A Cup of Tea Depends on the Entire Universe (Gems from the SP Jan BookClub)


Every cup of tea depends on the entire universe (Toronto 2014)

In Sumaiya and her sisters, I saw none of the vague dissatisfaction I’d seen flourish around me – indeed, in me, growing up. As a member of the American middle class, I was raised in a nation of strivers, a nation founded on the right to pursue happiness. Our discontent was productive. It got things done. The drive to do better propelled through graduate school and up career ladders. Through spin classes and salary negotiations. A world of infinite favours didn’t yield reliable results. My secularist’s  do-it-yourself existence did not get me into the habit of being grateful for date palms, fragrant herbs and seas.

The Sheikh’s sense of gratitude was altogether more muscular, perhaps because it had somewhere to go. His whole consciousness of God as a creator took gratitude to a  whole new level, cosmic in scope and near-constant in presence. Akram was a man who could find God in the act of making a cup of tea. “Everyone says, ‘Any child could make a cup of tea,'” he said. ” But every cup of tea depends on the whole universe being there. For the tea to exist it needs the sun and the moon. It needs the earth to be there. He made water, He made the container to hold it, He made the leaves to grow. When we were born, everything was there, just waiting for us. Every cup of tea depends on the whole universe.” I couldn’t decide whether this logic was oppressive or inspiring. I rather thought it was both, like the satisfying ache of stretching after a session hunched over a laptop.

Studying with a man who saw everything from tea leaves to algebra as gifts from God, I was struck by a new seam of gratitude running through me. I’d emerge from a lesson not with faith, but with what I suppose a fashionable guru would call mindfulness. On the bus ride home, particularly when the sun lit up the green hills beside the highway, I found myself, for a second, seeing them as the Sheikh might: not as something pretty,or as expensive real estate, or as the space between me and London, but as a connection to something larger. There were moments, while I was reading a sura, or carting the kids to school, or chopping an onion, that I sensed what this radical gratitude must feel like: a constant reminder that you’re alive, but just for now. ~ If the Oceans Were Ink


On Exercising Gratitude (Thoughts on Forming New Habits)

In one of my favourite lectures, Sir Ken Robinson speaks about how schools and educational systems fail students, and mentions that children do not simply have bodies to transport their heads around, we are all beings with both bodies and heads, and we need educational systems and ways of understanding ourselves that acknowledge this reality. It’s an important point, and one that I confess I am guilty of forgetting all the time. I am someone with a narrow band of interests, and I’m not naturally an active, athletic person, and so when I have free time or I’m planning my day or I want to unwind, exercise/physical activity is for the most part, pushed aside. Though it’s been a goal for a long time, it’s always felt overwhelming and confusing to learn how to become stronger and healthier, and it’s never been a priority that has found its way into how I structure my time.

Until now. A couple of months ago I felt curious about the gym opposite my apartment in Toronto, and got a month-long membership and a few sessions to learn more about the machines. I went for a short period of time, and then stopped for several weeks. I’m back in BC now, have taken time to reflect and now feel excited about trying to develop new habits, and become physically stronger and healthier. I feel much more positive, and since Seriously Planning has always been a wonderful place to share reflections and learnings, I thought I’d share some of my discoveries here to remind myself first and foremost about things that work for me when I’m trying to develop new habits and navigate change. Hopefully this can continue to be a space to share learnings as time progresses.

1) The Why is Important

Whether it was at the gym or resources/advice online, much of what I’ve encountered recently has been focused on one’s physical appearance and trying to change how you presently look. But after fifteen years of explaining that my hijab/related clothing choices are in part because my interactions in the public sphere should not be based on physical appearance, but rather on personality, heart and character, it’s difficult to connect with discourse to the contrary, and all of these messages have felt stressful and overwhelming. In those initial sessions when the trainer tried to motivate me with images/descriptions of a different physical self, I just wanted to go home.

Very recently though, I came across a set of lectures by the Muslim Chaplaincy at U of T from a recent Holistic Well being Symposium that they hosted, and though I’ve just started listening, the resources and the work of the speakers in general have been really helpful. Thinking about movement and physical wellbeing as part of faith, and a way to be stronger and to exercise gratitude for the blessings you’ve been given has been much more motivating, and has been what has helped me try again at becoming more physically active. The lectures and speakers also talk about eating healthily, and after trying to sort through so many confusing (and contradictory!) ways to eat and cook that are available online, it’s been wonderful to think about a Prophetic diet, and to try and learn more about how food and movement can be another sphere to extend your practice of faith.  I’ve also tried to think of milestones I want to achieve God-willing, and am hoping I can try a camping trip in several months – something that is terrifying but also every so exciting to think about! New hobbies and experiences and health and an expanded understanding of faith are positively motivating things, and make a more active lifestyle something I really want to establish.

It turns out that regardless of how much you may hear something is good for you and important to do and something you should do, you need to find a reason that connects with you in order to give a new habit a chance of settling into your life.

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Terima Kasih For the Memories

It’s the last day of my trip, and I leave for the Changi airport (I’ve been in Singapore again for the past six days) in about an hour to start the trek back to Canada. It’s been an amazing month, and I feel so blessed and grateful for the chance to have made this trip. From the University of Toronto David Chu Travel Scholarship in Asia Pacific Studies and the Peter Walker Travel Scholarship that made it possible financially, to our wonderful professor Ibu Rachel that set up an amazing field course for us, the beautiful and friendly people we met in Indonesia, my extraordinary host family in Singapore, the amazing staff at our hotel in Bandung, family and friends who prayed for a successful trip and encouraged me to go, fellow students, and new friends in Singapore who showed me around, there are so many people that came together to make this trip possible. I hope there will be other trips after this one, but even so, this time will always hold a treasured place in my heart.

I hold a debt of gratitude, and before I leave, I want to make the intention that over the next days, weeks, months to come, I take these experiences and translate them into action. I want this trip to be a means of becoming a better, kinder person, who is engaged in service, who is a better social planner, who is improved for having made the journey. The blogging dropped off over the past couple of weeks as we became more involved in our research and it became increasingly difficult to verbalize internal reflections, but one of the things that I’ve been thinking about a lot during the past few weeks is that fun is a luxury that few can afford to have. Bandung is an amazing, trendy city, but it is also a city with tremendous poverty. $100 Canadian goes a long way, but the equivalent amount, 900,000 rupiah is difficult to earn.

In the past couple of weeks I hiked through the tropical rainforest, visited volcanoes, dined in the mountains/hills of Bandung, visited museums, and shared experiences with new friends. It’s been great, and now that the trip is coming to an end, it is tempting to think of the next stamp on the passport, the next neat sight to see, the next cool picture to take. Except the majority of people in Bandung are simply making a living. The roadside vendors, the men who carry a portable stove on their backs so can they can sell their wares, the men who play the guitar for you when your angkut (minibus) stops at a traffic light, the people carving wood into familiar shapes in the forest to sell to tourists, so many people are simply trying to feed their kids, and seeing this helps you realize that the abundance that we have, from plentiful water, to clear air, to trees, to education, are gifts that demand to be used in the appropriate way.

Terima Kasih (Thank you) for reading the few entries about the trip, and hopefully there will be more reflections/stories/pics in the weeks to come. The actual work begins now!