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Heart of Design ConversationS

Proportion, Beauty and Reflecting the Divine with Kabir Helminski

In this conversation series, we explore design as a spiritual practice with creative leaders, spiritual teachers, and startup founders from around the world. Here, Peter Gould interviews Spiritual Teacher and Author, Kabir Helminski

Kabir Helminski’s wonderful book Living Presence has been a constant and treasured companion throughout my spiritual journey, with invaluable insights into mindfulness, consciousness, creativity, and much more. I spoke with Kabir about the relationship between design and spirituality, and the challenge of being heart-centered in an increasingly digital world.

“There's a conscious understanding of proportions, and an innate, intuitive understanding of the beauty of proportions,” smiles Kabir Helminski as I ask him about the relationship between design and spirituality, and how inner coherence and outer beauty are intertwined.

“If we are coherent in ourselves – in proportion with ourselves – then what we produce is more likely to be naturally in harmony, and have a kind of beauty to it,” he continues.

“We express what we are inside. But also, what we expose ourselves to outside also affects us inside. To allow ourselves to be in an environment where we take these things into account is important.”

Talking with Kabir is a joy, and a conversation I have been looking forward to for a long time.

A Sheikh of the Mevlevi Order of Sufism  – a 750 year old order that preserves the spiritual teachings of mystic and poet Mevlâna Jalâluddîn Rumi – Kabir wears the mantle of Sufi master, educator and publisher with ease.

As well as being a highly respected translator of Rumi and other Sufi poetry, he is director of the Threshold Society in the US, which he founded more than 40 years ago with his wife Camille to provide training programs, seminars and retreats that facilitate “the experience of Divine Unity, Love, and Truth in the world”.

He is also a renowned author in his own right, having published his own poetry, as well as notable books on Sufism. His 1992 work Living Presence: A Sufi Way to Mindfulness and the Essential Self is one of the most treasured items in my library, having been recommended by my good friend and founder of Productive Muslim, Mohammed Faris.

The book explores spiritual principles and timeless wisdoms, and how we can absorb and integrate them into every aspect of our daily lives – from our intentions and thought processes, to our interactions with one another and connection to the divine.

It has attracted countless seekers and thinkers in recent years, including notable media personality Russel Brand, who explores its influence on his own life.

As a designer, I was – and still am – struck by the way Kabir’s discussions on presence, self-awareness, and how the spiritual path applies to creativity and entrepreneurship, and as we talk I’m curious to hear his thoughts on why it feels so easy and natural to find such a close relationship between spirituality and design. Without hesitation, he goes straight to the core.

“Why don’t we start with the Qur’an?” he replies. “It says the human form was designed in the most beautiful proportions. And the word ‘Qadr’, which is the name of one of the chapters of the Qur’an and can be understood in many ways as power and destiny, also has a root meaning of ‘proportioning’.

“So everything in this existence is proportioned. Which means it is designed, and also means that it is musical. Music wouldn't be music if the notes weren't proportioned in particular ways, and there's a whole science of scales, just as there's a whole science of proportions.

“There seems to be something objective and musical about the way life is designed. And we know that the Golden Mean proportion is the key to that.”

“There seems to be something objective and musical about the way life is designed.”

For centuries, the Golden Mean, or Golden Ratio, has been a subject of fascination for mathematicians, artists, designers, architects, biologists, and countless other groups of people.

Represented by the Greek letter Phi, the Golden Ratio is about 1.618, and is related to the Fibonacci Sequence – a never-ending sequence of numbers that start with 0 and 1, and continue by adding the previous two numbers: 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, and so on.

The ratio and sequence are found throughout the natural world – from pine cones and snail shells to faces, fingers, DNA and galaxies. And it’s this naturalness that has made it so appealing to designers and artists throughout history. Graphic design platform Canva lists the pyramids of Giza, the Parthenon in Athens, Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam, Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, and the Pepsi logo as clear – and diverse – examples of the Golden Ratio in action.

“I remember discovering the proportions of margins that were used by the old masters when making books,” continues Kabir. “They would have the gutter, and then they enlarge it a little bit at the top margin, and then enlarge it a bit more on the outside margin, and then a bit more on bottom margin.

“It actually drives me crazy when a publisher produces a book with apparent disregard for all of these principles – especially when they cram too much onto the page. Because space is another element of design, and you need to give the right amount of space to words on the page.”

