in really handy, most days.

Help!

So I started looking around me. I know I’m not the only person in the world who is responsible for keeping track of many different people engaged in learning about many different processes in many different spaces. There are corporations with millions of employees out there, government agencies that track billions of dollars, scientists who examine complex ecosystems for tiny changes over time. So I knew I could figure this out.

And I tried a lot of different things. I worked different systems with my Google calendar. I tried Evernote, and pursued the Getting Things Done method doggedly for two months. I gave Asana a go. And they were all great, but all left me with two major issues:

  1. There were too many things in too many different places. The categories were supposed to be helpful, but they ended up making things too complicated.
  2. In the end, I don’t want to stare at my phone all day. I do better with paper, but all the planners I saw ran into problem #1 again with the overly rigid structure.

That’s when I discovered bullet journaling.

So yes, this is a post about my organizational methods as a coordinator. Not because I think the whole universe should find my daily schedule fascinating, but because I really wish I could have read a blog post just like this a year ago. To the future coordinators out there, welcome. We have a lot to chat about.

What ISN’T bullet journaling?

A lot of what you see online when you search for “bullet journal” or “bujo” isn’t necessarily bullet journaling. Whimsical calligraphy. Thematic monthly spreads. Sparkles and washi tape. All that is extra stuff that artsy people like to put in their journals because they’re artsy. Don’t worry about that for now, you can always bust out the crayons later if you feel so moved.

What is bullet journaling?

At its heart, bullet journaling is a system for rapid logging. Think about all the stuff you might want to write down during the day: Important meetings, tasks to be done, notes from phone calls, interesting ideas, information to look up when you have more time, topics to discuss with others. Instead of having a planner for events, a pad for to-dos, a diary for thoughts and reflections, and a random sticky note for that odd thought you had while in the middle of lunch, you put it all in one place.

In chronological order.

Totally jumbled together.

(I know, this sounds ridiculous. Stay with me.)

But it’s called bullet journaling, because each different type of information has a different bullet point next to it, indicating what it is. And you keep a key. There’s a traditional set to get you started, but most people end up changing and customizing them based on their own needs after a while. Here’s mine:

Key

Yes, the “delegated” indicator should be closer to the top of the list. That’s life!

What does this look like on a daily basis?

 

 

Daily Log

You might be thinking it looks like a bit of a mess. It’s not perfectly printed in cute, even boxes. My Saturday takes up half a page, while my Sunday is quite short. The page starts on Friday. My handwriting is nothing more than adequate. There are smudges, and earlier logs are bleeding through.

But I can see at a glance when Feast was, and that I needed to plan a reflection, make a phone call, and roast a bunch of vegetables. I tracked what books I finished reading, pondered my sister’s birthday gift (I got her earrings that were little silver rhinoceroses, she loved them), and noted a meaningful hashtag. I also apparently missed doing laundry. Oops.

Now, there are other parts to bullet journaling that make it feasible as an organizational method. I’m not going to get into the Future Log or monthly logs, but the Bullet Journal website has great explanations for all this. The best part is, you don’t need any fancy equipment. You can do it with a 99 cent composition notebook and a free ballpoint pen you got from an insurance agent.

It’s a framework, within which there is the flexibility to adapt to individual conditions and needs and for creative expression as desired. Sound familiar?

Bonus stuff.

The other great thing about bullet journaling is that, since I’m carrying it everywhere and referencing it regularly, it’s also a great place for me to keep track of other things.

I have a habit tracker, where I make sure I remember to do things like floss, take at least 8,000 steps, and say my obligatory prayer.

I track the books that I’ve read in a month, because I like seeing them in one place.

I have a page for story ideas, and another page for things I’m thankful for.

I keep my skills of accompaniment close at hand, since I reference them all the time:

Accompaniment

I also keep a list of the capacities I’m hoping to develop at the cluster level, handily color-coordinated (more on that in another post):

Capacities.jpg

And sometimes, when I’m working on memorizing something and have a little extra space, I’ll even bust out my nearly-nonexistent artistic skills and try to pretty things up.

Path of Service

It’s not exactly Pinteresting, but my journal has saved me so much stress and anxiety. And that’s totally beautiful, in its own way.

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“All effort and exertion put forth by man from the fullness of his heart is worship, if it is prompted by the highest motives and the will to do service to humanity.

-‘Abdu’l-Baha

I’m not the best at prayer.

It comes most easily through song, but it’s difficult out in the world, humming under my breath, half of the mind remembering common courtesy and the other half on God.

