Meditations of the Heart and When the Heart Speaks, Listen

One of my favorite Howard Thurman books is Meditations of the Heart.  It was the first of his more than 20 books that I purchased which I gave to my husband as a present.  But then I started reading it and knew that I wanted to know more about this profound man and his life.  The meditations spoke to the core of my being as Howard Thurman asks his readers to ponder more deeply what is at the heart of our daily living.  Are we willing to open our hearts and listen more deeply to the call of the Eternal?

As a spiritual director/companion and retreat leader I am often asked what drew me to the spiritual path after leading a life as a driven, tough, no nonsense professor and college administrator.  I’d been interested in spirituality since I was first introduced to meditation in college.  Like Howard Thurman,  I realized that I was enamored with silence, stillness and solitude and understood that my spirituality was flavored with a contemplative bent.

Despite my spiritual inclinations, my life was dominated by a strong, competitive, type A ego.  In the midst of my drive to achieve fame in the field of psychology, at age 40 I was catapulted into a physical and spiritual crisis.  The diagnosis that a lifelong heart condition had become a life-threatening cardiomyopathy and required a heart transplant triggered the terror which lies in every ego and sparked my spirit simultaneously.  What aided my survival was a re-focus toward inner listening.  This shift manifested as a series of conversations with my old and new hearts as I traversed the unknown and frightening world of a heart transplant recipient.

It all began when I sought therapy because the symptoms of heart failure—shortness of breath, fatigue, swollen ankles, weight loss began to permeate my life.  I could no longer deny that my body was deteriorating.  My therapist who specialized in clients with chronic health conditions and whose approach tended to be eclectic suggested that I utilize a Jungian technique labeled “active imagination” and talk with my heart.

What I imagined would be a solo conversation evolved into twenty-two months of conversations with my hearts—the old one that I lost and the new one that I gained with a transplant.  Their guidance was unparalleled as I rode a real life roller coaster. Despite the fact that I wrote these dialogues to maintain my own sanity, I shared them with a few friends who urged me to distribute them more widely by writing a book.  Perhaps others could benefit from my suffering as well as my triumphs.

The conversations in When the Heart Speaks, Listen-Discovering Inner Wisdom showed me how to uncover the peace and joy in my heart similar to the deep peace and joy I feel when reading Howard Thurman’s Meditations of the Heart.  With both books, there is an invitation to engage in deep inner listening each pointing to a heart that is always available for solace, guidance, consolation and wisdom.  As Thurman writes, “In the stillness of the quiet, if we listen, we can hear the whisper of the heart giving strength to weakness, courage to fear, hope to despair.”  I hope both of these books will inspire you to listen and talk with your heart so you too can uncover more of the peace and joy that lies within.

When the Heart Speaks, Listen—Discovering Inner Wisdom and Meditations of the Heart are available online at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books A Million and can also be ordered through your favorite independent book seller. 

Escape from Fear—Part One

As human spirits, I believe it is our birthright to live in a state of peace and joy.  So each morning the first thing I ask myself is, “Am I feeling peace and joy right now?  If not, why not?”  Next I proceed to search my mind and heart for some thought or feeling that might be blocking my sense of serenity and jubilation.  Often the impediment is linked to some element of fear.

Lately, I have become aware of how I, and the individuals I meet with in spiritual direction, are held hostage by fear.  Easily and quickly I can enumerate a list of fears and how they puncture my peace and steal my joy.  As I reflect on my many apprehensions as well as those I hear in the sacred stories of others, I wonder how we all might lead lives of greater inner freedom.  In “Escape from Fear-Part One,” I will name and describe some fears and in Part Two, discuss potential antidotes.  The fears I address here include the fear to follow my heart’s desires, fear of rejection, fear of success/failure, fears associated with a psychological syndrome called “time urgency perfectionism”  and fears about the body.   Clearly, many people suffer with serious anxiety often requiring medication and therapy.  However, in the next two blogs, my focus is on the common fears that permeate daily living.

