Photograph by Shannon McIntyre
Locate Your Inner GPS
Philosophy Guru: Mariam Safinia on connecting with your
Bio: Founder and teacher, Northern California School of Practical Philosophy.
Mariam Safinia welcomes her students warmly, often with a hug. The School of Practical Philosophy may be hidden away in a Pleasanton business park, but it’s a welcoming place for those looking for ways to learn to live a more aware and purposeful life.
Safinia asks students to consider life’s big questions: Who am I? What am I doing here? How can I be happy? Inspired by thinkers from the East and the West, her classes teach people practical ways to ease their modern lives—especially how to tame that noisy and often critical voice inside their heads.
“If you can see it, you can’t be it,” she says about confronting negative thoughts. “If you see judgment or frustration, then you have a hope of stepping away from it.” “Most of the time, we don’t hold ourselves responsible [for what goes wrong] but think it’s the other person,” Safinia says. “Whatever you put your attention on grows. If you put attention on, ‘Why did this happen to me?’ that begins to grow. When you’re aware and see your mind going down dark alleys, bring it back.”
Safinia established the NorCal branch of The School of Practical Philosophy more than a decade ago. Everyone, including teachers, works for free at the nonprofit school, one of more than 70 campuses worldwide. Classes are inexpensive; the first 10-week series costs only $10. Some of her students are longtime friends. Comforting casseroles are shared at lunch, and sometimes there’s even cake.
Safinia knows firsthand the difference The School of Practical Philosophy can make. Formerly an architect in Iran, she left her homeland during the Iranian Revolution. She landed in London, where she built a successful real estate career and encountered the school. Ten minutes into her first class, she was hooked.
“I was already a bit of a spiritual tourist, attending one of the first lectures Deepak Chopra gave,” she says. “So I turned up at the lecture and sat in front with big shoulder pads—I was a successful businesswoman—and a few minutes in, I put the notepad down and just listened. I became aware of the commenting in my own head. I’d never been aware of that before.”
After she was diagnosed with cancer, the school moved the class downstairs for her. “It sustained me through chemo and all that,” she says. “The exploration of inner space is bigger than all the space out there. Once you discover this, you live a different life with no fear,” she says. “I can’t remember the last time I was angry. That attitude has helped me with cancer.” When Safinia and her husband retired from paid work in London, they moved to California to join their kids and grandkids. She began teaching practical philosophy courses, which led her to open the Pleasanton branch of the school in 2004. The response from students has allowed Safinia to add courses in San Jose and San Francisco.
The courses start with series one, Wisdom, which offers exercises in awareness, remedies for negative feelings, and ways to live more purposefully. In this class, Safinia urges her students to “listen to the sound of your voice when you’re speaking. If you notice your voice getting shrill, that’s your ego getting involved. If you listen to the sound of your voice, wisdom kicks in and helps you modulate.”
Safinia leads students in short exercises to help them connect with their senses and focus their minds with meditation. “Connecting your busy mind to one of your senses is the only way to come into the present,” she says. She advises students to practice meditating in the morning and in the evening before dinner, sitting for at least two minutes to reduce the noise in their heads.
“Within a week or two, this turns on the light inside; we become aware of being angry and can step away,” she says. Safinia also coaches students in her Wisdom class to ask themselves: What would a wise person do? “What would the grown-up in you say you should do?” she asks, noting that it’s better to listen to the wisest voice within, rather than the negative thoughts that surround us. Most of the time, the wise voice tells you what not to do. “This is your GPS.”
“Once you clean the windows of the mind and heart, the sun shines and the world changes,” Safinia says. www.practicalphilosopher.org
Five Tips for Living Your Best Life
1. Allow the mind to rest each day. Meditate, starting at two minutes, in the morning and in the evening before dinner.
2. Listen to the sound of your voice when you’re speaking. Notice if you become shrill. If you hear judgment or anger, try to move away from that.
3. Do one thing at a time. Doing many things at once increases stress.
4. Always be on the lookout for new teachers in life. Strive to keep your mind and heart open.
5. Consult that wise person inside of you. Ask what she would do, rather than listening to what your negative thoughts might tell you to do.