Mindfulness in our work

I understand where Kabir is coming from - not just in relation to books, but in many other types of design. You can feel instinctively when something isn’t right – whether the spacing of a page, typography, pattern, building, or whatever else it might be.

I think again of Kabir’s comments about our “innate, intuitive understanding of beauty and proportions”, and the relationship between our inner coherence and what we produce outwardly.

It’s an interplay that fascinates me, and I have tried over the years to establish a more holistic understanding of my purpose and work – having more mindfulness and presence in what my team and I are creating.

For example, by having greater sincerity and consciousness at work, we can more easily see design as a way to illuminate hearts, empower livelihoods, and transform communities. And by practising contentment and gratitude, we can exercise humility and gracefulness by appreciating any success as gift – as well as accepting challenges and setbacks as learning and wisdom on the path to growth.

But while these are the basis for our routine daily reflection, Kabir explained that “there are so many things to take into consideration with design”.

“Take vibration for example,” he said. “One thing I’m conscious of is the Schumann Resonance, which is the natural resonance of the Earth’s magnetic field, which is 7.83 hertz, meaning 7.83 beats per second. And when the human nervous system, when brain waves are synchronised to that, that’s the meditative state. That’s the calm, deep meditative state.

“So there are objective values as well, and resonances, overtones, and all of those things. This is also design, and can be used by designers of all types in many ways.”

A question of consciousness

Kabir’s layers of thinking about design – and how proportion, vibrations, music and more all play a central role – seem a world away from design today. Certainly there feels like a much stronger focus on budgets, deadlines, and designing for distraction today – especially in the increasingly digital world, where brands and platforms are constantly vying for your attention.

I asked Kabir how designers today could take inspiration from craftspeople of the past, who may have had a much more natural or inherent understanding of Ikhlas (sincerity / consciousness), Niyya (intention), Ihsan (beauty / craftsmanship), and other principles rooted in tradition and spirituality – despite the pressures of today’s commercial reality.

“This is a deep moral question, and a question of consciousness,” he replied.

“How do we stay balanced in this hasty world and in this overly commercialised, overly monetized world? And that’s an ethical dilemma - until you get to the point where you can call the shots as a designer, but not everybody is in that position, for lots of reasons.

“How do we stay balanced in this hasty world and in this overly commercialised, overly monetized world?”

“One thing I would say is that respecting our materials is important. I had the privilege of working with a great filmmaker and designer from India called Muzaffar Ali, and everything he does is imbued with beauty, with texture.

“Before making a film, he would start with fabrics. He would have a sense of the fabrics that would be in the film – to inspire him, orient him. The region he was from had been known for its exquisite fabrics, but had been declining into poverty for many years as people lost the craft traditions of the region. He himself was the hereditary Maharaja of that region, though they’re not officially Maharajas any more, and he took it upon himself to begin to reintroduce the traditions of craftsmanship and create a new market for these things. So through his sense of beauty and sense of craftsmanship, he revived an economy.

“His films grew out of these fabrics, which became in a way characters in his films. He maintained integrity of the fabrics, of the region, and of his craft. And actually I think ‘integrity’ is a good translation of Ikhlas.”

In terms of the digital world, Kabir voiced his concerns over the shift away from the material towards the virtual – not only in the tools we use and create, but in ourselves as well.

“When faced with a digital world, this really is a challenge because the digital world is taking everything to a virtual world. And here we come upon a subject of immense importance,” he said.

“It seems that more and more humanity is being confronted with a possible non-human future. Transhumanism – soulless humans who think that we can put out memory into digital form and resurrect ourselves. Or soulless people who think we can connect our human mind and nervous system to the cloud and create a fusion of artificial intelligence and human intelligence. Which can never be done except through dehumanisation.

“If they’re successful, the qualitative dimension of life will be left out. And I mean the qualitative dimension because this heart is our instrument for perceiving the world qualitatively; for perceiving value. It’s the heart that knows what should be valued. It’s the heart that values relationships, intimacy, beauty. AI cannot perceive the beautiful. Yes, we can teach it some principles and it might fake it for a while, but it will never know beauty. It will never experience beauty. Beauty is our point of contact with love. And love is our point of contact with divine reality.

“It’s the heart that knows what should be valued. It’s the heart that values relationships, intimacy, beauty. AI cannot perceive the beautiful.”

