Dynamic Stillness

11 May 2011

With the official launch of The Leaf Network I have been reflecting on my ongoing personal and professional development, and what it really means to be in formation. Two very different images come to mind. The first takes me back to my High School years; specifically double science class with Mrs Catermole. Donning Manor High's putrid yellow and grey uniform and still infatuated with the novelty of a Bunsen burner, I remember yawning through a boring class about stones and rock formation. After surviving through to her rambling close, I suddenly jolted when Mrs Catermole announced that we were to compete in “Growing our own Crystals”, with a prize to be awarded for the biggest ones grown. Fast forward a fortnight and I was carefully drying out my set of deep blue Copper-Sulphate crystals. Alas, my crystals rather resembled elderly snowflakes than chunky, glittering bling.

It would seem in my over eagerness and ignorance, I had stunted the growth of my poor crystals by disturbing their environment too often. Crystals, I learnt, need a conducive environment in which to grow, they need optimum conditions and most of all they need a degree of stillness. This powerful image has remained and resonated with personal experiences time and time again. As cheesy as it may sound, are we not all crystals in formation? Do we all not need stillness to grow?

With a world that can be so manic and rapidly changing, taking time out to reflect and simply 'be still' can be incredibly enriching. This is emphasised throughout the Islamic tradition. "... Five times a day I'm on rehab," raps one of the Muslim members of the popular Danish Hip-Hop group, Outlandish. Muslims who consciously embrace these five daily invitations will testify how precious those little time-outs can be; whether it's a final year medical student, neck deep in revision books or a mum-of-five, busy around the home. Even beyond the five daily prayers, stillness and meditation is emphasised within Islam. "There is no worship like reflection" narrates the great Imam Ali, son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad. "Reflection is the lamp of the heart; if it departs the heart will have no light", quotes 17th century sage Imam Abdallah Ibn Alawi al-Haddad in his masterpiece 'The Book of Assistance'.

As a Muslim I understood that striving for this stillness, in body, mind and soul is an inherent part of my tradition. But growing up in one of Britain's most multicultural cities, I knew that this process was far from exclusive to Islam. Many Eastern traditions, in particular Hinduism and Buddhism, are rooted in meditative practise. What surprised me however, was learning how the power of meditation and ‘stillness’ transcends even religious tradition. A couple years ago I had the fortunate pleasure of sharing lunch with the incredibly accomplished Béla Hatvany. Now a veteran investor and philanthropist, Béla is responsible for bringing to the world, amongst many ground-breaking innovations, the CD-ROM, the touch screen and more recently with others, the pioneering web-service, JustGiving.com. When I asked how he did it, how did he manage to bring so much to the world, he replied rather candidly, “Well I meditate twice a day.”

From the heart of my religious tradition to the crest of modern innovation I’ve learnt how seeking stillness and employing meditative and reflective practise, in whatever form, is critical to achieving success.

This, however, contrasts profoundly with the second image that comes to mind when I reflect on what it means to be ‘in formation.’

The etymology of Arabic language has always fascinated me. The Arabic word for youth, shabaab, shares its root with the word used to describe a spark of fire. It’s a powerful metaphor. A spark is full of energy, zeal and potential. Now a spark can turn into a fire that cooks your food and keeps you warm, or a fire that burns your house down. Our youth (which in the classical Islamic understanding indicates those between adolescence and forty years of age) can be a force that is either incredibly constructive or painfully destructive. But just as a spark is fleeting and momentary, our youth when uncaptured and unchannelled, can be lost in a blink of an eye.

In charitable and community organising efforts I am often the youngest around the table, sometimes by many decades. This has had positive and negative effects, as I often see the world through the lens of a self-identified young person. Being around older people has allowed me to internalise the ephemeral nature of my youth. Like all these old folks, my days of youth won’t last and I often ask myself am I making the best use of them?

Coupled with this realisation is a famous Prophetic saying etched into my mind from a young age: “Take advantage of five matters before five other matters: your youth, before you become old; and your health, before you fall sick; and your richness, before you become poor; and your free time before you become busy; and your life, before your death.” (Hadith)

Linked also to the word ‘shabaab’ is the word used to describe an animal on its hind-legs, ready to prance. What a beautiful representation of youth in its imminence, precision and potential! Surely this is what it means to be in formation. To be dynamic, perceptive, embracing of change; like a spark, bright, swift and full of energy.

For a long time being in formation meant dealing with these two very opposing images; stillness on one side and fervour on the other. Could I seek some compromise on both sides to achieve some sort of balance in between? Therein, for some time, lay my contention before it was so deftly addressed in a moment of true inter-religious exchange.

In October 2009, on a brisk autumn morning I made my way to Lambeth Palace, the historic home of the Archbishop of Canterbury. I was attending the final module and graduation ceremony of a fantastic training course run in the UK, Faith in Leadership. As part of the training we had an opportunity to discuss our own personal contentions with Rabbi Shoshona Boyd Gelfand, Executive Director of the Movement for Reform Judaism in Britain. So there I was, a passionate young Muslim, in the heart of the Anglican Church, on a course whose Director is Hindu, taking advice from a Rabbi! Together we must have looked quite a crowd, as our group also included priests, Imams, Buddhist monks and lay representatives - each one frank and honest about the others' differences - yet still willing to learn from shared leadership trajectories.

For much of the Rabbi’s fifteen minute address to us, I had butterflies. She was able to so eloquently address an issue that I had frequently stumbled upon, offering wholesome, contextualised advice. I couldn’t begin to summarise all her words, but in essence she challenged me to fully live out paradoxical truths without watering down the essence and excellence of the other. “Have both” she repeated. It was simple but powerful. Balance the patience of the old with the zeal of the young.

Someone once told me if the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see all your problems as nails. The truth is you can be both serene and tenacious, full of energy and yet meditative and still when you need to be. It’s about understanding yourself, rounding the rough edges of your character and employing the right methods at the right time.

I attended a presentation recently where acclaimed Oxford professor and writer Tariq Ramadan gave the key note address, “pray in the night so you can change the world in the day,” he said so wonderfully. He talked about the importance and value of nourishing and energising yourself spiritually and how this is not an end in of itself, rather it should fuel your desire to make a positive change in the world.

Interestingly there never has been a monastic tradition amongst Muslims. The life of an ascetic is far from easy, but thrusting those lofty and spiritual practises into the depths of the world, now there’s a challenge. Finding that moment of serenity when the world is in chaos around you - that’s the challenge of formation. Mrs Catermole was right, crystals need stillness to grow, but let’s not forget, pressure makes diamonds.

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