Part 1: Preface
My name is Hesam. It’s a Persian variation of the Arabic name Hussam, which means sword. Why my parents named me sword, I don’t know. I’d like to think it was an affirmation for me to receive the sword of discrimination, which, I’d like to think, means yoga. On the very day I was born, as my mom was in the hospital, I am told, an Iraqi bomber plane for the first time flew all the way to Tehran, the capital of my homeland Iran. This officially launched an 8-year-long bloody war between Iran and Iraq. That plane was hit down and war was on. It was fall, 1980. (The war ended with more than a million people killed from both sides. Iraq was supported and armed by US and Russia.)
35 years later, I found myself across the world in USA, and in a spiritual community in the foothills of Northern California, inside the home of an astrologer. I had come to “Ananda Village” to receive yoga teacher training. Out of the express recommendation of many respected and looked upon friends, about this astrologer, I had come to get a reading. I had never been interested in readings of any kind, astrological, psychic, palm, or what have you. But by the time I arrived at his office I was sufficiently intrigued.
I had always imagined that astrological horoscope means that the time of the year when we’re born somehow affects our characteristics. For example, I was thinking if you are born in a summer month you might be high-energy, and so on and so forth. But now I learned that it’s actually backwards. The soul, through past incarnations, already has a momentum of accumulated tendencies, ambitions, and specific energies. So for its new reincarnation, it chooses a particular time and space (even the planet) and positioning of the stars, along with more practical stuff like the choice of the home and parents, which is most conducive to and compatible with the magnetism of those energies.
So it’s not that those who’re born in Libra months (September-October), which is the one I’m in based on Western astrology, get a certain common temperaments that we can recognize, but that those souls who do so already have certain temperament and energies in common with each other, which are compatible with certain arrangement of the stars and planets. Those factors not only determine our unchanging character and nature, but also our phases of life—at what age we go into what characteristic period of our lives. Thus knowing one’s chart is an essential tool to learn how to best navigate one’s lifetime.
Vedic astrology (which incidentally my astrologer told me has its root in Persia) is more comprehensive than western astrology, as it considers the position of all planets and stars, not just the time of the year (position of earth orbiting the sun). I happen to be a Virgo in Vedic astrology.
Why should the positioning of distant planets matter to a soul reincarnating on earth or elsewhere? Well, actually the solar system, in fact, is an outer reflection of an inner solar system that we have within us. The particular energy centers (chakras) in our astral body (which is a layer below our physical bodies, containing our emotions, tendencies) are reflected in the energies of the outer planets. The particular arrangement of the stars and planets as a whole carries a unique energy climate which can actually be experienced based on subtle shifts in individual and global energies. If you’re interested in the subject, you may start by reading the chapter “Outwitting the Stars” from the Autobiography of a Yogi book.
What was most reassuring to hear the astrologer tell me was that my chart is one of the path of yoga, of inwardness and seeking the Infinite, yet also one with strong desire to reach and serve others. He told me without having a certain arrangement in my chart, I wouldn’t have left a high-paying job to pursue the path of yoga. Other aspects of my chart reveal a hands-on, technical nature which, in this day and age, my astrologer told me often manifests as techie people.
I remember, as a kid I was so keen to go around and be helpful in the house (not that I was necessarily but the intention was there!) that my youngest uncle used to semi-mockingly repeat: “Hesam is a citizen interested in service and cooperation.” How interesting, that I have now ended up living in a spiritual cooperative community dedicated to serving and sharing the ideals of right living, as laid out by our guru Paramhansa Yogananda!
And so, as it appears, my soul had decided that it was a good idea to land in a body in the capital of Iran, which had recently turned from a socially-liberal and politically-closed monarchy into a first of its kind “Islamic Republic” and was now on the brink of war with its neighbor.
Since a few years before, Ayatollah Khomeini had caused an uprising, aided by the religious fervor that runs deep in the traditional society of Iran (Islam was brought to Iran pretty much from the time of prophet Muhammad in Saudi Arabia, in 600AD), along with a growing disapproval of the Shah of Iran’s regime. The Shah had gone too modern too western too fast, for the majority of Iranians’ traditionalist taste. Also, as it’s common in a monarchy, his government, I am told, favored and served more those with power, prosperity, and modernity, and tended to discard and not serve the rural areas, the less educated, etc.
As an example of the extreme ways, I have heard that the Shah held an open gay marriage ceremony in his palace, back in those days in the 70s in Iran. With the subject still being a hot-button 50 years later here, in the modern western world, you can imagine what kind of a stir it must have been.
So in 1979, about two years before I was born, Iran revolted. The Shah was ousted and flown out, and Ayatollah Khomeini flown in.