In words, prayer takes me a long time. I’m sluggish to wake up, spiritually, and the first half hour just feels like practice. After thirty minutes of prayer, I finally start to feel like I’m praying. Sometimes. Sometimes I just feel tired, or thirsty, or anxious, or all three.

(I’m very good at anxious. It’s a bit of a specialty of mine)

Sometimes, when I begin to fall into the beauty of prayer, that’s just when people around me are wrapping up. It’s hard.

Sometimes I think and I speak and I listen and I wonder, where all the love is that I’m supposed to feel? The deep, abiding spiritual joy? I think of the words of Baha’u’llah I memorized so many years ago:

“And He hath risen up in faithfulness at the place of sacrifice, looking toward Thy pleasure, O Ordainer of the worlds.” 

And I tell God, “It seems I’m all out of love today. But you can have my service, if you want it.”

Then I get up and send another email. I call the people I need to call. I walk out of my home and visit the families that are expecting me, and sometimes those that aren’t.

I do the dishes. I fold the laundry.

And sometimes, as I serve, I feel a twinge of something; maybe it’s a bit of love. For my family, my neighbors, the people who rely on me, the people on whom I rely.

It’s easier to pray for them than for myself. That’s true in both deeds and words.

So I walk a path of service.

And with each step, I pray.

Whenever an illumined assembly of the friends of God is gathered, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, although bodily absent, is yet present in spirit and in soul. I am always a traveller to America and am assuredly associating with spiritual and illumined friends. Distance is annihilated and prevents not the close and intimate association of two souls that are closely attached in heart even though they may be in two different countries. I am therefore thy close companion, attuned and in harmony with thy soul.

I think about these sentiments of ‘Abdu’l-Baha whenever I’m able to gather with distant friends in service. And it’s an especially good reminder when I miss them after they’re gone. Sure, ‘Abdu’l-Baha was writing to a group that looked like this:

Temple Committee-1

rather than one that looks like this:

selfie

but really, what’s the difference between the two, except for the fact that in the 21st century we can take the photos for ourselves? The spirit is the same, and no doubt ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s presence is too.

Friendship is so often one of those things that is built accidentally when you’re all working together to build something else. Isn’t it funny how some of the most precious things in life are formed when we’re looking the other way?

My friends, thank you so much for visiting me this weekend! “I am therefore thy close companion” until we meet again.

PS: That radiant soul on the left? That’s Fita, who makes art and builds habits over at Unrestrained. Go give her some love. 

I do know folks who consider themselves spiritual, but are averse to the idea of “organized religion.” I joke that if they only knew our communities from the inside, they’d often discover “disorganized religion” to be a more accurate descriptor. What can I say? We’re learning.

And on one level, I get it. I don’t want gatekeepers interceding between me and my Creator. But I also feel like it’s a misunderstanding of the purpose of individual faith.

What is the purpose of faith? Is it to feel good? Or is it a response to one’s own purpose, leading to a specific kind of life lived? No doubt it’s a complex topic, but I think most people can agree that one of the purposes of spiritual or religious belief is to impact our behavior. Hypocrisy may be rampant, but that doesn’t mean it’s the intended effect.

And behavior of course matters because it in turn affects others. All religions and philosophies have guidelines for how we interact with others, from “Thou shalt not kill” all the way on down the line.

You can not belong to any faith community and serve others as a pure, individual soul. But it’s such a small thing.

Two friends with unity of vision can accomplish so much more, through mutual encouragement and support. Four friends. Six friends. Eight.

Now think about fifty friends. Three hundred. Twenty thousand. Five million. A billion people. If you could somehow find a way to build unity without enforcing uniformity, to create a space for different skills and abilities, to work towards a common goal, what would that look like?

I’m in this photo, along with a few hundred friends.

Now add to this the joy and confirmation of serving your purpose as a human being on this earth. The way a pencil is meant to draw or a candle is to give light.

I wouldn’t want to be one isolated soul making my way alone in service to my Creator when there is the chance of truly coming together and creating a better world. Is it messy? Yes. Is it sometimes frustrating? Absolutely, a hundred times over.

But I wouldn’t want it any other way.

One unique thing about the Baha’i Faith is that there have been explicit instructions on the leadership of the community right from the beginning, so there are no denominations in the community. Since we don’t have much in the way of rituals, the way things look can vary from culture to culture, but the plans, the goals, and the structure are all the same.

Baha’u’llah, the Prophet and founder, was first. Then guidance of the community passed to His eldest son, ‘Abdu’l-Baha. Shoghi Effendi, ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s grandson, then served the Baha’i Faith as its Guardian until his own passing. The plans he set in motion were carried out with exactitude, culminating in the first election of the Universal House of Justice, which is elected by the Baha’is of the world every five years and continues to lead the community to this day.

