Time for a Pause?

When I wrote earlier this year about the pandemic being a Holy Interruption, I was not expecting our unsolicited COVID-19 visitor to move in and take over the household. First, it appeared that the pandemic was “over there” outside of the US and then in Washington State where I hoped it would be controlled and exterminated. Then it spread like the wildfires in the West, taking swathes of seniors in nursing care facilities and other unsuspecting adults and children. Next the shutdown arrived followed by the masks and resistance to masks debacle. Recently, during a telemedicine appointment with my cardiologist, I casually and humorously inquired about when I might be able to move freely about again. His reply—“Oh maybe in about 12-18 months!!!”

Stunned, I initially wondered how I might fare in perpetual shelter in place. I pondered about what could I do to inspire others who feel immobilized, depressed and anxious by multiple pandemics—COVID-19, a racial reckoning, and climate change manifesting as hurricanes, flooding tropical storms, and widespread fires. This summer two very different political conventions were broadcast without an Olympics to dilute the cacophony. 

Now I feel as if I live in parallel universes. Am I revisiting Old Testament times with plagues, floods and fires? If so, what could be the lessons I and others need to learn from the chaos and confusion? How do we stay afloat enough to help others whose suffering may be far worse? I haven’t forgotten the airline safety adage—put on your own oxygen mask before attempting to place one on someone else. As a tinge of mild depression seeped into my consciousness, I wanted to escape if only for a couple of days so could gain my bearings again. I approached my husband, Warren with a proposal that we create a silent retreat for ourselves—at home.

I love real silent retreats. Not those places or events where they are advertised to be silent but you find yourself attending sessions and listening to talks, or there are assignments and a schedule. For me, when I desire to withdraw, I slip away to a farm converted to a retreat center in South Georgia. Very small and intimate, there’s only enough room for 10 people. This delightful sanctuary boasts of clean rooms cleared of any messiness. The meals are nutritious and nurturing because the food is grown and cooked with love by the staff of three. Each staff person has taken a lifetime vow to pray and provide this ministry of spiritual restoration. 

The retreat center is located in a remote area so I cannot get phone, internet service, email, texts, news—I am totally off the grid. It felt heavenly the last time I attended because I felt the joy and peace of an uncluttered mind. I wasn’t thinking about the items on my “to do” list, other personal or professional obligations, or the latest family crisis. I wasn’t exposed to the most recent outrageous or uncivil comment. After unpacking a few items and settling in, I slept for the first 20 hours because once I stopped, my body, mind, and spirit let me know how exhausted they all were.

I also love the flexible schedule of an undirected or personal retreat. If I want to show up for a prayer service I do. If I want to walk the grounds all day, I can. My only requirement is that I am present for the luscious meals or notify someone that they needn’t set a place for me. I usually take a retreat at least twice a year—three times if I can manage it. It feels harder each year to go off the grid for more than 24 hours. Yet it is indeed amazing how easily people adapt if clear boundaries are set—I am unavailable for three days! 

This year, though I missed both of my scheduled retreats. With the pandemic and without my usual refuge, by August I was barely limping along. Surprisingly, Warren eagerly agreed. I couldn’t believe we were actually going to put away our phones and tablets, turn the TV off and not speak to each other for three whole days.

What helped our efforts tremendously was some careful planning beforehand along with our commitment to follow the schedule. Simulating s silent retreat, we decided on a DIY breakfast and two healthy meals each day. For the cost of going on retreat, we found someone to prepare three lunches (salads) and dinners (to refrigerate and warm up). We kept some snacks (nuts, trail mix, no salt tortilla chips, fruit) around for in between meal munchies. Each person was assigned a day or meal for laying out the food with silverware, drinks, napkins,  and clearing dishes without engaging in any serious work. 

Next we created a schedule—lunch at 1:30 and dinner at 6:30 with a reading at 5:00 pm. The assigned person chose a reading that he or she felt was most appropriate for us to reflect on. The rest of the time was open—to sleep, read, walk, watch the birds, look at the beautiful flowers—anything but doing. Remarkably, we didn’t speak but smiled at each other in passing.