My parents were both raised in well-off and modern families, with moderate but not a whole lot of religious tendencies. My mom’s father was a self-made merchant who had started from a poor upbringing, quitting grade school midway to support his parents. Over his years he had worked hard to become a respected, wealthy merchant. He sent his kids to the US to be educated. While, as long as I remember, he did his daily prayers, I think, more than anything, he is a believer of “the physical plane.” He believes in and wants for us a successful life, as he has lived it. Be educated, help and respect people, play life cheerfully, raise a good family, and so on.
My dad’s father was one of the first in his province to receive an engineering degree and worked for the national oil company. His English and French were respectable. Like my other grandfather, he was a believer of living a practical life. My dad’s mother was an educator.
Part 2: Before Earliest Memories
During the 70s, my mom had come to the USA and Canada to attend high school and college as an exchange student from Iran. This was before the Islamic revolution, when USA and Iranian government were big buddies. There was a steady flow of exchange students in both directions. In fact, at the same time, my mom’s parents were hosting an American exchange student from Pennsylvania.
My dad too had come to US as an international student and received his B.S. degree in Electrical Engineering from UCLA. It was in California where my parents had met. While they were in the US, the Iranians had revolted and brought a new Islamic regime formed by Ayatollah Khomeini, replacing the monarchy that had been in place for thousands of years.
They seem to have married quickly and simply, without any ceremony or involvement of the parents or relatives. Not long after the revolution, my parents decided to return to Iran to take part in the post-revolution life.
This brings me to me. I was born shortly after they had returned. They lived in a house in a humble part of rural Tehran, where my mom worked in a snack factory and my dad was a photographer. The situation had just become complicated. Not only there was a new regime and the society and politics and government and laws were all turning upside down, we had just entered into war with Iraq.
Not long after, while I was two years or so, and before a time I can remember, my dad died with a heart attack. That’s how it was my karma to grow up mostly at my grandparents’ house. As my mom would soon resume working during the day times, it was my grandparents who parented me more than anyone else.
The earliest memory I have is probably from the age of 3. I was in the center of my grandparent’s house’s large living room, which as it’s often the case, my childhood memory probably sees it much larger than it actually was. There was smashing thunder outside. I was very scared and crying from the top of my lungs “Ajoon, Majoon! Ajoon, Majoon! Ajoon, Majoon!” calling out my grandparents as I have always called them (A = short for Agha = sir. Ma = mother. Joon = suffix of endearment). Soon I was wrapped tightly by my grandfather and grandmother, each on one side of me. The feeling and image I have from that moment was being completely surrounded and protected by my grandparents. Their wrapping around me was so tight that no empty space was left about me. In my little world, at that moment, they felt omnipresent.
I am told and believe that lasting childhood memories are quite significant and reflective of a soul’s journey through this and other lifetimes. It is interesting to me that this is the feeling I now have for my relationship with the Divine Mother. The vision I get is very similar to my childhood memory. I’m completely alone in the middle of a forest. I’m wailing like a baby because I have lost my Mother. And then I feel her omnipresent love and embrace all around me.
Indeed, Divine Mother is the AUM, the vibratory cosmic energy behind every atom of the universe. So how can She not be anywhere? She IS everything. how can She not be surrounding us at all times?
My only other oldest memory is likely from a year or two later, when I was 4-5. My biggest buddy was Ali–my two-years-older cousin, who remains my closest and dearest friend. Both his parents also worked and so he would also spend his day times at the grandparents. He had a bicycle. Instead of a bicycle I had a little car with pedals. My grandparents villa house had a super large front yard, with gardens and a pool in the middle, and a walking track that looped the parameter of the garden. In this memory, we were going around the loop. My cousin was riding his bike, being pushed by my youngest uncle. I was in my car, pushed by my uncle’s friend. I felt we were going at the speed of infinity. In those timeless moments I feel I experienced the highest degree of happiness achievable in the physical plane.
Timelessness and bliss. Again, an event that only now reveals its significance to me, in my soul journey of this lifetime, once I have set foot on the path to yoga.
A third memory visits me now, once I am writing these words. This was a recurring event, around the same time as the last one I recounted. I mentioned the pool, at the center of the front yard. This pool had an interesting filtering system. There was a water channel that looped around the outside parameter of the pool, like a square ring. The channel itself was filled with water, probably some 3-4 feet deep. As a kid, Ali and I were of course big fans of walking really close to the edge of the channel. Once in a while I would accidentally fall into the water.
I still can see and taste that moment. It felt as if time stopped and everything came to a still point. I wasn’t scared. I don’t remember gasping for air. I was just breathless. It just felt like checking out of this life and sensory experience, and going into a place where it’s much easier to notice myself as just the unaffected observer. I would see myself, in slow motion, tumbling in the water, experiencing, in a very real sense, dying. Of course, within a few seconds, my cousin, himself only 5-6 years, would be shouting “Help. Help! Hesam fell into the channel again!” And my youngest uncle would run into the yard and save me. Believe it or not, this would happen again, and again, and again.
