My first experience of the Faith was when I was two months old. After being spiritually uplifted and enjoying the company at a Bahá’í gathering in London, my parents actually forgot me at the host’s house in a pram! Then twenty years later they left me at Cardiff University, and sure enough I found more of these Bahá’ís. However, my life started on this earth quite placidly apparently. I didn’t cry; I was notably hairy and seemed to take in the new light of life in good temperament. I was born a year and two months before my sister Anneli, to my parents Angela Hyman and Howard Stollar who were both from Jewish families. By blood I couldn’t be more Jewish if I tried. By upbringing I wasn’t circumcised and I didn’t have a Bar mitzva – that’s a big deal. However some of my earliest memories are of going to sleep with Dad singing prayers to me and my sister. My parents were both deeply spiritual though never conforming to organised religion. This was not a rejection of faith, but on the contrary, their breaking the mould was rather an investigation of Truth and seeking the Divine. Their interest in meditation and contemporary spiritual influences was never forced or prescribed; it was just implicit in their actions and my upbringing. This is my foundation and I am most thankful for it.
My childhood was relatively happy with many positive influences. A love of nature and the outside were big features. My Dad’s allotment, local Epping Forest, hiking holidays around the UK every year, Cubs, Scouts, fishing, and epic bike rides, all connected with me and instilled a passion for the natural and built environment. On the other hand, other influences made me incredibly materialistic. Friends’ holidays abroad; their computer consoles; additional sweet money; expensive trainers. These things were all OK in moderation, but I had a jealous streak and it challenged my parents’ endeavours. I’m grateful to them for sticking to their wholesome principles but also for being understanding and flexible. I was brought up as a vegetarian. At twelve years I tried my first hamburger at a friend’s birthday party. I liked it, and my vegetarian mother cooked meat for me and my friends through my teenage years. Thanks Mum.
Different forces in my life played out and influenced me in different ways. Bike rides and fishing trips turned into expeditions without fathers, and trips out into the forest were now accompanied by alcohol. However, as a tight knit group of friends our appreciation for the natural world continued and we passionately shared alternative ideologies, music and pseudo spiritual experiences. Then, we found alternatives to alcohol and then alternatives to those alternatives! This was during the 90s but tapping into the 60s spirit of induced mind exploration. Amazingly I kept steady in my studies and my passion for art and education continued and I did well in my grades. However, as always with drugs the shadow side is ever present. What was clear however was that what started as an innocent exploration was beginning to go beyond moderation, and thank God that’s when I found a book of my father’s, Self-realization by Sadguru Sant Keshavadas. His philosophy of Yoga (Union), Universal Love and Brotherhood, of Devotion and the Divine, spoke to me and confirmed me in my thinking and the experiences I had been having over the previous few years, with and without intoxicants.
Though I never met Sadguru I did attend the Sivananda Yoga centre for Yoga classes and it was like fish to water. The religious philosophy and the discipline it instilled upon me made it fairly easy to let go of the grip drugs was having in my life. I gave up alcohol, I became vegetarian again, I was chanting mantras, and my philosophies and religious fervour became pronounced. I began to veer away from my latter social activities and found solace in satsang at the yoga centre. It’s upon this wave that I rode into Cardiff to the Welsh School of Architecture in 2000.
Architectural school was intense. Creative, rigorous and a discipline which was entirely new and exciting. I enjoyed working in a studio environment and living in shared accommodation in halls. I was certainly eccentric with my new spiritual practices of no alcohol, celibacy, vegetarianism etc., but I always felt respected, and started off my life in Cardiff how I wanted to live it. During these first experiences of University even though my life was quite coherent I still frequently contemplated on renouncing mainstream life to become a Sannyasi or at least after my studies. I was on a spiritual high, naturally intoxicated, but I often struggled to keep grounded. This was further heightened by a spell of unrequited love and shamanic practices and like anyone flying into the sun I would get my wings burnt, and it happened very abruptly, and inevitably I had to ‘come down’.