I didn’t think I would be able to create that heavenly serenity without leaving town. In silence, the food tasted better because of the lack of distractions—from television, texts or phone calls. It felt so peaceful that I think even the house exhaled. I also felt the delight in small but stirring moments—butterflies dancing from one gorgeous zinnia or dahlia to the next, ants carrying food to feed the community, purple flowers springing forth from monkey grass. Gratefulness flooded and overflowed my heart.

Some people may attack this post noting that only privileged people could have time and money to even contemplate a silent retreat although I suspect they are not reading my blogs. I would note that yes, and with this privilege comes the responsibility to return to my calling to teach and model contemplative spirituality. I work despite my official classification of being retired. It is difficult to give to others if I am burned out or disheartened—because even Spirit cannot use me if I am dispirited. More importantly, I write about these days of solitude in hopes that others with their families will try it too, if only for day or a half of day. Wouldn’t it be lovely to go off the grid for a weekend, a Saturday or Sunday morning, to read, reflect, share meals and commune without noise and distractions? I wonder if during the silence, you might hear about some innovative ways to create a more mindful, thoughtful way of life. Maybe your children are too young for extended silence. Perhaps you could create a bubble with another family member or neighbor so you could barter some time for solitude for yourself? Silence, stillness and solitude are like fertilizer, rain, and sun for our spirits, for spiritual growth—the one aspect of ourselves that we often neglect.

Is your heart yearning for some silence and solitude in the midst of relentless overstimulation? Would taking a morning, afternoon, day or weekend of quietness help to uncover more of the peace and joy in your heart?

BREAKING NEWS: Now is the Time for Deep Inner Listening

Have the words BREAKING NEWS now become like a broken neon sign that blinks all the time and reads more like MORE BAD NEWS?  It doesn’t matter if BREAKING NEWS is viewed on television or heard via radio or read in print, it feels the same. Underneath the heightened anxiety is the thought, “Can it get any worse?”  Yet this season of panic and woe offers many blessings.  Among them—It is a time for deep inner listening.

I gave up watching weekday television for Lent.  I noticed that I was watching too much.  I compassionately observed myself one week and discovered that my daily schedule revolved around television programs. I tuned in to an early morning show and it became my company for breakfast. Next I would arrange lunch for around 2:00 pm so I could watch Daily Blast, the show whose tag line is “We’re talking about what you’re talking about.”  Clearly, all of that chatter should have served as an omen.  Typically, dinner was accompanied by the news with a dose of The Daily Show with Trevor Noah or some comedic program to soften the tumult of nightly news.  Later I might top off the evening with light drama like Grey’s Anatomy, This is Us, or Cherish the Day which often overflowed into bedtime.  Granted, I could have recorded most of the shows for viewing anytime but TV determined my daily routine.

I found TV to be distracting. Unfortunately, it sapped my productivity as well.  And if I watched something particularly stark or disturbing in the evenings, the content seeped into my dreams.  Why was I dreaming about the horrific Coronavirus Icon, face masks, DonaldTrump, KobeGiggi Bryant, MeaganMarkleHarry, NBA, NCCA, pandemic, not enough tests, stay in the house, rainy weather, talking heads, stock market red, retirement plans, cases rising, is there enough food, quarantine?  Television was not only keeping me from my loves (e.g., sewing, reading, writing, crocheting, gardening) but it cluttered up my mind to an almost unbearable state. Most importantly, TV was keeping me from hearing the Voice of God.

I didn’t realize until Lent, how kind, gentle, and nurturing the silence is in my home. I was missing the sweet stillness heard in the chirping of the birds outside.  Who can hear the Guidance when as my niece, Liz told me last night, “There are a thousand thoughts twirling through my mind and I don’t know how I can survive the stress of all of this?”  I knew it was time to return to the discipline of quiet listening from within.

