Shoghi Effendi tells us “everyone is a potential teacher. He has only to use what God has given him”1 and when the Universal House of Justice speaks of “people hailing from every human group, inspired by the Revelation of Baha’u’llah” that will “give expression to patterns of thought and action engendered by His teachings” and evolve “new elements of culture,”2 it is talking about you!
A few months ago I hosted an art show birthday party to usher in my 29th year. I wanted to accomplish many things, mostly to unite my spiritual and artistic communities in an uplifting atmosphere of elevated conversation. I really wanted my guests to be encouraged to have meaningful conversations from the get-go.
To summarize, I gave each person present half a quote and asked them to find the guest with the other half and to discuss what they thought the quote meant. I then asked them to choose, from among my paintings which I had laid out, a piece that best matched the quote. If they wanted to, guests could also create a memento of their own using the quotes and some decorative papers that I provided. To my surprise, the event has lived on in ways I never anticipated. You can read about it in this excellent American Baha’i article, or learn about the icebreaker I developed in more detail in this short vlog.
After some reflection, I’ve identified nine principles I believe contributed to its success and I wanted to share them in case they provide you with some new ideas:
1. Looking at limitations as guideposts
Your present circumstance holds unique avenues of service for you to discover. Know that limitations hold the key to opportunity, see them as guideposts. You can start by looking directly at what has held you back in the past. One challenge I faced was the distance between my work friends in Los Angeles and my spiritual community in the suburbs. This reality inspired me to use my birthday as an occasion to bridge these communities. Doing so fostered a spirit of celebration that may not have been present otherwise.
2. Creating your own culture
As we are all equal partners in creating our Baha’i culture, whatever you wish to see, create it! Be it more dynamic consultation, greater incorporation of art, or better punctuality, you have the capacity to influence these things. There is some contribution only you can make. For example, I travel half the year for work, so holding regular events or activities just isn’t feasible for me at this point in time. However, I can host and apply my resources towards occasional events.
3. Being a “false dichotomy” buster
Replace an “either, or” mindset, with an “And!” mindset. Embrace that there is no conflict between serving your family and serving the Faith. Or excelling professionally (or in school) and growing spiritually. You can do both, and trust they will reinforce each other. My elevated birthday celebration was also a professional event. It was an art show, after all, and it was the fact that I was open to commerce that necessitated the invention of the icebreaker to incorporate the spiritual element. I think connecting art with spiritual reflection actually deepened our collective appreciation of both.
4. Sharing with joy and courage
Rejoice in sharing your passions and beliefs. Part of that for me was literally bringing artwork out of the closet to share with my community. Another was honoring the concept of aging, or having birthday parties, in a spiritual context. Lastly, of course, I shared my Faith and love of meaningful conversation in a way I had never done before.
5. Drawing from your own interests
Sometimes we second guess what other people “want” instead of just sharing what we love. Whether you’re craving a jam session or a reason to try out new recipes, trust that these instincts are pointing you in the right direction. I love art and deep discussion. Some attendees came for the art, others for the discussion, surely many came simply to support me (which I think is a natural result of putting yourself out there), and some came for the party. The different elements of the event actually enhanced each other. The art expanded our understanding of the spiritual, the spiritual illuminated the art, and a memorably uplifting experience was created.
6. Being direct with your guests
This principal is hugely important for the integrity of your relationships. I’ve invited friends to events that turned out not to be what we expected. It isn’t worth the risk when delicate matters of faith and spirituality are involved. There is a place for every kind of event, just be clear and up front about it. Very often the same friends will still attend, they will just come knowing what to expect, and I think they’ll trust you more in the long run. My invitations clearly stated that it was a “pay-what-you-can” art sale and promised a “meaningful group discussion.”
7. Being honest with yourself
If something feels uncomfortable ask yourself if it is because it’s inappropriate, or because it’s a healthy push outside your comfort zone. If you don’t like something or it doesn’t feel right to you, let that inspire a solution. It was acknowledging all the things I find awkward about parties that created the framework for my event.
8. Delegating and being inclusive
Ask for help, draw from resources in your community, and look for ways to share. For example, after our group dialogue wherein everybody shared a quote and related it to a piece of art, we enjoyed a communal spin on the traditional “Happy Birthday” song. Everyone received a homemade cupcake (made by my friend Julia) with a candle on it. We all made wishes (or set intentions) and blew our candles out together.
9. Being flexible – mistakes are gifts!
Make plans, but once things begin, the event belongs to your participants. The most important thing is the spirit that is imparted to them. Allow inspiration to flow and host as a gift to others. The result will be far better than if you controlled everything — even if you could!
I think it’s important to be bold, creative and personal and to remember, striving for excellence in all things, doesn’t mean giving up if something can’t be perfect. I hope these tips have inspired you and if you have any ideas or stories you’d like to share about how you created spaces for elevated conversations, I’d love to hear from you in the Comments section below!