That’s the short version, anyhow.

The long version, Baha’is learn over time. Through the Writings of the Faith, histories, personal anecdotes, statistics, and more, we learn more about these figures over the course of our entire lives. There is truly no end to this process.

When I was a teenager first learning about the Faith, I loved Baha’u’llah, but it was sort of abstract. It’s like loving the sun. You love the light and the warmth and all that it gives, but you can’t know it, not really.

‘Abdu’l-Baha, though, was so concrete. Not the Manifestation of God, but something closer to the rest of humanity. The exemplar of kindness, of humility, of compassion. It was easy to love ‘Abdu’l-Baha, like a saintly grandfather. His talks were so simple and illustrative, even in translation.

And then there was Shoghi Effendi.

And I understood that he was important, but here I was, 15 and longing for spiritual truth, and this man was writing procedures for the election of local assemblies. Which I wasn’t even old enough to vote for. With Baha’u’llah I felt awe and with ‘Abdu’l-Baha I felt devotion, but with this Guardian … I felt primarily respect. There just didn’t seem to be a real heart-to-heart connection.

That was 20 years ago.

Both my life and my feelings are very different now.

Part of this is that I grew to better understand what Shoghi Effendi accomplished. To take a nascent community, one that would soon be bereft (although it was unaware at the time) of hereditary guidance, and establish it, not as a social movement or vague spiritual revival, but as a world faith, was a massive undertaking. There were so many moving parts to this. Legal recognition in nations around the world. Constructing fitting resting places for the Founders of the Faith. Translating the Writings from Persian and Arabic into dozens of languages and disseminating them to communities desperate for access to their own Sacred Texts. Guarding against those political and religious leaders who had made it their aim to eradicate the Faith from the earth, or at least the corners of it over which they maintained influence and control. And above all that, the Baha’is themselves. Who had loved ‘Abdu’l-Baha, who were dedicated to the Faith, but who had little to no idea what that entailed. What does it mean to be a Baha’i in this day? There was hope, perhaps, but a unified vision, knowledge, and skill are also necessary.  It is one thing to pray for a better world. It is quite another to build it with your own hands.

And it’s this process of building that taught me to love Shoghi Effendi with an intimacy that I never expected.

When I sit with my spreadsheets, extracting data from dozens of conversations, I remember Shoghi Effendi.

When I make maps showing where activity is taking place, I remember Shoghi Effendi.

When I craft an email that I know will be sent out to hundreds of people, I remember Shoghi Effendi.

When I write step-by-step instructions for a process that is structured, but no less spiritual for it, I remember Shoghi Effendi.

I feel so close to the Guardian in this service, perhaps one of the sweetest unexpected gifts that the role has brought me.

true brother Shoghi

Your true brother, Shoghi.

I’m currently re-reading The Priceless Pearl, the biography of Shoghi Effendi written by his widow Ruhiyyih Khanum, and it’s beautiful and heartbreaking and breathtaking all at once. You can download it as an ebook for free here

My primary job as an institute coordinator is to accompany others on their path of service. This isn’t meant in the literal sense of physically going with people (although it does involve a fair bit of that), but rather encompasses a variety of actions that all come together to create a relationship of encouragement and support.

This skill of accompaniment was one of the primary focuses when I was studying the tenth course of the training institute called Building Vibrant Communities. In one section there was a series of questions about what kinds of activities were a part of this process.

I took these and typed them out into a checklist for myself, which I honestly believe has been one of the most helpful decisions I have yet made in this role. I kept it on hand when making phone calls, when planning meetings, and when assembling my to-do list. I copied it into my bullet journal, so that I’d have it always close to hand. And then I prettied it up a bit to share with others, because people always seem to feel more comfortable with information when there are nice colors and fonts involved.

What is accompaniment-

For those who can’t read the image, here is the full list of the habits and skills of accompaniment:

  • Noticing the smallest progress a friend has made in an act of service and speaking of it in a natural way within a larger context.
  • Building on strength and resisting the urge to focus on weakness.
  • Conveying hope and optimism when a friend is facing difficulty on the path of service.
  • Reflecting with a friend on the nature of his or her contributions, mindful not to elevate the ego.
  • Listening attentively when a friend speaks of his or her experience.
  • Reinforcing the habit of identifying the spiritual principles relevant to each situation.
  • Communicating to a friend confidence in the ever-present assistance vouchsafed by the Concourse on high.
  • Helping a friend to avoid feelings of disappointment when results do not match initial expectations and to take joy, instead, from the act of service itself.
  • Helping a friend to see stumbling blocks as stepping stones to progress.
  • Helping a friend seek coherence between the spiritual and material dimensions of his or her life.
  • Conveying a vision of progress that takes into account the dialectic of crisis and victory.
  • Serving joyfully alongside a friend.

