The universe is benevolent. It wants you to be happy, it wants you to succeed. But it doesn’t want you to overdo it.
We had the honor of interviewing Mariam Safinia. Mariam is originally from Iran but spent most of her life in the UK. She has been a successful business woman, a university teacher, and an architect. Now she is a leader in the Iranian community and founder of the School of Practical Philosophy in the Bay Area. She claims that philosophy is not separate from life, it is an essential foundation to living a happy life. “Most people think of philosophy as ideas found in dusty books. But philosophy means much more than that – it means life and the love of wisdom, and it is delightful.”
Mariam first came to the U.S. when she was 16 years old to attend college and immediately fell in love with the culture and the energy. Both her daughters studied in the US and then settled here and so she visited this country regularly. However, she and her husband came to settle here when she was sixty and retired from her real estate business in England.
On one trip to California, she was in LA helping her daughter move to their new house. As they said goodbye at the airport, her daughter Marjan said, “Thank you so much for all your help but what if one day you needed us? You had better move to America because we will not be going back to Europe.”
She continues that she had an epiphany that night. “I couldn’t sleep. I got up and grabbed a piece of paper and decided to write what I wanted to do with my life. Could we live on our savings? The answer was yes. I realized that I didn’t want to die in England away from my children! That got me thinking that we could actually retire. And that is exactly what we did. We moved here in 2004, right about this time of year.”
She discussed her plans with her philosophy teacher and confessed that what she would miss the most would be the Philosophy School. Her teacher suggested that she start her own school here. Later, when she met the school leader to get his blessing, he asked how old she was. When she told him she was sixty he looked a bit worried. She quickly reassured him, “Don’t worry, I have twice as much energy as a 30-year-old.”
Mariam says she thought “at best maybe ten people would come sit in my house once a week and we would have a class because philosophy has become such an important part of my life. As soon as we settled in the house I put an ad in a free newspaper in San Francisco and somebody called like the next morning. I thought ‘Oh my God, at this rate I’m going to get a thousand calls! But that was the only call I received and he never came to the school.
Then I sent an email to the people I knew in the Bay Area and rented space in Fort Mason. On the first day, 14 people showed up and I thought ‘Wow!’ Later, I realized that those people just came to support me, the way you go to a book signing to buy a book that you may never read. Only five of them came back the following week and that’s how we started – with just five students. Then somebody heard about this and asked if I’d like to give Philosophy classes in Palo Alto. I agreed and soon I was traveling 350 miles a week to teach classes in Palo Alto, San Francisco, Danville and Tiburon. I was a traveling philosopher. I would bring kettles, tea, hot water and put them in the back of my car. I would leave the house at 8 am and wouldn’t be back until 11 pm.”
Life is a journey. Sometimes the traffic lights all turn green for you and sometimes doors keep closing and you’re killing yourself and not getting anywhere. You learn to look for the green traffic lights. Life doesn’t always turn out the way you imagine.
Mariam lives with stage 4 cancer. The fact that she is still here makes her view every day as a gift. She says “we must confront death while we are alive. Then you realize, every breath is a gift, so you dance. You don’t get stuck.”
The first time she was diagnosed in 1990, she went through surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy. After she was finally clear, it still took a couple of years for her to stop thinking of herself as a cancer survivor. ‘When somebody asked me to tell them about myself the first thing I’d say was that I had cancer. One day, I thought this is stupid, I am not this cancer. About the same time, I started at the Philosophy School in London. One of the first lessons we learned was ‘I am not this body.’ She continues, “One day while I was taking a shower, I looked down at the shower tray and saw that my hair was falling out. Just as I was about to cry, I suddenly remembered that if I am not my body, then I am certainly not my hair.
The second-time cancer visited me in 2012, I had a conversation with it and I said ‘If you take up too much space in my body, it will fall apart and we’ll both be homeless. So, you’re welcome to stay if you have to stay but please don’t take up too much space.” After that I came to terms with it.”
She says that she has had a very full life and philosophy is the most important part of it. She tells us that ‘The key to a good life is to practice stillness. Most of us are unplugged. We’re running on batteries. Your phone will work for one day, but if you forget to plug it in, it won’t work the next day. What we teach in the school at the beginning is to take five minutes twice a day and just fall still. But people say they don’t have five minutes and that’s crazy. If you don’t have five minutes it means that there is a major problem in your life. When you meditate, you plug in again; you connect to the source of energy. Then you become much more effective. Many of our problems are self-created. You say something to someone when your mind is somewhere else and then you regret it and need to apologize to that person and try to repair the relationship. People ask me how I do it all. How do you have the time? I always have time for the things that matter. I use my time efficiently.”
Mariam speaks about balancing life. She says “There is a stage in life when you need to raise your children and make a living. Some people have a crazy relationship with money and think that because they have money they must spend it all. Just because there is a lot of food on the table, you don’t have to eat it all. Desires should be measured. There is a season for everything. In the U.S., there is too much emphasis on success. The universe is benevolent. It wants you to be happy, it wants you to succeed. But it doesn’t want you to overdo it.”
She advises Femigrants to ‘clean up the instrument.’ “We are very good at taking a shower every day, but what about the mind? All the garbage goes into our mind and you never flush it out. When you meditate, you clear it out. Twice a day you sit quietly and ensure that your mind is clear.”
Although Mariam has faced many challenges and difficulties in her life, she is very positive about her past and present. “I am really happy with my life, I wouldn’t change anything about it. Mariam says that she is not done learning; she notes that her granddaughter is one of her teachers. She mentions that they influence each other, even without talking. Mariam remembers an important lesson Lily taught her. “When she was 3 years old, I was giving her a bath. She said, ‘Gaga I love you.’ I asked, ‘what do you mean by saying I love you?’ She was playing with her rubber ducks in the bathtub. Without looking up, she replied, ‘it just means when I think of you my heart goes beep-beep-beep.’
Mariam gives advice to young parents about raising their kids, “Two most important things you can give to your children are: First, let them know they are lovable. Tell them that they are loved, they are lovable just as they are. Second, teach them that they are capable – ‘of course you can do this, of course you can tie your shoelaces!’ Always tell your children that they can do it.”
She continues her motherly advice with “whenever you speak to your child, even when they are naughty, when you are angry or in a hurry, you must take a moment, find your peacefulness and then speak to the perfection in them from the perfection in you. Don’t speak to the naughty child – talk to the perfect child. And always speak very respectfully to your child. A lot of parents just shout. Be careful about the tone of your voice. The sound of our voice is very important, not just the words we speak but the sound too.”
It was a great learning experience to talk Mariam. Every point she shared has deep meaning. Her interview was so interesting that we decided to invite her to our live interview via Facebook so she can talk to the Femigrants community and answer their questions directly. She will talk about work, family and life balance.
We highly recommend you to join our Pre-Mother’s Day live interview with Mariam Safinia on her birthday, on Friday, May 12th, 11:30am-12:00pm via Femigrants Facebook Group. She will talk about work, family and life balance.
Script Writer: Gozde Yilmaz
Editors: Giovanny Fnu & Em Elle