Many years ago, I started my career journey.  I knew I needed to take a year off after college but I was afraid I might never return to graduate school.  So despite my trepidations, I entered a PhD program.  I wasn’t particular happy studying social psychology because I had always been drawn to counseling.  I yearned to help people with everyday problems like loss of a job, divorce, or death of a loved one.  But I persevered because I had enrolled at Harvard University and I was afraid to disappoint my family or appear as if I lacked the intelligence or determination to finish their doctoral program.  As I prepared to graduate, I considered pursuing post-doctoral studies in counseling.  Completion of a few requisite courses and some internship hours would have led me to my dream.  Yet I was afraid to turn down the outstanding job offers I’d obtained at University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Duke University, and UC San Diego.  I continued to walk this journey allowing fear to act as my oppressor.  I  permitted concerns about money, reputation, and living up to the perceived expectations of others pin me down onto a path of unhappiness.  It wasn’t that I lacked courage but I wanted certain and calculated outcomes.  I wasn’t a risk taker. 

Recently, I awoke panicked wondering if I was doing enough to promote the release of my new book, When the Heart Speaks, Listen—Discovering Inner Wisdom.  Last summer, I anguished for several days about asking a prominent person for an endorsement.  I feared he would say no or worse yet, read my book and tell me he couldn’t endorse it.  I was experiencing the fear of rejection.  I prayed and finally summoned the inner strength to email him.  He was delighted to write a lovely endorsement. Later I realized what a senseless fear this was. 

Last month I spoke with a woman I hadn’t seen in years.  When Amelia heard that I was publishing a book, she shared her desire to write one as well.  After a recent speaking engagement Amelia was approached by a book editor about a potential book project.  Yet she never followed up.  I was shocked.  Writers send thousands of query letters each day seeking a literary agent or an editor.  I wondered about this bright professional woman—was it fear of success or fear of failure that was kept Amelia from pursuing her aspiration particularly when an editor had expressed interest in her work?

I find that fear of success and fear of failure are different sides of the same coin—fear.  Fear is the way in which the ego inhibits intelligent and competent people from expressing their deepest passions.  Fear of failure is often linked to concerns about making mistakes, being embarrassed or not living up to the expectations of others as I mentioned earlier.  Fear of success is frequently related to an underlying sense of unworthiness.  Sometimes we don’t think we deserve success and happiness because somewhere someone usually a parent, relative, teacher or supervisor, suggested we lacked some essential attribute; a skill, intelligence, physical attractiveness or other characteristic.

A close cousin to fear of success and failure is time urgency perfectionism.  I notice this fear seeping into my days and controlling my life.  Most people are familiar with the notion of perfectionism but perhaps not paired with a time component.   In Faster, Better Sicker, researchers identified a personality type associated with Time Urgency Perfectionism Stress (TUPS).  They write, “These are people who always like things to be perfect and therefore attempt to achieve perfectionism within a defined time frame.”  Such people constantly watch the clock, worry about deadlines and completing tasks perfectly.  The lives of time urgent perfectionists become encased in fear—they agitate over errors and fear there is never enough time.  Yet living from an inner world dominated by fear, experiences of peace and joy elude one’s grasp.  

Occasionally I feel heart palpitations.  In the past, my thoughts would immediately begin to race and descend into a downward spiral. I would tremble about what might be wrong with my body.  I’d wondered—did I need to go to the ER, urgent care or set up an appointment with my cardiologist.  Similarly, I hear about family members, friends of family members, and others who develop preventable health conditions.  Typically, an unwillingness to seek medical attention and then follow the doctor’s instructions is partially to blame.  Some people dig in with denial.  “Oh that pain in my arm—it’s nothing.  I was lifting heavy boxes.”  I cried as I read in Becoming, about Michele Obama losing her precious father.  He was afraid to see what was beyond his swollen feet, and nodule in his neck.  Her dad kept working until it was too late after which there was no possibility for recovery.  I have heard this story far too many times as I reflect on the losses of loved ones in my own life.  Perhaps underlying all of the apprehensions about the body is the fear of death.

Which fears are holding you hostage in your life right now?  When is the last time you felt some deep peace and how long did it last?  And what about joy?  Does joy feel absent in your life, more like an infrequent visit from a long lost love rather than being central to your life?  In “Escape from Fear-Part Two,” I will discuss how we might break the chains of fear.  Meanwhile, I hope you will take a moment to reflect on which fears keep you from feeling the peace and joy in your heart.

Antonio Rodriquez, Edward Wolff, Many Wolff, Faster, Better, Sicker-Time Urgency Perfectionism Stress, available on Amazon as a Kindle download.