Yet again, only now, 33 years later, I understand how this experience was a hint to show me where I would be heading. The soul yearns to experience itself in its purity, free from the bondage of the body, mind, and the senses. For that to happen, at some point the yogi learns to bring the breath to a full stop. “Breathlessness,” as Yogananda often would say, “is deathlessness.” In deep meditation, the breath (I am told) fully stops, and the energy within the spine reverses its outward flow into the sensory world, and instead starts flowing inward and upward through the deeper (subtle) spine. And so the process of enlightenment unfolds, awakening into one’s Infinite Self.
Many of us might have noticed, through personal experience, that certain events and themes tend to keep recurring in one’s lifetime. I was alone, scared, confused, drowned. Then I was saved by my grandparents, my cousin, my uncle, and experienced an unparalleled happiness. In my adult life, I struggled to make sense of life. Those who seemed to be doing well always counseled me: “You’re too uptight. You take yourself too seriously. Just enjoy life and have fun. There doesn’t need to be a point to it all. Just enjoy life while it lasts!” This never did sit well with me. Life never did make much sense without a higher purpose. Everything changed once I was awakened by my guru. Everything then made total sense. I finally felt Divine Mother within myself and everywhere around me. I understood that the physical plane is just a dim shadow of an eternal timeless reality. Then I experienced a joy that is not achievable in the physical world.
All these important events in my life I had experienced through those few earliest memories from my childhood. I would encourage you also to set your intention to tune in and meditate on your earliest days. You will find there valuable insights as to your deepest soul desires and purpose in this lifetime.
Part 3: A Soul, Not a Kid
A while ago I befriended a family who had a little boy. I spent a good amount of time with the kid–a sweet, beautiful kid. Yet, once is a while, he would come up with the meanest things to say to people, especially to the parents. The words could have a such sting and hurt to them, such as “You’re not my parents. I would never ever pick you as my mom. I hate you, stupid.” And this was often a response to something totally irrelevant and small. You could tell there was more to it than whatever had just happened. And you would think no experience a small child could’ve had in his/her short lifetime that might have driven him/her to uttering such hurtful statements with so much pain behind them. This reminded me how often we forget the soul behind the kid. I could not find a way to explain this, but to conclude that these are simply reminiscent of deep hurts the kid has received in a past life.
An episode from my own early childhood memories: I was about 5-6 years old. My mom had been away on a business trip for some time, and my grandma brought news to me and my 2-years older cousin Ali that she was arriving the next day. Ali instantly started to jump up and down from the excitement. I had a big reaction within me, but I didn’t show much outwardly. I just remained silent. (I know I had my reasons but I can’t remember what.) My grandma then made a derogatory statement about me showing no reaction for my mom’s return, while Ali was the one who was happy and excited from the news of seeing his aunt.
I still remember, and feel, what was going through my kid’s mind, at that moment. I simply told myself, “She [my grandmother] doesn’t understand me. She doesn’t know what I am going through.” This was a shocking discovery to me, because for the first time I had realized that I can understand something which an adult may not. I had just realized, without being able to put it into words, that I am a soul, and the level of a soul has nothing to do with the age of the body.
I feel we make this mistake far too often. Appearances truly are deceiving to us. Soul-ness is infinitely more relevant and significant than body-ness. Yet we tend to only see the body: infant, young, old, etc., and we think, we feel, and we act according to that observation. We look at our kids as a cute little child to smile at and talk about toys and barbies with. We simply forget that, in front of us, stands a soul, as old as our own, and perhaps more evolved than our own! Their language and attention is simply a bit encumbered and restricted, due to the young body and mind, to plays and toys and immediate needs, but the feelings in the energetic body, and the consciousness behind it, is nonetheless there, alive, aware, observant.
In fact, in my short time spent with that kid, I felt I learned just as much, if not more, from him, than I might have taught him.
This brings me to another memory when I was about 10. My mom was about to remarry. I came out of the shower, where my mom stopped me at the door, asking for my permission for her to marry my now step-dad. I said yes immediately. And I still remember at that moment in my ten-year-old mind I had two concrete thoughts. One, that this was simply a formality, as I could easily see much was already put into motion towards the wedding. Second, I deeply appreciated my mom’s gesture for counting me as a stakeholder in this event!