I understand what it feels like to be freaked out.  About 27 years ago, I became totally discombobulatedwhen they first told me I was going to need a heart transplant.  Similarly, I experienced a partial meltdown when during a rejection episode the doctor informed me the transplant team would be able to save my heart but would need to kill my kidneys, later leading to dialysis and a kidney transplant. I came home and cried when they said I would need more surgery to replace the tricuspid valve of my dear sweet transplanted heart. Yes, I’ve become hysterical and screamed to anyone who would listen, got underneath the bed covers and boohooed with my teddy bear and tissues. But at a certain time in the midst of it, I would hear a soft inner Voice say, “Okay.  Time to get up and do something else. This too will pass.” Impermanence is the permanent in our lives. So how do we adapt? Here are some of the ways I utilize inner listening during a time such as this.

1) I truly believe that during trauma, crisis and challenge rather than being finely tuned into the fear, panic, anxiety and chaos of the world, I am better served by “Centering Down’” a term that Howard Thurman, Thomas Kelly, and Rufus Jones all recommended as a way to access wisdom instead of terror. I grew weary of feeling anything but peaceful. Thus, I take time each morning and evening and on the hour when I am available to PAUSE. I stop ruminating about the latest statistics and seek the Peace that I know lies deep inside. I continue to practice controlling my thoughts instead of allowing them to control me. Once I feel the deep peace that inner listening brings, I refuse to settle for less.

2) For those who possess runaway minds like mine and especially during a calamity, mantras and chants are a saving grace. Among my favorites, “Peace be still,” “The Lord is my Shepard and I shall not want,” “I am as God Created me,” or any parts of “Be still/and know/that I am God.”  What a mantra does is slow down and in some cases eliminates the out of control thoughts that lead to panic, fear, anxiety, and anxiousness. But you must practice. Next time you feel your mood shift as though you are being pulled into the vortex of alarm and terror, start chanting your selected inspirational phrase over and over and over until you feel a shift. The result:  a tranquil mind, a semblance of peace. Ahhhhh now doesn’t the thought of inner peace sound good?

3) Another method that I have used in workshops and retreats recently, and shared with Liz last night is the heart exercise.  Some form of this I learned on the Math-Heart Institute website (HeartMath Tools) to encourage people to live from and through their hearts. It is important to locate a quiet spot (even if it’s the bathroom) and comfortable chair or cushion. Sit in a relaxed position, close your eyes and take three deep breaths (inhale through the nose and exhale out of the mouth). Then relax and notice your heart beating. Next park yourself in your heart. Yes, sit in your heart for few minutes. Feel the peace, the stillness and the joy. Listen. What are you being guided to do next?  Do you need to engage in a creative activity with yourself or your family, go outside and get some fresh air or enjoy some emerging spring flowers, watch a movie or read a great book? You may need to turn off your television, radio, or stop checking social media about the latest outrage or panic-stricken comment. Periodically stepping out of the whirlwind can be healing.  

Now is the time for deep INNER listening. We are in the midst of a “Holy Interruption!”  Embrace it and discover all that you have been yearning for but haven’t pursued because you’ve been too busy running from one activity to another. They are canceled. Can you shift your focus from fear to the love, from panic to peace? What brings you joy and makes your heart sing? Who can you call to check on or offer some comfort to?  

Know that Guidance goes with you wherever you are. Cease looking outside of yourself for the Answers. I promise, if you engage in this ancient tradition of quieting the mind and stilling the heart, you will feel more of the peace and joy that lies within you. You will discover a Connection that has never been broken. The Living Presence patiently awaits your attention and awareness.

Spiritual Awarenesses for the New Decade Part I

As I reflect back over the past ten years, I notice that my spiritual awareness has shifted dramatically.  I feel more peaceful and joyful not because I discovered something new but because I recognized what was always present.  The origins of the word “recognize” connote “to remember again” or “to identify something or someone previously seen, known.”  I feel as if I now understand what I faintly sensed before.  I am grateful to carry these insights into the new decade.  I want to share a few of them here.