My/The Mood of Christmas

Ten days ago, three days before I was to give a public lecture on Howard Thurman’s, The Mood of Christmas and Other Celebrations, I experienced an episode of complete mental exhaustion.  I could not read and every time I moved toward the desk to finish the talk, my mind rebelled.  I took to the bed and slept most of the day only arising to eat,  I felt like I was desperately running out of time.  I had experienced physical exhaustion before but I couldn’t remember ever being so mentally fatigued.

It had been an extraordinary time.  After spending Thanksgiving week caring for Warren’s parents aged 95 and 92 respectively, we drove home to Atlanta from Miami.  A grueling one day drive, we stopped only for bathroom breaks and meals.  Fortunately, the road trip was punctuated by a quick stop by Howard Thurman’s childhood home in Daytona Beach, Florida. 

The day after our return I received the 2nd proofs for my soon to be published book, When the Heart Speaks, Listen—Discovering Inner Wisdom.  I jumped right in knowing that book production deadline are always AS SOON AS POSSIBLE.  After about 3 to 4 days of intense focus and recording each correction or change on a special spreadsheet, I moved to the next task.  Preparing an online retreat for the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation on Howard Thurman’s Jesus and Disinherited was a project that had lingered on my desk far too long. It’s  delayed birth was caused by a number of issues including grieving the passing of my brother in September.  

Once I submitted my final scripts for review, it was time to tackle my presentation on The Mood of Christmas.  In between these tasks, I shopped and purchased (mostly online) Christmas gifts and hosted with Warren, an annual tree trimming party for family, neighbors, and close friends.  People are attracted to this event each year because we make every dish from scratch and I am known for the very fudgy brownies and a sweet potato cheesecake. In addition, I made an artichoke dip and a salmon moose.  The next day, my feet, legs and back ached.  It is not surprising that I crashed.

For year, I have struggled with Christmas.  As a child, Mom and I conducted the majority of Christmas shopping for extended family and I wrapped most of the gifts.  We also decorated the tree, baked Christmas desserts and prepared all of the holiday meals particularly Christmas breakfast and dinner.  By the end of Christmas day I was exhausted and wishing that Christmas occurred every 5 years instead of annually.  As an adult, this tiring experience continued because as a professor final papers and grades were always due just before Christmas.  Typically, I scrambled to purchase and wrap gifts, catch a flight, and often arrived home just in time to help mom with the yearly cooking chores.  

I dreaded Christmas each year yet I married a man who loves Christmas!  He looks forward to cooking desserts and is delighted that he married an expert gift wrapper to help with the same tradition of gift exchange with his extended family.  To say that my mood at Christmas is frazzled and stressed would be an understatement.  I’ve been yearning for something different during the holidays and I found it in Howard Thurman’s, The Mood of Christmas.  

Thurman writes that “as human spirits we need times of celebration to help us to know our significance in the continuity of life, in the flow of life in both a personal and collective way.  This sense of continuity is the ultimate windbreak against the ever-present threat of isolation and separation from surrounding environ.”  He notes that there is something special about the atmosphere at Christmas.  It is unique and distinct from all other times of the year.  The lighting of candles, hanging holiday decorations, construction of crèches, and preparing of festive meals add a special sparkle that lets us know it’s Christmas.  Christmas is truly about  celebration.

Howard Thurman says Christmas is a reminder that God has not left us alone in the darkness-the spirit of Light, the spirit of Love that Jesus let loose in the world is ever-present.  He asserts that Christmas is a time of hope regardless of whether a person is Christian or non-Christian, cheerful or sad, strong or weak.  Christmas is about revisiting or renewing the notion of hope that the Light comes again and again into the darkness of the world.

I am reminded  of the Light within (“This little light of mine”), we each carry, the same light that God placed in us—that cannot ever be extinguished no matter how bad things appear.  The question I pose is can we hold on to this hope, can we not let the “the shadow of the event” as Howard Thurman often names it, dim that light that God has placed in us.  Life continues, life is good because we remain a part of God and each other.  The Peace and Joy of God does not go away because there are wars, hurricanes, floods, fires, or because the political climate changes.  Christmas, with its special mood comes to counteract the mood of the world.  This annual celebration of the birth of Christ stirs hope, brightens that light of the Christ within which may have grown faint during the year.