Another common misconception we have is that we get our “stuff” from our parents. We’re keen to notice similarities, especially when we’re using it to blame for shortcoming we find in ourselves. Another thing we tend to blame is the environment we come from. Science of genetics backs this up. We get the genes from the parents and the environment. While there is no doubt that our parents and the environment influence us a great deal, we also have to realize this influence is limited for the most part to the material plane. Anyone who’s studying yoga and spirituality–the art and science of the soul–learns that our material existence is the least significant, least influential, and least interesting part of our being.
Yoga teaches that we have 3-layers of bodies. Only the outer, surface one is visible to us. It’s no surprise then that this outer physical body is what most of us, and in fact most of the modern science, sees and examines. Yet the outer physical body is simply a condensed physical manifestation of a part of who we really are inside. That is our energetic or subtle body, which contains our aura and the energy centers known as the chakras. The energy body is our underlying tendencies, affinities, emotions, and the mind.
Our energy bodies are much more the real “us” than our physical bodies are, because we ditch the body when we die, but the energy body remains intact. We carry it with us in the astral world, and when it’s time to reincarnate again, we will put on a new body, as if a new overcoat to wear for a while.
Even more subtle and fundamental than our energy body is our causal body. That is the container of our consciousness behind the thoughts. It is through the causal body that the energy body forms. At some point in one’s soul evolution, even the energy body is released and shed. The soul, a part of the universal consciousness which is God, is even more subtle, and lies behind the causal body.
Once we put this into perspective, we start to see how foolish it is to view ourselves and others as simply material bodies which are born and then die. It’s a sad mistake to remain stuck thinking that we’re the overcoat!
Before you are born into an environment and a family, the part of you which you recognize as the “real” you, all the interesting parts, the qualities, tendencies, talents, feelings, deep knowings, it already exists. The soul then chooses, with its own free will, a body and an a family whose energies, tendencies are most compatible to the ones of its own, or at least are most conducive towards its goals and ambitions. Sometimes it’s hard to see, for the mind, why one’s soul has chosen its current family and environment. Nevertheless, a lot of it often gets explained as the soul progresses through its journey of a lifetime. This is the real reason why children often end up showing (good or bad) qualities similar to their parents. It isn’t that they “got” it from their parents. They already had such qualities and thus were attracted to parents with similar, compatible energies.
Part 4: The War Years
The year I hit first grade, the war with Iraq hit a crescendo. Iraq had acquired long-range Scud missiles that started dropping all the way into the capital Tehran, where we lived, with no specific targets. We had no defense against them. All the country could do was sound a city-wide missile alarm, indicating that there’ll be a bomb dropping on some neighborhood within a few minutes.
Some residents fled to countrysides for an extended period of time. But, like most, our household decided to just move to the basement. School was out for the remainder of the school year. The state started airing television shows to teach each grade, that we were required to watch. Faithfully each day I watched the whole class, doing my homework given by the host, even though nobody’s work could be checked.
For us kids, it was actually quite a fun time! It was like the whole family was participating in a house play in the basement. We were all sleeping packed in a very small space. As kids, I guess we didn’t really look into the whole thing, not quite realizing the next missile could be dropping on our house and we could all be dead any day. However, for adults, it must have been a different story. The anxiety level of the whole city must have been extremely high.
Indeed, one missile ended up hitting a home in the alley across ours. I remember the moment it hit. My cousins, my younger uncle, and I were playing in the front yard of my grandparents house, when we heard the eerie sound of an incoming missile (which we had been quite acquainted with by then) getting louder and louder and louder. I remember we started running towards the entrance door into the house, to run to the basement. Before we made it into the house the missile hit somewhere really close by. We all dropped down to the ground from the shock wave of the impact. All the windows in the neighborhood were shattered. Some people in the neighborhood were killed.
A funny story I remember from these days concerns my wanting to buy my first chess set. This innocent game was decreed illegal by the regime, after the revolution which ended the monarchy of Iran. It think it was because it involves a king. The new lawmakers must have thought better to take “kingness” out of the whole consciousness of the people all together, thus banning anything that had a king in it.
As if we were going to buy some illegal drugs, I remember my uncle taking me to some back alley. From a hole through a garage door, he slipped in the money and in turn received a white box which contained my first chess set.
There was a serious shortage of food. The government was distributing to the entire nation certain food stamps that allowed certain necessities to be bought at a subsidized price, since the free-market prices were skyrocketing and most people couldn’t afford to buy their daily needs.
My aunt taught me the second grade over the summer holidays, so that I could enter third grade when I was 8. I don’t recall anything about my feelings back then, but it must have been been a boost in my self-image to be allowed to and succeed in skipping a grade.
When a kid is born into this life, he brings with him his invisible energy body (the chakras), containing his deep imprints: tendencies, desires and aspirations, just as he left them in his past life. Those feelings and tendencies know no age, and will express equally through the body of a 5 years old kid or a 95 years old adult. The outward form of that expression will, of course, vary depending on the age of the body.