  1. I am a spirit not a body.  I continue to grapple with this notion because as a heart and kidney transplant recipient, along with other medical ordeals, my body is chronically ill.  Yet, recently I made a decision. I could allow my body to terrorize me every day or I could focus my attention elsewhere.  I’ve chosen to center on understanding, cultivating and identifying with my spiritual self and when I do, much of the trepidation dissipates.  What exactly is it that passes on when I am no longer embodied?   I often suggest to participants who attend my retreats and talks that bodies are formed and left on the earth.  It’s like car rental.  You pick up a body when you begin your adventures in this physical realm and you turn it in when you are done.  The essence of each person, what gives the body and all of creation life is Spirit.  Knowing I am a spirit leads to a sense of freedom, peace, and joy regardless of the circumstances. Now I want to know more about who I am as a spirit.  Do you know that you are a spirit?  What do you know of your spiritual self?
  2. People operate at different levels of spiritual understanding. For me, this piece of wisdom cleared away an enormous amount of resentment and misunderstanding.  Life is a journey of awakening that leads from fear (and all of the emotions that spring forth such as hatred, anger, depression, and anxiety) to Love (the source of peace and joy that is our true inheritance from our Creator).  My heart aches for folks who have no idea of who they are and whose they are.  Thus, they search relentlessly for the next thing to fill their sense of emptiness.  They believe if they just get that next promotion, house, car, find the right mate, earn that degree, renovate the house, they will be happy.  Deliverance does not lie in the world and the  Answers are not out there…but flow from the inside.  Moreover, that yearning for something more is a desire for communion with our Creator.  Many people don’t know how to satisfy the deep hunger and miss the importance of fostering a spiritual life (which they often confuse with going to church).  Spirituality is about seeking connection, listening, loving, and fulfilling our role and purpose for being alive, among other things.  No matter how much stuff one gathers, it will never satisfy spiritual thirst because it is the spirit that needs feeding not the ego.  Folks vary extensively on how much they understand this essential spiritual truth and vary along a continuum of sagacity; from wandering aimlessly in the world to learning, living, and sharing their life’s calling.  I continue to pray for the awakening and elevation of wisdom in the world.   In the last decade, what wisdom have you acquired from listening to Inner Guidance, a book, or life?  Do you know what your calling is?
  3. I can only heal (with God’s assistance) myself.  A cousin to my perfectionism, my need to correct and change everyone is simply exhausting.  How arrogant I (my ego) am to think I know what is best for another person and to think I can elicit change in them.  What is the purpose of my fixing— is it so I can feel more comfortable?  How egocentric is that!  One of my favorite quotes is this variation of a Benjamin Franklin phrase, “Unsolicited advice:  Wise people don’t need it, and fools won’t heed.”  Why have I wasted so much energy trying to change people?  I can only model what I’ve learned.  And I realize that I along with everyone else, I am teaching something (love, hate, trust, resentment) all of the time.  Who are you trying to change?  What are you teaching?  
  4. Unexpected Recognition is the best.  Earlier in my life I sought recognition.  It didn’t matter if what I desired was some high school, college or professional award, I was in the hunt.  Most times in the midst of the pursuit, I felt driven, anxious and stressed.  I was miserable.  

I also worked hard often in the background to display excellence in everything I took on, hoping someone might notice.  In the 1990s, I wrote an essay titled, “The Passion Talk:  What to Do When the Thrill is Gone, Gone Away.”  I had been teaching college for about 15 years and I found myself just showing up for class, not interested in updating my lectures, etc.  I was fatigued from grinding out publications for tenure and more promotions.  Then one day I began to wonder about why out of the 25,000 students attending CU Boulder I was assigned the 50 seniors I taught in two sections of Senior Seminar.  What was I to teach these sprits and what was I to learn from them?  What was my research for besides to add another line to my curriculum vita?  What was my raison d’être?  Once I moved my mind in a more purposeful and less need for external applause direction, my passion for teaching and writing returned. 