Whenever I get compliments on my service, it’s usually just because I’ve been striving to accomplish the things on this list. Whenever I run into trouble (and I do quite regularly), it’s generally because I’ve failed to pay attention to one or more of them.

If I had to give just one piece of advice to any new coordinator (or tutor, animator, assembly member, or really anyone serving others), it would be to really reflect on and internalize this idea of what it means to accompany others.

“Bahá’u’lláh has drawn the circle of unity …”

-Abdu’l-Baha

It’s apparently Look for Circles Day. As someone who was very proud of her elementary school photo essay titled “Triangles Around Berea,” this idea appeals to me. So what could I do but assemble a Pinterest board of some circles that mean the most to me?

shrine of Baha'u'llah

Besides the obvious symbolism of unity and eternity, the circle motif is lovely to look at in its symmetry. If you’ve got a young child at home, go ahead and take a moment to find some of the circles? Or just enjoy adult moment of looking at beautiful architecture.

I hope you enjoy a well-rounded day!

For the last six months or so, I’ve been serving as a regional coordinator for the Regional Training Institute for the Midwestern States. Over the next month I’m going to be reflecting a lot on that, so I thought I would share some basics of what that means.

Training Institute

Ruhi Logo

The Ruhi Institute was founded in the 1970s by a group of friends in Colombia who wanted to promote the spiritual and material development of their communities. Over decades, they refined their methods and materials through a repeated process of service, reflection, and planning, and it gradually spread to other communities. In 1996, the global Baha’i community was asked to develop training institutes worldwide, and in 2005 the curriculum developed by the Ruhi Institute was chosen to be the main sequence of courses around the globe.

At the heart of this program is the study circle, a group of friends who gather regularly to pray, study, and serve with the guidance of a more experienced friend who serves as their “tutor.” These three elements of devotion, learning, and action are inseparable, and each element reinforces the others.

Regional

Some countries are big and some are small. I don’t have to tell you that the United States is pretty large, both in area and in population. In cases where a National Training Institute would get unwieldy, Regional Training Institutes are formed. The regions sometimes change, depending on the needs of the community, but tend to become smaller as experience grows.

(If this seems counter-intuitive, think about organizing a process in your home when only three people in your town have any experience with it. It makes more sense to start with those three people helping others at the city level, then—as nuclei of experience emerge in various parts of town—at the neighborhood level, and finally in individual homes.)

Midwestern States

map---mid-west

The region where I currently live encompasses Michigan, Ohio, and Indiana. Why we’re called the Midwestern states when people are more likely to think of Iowa than Ohio when they hear “Midwest” is a mystery. Our neighbors to the west are the Heartland Region, which is much prettier, but nobody consulted me on the matter. We aren’t the biggest region, nor do we have the most experience, but we’re certainly one of the most loving, which matters a lot to me.

(Yes, I’m biased.)

Coordinator

As a regional coordinator, I have a sub-region (or “cluster grouping,” but that’s a vocabulary lesson for another day) that I focus on. In my case, the boundaries are easy: the state of Indiana. It’s my job to accompany—that is, assist, encourage, and provide resources for—those friends who are engaging in the three different educational programs of the training institute: children’s classes, junior youth groups, and study circles. In some areas with more experience, I work with coordinators who serve at the local level. In most, I work directly with the tutors, animators, and teachers. I handle some administrative tasks like ordering materials, gathering and making sense of data, organizing meetings and trainings, and editing our newsletter. But a lot of what I do is relationship building, sharing insights from experience, and listening. Lots of listening.

So that’s my current path of service.

Whenever I’ve taken on a new role in the past, whether in my faith community, my work, or in various organizations I’ve been a part of, I’ve always wished I could get into somebody’s head who had done it before. Not so I could copy their every move, but so that I could gain some understanding and insight into the process. So that’s what I plan to do here, particularly over the next month. Feel free to join me in all my messy learnings as I go.

Friends, I’m bringing this blog back from the dead in order to participate in the inaugural Baha’i Blogging Challenge.

Basically, some Baha’is plan to post once a day for the next 30 days.

Yes, this takes at the same time as NaNoWriMo.

Yes, I’m thinking about doing both.

Yes, this is pretty ridiculous.

But it’s a good challenge anyway. I’ll be doing my best to keep up, and also share what others are creating using the #bahaiblogging hashtag. We’ll see what comes of it.

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PS: If you want to participate, you can too, even if the month has already started. Learn how to sign up here.