This marked my first experience of depression – plunging into a place of deep fear and melancholy. I became fragile and unconfident; I couldn’t concentrate in my work and very rapidly withdrew. Friends and tutors became concerned, and everything culminated in going back to my family home in London to be house and bed bound for 3-4 months and even hospitalised for two weeks. Remarkably I emerged from the hole around nine months later. Quite a journey, and especially for close family and friends.
Back in London I got a job in a surveying company, reconnected with people and was extremely happy to have my life back. In fact the next year was one of the most pleasing and stable years of my early and mid-twenties. My 21st birthday was a milestone. My spiritual practices became moderate and I enjoyed a more balanced approach to life. Physically and mentally I became stronger and regaining my confidence and enthusiasm decided that I would go back to Cardiff and resume my architectural studies.
This decision enabled a very important friendship with a fellow architectural student Arash Ebrahimzadeh, who was in the new second year I had joined. We clearly had spiritual perspectives which we enjoyed sharing and which resulted in an invitation to a Bahá’í gathering at his house.
Looking shifty on the street corner, I thought I had been given the wrong address as I waited for an answer and any sign of a meeting. I felt I was being tested, but I was eventually heard and transported to Jody Koomen’s attic. It was cosy, candle filled, draped with fabrics and crammed with a healthy number of young kindred spirits all contributing to the beautiful devotional atmosphere. I don’t remember the content of the writings except feeling a slight aversion to the high religious language. Nevertheless, it was the words with melodies that Jodie sang and played that truly moved me and I continued to attend the weekly Bahá’í devotionals.
Thus, I completed my studies in 2004, while really enjoying what Cardiff had to offer. The straightforward route now would have been to do a fourth year in work practice as part of my studies. However, based on my holistic interests, previous health issues and a very lucid dream guiding me to Spain and France, I decided to take a year out. I attended a handful of Bahá’í gatherings during this time, but it didn’t nourish me fully as it had done in Cardiff. I began to become depressed once more, and dabbling again in intoxicants just made things worse.
My struggle to balance my spiritual life coherently with my feet in the world was creating stress and unhealthy decision-making, and I arrived back in Cardiff somewhat unstable and indecisive about life. A dark hole of depression began to open up again. Despite my efforts I was slipping, though incredibly as I did, I managed to secure a job just before I plummeted, and this acted as a rope back out several months later but again not without a little help from my friends and family.
Jody’s attic had gone, but after my emergence I was introduced to the wider Cardiff Bahá’í community through a beautiful tranquillity zone at the Sherman Theatre, organised by spiritual sister-to-be, Jessica Naish. Soothed and inspired I expressed my desire to hold a similar event and without hesitation, others accompanied me for weekly devotionals at my house. So many beautiful friends came through my door. Creative ideas from myself or others were nearly always incorporated into the evenings. During that year, my friendship with the Bahá’ís and community of interest deepened, and seamlessly a Ruhi Course Book 1 was initiated, culminating in an intensive study the following summer at Cranmore Tower with Jessica, Jo Harding and other youth, which had a profound effect on me. Bahá’u’lláh’s exhortations and prayers had permeated my being over the years and it was at Cranmore, in a natural setting, accompanied by the arts in that inspired environment, that I was truly moved. This was further consolidated a month later by the sweetness and bliss of the ‘Earthing the Spirit’ festival, a Bahá’í-inspired event in the wild lands at Burnlaw, Northumberland. There, quietly and without prompting, I knew I would inevitably become a Bahá’í. However, my mind was not yet satisfied and I needed to learn further lessons until I fully embraced the Faith.
I went through some very dark times during the following eight month period, but happy faces, listening ears, prayers, and remembering my spiritual roots (my family), pulled me through. My love affair with the Faith continued and my weekly devotionals never stopped. During April 2006 my declaration of faith in Bahá’u’lláh was sealed among the spring blossoms of Ridván accompanied by Jessica’s overjoyed spirit. However, it wasn’t a heightened moment for me. I was very depressed because on a fundamental level I could not meet my Creator fully and surrender to His will. The words of my declaration felt empty. It wasn’t until I started to willingly serve and draw on my capacities that I opened fully to Baha’u’llah’s grace, which seemingly happened outside of my awareness.