One of the things it’s clear I had brought with me was a little bit of sexual curiosity. When I was around 6-8 years old, I remember pretending to play rolling over the floor, just to attempt to take a peek under the skirt of some lady who was our guest at my grandparents’ home. This is interesting because by the time I hit adulthood I think I was less interested and under the control of the sex desire, than an average guy.
My faithfully doing each homework, during the bombing school year, must have also been telling of a behavior brought over from past life journeys. It wasn’t that I did my homework just in case somebody would be later checking it, as most of the kids seemed to be calculating of and choosing their actions based on. Rather, doing the “right thing” was a behavior that came naturally to me, without deliberation or assessment of the situation. This tendency has showed up again and again in my life. As I have shared in my other blogs, it always baffles me deeply how some of us can be so selective of what truths to share or not, with whom, and under what circumstances! It has always seemed so complicated and undesirable to me, to be a different person with a different story with each different person we meet. I have always preferred the beauty and simplicity of always going with the One Truth. Later on in life, when I found the spiritual community of Ananda, which I have joined, I was thrilled to see this as one of their two mottos:
“Yata Dharma, Sthata Jaya.”
Where there’s adherence to Truth, there lies victory.
Part 5: School Days
I am told I had already started reading signs on the street before starting grade school. Academically, I was always among the top students in my classes. I was never a popular kid. I was among the loner types, without many friends, though I usually ended up with one or two loyal friends by my side.
I think more than anything else I was just interested and observant. Observant of the types and characteristics of my teachers, and my classmates. I think I had an ability to “feel them” from inside-out. I could see and feel how they would see things and feel things, rather than from my own point of view. I remember the son of our school-bus driver. Naturally not one of rich kids, or cleanest. Not very bright academically, but I could tell he had a good heart. I remember noticing the mischievous types, the troubled kid, the “life is a giant party bowl” kid, and on and on. Myself I must have come across as a serious kid, a good student, and a shy fellow.
I don’t remember many episodes from my elementary school that were significant to me, other than one or two. I was bullied once in a while by some of the trouble makers in the class. My school bag could be tossed around between a couple of them. I usually had no defense against them, but I also didn’t give them energy. I would just not show any interest in their game, and wait patiently, until they got bored and I could move on with my life.
One time one of those kids was on my case for a while. For days I had been his occasional object of entertainment. One day, as we were in recess in the school yard, my abuser approached again. That’s when something flipped in me. It felt like a superpower took over me, and I became double my size. I remember clearly the instance I flattened him on the ground, jumping up and down over him like a beast. Many kids were circled around us, watching the unusual turn of the tables. The bully must have been in a total shock. Never again he even dared to look me in the eyes. Perhaps the teachers knew what was going on, because, although it made a big fuss, they let me go without seeming to notice me or bringing me punishment.
I was never the school all-time favorite in the eyes of the teachers and principles. I didn’t aspire to be. I had noticed usually there were a few “suck up” kids who ended up being the “prize” of the school in the eyes of the principles. So I had decided, “If it takes being a suck-up like that to take the position, I don’t want it.” In fact, this must be one of those strong soul tendencies brought over from past life, because this quality has showed up from when I was little, and continues to this day to reflect as a strong part of my character. I never seem to be the authority-pleaser.
In high school, again I was among the top students in the school. I remember a set of twin kids came and joined our school, and soon became everyone’s favorite. The principles always made a case to showcase them as the model students. I did feel I was in some kind of competition with both the them, as either one of them or myself would come on top here and there during the various exams. Yet, at the same time, I was relaxed about it, and somehow felt we were not quite on comparable levels or wavelengths.
Last year of high school we had to take the infamous “Konkoor”, the nationwide university-entrance examinations, through which only the top of top can enter in one of the prestigious public universities.
I still remember the deep but calm sense of satisfaction that came over me when the results were announced. I had been the top scorer in my own school, and ranked in the top 400s in the first exam, and top 100s in the second exam, nationwide. The “prides of our school” had done well, but not as well!
A humorous and telling story followed. The exams were done. It was early fall, and I had recently turned 18. Having just turned into an “adult” and ranked #1 in my school, a certain level of pride (or egotism you might say!) was pretty fresh in me. I stopped by my high school to say hello to everyone and pick up my diploma. I went to my principle–a kindly and religious man–and asked if I could pick up my diploma. He responded that only my parents could pick it up.
That’s when I flipped. With a tone that I had never spoken with a teacher, let alone my principle, I informed him that I was 18, and adult, and I should be able to get my own diploma. I think I even told him something along the lines of “Quit the childish stuff!”