“I’m not against digital tools - I use them all the time and I value them. But we’re in danger of moving too much into the virtual world, and beginning to be seduced into that virtual synthetic reality. And it will be a reality with increasingly less heart.”

Designed for truth

I agree with Kabir’s concerns, and feel sometimes uneasy navigating this increasingly digital future, with the potential for the likes of VR and AI to take us further away from heart-centeredness. While I don’t claim to have any answers to the difficult questions being put to us, I do relate to the journeys by many designers  find something ‘more’ – especially through my own journey with Islam – and I feel this sense of  ‘seeking’ could be an interesting window through which we create  conversation about designing with heart, and finding deeper meaning in our work.

I asked Kabir what he saw the role of more spiritually-grounded designers to be in the modern era; suggesting it can be difficult to design things that help people explore closeness to the divine.

“Well, it is and it isn’t difficult,” he replied. “The reason it shouldn’t be hard is that we, as  human beings, are designed for Haq. We’re designed for truth, and we’re designed for coherence.

“We, as human beings, are designed for Haq. We’re designed for truth, and we’re designed for coherence.”

“What I believe has happened, beginning early in the 20th Century, is that Western civilization, and eventually all societies, have moved more and more towards a state of incoherence. One can speculate on the reasons for this, but leaving those things aside for the moment, you can look at things like 12-Tone music, which disregards the beautiful proportions and harmonies of nature. And also the introduction of abstract art, even abstract expressionism, which I can appreciate in some ways, but when compared to the old masters – or even more so with the most beautiful Islamic designs, or the designs of traditional and indigenous culture – you often see a kind of grotesqueness. It’s in our architecture, it’s in our cities, it’s in everything that is governed by mere profit and exploitation.

“It’s a moral failing – that’s what’s at the root of  it – but I feel that people may be getting exhausted with this incoherence. I hope so. My hope is that people will admit their exhaustion, understand why they’re exhausted, and begin to turn it around.

“Maybe we had to descend to a certain point where we could be hurting enough as human beings, where our humanness is being denied, for people to become hungry and thirsty for something. They might not know what that ‘something’ is, but they know what they’ve currently got is not it.

“People need the food of beauty. They need the food of something that reflects the higher worlds. And that’s another question for designers: How will the higher worlds be reflected in this world? How can a designer reflect something of the worlds in a way that is not just appropriate, but also appropriate to our time?

“People need the food of beauty. They need the food of something that reflects the higher worlds.”

“I think that by returning to our own innate knowing, by achieving a certain degree of presence, intentionality, and open-heartedness, then our work will also change - as will what we reflect into the world.”

“I think that by returning to our own innate knowing, by achieving a certain degree of presence, intentionality, and open-heartedness, then our work will also change - as will what we reflect into the world.”

We continued this line of discussion, and aligned it more closely with Islam. Kabir told me about a friend he met in Damascus some years ago who created a collection of poems based on each Surah of the Qur’an.

“It shows that the Qur’an is a source of inspiration,” he said. “It didn’t come down to be some kind of dogmatic program, demanding obedience. The Awliyah (in Islam, those of a high spiritual station) never saw it that way – they were inspired by it instead.

“This revelation is the fount of inspiration, of creativity. It has produced civilisations before, but not for several centuries – quite the contrary. Something happened, and we have to reckon with what happened, because creativity has become remarkably absent for some centuries.

“But I believe it’s changing now – there is some hope of a rebirth: A renaissance of Islamic creativity.”

This last phrase made my whole being smile. I truly believe this renaissance is taking place, with more and more people revisiting, appreciating and becoming more familiar with the beautiful timeless principles of Islam.

I’ve been fortunate to see young people in Indonesia, Istanbul, San Francisco, Sydney, London, and elsewhere around the world, build things, make things, try things, and imagine things with Ikhlas and Ihsan.

And while there’s no getting away from the encroaching hyper-digitalisation all around us, seeing so many people working, designing and creating with intention, sincerity and beauty is incredibly encouraging; showing just what can happen when we find coherence within ourselves and live with presence.

Peter Gould is the founder of Gould Studio, and advocates for Heart-Centered Design to inspire meaningful products & brands that align with spiritual aspirations. He teaches The Heart of Design program and is currently writing a book on the subject. For more interviews, news and insights, please sign-up to the Gould Studio newsletter.

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