The institutional process was an instrument wielded with great skill by the Cardiff community in easing my coming into the fold, deepening and service to the Faith. Book 1 for me was a real catalyst, touching concepts which are universal and unarguably profound. Book 2 was a consolidation appropriately timed after my declaration. Despite many obstacles such as time and numbers, we finished the last section four or five months later with just the tutor, Thenna. He was a rock as well as a good friend, with whom I have had the pleasure of living, serving alongside and later being best man at his wedding. Book 3 was a two-weekend intensive event with tutor Nirvana and fellow participants Naja and Sorrel. We went straight into action the next weekend helping with an established children’s class in Chepstow. Naturally the next stage was to establish a children’s class in Cardiff but despite efforts we were unable to attract any children. However I really enjoyed this arena of service so every Sunday I prepared for classes, children or no children. Then, as if by magic, one weekend I was asked to assist Bahá’í friends who had just established a class in the difficult Newport area. The venue, Pill Millennium Centre, was teaming with raw energy and if you were prepared to dig below the surface you could really detect ‘man as a mine rich in gems of inestimable value.’ It was vital to bring service into reality while concepts were still fresh. My service in children’s education was something greatly encouraged in the South Wales Cluster. Despite my tendency to be serious, I am a child at heart like most of us and being invited to take part in this core activity set the foundation for my work with children and youth, which I love, and am still deeply passionate about.
While I was living in Daniel Street with Bahá’ís Thenna Abbas and Kalim Bartlett and down the road from Omid Behi, a youth movement had begun to surge in Cardiff which for those of us involved formed an important part of our Bahá’í identity. Tessa (later Abbas) and Peter Nightingale had recently come into the Faith and there was a significant community of interest. Social as well as formal Bahá’í events took place in our house and beyond. Being in these environments and attending feasts started to further intensify Bahá’u’lláh’s influence on me although I was still somewhat reactive and being supported rather than proactive in my service and community activities. Wounds from my previous depressions still ran deep, but it was the decisive move Thenna and I made to 88 Cosmeston Street that really initiated my healing. Our live-in landlady Nirvana, sister and friend, had always been a source of encouragement to me and a networker in the Cardiff community. Her house was often a focus of the Bahá’í community and this escalated when it became a Bahá’í household to Kerry McGrath, Thenna and me, and later Kalim, Katie and Tessa. The house at 88 Cosmeston Street began to assume a role as the Cardiff Bahá’í centre, at least as far as I was concerned. Thursday night devotionals and Sunday children’s classes were held regularly, as well as the numerous feasts, Holy days and impromptu socials.
Shortly after I moved in, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. I don’t remember my immediate emotional response to her illness, and perhaps the geography that separated me from her day to day suffering buffered me. Either way the visits that I made home to London between full-time work commitments were heartfelt and beautiful. The most wonderful visit occurred during the Regional Bahá’í London conference in December 2009. Despite my mother’s recent breast surgery, with open arms my parents put up myself and four of the Abbas family so that we could attend the conference. My parents had always been happy and content with my chosen religious path as a Bahá’í, as they could see first-hand its positive effect on me, so to share close Bahá’í friends and the spirit of the conference with them was a tremendous bounty. It was after the conference that I truly accepted the Faith in heart, mind and action and it now ‘felt’ right to call myself a Bahá’í. I was healing, and in many areas of life I had become content and happy and by the spring of 2009 my mother had also made a full recovery with a new spiritual vigour in her life.