He must have been shocked by this new face. He didn’t say anything, but just demanded that I left his office. A few minutes later, his assistant handed me my diploma. O sweet victory! It remains to be one of my proudest moments in life. I stood up and won a real cause, not just for myself, but for others.
Part 6: Spirituality vs. Religion
Swami Vivekananda said, “It’s a blessing to be born into a religion, but a curse to die in one.”
He isn’t saying here that religion is a bad thing. What he emphasizes is that true religion, or spirituality, is the process of an individual’s internal transformation and awakening. It is something that happens from inside-out, rather than outside-in. To know about a religion by being born into one and converting into one, is a good step as a reminder of God and our journey to Him. But if one gets stuck in what meets the eye, the outward forms and the rituals and the book-learning of the teachings (that is, all the things that others can influence upon you), then religion is something empty, superficial, and offers no particular benefit towards spiritual growth, which is the only thing that matters.
Unfortunately, I was born in a country at a time where the ruling government felt it was its business to teach and force religion and morality to its people. If the appearance of religion and morality is what they were after, they succeeded. However, of course, you can’t slap someone to be more religious, or a better person, because that would be going from outside-in, rather than allowing an inside-out process to blossom naturally on its own and through the soul’s own yearning.
That didn’t stop them to try though. Schools were segregated by sexes. Women could get punished for revealing hair or body. Youth could get punished for partying to Western music. And so on.
From the very early days of Islam, in around 600AD, this religion was brought to Iran and took over, so it is quite rooted in the fabric of the culture and society. But since the Islamic Republic was established, a strict rule of Islam became the law, like never before. To this day all K12 schools are separated into all-boys and all-girls schools.
Being shy and introverted by nature, having no girls around me in my household, my grandparents not really encouraging me to leave the house, and having no girls in my schools, I became an adult having rarely interacted with any girls. I didn’t really know how to. This can’t be good for a society. Boys and girls need to learn about each other’s nature and ways, beyond the sisters and brothers and cousins relationship, so that they can work better together later as adults, couples, colleagues, and so on.
A forced segregation of sexes in many individuals results in a lack in a part of their education and growth, and in many kids who are hitting puberty it can lead into repression. I wasn’t too careful to notice this, but once my buddy in our all-boys high school, during our freshman year, told me to take a look at the next row. It turned out the three boys in front of us were occasionally flicking each other’s private parts, as they must have discovered it gives them a satisfying feeling of arousal. I can hardly assume what was happening in the front row was the only case in our classroom.
Our education system was naturally heavy on religious studies. Before learning English as a second language, Arabic the language of Quran was added to the curriculum. Ironically, I don’t remember much depth in our Islam and Quran education. More than meanings, superficiality seemed to be emphasized, like memorizing verses from the Quran, proper pronunciation, modest dress code, and so on.
Unfortunately, this, to varying degrees, seems to be a universal phenomenon. Those who are not yet ready for true spiritual transformation and inward awakening, not only end up clinging to a dogmatic and literal following of outward form of some religion, but also tend to become strong activists to “fix” others for their lack of faith!
In my own family, my parents weren’t religious. My grandparents were pious and said their daily prayers, but it was somehow clear and understood to me that they are practicing pure faith, and something altogether different than the superficial throw-down-your-throat kind of religion which was the official policy of the system.
It’s no surprise then that, most of us kids, being constantly fed religious dogma, were turned away rather than toward religion and spirituality. I remember myself having a sense of dislike for our religion and Quran teachers.
In school, just as I am now at my age of 37, I was an abiding kid. However, once in a while a totally unexpected unorthodox thing would flow through me, surprising myself and others, just like the wrath-revenge I took on my bully one day.
One day, in high school, we were having our Quran class, with my all-time favorite (not!) teacher. In front of me sat a chubby, fun kind of kid. Thoroughly bored, suddenly I had the idea that a slap on his back, with my curved palm, should produce a nice robust sound. I tried it and it sounded like an explosion! Next thing I knew my small statured teacher, with his super-red down jacket still ingrained in my mind, approached me, grabbed and ripped a few buttons on my shirt, and tossed me out of the class.
I wasn’t used to be thrown out of the classrooms. I wasn’t that kind of a kid. But something in me shifted at that moment. Instead of being sad, I felt a sense of freedom and power. In fact, I started motioning to some of my classmates to join me, from outside of the class, without the teacher’s noticing. Many of them made so much trouble in the class that they had to be thrown out one by one. Soon there were enough of us, that we had a complete team to start a soccer game in the school yard.
Some weeks later the school was organizing a soccer tournament. Some of my friends and I got together and enrolled as a team, which I called “Fahmideh”. This was the last name of my Quran teacher and a reference to the time we had started a soccer game by getting kicked out of his class. It was an ingenious ploy. The name got approved because the school officials thought we were paying homage to a famous brave youth, with the same name, who was martyred during the Iran-Iraq war.