Recently, I sat among former colleagues to listen to a commencement address given by an endeared former student.  I was so delighted that her career had blossomed.  And in a moment, I heard “I also want to thank Aunt Lerita and Uncle Warren for nurturing me through some tough times and teaching me to love tea and take pauses for teatime.”  What?  My husband and I were just being who we are…loving someone else’s child away from home and family.  A breeze of happiness bubbled up inside.

A couple of months later, after giving a talk at Wisdom Camp, a pre-festival event for The Wild Goose Festival, I bravely and brazenly walked up to Barbara Brown Taylor, a noted spiritual leader and writer.  I said, “Hi, I am Lerita Coleman Brown and I am wondering when you might be signing your latest book, Holy Envy.” And she replied, “Oh, I just finished reading your book!”  I almost fell over.  Barbara Brown Taylor had read my book?!  Moreover, the next day after Barbara was interviewed on the main stage, she also mentioned my book and told everyone they ought to read it!  It sold out.  I am still stunned but I also know how Spirit orchestrates events behind the scenes when we least expect them.  There is no reason for me to solicit recognition because whatever I am doing to help restore God’s Beloved Creation brings a joy deeper than anything I could feel winning an award.  We are all healed together.

What spiritual awarenesses have you discovered that will help you in this new decade? How are they helping you to uncover more of the peace and joy in your heart?  

What spiritual awarenesses remain?  Stay Tune for “Spiritual Awarenesses for the New Decade—Part II”

Hearts Broken Wide Open for the World 💔🌎🌏🌍

Recently, I was asked to give a brief presentation on the topic, “Hearts Broken Wide Open for the World.”  One question that emerged as I sat quietly with the theme is how can a broken heart lead to a place of deeper peace and joy, a state where we can hear Spirit’s call to join the great Awakening also known as the restoration of God’s Beloved Creation or Community?  What would such a journey look like? 

In the African American community we have a name for brokenheartedness; it’s called the blues.  Somehow “Hearts Broken Open for the World” conjures up a malaise, a kind of sadness with an edge of discomfort which often emerges when a sense of helplessness is attached to the melancholy.  Unfortunately, malaise can also lead to immobilization—the feeling of being so overwhelmed by the events in the world that one cannot act.  

In my experiences as a heart transplant recipient of nearly twenty-five years and a spiritual director for about 14 years I have encountered many wounded hearts; sometimes the wounding results in a CLOSED heart.  But there are others whose broken hearts have shattered wide OPEN.  This is an important distinction because we know from our friend, poet and songwriter, the late Leonard Cohen, that “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”  A heart broken wide open provides the perfect conditions for Love’s Light to seep in and begin to heal our hearts so we may use them wisely.  Another important opportunity arises when our hearts are broken wide open. We can pause and take a look inside.  And this contemplative practice is one I engaged in several years ago.

About 26 years ago on a routine visit to my cardiologist I was informed by him that I would need a heart transplant soon.  Feeling like  someone had dropped a bomb on me and my life, in all of the hysteria I was feeling, Spirit led me to a wonderful psychotherapist, Ricardo Esparza who suggested I should talk to my heart about it.  After some deliberation, I chose to let go of my judgements that this activity was some kind of psychobabble, “California Woo Woo;” (I am a former psychology professor and native Californian so I possess no guilt about using these labels).  Curious about using a Jungian technique called Active Imagination that I had read about but never practiced, I decided I would write one conversation on a yellow pad.

What resulted were 20 conversations occurring over a 22 month period as my old and new hearts led me through a physical, emotional, and deeply spiritual transformation.  I learned that buried beneath my heart is a spiritual heart, a topic that Tilden Edwards has spoken and written so eloquently about and that the spiritual heart carries a wealth of wisdom.

In my memoir, When the Heart Speaks, Listen—Discovering Inner Wisdom, published earlier this year, Heavy Harvey, the name of my old heart spells it out for me in one of our conversation, titled “A Heart Full of Disappointment,” and I want to share a very brief excerpt of it.