When I first saw Derek Greenbury at a Cluster Reflection meeting I immediately thought of the character Strider, from The Lord of the Rings – understated, but clearly noble, brave and enduring of hardship. Derek practised and taught meditation and this common interest of ours led to his holding weekly meditations alongside all the many other activities at 88 Cosmeston Street. His unconventional, intimate and loving approach attracted many of our friends in a spirit of trust and self-discovery. During this time Derek was also renovating a property in Bulgaria, and was devotedly developing it as a Bahá’í-inspired Arts Retreat. His invitation to involve me, both hands-on and logistically, I gratefully received. Much of his vision and sentiments for the property were similar to my own work in ecology, community and sustainability. Though different in our creative and lifestyle approaches we worked well together and developed a close friendship and partnership. I spent a couple of weeks at the residence over the summer of 2009 and shortly afterwards I amicably left my full time job which over two years had served as a wonderful foundation in my architectural career. Leaving the stability of my job and continuing with freelance architecture and Yoga teaching for income I joined Derek with a view to doing a year of service in Bulgaria in the New Year. I down-sized in 88 Cosmeston Street to a box room, started to learn Bulgarian and at the same time started to think about marriage. Many of my close friends were in the process of courtship and it was never far away from my mind to share my life with a companion in my new endeavours. I turned to internet dating site ‘Two Doves’ and started a wonderful process with a fellow Bahá’í wayfarer from Canada. Ariana and I shared many mutual interests and beautiful exchanges over email and post and a beautiful flower began to grow and create further healing in my life.
A year later after her recovery my mother’s cancer returned abruptly to her liver. Within a matter of months she was in a hospice. I was so blessed to have the flexibility in my work and lifestyle to be close to her during this time. In the fasting month (Ala or Loftiness) 2011 she passed away with the most remarkable detachment and beauty. This was one of the most remarkable, spiritually confirming experiences in my life. Life after death had always been a reality for me and to share this experience with my immediate family with a similar belief made a natural mourning also a profound celebration of life and of the life beyond. Many of us felt and still feel deeply connected with my mother’s beautiful soul.
With my mother’s passing and the release of the message for the new Five Year Plan from the Universal House of Justice, it was a time for incredible change for me. I remember clearly waking up one morning from a dream and deciding I would finish my architectural studies.
My postgraduate studies were taken at The Centre for Alternative Technology, Machynlleth, Wales, in which I had the freedom and now the maturity to explore concepts I had aborted during my previous studies. My primary Thesis was the implementation of consensus group design practices for a Bahá’í House of Worship in the UK. My chosen site and brief was the development of Cranmore and its historical tower. Owner Fahad was extremely open-minded and supportive of the design/ spiritual process that was undertaken. We were a small diverse collection of professionals and non-professionals, youth and adults, Bahá’ís and non-Bahá’ís, and through a genuine collaboration and consultation brought forth wonderful fruits for a Mashriqul-Adhkar and its associated development. It was a beautiful opportunity to engage with such a special environment years after taking my Book 1 here.
Amidst my studies and new responsibilities, I had two very special invitations. One from the Department of Pilgrimage in Haifa and the other from the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of India for their National Committee for Property and Legal Matters (NCPLM). The first I embraced without hesitation but the other needed some consideration. Several years ago a serendipitous meeting with a Bahá’í friend at an under-30s networking event had somehow constructed a line of contact to the property secretary Dr. Abrol, who enquired whether I would be interested in a year of service to restore, design and oversee constructions of Bahá’í properties across India. My pilgrimage was a beautiful, gentle and joyful occasion and whilst in the shrine of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá praying about marriage, an exhilarated, joyful affirmation took over my being to take the opportunity to serve in India.
In my 31st year I left Wales and landed in India and in the capable hands of my Indian guide, colleague, uncle, and friend, Doctor Sandeep Abrol and his wise elder brother ‘Bossy’. Such a warm welcome was to mark the many other arrivals I made on rickshaw, train, bus, coach, car, motorbike, donkey, bicycle, foot, aeroplane, as I traversed the Indian sub-continent over the nineteen months I was there. Together with the Indian Bahá’í friends, we shouldered the many works to implement the guidance and vision from the Universal House of Justice. I could never have imagined what we achieved in our services over a relatively short period. To give you an idea, India has over three hundred properties either in use or in the jurisdiction of the NCPLM. As with any building or site there is an ongoing need for maintenance, development, and protection, especially in the context of a dynamic Bahá’í community whose needs and aspirations require appropriate spaces and places to uplift, expand, grow, and sustain. This has brought many challenges, responsibilities and opportunities for the national, regional and local institutions and communities, the importance of which is recognised by the Universal House of Justice. In 2012 The House consulted with the NCPLM and published a letter to guide the Indian community. Thus, broadly speaking, my work was divided into the following areas to implement a national vision for the restoration and design of Bahá’í properties across India:
Record and survey existing properties
Supervise work on site
Renovate, reconfigure and maintain properties to current standards and needs
Create new spaces for institution functioning.
Systematise procedures and establish standards of construction and maintenance.
Empower and raise the capacity of communities and co-workers to carry out design and construction activities
On a personal level my time away was understandably profound. Lessons learnt, new capacities drawn upon, physical, mental and spiritual hardship, re-orientation and re-definition of culture and boundaries. It was also here that I met my future wife, Tuhina Gupta. We spent a beautiful couple of months investigating each other’s qualities and our compatibility through serving together and the study of the Writings. Despite our affection and liking of one another we very amicably decided for personal and practical reasons not to pursue marriage. However, the next two and half years were to profoundly re-orientate our whys and wherefores.
‘India’ and her spiritual legacy had already featured profoundly in my life but in a very different way to experiencing the country and people first hand! Intrinsic to my service was an uncomfortable shedding of layers exposing the beauty and ugliness in myself, humanity and the environment and a process which did not start or finish when I arrived and left her borders.
I returned a single man to the UK in May 2014 with gratitude, a little fragile, but relieved and excited about the next phase of life. I quickly had a focus and a small income in Cardiff while I put 88 Cosmeston Street back into order, and shortly after moved up to Scotland to be near my father and stepmother whilst taking a work opportunity at the local Steiner Kindergarten. I had always loved my voluntary work in Bahá’í classes and schools. To be paid in an afternoon care role in a kindergarten, and within a holistic Steiner environment and structure was a wonderful opportunity.
Despite finishing the school year successfully and deepening relationships with colleagues and friends in the highlands I again felt impelled to move back to my home in Cardiff. Despite being in two minds the decision proved fruitful, benevolent, enriching and surprising. The greatest surprise of all was being struck by an inner but solid, joyful affirmation that I would marry Tuhina. It wasn’t something that had been on my radar for months but it was a strong and yet detached impulse. Intuitions and dreams have been a strong source of wisdom during my life and not always acted upon due to mistrust, fear and depression. However, this could not be ignored and so my tentative greeting online and her quick response meant in a matter of half an hour we had decided we would investigate our thoughts on marriage again. After careful but joyful deliberations and a meeting at the World Centre, we are now preparing to be married at the end of 2016.
I am absolutely wonderstruck by the synchronicity, transformation, confirmations and grace which have led me to this point in writing these memoirs. Despite the rocky road and continuing to be a slow learner, in the wake of the 5 Year Plan I’m engaged to be married, working with inspirational yoga teachers and architects and involved in meaningful work and projects. I live in a beautiful city which I can call home, and am close with my family and my family-to-be. I have wonderful friends, and at the heart of these bounties immersed in an irrepressible movement to better myself, my community and ultimately the world, the source of all of which is Bahá’u’lláh and His Revelation. Lest the reader should misunderstand, it is far from perfect, but then, what is perfect. I continue to struggle with my imperfections, and crises and victories are part of my daily rhythm. I have good days and bad, but to paraphrase the late Welsh Bahá’í Kathryn Delpak, as she told me when I first declared, “When you become a Bahá’í nothing necessary radically changes, but our steps become more meaningful, a little lighter and happier and the sun shines a lot more in our lives”. I couldn’t agree more.
Cardiff, October 2016