The revenge of my Quran teacher came much later, at the end of the school year. The numeric grades for our third-terms were weighted by 2, since they represented the final exams. I had gotten a perfect score (20 out of 20) in my Quran exam, which should have been entered as 40, after the multiplier. My teacher “by accident” had entered 20 for my score, essentially a 50% grade. This ruined my otherwise very high GPA for the year.
My mom came over to school to protest this mistake. I guess my discretion with the Quran teacher was brought to light for her, because I remember what ended up resolving the problem for me was her crying in front of my principle to get my grade and GPA fixed again. I was deeply touched and embarrassed that I had brought her to tears in front of my principle, in order to fix a problem I had caused.
This occasional out-of-character act, in a rebellion against the authority, has repeated throughout my life from time to time. Some 4 years ago when I was working in a research group, once I sent an email to the whole group, telling everyone how our self-congratulatory attitude in some of our work was encumbering our progress. So many people were proud that someone had finally spoken openly about that. My mentor and boss, said he agreed with what I said, but scolded me for my mode of communication.
A few weeks ago my soul character made another splash in my spiritual community where I live. In a totally unorthodox way, for where we live, one morning I woke up with an inspiration to write and share an open-letter with the whole village, pointing out, to my eyes, some of our existing dogmatic ways. Once again, I was privately cheered by many of my fellow devotees, and once again, the authority wasn’t pleased one bit.
Why is it bad to force religion to the kids and everybody? Because the kind of religion that pleases God is one that stems from the heart of the individual devotee. I grew up with Islam and Quran all around me, but paid no attention as a reaction to being forced into it. A few years ago, at the age of 34, on the other side of the world in the United States, life had just brought me to the spiritual path. This time, out of my own curiosity, I went and read the Quran, twice, to see whether I could see the spiritual truths that I had recently learned through yoga teachings and practice. I was thrilled to recognize truths expressed in Quran. I even cried a few times when I discovered and recognized familiar truths expressed in various verses. I read biographies on prophet Muhammad. I cried a few times feeling the power of God expressed through him.
That’s how true religion should grow in an individual.
Part 7: Middle School Days
Our school education in foreign languages was really weak, as incidentally it also seems to be in the US. One of the biggest blessings in my early life in Iran was that, when I was in middle school, I got to attend a private English school like no other. My mom’s old-time friend had turned the basement of her apartment into a secret private English school. Nowhere in the world have I seen something quite like it. Absolutely no Persian was spoken in this apartment. It was magical; as soon as we would enter the basement, it was as if walking into an elementary school in the US. My teacher, along with a few other helper teachers she had gathered, had perfect American accents. From, literally, day one, they would talk to a student in English only, even if she knows zero English. Before long, somehow my teacher would get the student moving along, at a pretty impressive pace.
You always hear you can’t learn a language quite like when you live in the environment where that language is spoken natively. My teacher had created an environment that came pretty darn close, right there in a Tehran neighborhood. Now that I am a “spiritual person”, as they say, I can tell with certainty that it wasn’t just the teaching method or the flawless accents: the energy and vibrations of the environment was also very different than the outside. And I’m not talking about the superficial stuff, like the fact that boys and girls were mixed in her class, which you would never see outside when you’re in Iran. Even then, I could feel that the way she talked to us, the mannerisms, expectations, and attitudes were all “foreign” and different than my outside world.
As a result of a year or two of training with this dear teacher of mine, many years later when my family moved to the US at my age of 19, I was fluent in spoken American English. Those vibrations that I had felt in her class, now I realized, matched exactly with how it is in the US. Dear Aunt Jaleh, I am so thankful for your influence on me.
I do seem to have a special interest and a knack for languages. Many years ago I studied Spanish and, after attending a language school in Spain for a month, I was conversational in Spanish. More recently, after becoming interested in French, thanks to my soul friend from Tunisia, I dedicated myself to learning French, mostly with Skype tutors, listening to podcasts, and watching a lot of French movies. Again, about two years ago I was starting to get comfortable carrying conversations in French. However, it’s now slipping by me since I no longer take time to practice. Still I can follow along reasonably well listening to a conversation in either Spanish or French.
When I was still in elementary school my uncle gave me a collection of Tin Tin adventure comic books, which are internationally well known, except in the US! These stories were genius and fantastic. I loved them and read them so many times, as did all my cousins.
Around the time I was in late elementary school and early middle school, there had been a wave of new Persian translations of world famous adventure novels being available, such as White Fang, 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, Around the World in 80 Days. I read some of those titles, as my first experiences with reading books just for fun. After the Tin Tin series, that is!