LERITA: Heavy, I forgot about one more thing that I want you to pack up and take with you.

HH: More stuff?  Actually I am glad.  You’ll have extra room for your new heart to sing and dance.  What is it?

LERITA: I feel very disappointed.

HH: You’re right about that.  It is so heavy and thick it has almost suffocated me at times.  I was wondering when you were going to mention it.  I thought disappointments would be at the top of the list.

LERITA: You did?

HH: Yes, you have enough disappointment to fill a van.

LERITA: Is it that bad?

HH: Lerita.  Why do you think my name is Heavy Harvey?  Why do you think our disease worsened to the point that they can’t fix it?  Why do you think my muscles have thickened to the point that I can hardly pump?  

LERITA: You attribute all of that to my being disappointed with life?

HH: I am heavy with your disappointments and resentments, your jealousy and envy, shame and feelings of inadequacy, your contempt, and…

LERITA: OK. OK.  I get the picture.

HH: The disappointment, though, is the heaviest of all.  And remember, you named it first a few months ago when you listed the things in your heart.  There’s more disappointment than anything. 

LERITA: Sort of like the label on food products that provide the list of ingredients?

HH: Right.  So the first one listed is the item the product contains most of.  Why didn’t you work on disappointment first?

LERITA: It didn’t occur to me immediately.  I was caught off guard during that first conversation about packing.  As I reflected on these dialogues, I realized that I need you to take the disappointment.  I don’t know why I have so much.  I guess I hate living in this hellhole of a world.  What is there to look forward to?  Nothing has turned out like I thought it would.

I’d like to mention that my new heart, Grace also had a great deal to say about the “stuff” or emotional baggage that we carry in our hearts.  She actually characterized negative emotions as having stenches or odors that could knock a heart out, and that positive emotions emit aromas that sometimes smelled like the peace and serenity of a forest.  Both hearts agree that noisy emotions like the rumination that accompanies anxiety, anger, and resentment prevent us from hearing Spirit’s Guidance. 

My spiritual mentor, trusted spiritual guide, mystic and theologian, Howard Thurman might add to our musings about hearts broken wide open for the world.  He would advise us to:

1) Regularly center down and expose our beings to the scrutiny of God and connect with the Eternal that lies within us all

2) Use our outrage constructively, to better someone else’s life rather than to become bitter.  

3) Avoid falling into the swamp of intolerance of those we perceive as intolerant, to use our energy to educate and enlighten, to awaken through love and compassion those who remain fearfully asleep in a fog of racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, classism, and materialism. 

4) Engage in regular exchanges with people whose lives, cultures, and perspectives differ from our own.  Howard Thurman felt that racial, ethnic, national, and international reconciliation was essential not because it was the right thing to do but because you cannot have union with God without it.

So take a minute or so, close your eyes, take some deep breaths and 

  1. Reflect on whether or not your heart is open or closed to everyone
  2. Consider what you may be carrying in your hearts, and 
  3. Ponder about how each of us is uniquely called to and what role we are being asked to play in the restoration of God’s Beloved Creation. 

EXHALE…as you prepare for this holiday week of Thanksgiving with family and friends see if you can let go of what might be weighing on your heart.

Now do you feel a little more peace and joy in your heart? 💚🧡💛❤️🤎

When the Heart Speaks, Listen—Discovering Inner Wisdom is now available as an audiobook on Audible and iTunes.

For more information about the life and work of Howard Thurman, check out his page on the peaceforhearts.com website or search the web for Howard Thurman virtual listening room.

The Beauty of Toni Morrison is a Gift from the Creator

The Nobel Prize Award winning author, Toni Morrison touched me with beauty.  Not the common image of beauty as physical attractiveness like a stunningly gorgeous person, but beauty manifested as vulnerability, strength, virtue, grandeur and magnificence.  Illustrating the depth of beauty in life was a major theme in her writing.  She showed us beauty in the stories she told and in relationships she described.   Ms. Morrison’s writings highlighted the Love in Beauty and the Beauty in Love.  

I met Toni Morrison once briefly when I boldly asked her to sign my copy of Beloved during a literary conference.  Whether in person or participating in an interview, Toni Morrison always carried the same grace and beauty that she wrote about.  I am so grateful for her presence in the world as a gifted human spirit and writer who affected my life and my spirit.

The language of The Bluest Eye, Sula, Song of Solomon, Tar Baby, Love among so many lovely novels Ms. Morrison wrote, evoked a sense of awe in me like a beautiful painting hanging in a museum would.  Toni Morrison taught me to observe the beauty in people, places, and objects beyond what we typically associate with exquisite paintings, sculptures, music and movies. 

My favorite pastime and contemplative activity as a young girl was to sit on some weathered leather or clean but old fabric couch and eat a green apple while reading a book.  Reading books took to me to other worlds that I couldn’t see from our all Black neighborhood in Pasadena, CA.  Books piqued my imagination and curiosity as I stepped into the lives of fantasy and children that I would never know in places I had never heard of.  

My memories are sketchy but I believe I was first introduced to the public library in first grade and cherished my library card as if it was a valuable gold coin.  I kept it in a special place in my dresser drawer so I would always know where to find it when it was time for a trip to the library.    For a few summers I participated in a children’s book reading club challenge. I loved to check off the list of the eight to ten books we were assigned to read, although I suspect I enjoyed the competition or sense of achievement more than some of the books.

Later I read different books mostly for school like Black Boy, The Great Gatsby, The Good Earth, and Invisible Man.  At the time, I was unaware of authors like Zora Neale Hurston, Dorothy West and Paule Marshall and it didn’t occur to me that I read writings that were devoid of black female protagonists.  Such literature was not part of the AP curriculum in my high school in the late 1960’s and no internet existed to search for such things.

In 1970, the publication of the The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison changed everything for me.  Ms. Morrison made a little black girl yearning to be someone other than the radiant holy child of God that she was, the center of her novel.  Black girls mostly remained invisible or marginalized in mainstream American literature.   Inspired by all of the beauty Toni Morrison opened my eyes to, led me to think deeply.  I wondered.  I am not a writer nor musician, dancer, or visual artist.  How can I contribute beauty to the world? 

I believe I found the answer through the expression of my unique creative talents.  I love elegant fabric.  I bask in the joy of turning two dimensional pieces into wearable art, of creating personalized tea cozies and comfort blankets made of fleece with crocheted edging.  I am passionate about gorgeous flowers so I plant zinnias, dahlias, cosmos, and marigolds next to easy growing vegetables in my container garden.  Gardening also allows me to create simple beauty by preparing colorful and delicious meals for family and friends.  I also have a gift for writing but not like Toni Morrison.  I wasn’t called to create fine literature.  I am drawn to share practical spiritual stories.  I like to generate deep inquiries and invite folks to explore their inner lives.  I realize, though the inspiration for both of us emerges from the same Source.

Toni Morrison’s writings threw a life preserver to many people, black women in particular.  She followed her calling to write and perfect her craft.   In one of the many interviews airing recently, Ms. Morrison noted that there were two things that she needed to do or she would die.  One was to be a mother to her sons and the other was to write.  Again I pondered—what am I compelled to do or feel like I might die?   

Sometimes as artists, and we are all artists in some way,  we become unblocked and the beauty just flows right out of us like a gift from the Creator.  Usually, it is in moments of quiet, in the stillness, in the toil of revising, and revising, and revising or chopping vegetables and mixing ingredients that we are able to feel and capture the Beauty that surrounds us.  Often we translate these moments into words on the page or into delicious, healthy, edible feasts.

What kind of beauty are you called to share with the world?  What do you feel compelled to do or feel like you might die?  Would answering your calling to create more beauty in your life and the lives of others bring more peace and joy to your heart?

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?