Christmas is also about remembrance.  We remember the people that we are connected to and the people who have touched us in some beautiful way during the past year.  Christmastime offers a time to reflect on how we think about and relate to others who may differ from ourselves.   Howard Thurman reminds us that “Jesus was not born into an affluent family…Through the ages the message of him whose coming is celebrated at Christmastime says again and again that the destiny of man (sic) on the earth is a good and common destiny—that however dark the moment or the days may be, the redemptive impulse of God is ever present in human life.” (10) 

What is that redemptive impulse?  Thurman describes it this way. “ the birth of Jesus remains the symbol of the dignity and the inherent worthfulness of the common person.  So if the angel’s song is to find fulfillment in the world, it will be through common people becoming aware of their true worthfulness and asserting (italics mine) their generic prerogatives as children of God.”

Thurman also argues that Christmas is about the sharing of graces in a world that in his time he described as callous and uncaring. Yet these same words would describe our atmosphere now in 2018 even though Thurman published this book in 1973.  Christmas is the perfect time to cultivate a spirit of kindness and compassion and if we internalize this spirit, Christmas can be every day.  Perhaps now I am ready to cultivate a different mood at Christmas.

What is your mood this Christmas?  Can you be a bearer of the Light in this cold, dark world?   Does something in your atmosphere this Christmas highlight love, hope, reconciliation, grace, and connection?  How can you cultivate an inner ambience this Christmas that will allow you to feel more of the peace and joy in your heart?

Have You Ever Communicated With Your Heart?

Read about how I survived a heart transplant 24 years ago by talking with and listening to my heart.

This book is now available online at blackrosewriting.com, charisbooksandmore.com, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books A Million and can also be ordered through your favorite independent book seller.

What people are saying about this book:

“Lerita Coleman Brown gave me both a unique biographical thriller and valuable psychological and spiritual insights in this book. The “thriller” is not knowing what will happen next as she took me step by step through her experience of receiving a heart transplant, and its impact on her life.  The insights come from her honest and sometimes humorous dialogues with both her old and her new heart, leading to her advocacy for the reader to pause daily and listen to the deep wisdom and love that our hearts can show us. That listening helps to free us from the dominance of our ego-centered emotions, such as anger, resentment, depression, anxiety, jealousy and fear. The reflection questions along the way gave me an opportunity to examine my own psychological and spiritual experience. I think many readers will find this book both a delight and a helpful guide to truer and fuller personal living.”

Rev. Tilden Edwards, PhD, Founder and Senior Fellow, Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation, author of numerous books.

“In When the Heart Speaks, Listen, Lerita Coleman Brown has given us a rare gift indeed for she has allowed us to join her on a spiritual journey that is both fraught with danger and, ultimately, thoroughly transformative.  Both figuratively and literally, Brown had to let go of her old heart and find a way to accept and to live with a new one.  This intimate and innovative memoir about what constitutes true holistic healing will leave one moved, enlightened and profoundly inspired.”

Jan Willis,  Ph.D., Professor Emerita of Religious Studies, Wesleyan University and  author of Dreaming Me: Black, Baptist and Buddhist

Lerita is courageous–literally.  Her willingness to share these conversations with her hearts–both of them–left me awestruck.  I read this book through tears as my own heart vibrated at the lessons I need to learn in my own life.  There is Truth in this book.  Be prepared.  You will be transformed.

Rev. Dr. Stuart Higginbotham, Rector, Grace Episcopal Church and co-editor of the upcoming book, Contemplation and Community.

“Down through the ages, philosophers, mystics and psychologists have proposed any number of conceptualizations of the elaborate interconnections between the human mind, body and spirit.  For Dr. Lerita Coleman Brown, however, these dynamic interconnections are beyond theoretical; they are vibrantly real.   Dr. Brown has facilitated regular conversations between her own mind, body and soul throughout her 24-year experience as an organ transplant survivor.  The result has taken her beyond mere survival to the construction of a beautifully spiritual and meaningful life.  In When the Heart Speaks, Listen she shares her remarkable and unique experience with all of us. What a wonderful gift!”

Arthur C. Jones, Ph.D., Clinical psychologist, professor, author of “Wade in the Water: The Wisdom of the Spirituals and Founder of the Spirituals Project.

“Captivating!!  In speaking from the heart, Lerita Coleman Brown provides readers with a gift: the roadmap for how to open your heart. She shares her inspiring story of triumph over adversity and all odds, to source true meaning, divine purpose, love, and heartfelt connection.”

Beth Darnall, Ph.D., Clinical Professor, Stanford University School of Medicine, author ofThe Opioid-Free Pain Relief Kit, Less Pain, Fewer Pills,  and Psychological Treatment for Chronic Pain.

Follow the Joy: An Autumn Musing

I recently finished a lovely book, How the Light Gets in—Writing as Spiritual Practice, by Pat Schneider.  As you can see from the picture pasted below, I underlined and tagged many pages.  How the Light Gets In earned a place on my favorite books shelf.  I love books that are part memoir and part instructional manual.  Schneider takes readers on a journey of her life and highlights the links between writing, spirituality, and healing.  In the final chapter, she makes several poignant statements about vocation or calling.  Schneider suggests that each person, no matter what the social category; age, gender, race, or social status possesses a calling.  

Similarly, I would argue even more passionately that each of us is constantly being called.  But most people appear confused about what a vocation or calling is.  My former students believed that vocation or calling are terms only applicable to the ministry.  As I tried to disavow them of this misnomer, I wondered what would happen if educational institutions took the discernment of a vocational or calling as serious as seminaries do.  As an academic adviser, I hoped a structured discernment process existed for students interested in all occupations.  Moreover, the issue of calling arises many times over the course of a lifetime.  Currently, questions about calling dominate my conversations with adults of varying ages, even some I perceive as elders in spiritual direction/companioning.   Pat Schneider maintains one method of discovering a calling is to pay attention to what brings you joy. 

This idea is very similar to Howard Thurman’s famous quote:  “Don’t ask what the world needs.  Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it.  Because what the world needs is people who can come alive” or Joseph Campbell’s admonition “Follow your bliss.”  What would the world be like if every person could listen for and become engaged in work or activities that brought them joy.  Yet the quotes by Thurman and Campbell allude to a different term; passion.  Are they the same or interchangeable experiences?  Synonyms of passion include fervor, enthusiasm, zeal or an intense desire while descriptions of joy include delight, pleasure, happiness, and jubilation.  Is there something special about the feeling of joy that is different from passion?   

I see this contrast playing out in my life.  I held a passion for teaching but now I know deeper joy.  It almost feels oxymoronic for me to declare the delight I feel when I arise to work.  Eagerly I sit down to my desk to write or to greet those who walk through my front door for spiritual direction/companioning.  I look forward to the retreats I lead and talking with spiritual seekers.  What characterizes my present work that seemed absent in my past labors?

Since retiring, I have carved out a set of activities instead of adapting to the tasks associated with my job.  For example, I noted earlier one of my favorite aspects of my profession was advising students.  I could have advised students all day, every day.  I felt especially jubilant when I witnessed a student discover a calling.  What helped me to determine if a students had unearthed a hidden occupational delight?  Often I posed a series of questions and observed their behavior.  I would inquire,  “What would you do if you lacked any constraints, if you had all the time and money in the world?”  “What kind of work would you do for free?” “Which activities bring you joy?”

I noticed as students, seated across from me on a couch or chair, talked about a variety of possible careers, there was a moment in the conversation when they lit up like a Christmas tree.  The light in their eyes and the joy in their voices provided the mighty clues that we had stumbled upon a calling.   

A few students would note their own inner excitement, and pursue that path.  Unfortunately, I also encountered students who could or would not follow their dreams.  Many chose careers that their parents wanted for them or fields of study that might generate the most income.  I would remind them that whatever vocation they chose, it would need to get them out of bed for the next 30 or more years.  I counseled further that some occupational choices would be more difficult to undo than others.  Becoming a doctor for example, involves a deep investment of time, energy, and money.  Further, once students start families and begin to purchase cars and homes, changing careers becomes far more challenging, if not impossible.  What is most remarkable is that my advice was quite similar to Patricia Schneider’s or Howard Thurman’s even though I neither knew of or had read anything by either author at that time.

The experience of joy is important for daily life balance as well.  The frenetic world we live in, burdened with overactivity, overstimulation, and relentless distractions requires counterbalancing.  Joy helps to uncover the counterbalancing activities.  What is most joyful—watching a movie, sitting outside in nature, listening to music, dancing in the living room, or reading a book?  Regardless of the activity selected, it is essential to surround ourselves with our delights.  Otherwise if we become stuck on the treadmill of life, the endless tasks will wear us down.  We must get off for some rest and fun.

Where is joy beckoning you?   Following it whether it leads you to the kitchen to bake cookies or brownies, to the swings in a park, to a sporting event is what gives you vitality.  Perhaps taking a moment to observe the changing colors of autumn leaves or watch hummingbirds and butterflies, will provide the joy that is the perfect antidote to what might ail you.  Following your joy will definitely lead you to feel more of the peace and joy in your heart.

IMG_2712

Doubling Down on Love

Helping Hands

“For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.”

A jumble of thoughts awaken me each morning in the past few weeks as I seek to listen in silence for my response to the current migrant-refugee family crisis, not only in the United States but worldwide.  As I dipped in and out of the news recently (a steady dose feels too toxic), I found myself nauseated.  The aching in my heart has not left.  To see innocent, unknowing children being taken from their mothers and fathers, to hear the cries of babies and young children in shock wondering what happened to their families, to the familiar, shakes my soul.  I wondered what was the purpose of traumatizing children as adults fought over their family’s fate.  

In the next moment I think back to the fall semester of my junior year in college.  I’m sitting in a physics class and wondering why I enrolled in it.  I had long since disabused myself of any desires to attend medical school.  That fantasy flew from my sleepy first year head as I watched televised lectures of biology 101 in my friend, Linda’s dorm room.  My small group of friends and I gathered together each Monday, Wednesday and Fridays at 8:00 am knowing that one of us would be snoring in the first 10 minutes. I slept more than I absorbed the basic foundations of biology.  I reflected later that completing one semester each of biology and physics was one in a collection of symbols of my decade long struggle to prove myself.  Although I wasn’t nearly as excited about physics as psychology some information remained with me.  One piece was Newton’s third law of motion—for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.  

I selected this law, modified it by being the opposing reaction.  Then I intentionally applied it to many things—exercise, health, psychological dueling with others, even writing.  It seems that every time I attempt to push through the endless obstacles toward a disciplined writing schedule, for example, the resistance slaps me back in the face.  I persist through the feelings of immobilization to counter this reaction.  

I also utilize this construct in a positive way in my spiritual life.  For every negative or unloving act I observe, I deliberately perform a loving or positive act.  I think of it as—fighting darkness with LIGHT. Each time I observe someone engage in an activity that lacks empathy and compassion, I hear a more powerful call to double down on love and mercy.  Yes, my new adage is “Double-down on love.”

I understand the feelings of helplessness that come from viewing these tragedies play out in the daily news and on social media.  Yet there are so many moments during the course of a day that provide opportunities to express sensitivity.  Maybe a person cuts me off on the highway, or the receptionist at the doctor’s office acts rude or indifferent.  Rather than respond to a driver with an ugly gesture or act rude in return, I smile, bless them with kindness and gentleness instead. 

I am so moved by the news of people countering unloving behavior with loving acts.  My favorite couple of the year, Charlotte and Dave Willner, feeling powerless about the fate of the separated children, raised over 20 millions dollars for RAICES, a legal fund for migrant families.  One of my retired colleagues chose to help two women in her retirement home who were without legal status.  From her walker, Barbara relentlessly called friends and lawyers until these two women received their green cards. There are many churches who for a number of years have offered sanctuary to immigrant and refugee families.  This reminds me of chain transplants also known as organ paired donations, a movement that has grown in popularity.  There are endless chances to pay it forward encouraging a contagion of love. 

Great good can emerge from cruelty and callousness.  I believe response to FEAR (and isn’t that at the core of the crisis) with LOVE.  It may sound counter-intuitive but I’ve always believed the Biblical passage, “Perfect love casts out fear,” (John 4:18 ).  You can extinguish darkness with light.  But the opposite is never true.  You cannot eradicate light with darkness.  Although dimmed temporarily, light triumphs over darkness every time.  However, when I walk into an unlit room, rather than fear the darkness, I must engage in the action of turning on the light.

What kind of loving acts can you counter fear with or pay forward?  In what ways will you bring light and love to those who feel as if they are stuck on the bottom of a barrel of darkness?   On your spiritual journey would doubling down on love help to uncover more of the peace and joy in your heart? 

No copyright infringement intended on the helping hands image.

Arriving at Some Moments of Self Surrender

Winter Stillness

Sometimes, winter, a season filled with mostly grey skies and bare trees evokes a sense of gloom.  This time of shadowy days matched my mood as the new year began.  I spent New Year’s Eve in a hospital room.  I felt deflated as I watched television—the ball drop, people kissing and champagne flowing from bottles.  Unfortunately, my formal wear for the evening was a hospital gown accessorized with an IV.  No matter where I looked, I couldn’t generate the exuberance that is often associated with New Year’s.

I complained bitterly about the uncomfortable bed and the constant interruptions often during the middle of the night—to take blood or check my vitals.  Frequently, like an apparition, a strange voice barked through the intercom awakening me during my futile attempts to sleep.  Apparently crossed up telemetry wires led the voice to inquire loudly,  “Is anyone there?” rather than directing a nurse or nursing assistant to check on me.   I wondered how I would ever recover from the awful cold virus that held my body hostage if I was getting only 2-3 hours of sleep each night.  As I continued to ruminate about my state of discontent and medically unnecessary hospital stay, my young African American evening nurse offered another perspective with her response, “But we would have never met and we wouldn’t have all the conversations that I needed so badly.”

Surprised and shocked, my mind quieted.  Deep below the chatter of my petulant complaints a small voice added, “Maybe this trip to the hospital isn’t just about you. It could be serving a larger purpose.”  I thought back to my older, Euro American daytime nurse and our discussions around her potential retirement.  When I mentioned that I had stopped working nearly five years ago, she brightened when I suggested the book, The Third Chapter: Passion, Risk and Adventure in the 25 Years After 50 by Sarah Lawrence-Lightfoot.  “I am going online and download it tonight,” she noted.  “I am really struggling with this decision and I think reading that book will help me out.”  Here was another exchange that would not have occurred if I had not been admitted to the hospital.

My next opportunity to express my dissatisfaction came when wrapped in several sheets and a blanket I sat shivering in a wheel chair outside one of the echocardiogram rooms.  Inwardly I wailed about how my miserable cold landed me in the hospital for two and a half days for an echocardiogram!  My inner agitation added to the chill in the air.  I asked myself, as the standard issued hospital gown with hospital socks and the blanket began quickly losing their heat, “Why aren’t they taking me, what is the delay?”  Then it occurred to me that the staff might be working with a patient much sicker than me.  After all, I could walk around and although I suffered with a very bad cold, I wasn’t short of breath or retaining fluids.  Besides, I was going home in a few hours so what was the rush?  Once again, I remembered that the current situation wasn’t just about me.

As I moved back into my own bed at home with many more days to recover, in the silence that surrounded me I began to reflect on how often I, like many others, focus mostly on myself; on my schedule, my life, and my family.  I frequently observe drivers swerving in and out of lanes, causing others to brake suddenly so they can arrive at church “on time.”  I am guilty as well of rushing to arrive at a doctor’s appointment only to sit in a waiting room for 10-20 minutes.   Like my compatriots, I stand impatiently in the grocery store checkout line, or at the post office, thinking about the time I am wastingAnd to what purpose I ask inwardly would I devote this precious lost time if I could regain it?  Would it be used to sit with a sick friend or spend more time on Instagram or Facebook, to bake dinner for the widow next door or binge watch the latest popular television show?  Had I ever thought to surrender in any given moment my nicely covered egocentrism in favor of a plan that worked best for everyone, for people that I may not even know?

I pondered about how I arrived at this place on my journey where my desires reign supreme and occupy my mind throughout the day.  Reflecting on my past, I remember being more thoughtful as a child, helping mostly my Mom by starting or cooking dinner for my family, a unit that operated best when everyone worked together.  My family served as a microcosm for the many more communities I would belong to; my classroom where I helped other students with assignments, my school by selling candy to fund field trips, my neighborhood where we took care of each other through crises like job losses, divorces, and deaths, my country by voting and volunteering and my world by praying and lightening my carbon footprint with recycling and using less water.  Had I lost this caring spirit that encourages me to move beyond “me” to “we” or does it remain within patiently waiting for an opportunity to emerge?

When I pause and think about how I might move beyond my self-centered motives, or combine what I need with the needs of others, I feel more peace and joy.  I also feel a sense of wholeness.  Yet I know such thinking and actions require me to surrender my little self to a much larger one.

As the year continues, I hope to inspire others to reflect on the primacy of self sometimes to the detriment of the common good and how different it feels to live from a more expansive life view.  I know there is something special about living from an inner sanctuary that allows me to experience how interconnected we are and helps me to feel more Peace and Joy in my heart.  What about you, what might you need to surrender to feel more of the Peace and Joy that resides in your heart?

Photo courtesy of Columbus H. Brown, Candid Imagery Fine Arts