Surely as a result of all this, I think I had just begun middle school when I got the inspiration to write an adventure book. That much isn’t a surprise. But the surprise is that I persisted through actually finishing the book. I was mostly making up the story as I went along. I can’t remember how many pages it was, but it might have been near 100 pages.
Excited, I handed the story to a friend of my mom’s, who was a published translator himself, to see if it was publishable. (I can’t remember if that was my own idea or my family’s. Probably mine.) After taking a while, the publishing lady wrote me a note, saying it was promising work, but it was too obviously inspired by the stories in the Tin Tin books! Well, she called it correctly.
So I gave up the idea of publishing my book. Persisting for months to finish that book, I think, was indicative of a certain resilience that seems to be in me, in this lifetime. I seem to be quite comfortable with the long-term paces in life.
Perhaps the other significant life event during my middle school years was that I acquired a PC. It was a 286 machine running the MS-DOS Operating System. My cousin Ali had gotten his computer a little earlier, and had even taken a summer class on Quick-Basic programming. After getting my own computer, I quickly figured out the Q-Basic programming on my own (though I’m sure with horrible literacy in programming–lots of GOTOs I’m afraid!). Soon I was writing pretty long programs: games, utilities, you name it. It was exciting, but I had no idea that was telling of a future love of another language—programming language—and a whole career.
Part 8: Shiraz Tranquility
A noteworthy part of my childhood was my occasional, once a year perhaps, visits to my grandparents from my dad’s side, who lived in the city of Shiraz. I called my grandparents “Maadarjoon” (“maadar” = mother, same root, joon = suffix of endearment) and “Pedarjoon” (pedar = father).
Maadarjoon and Perdarjoon were in their 70s-90s during my childhood, long into their retirement. They had three sons, and had lost two (one including my dad). Needless to say, I was especially dear to them, as a child of their lost son.
My visits to Shiraz brought me experiences in tranquility like no place else could. Their house was a quiet house in a quiet part of Shiraz, the city which was once home to the great poets of Persia: Hafez and Saadi. When I visited my grandparents there, it was as if going into a few days of life in slow-motion. Quite aged, and Maadarjoon’s one foot actually disabled from being hit by a bicyclists many years back, they both walked slowly. They also talked slowly and with care, as they did eating. They were ever so gentle, articulate, cultured, and loving.
I loved them very much. If there wasn’t for two things, though, I would have been very bored there. Thankfully, my granddad had a beautiful chess set and loved playing with me. He was pretty good at it and not afraid to beat me. Another fun activity we all did together during the nights, alongside the tea and biscuits, was playing bingo, or “lotto” as we called it.
Because of my granddad’s job as an petroleum engineer, they had once lived in Abadan, the oil city of Iran. Back in those days, before the war years made a ruin of the city, Abadan was home to many foreigners who were also there, as other countries had investments and a part in Iran’s oil refineries. As a result, I am told Abadan back in those days had the most modern amenities and lifestyle, latest movies from the West, dance ballrooms, etc. etc. That’s how my grandparents had things like bingo and chess and other stuff that back in those days you could hardly find in any other house in the neighborhood.
My grandparents were educated and open-minded folks. But as with my grandparents on my mom’s side, they were pious and said their Muslim prayers daily.
Many years later when I was 19 and we were about to immigrate to the USA (my first time leaving the country) we paid my grandparents one last visit in Shiraz. I remember my granddad’s last advice to me: “Find yourself and marry an Iranian girl. Foreigners won’t remain loyal.” 🙂
A sweet memory that remains fresh in my mind is the soothing sound of an antique (probably German) alarm clock they had, which sounded around 5am, before sunrise, to wake them up for the morning prayer. I loved waking up to that sound, even though I didn’t have to get up to pray at that age. It was as if a gentle sweet whisper to me that spoke of love and infinite calmness.
Indeed, Paramhansa Yogananda said God has 8 aspects: Love, Peace, Calmness, Joy, Light, Sound, Power, Wisdom. Note that these exist beyond creation. Their essence is unworldly.
A painful thing for me is that I never got to see them again, once leaving Iran. Some years after we moved to the US, they both transitioned from this world (they died within several months of each other). Towards the end, my grandmother had had a stroke and lost her ability to talk. It was frustrating and heart-breaking when we talked long distance over the phone. She would utter words that were meaningful to her, but we couldn’t make out what she was saying. So all I could respond was “Yes, I miss you too.” etc.
Many years later, my cousin (also their grandson) asked me if there was something from their house stuff that I wanted as a souvenir. I asked for that alarm clock. He found and delivered it to me. I digitally recorded its soothing alarm sound and made it my alarm ring on my phone. Here is the sound that I wake up to every morning: