Autumn Leaves

“Even if something is left undone, everyone must take time to sit still and watch the leaves turn.”

~Elizabeth Lawrence

I feel fortunate to sit at a window seat in my work room which overlooks a near forest of tall oaks, hickory, sweet gum and pine trees.  Even on a cloudy November day, I perch and view the autumn leaves, a few still stuck on the branches as if someone hung them there with sticky tape.  I love the beauty of fall and could spend hours just watching nature in action.   Trees with multiple shades of green, yellow, burnt orange and red just make my heart sing.  Everywhere I look outside it is as if my eyes are strolling through a gallery of masterpiece paintings.  Ah but the autumn season signifies change, a period of transition that prepares me for the upcoming winter season of deep rooting, hunkering down and cuddling up.

Although autumn leaves is the name of a famous jazz standard, the falling leaves of autumn provide an apt metaphor for such a liminal time. Perhaps it signals for me my desire for change because I have similar feelings about spring.  I love trees with buds popping open like popcorn to an absolutely gorgeous new green.  Spring green energizes me, stimulates me to move beyond the slower pace of winter.  Budding growth spurs me to start new projects, plant seeds, flowers, cook less heavy stews and soups and prepare my palate for fresh veggies and salads.  Perhaps it is the dramatic shifts of winter to spring and summer to fall that capture my attention since summer feels like a warmer spring and winter feels like a colder fall.

According to the Chinese medicine calendar that a friend shared with me some years ago, the seasons represent very meaningful symbols for the cycles of life.  Fall is a time for letting go, winter a period for quiet germination and deep rooting, spring the season for new growth and summertime an opportunity to nurture that new growth signaled by warmer temperatures. The Chinese calendar also includes a late summer stage for harvesting (completing those projects initiated during spring).  I can actively attune my life to the seasons or realize that I am sitting in or even stuck in one of them.  Occasionally with my writing or sewing I notice a number of unfinished projects suggesting that I am unable to move from spring to late summer.  I also struggle with symbolic winters lacking the patience needed to let ideas or plans germinate.

I have fond memories of autumn.  I remember walking home from elementary school kicking the leaves scattered over the sidewalks.  I liked to hear the crunch when I stepped through them.  I also fondly recall the school assignment of selecting certain leaves and pressing them between wax paper so as to create a semi-permanent piece of art.  When was the last time I did that?  Unfortunately, most of the leaves in my yard right now are the soggy yellow and brown ones assaulted by numerous rain storms during the past few weeks.

I love to see the changing trees no matter where I live or visit.  Of course the entire experience of admiring fall colors was accentuated when I lived in New England where the trees yielded a tapestry of breathtaking colors.  I looked forward to the foliage reports urging me to contemplate leaves colored olive, gold, fire red, and brown especially light golden tans and deep oak which painted an amazing mural against the varying hues of blue skies. I suspect once trees feel the dramatic shifts in temperature and as the sun’s heat loses its intensity, they know it is time to shake off the leaves in preparation for winter.

In releasing their leaves, trees trust that new life will return in the spring.  Why don’t the leaves hold on in an attempt to keep their inevitable demise at bay?    Maybe they know that they will provide new energy as they are recycled as mulch for their tree’s own nourishment.  The falling leaves symbolize that change is cyclical, natural and letting go is liberating.  Like autumn and similar to what the Chinese medicine calendar suggests, I also have seasons of change, periods of transition in my life and when I trust that they will lead to new growth, I feel joy in letting go.

I also notice that leaves gently fall to the ground.  It is not like a machine comes along to tear them off and leaves don’t drop until they are ready.  Sometimes a windy, blustery day facilitates a cascade of falling leaves but those that are not ready stick to the trees through rain and wind.  I wonder what I am willing to let go of as lightly as most leaves drift from the trees or am I like the few remaining leaves that seem to hold on no matter what?

Drifting autumn leaves also remind me that it is time to give away clothes that no longer bring me delight, books that others could be reading, and to shred old papers that are cluttering my desks and file cabinets.  It’s also a time to re-assess new and old relationships.  Oh it can be so difficult to let some people go even though they never call and are often too “crazy busy” to get together.  What are the trees showing me about holding on, about life?

Falling leaves prompt me to examine other aspects of my self in flux; do I still need to feel special, unique or extraordinary, to become famous or rush to cross off everything on the “to do” list?  I am ready to release unnecessary stress and a lesson in A Course in Miracles focuses squarely on this subject.  “It is but myself that I crucify” with all of the crazy, anxious thoughts about completing my much too long daily “To Do” list.

“The autumn leaves drift outside my window, autumn leaves of red and gold…”

I love when autumn leaves fall…when autumn leaves must fall…. What signs let you know that it is a time for change, for letting go?  Are you like the remaining leaves waiting for a shocking frost, a crisis to let go, to change?   In autumn, the season of release, what inner and outer items can be cleared from your life so that an inevitable spring, the new growth can take root?  Like the falling leaves what else do I, do you need to let go of——that will allow us to experience more of the peace and joy that lies within our hearts?

Who You Looking At?–What’s Your Purpose?

Who You Looking At?

“Stop looking at me,” said the mirror to the wall.

“I’m not looking at you,” replied the wall.  “I’m just standing here holding up the house.  Why do you think people are always looking at you?  You need to quit being so paranoid.”

And so it goes with the poor mirror.  No matter where he looked, no matter what time of day, or whether it was Wednesday or Saturday, he sensed that people were not just glancing his way but staring.  He tried to remember how long he’d been feeling like this, like not just people, but everything—bedspreads, pictures, desks, even the rug were all gaping at him!  Had there ever been a time when he could just wake up and not feel so exposed?  It seemed that even the sun was the first one each day to take a peek.

The mirror mused, wondering what he needed to do to stop the constant gawking in his direction.  “I don’t understand,” he said to the wall.  “Why can’t you look some place else—like maybe out of the window.  Isn’t that a better view?”

“For the last time I’m telling you I’m not looking at you!  Even if I was you should be flattered.  The only time anyone looks my way is if they see a mark that they want to scrub away or if I have a nice piece of art having on me.  Hey, have you ever thought that maybe you have some redeeming attributes that people want to look at?  It could be much worse you know.  I typically get painted over every 10-15 years or if some new person moves in.  Maybe someone hangs some dinky wallpaper on me every now and then.  Sometimes I get knocked out completely.  Rarely does anyone come over and clean and shine me.  And here you are complaining about being peered at.”

The mirror paused for a moment and pondered the observations of the wall.  Maybe he did possess some noteworthy characteristics.  First there was the beautiful frame that encased him.  That was definitely worth a gaze.  And he did shine brightly especially in the morning sun.  Then there was the reflection he provided.  As a mirror, he wasn’t like a regular piece of furniture or even art that just sat or hung there most of the time.  People could look at him and see their reflections—women applied makeup or checked their hair in his presence.  Clothes were adjusted or an entire outfit changed.  Teeth were checked, brushed and flossed.  Some faces bore frowns, others tearful although more often than not, people displayed radiant, beautiful smiles.  In fact, the mirror thought he evoked a wide range of emotions in people.

As the mirror deliberated further, he’d noticed people performed all sorts of things in front of him.  There were a variety of dances, moves and poses, a trying out of speeches, practice interviews, and even some proposals.  Sometimes people placed candles in front of him so the reflected light brightened an entire room.  There were others who created altars in front of the mirror with crosses, pictures of loved ones, statutes, fruit, flowers, boxes, all kind of icons.  Many people had even prayed before him.

Finally the mirror commented to the wall, “I guess you have a point.  I have a purpose.  There is a reason for my being.  People aren’t just staring.  I serve them by reflecting an image or providing some kind of symbol.  Now that I think about it, maybe not everyone and everything is gawking at me.  I didn’t realize I was so self-conscious.  It feels great to know I am being of service to others.”

“Precisely,” said the wall.  “We are fulfilling our functions, our calling in this moment.  Trust me my friend—enjoy it while you can.  Nothing last forever.”  And so it goes.  The mirror and wall continued to peacefully co-exist being what they were created to be.

Have you been looking into someone else’s mirror?  Is your perception of your purpose distorted by what you think others are doing or saying?  Are you aware of all the ways you are of service to others? Have you discovered your purpose?  What were you created to be?  Perhaps taking a few moments to ponder these questions might lead you to uncover more of the peace in your heart.

When Did Fun Become a Four Letter Word?

When did “fun” become a four letter word?  When did talk of fun become a taboo subject?  Everywhere I hear the term  “I’m crazy busy” like busyness is a badge of courage one wears for working so hard.  Yes, I grew up in a household where fun was the reward for getting work done.  If I finished my homework or if I cleaned my room, then I could go outside and play.  Now it appears my fingers are stuck on the busy button and I cannot let go.  Sound familiar?  Yet I must answer this question for myself–Am I having any fun?  I think not!

Now it is not unusual to find people even on vacation clinging to their electronic devices.  They continue to “work,” keeping “connected” while ironically claiming to “relax” and escape from the world.  National statistics indicate that greater numbers of people take less vacation time and many answer emails and send texts while on vacation.  How did life become so lopsided?

I’ve participated in many discussions about fun lately and it appears not many people are having any.  In June all six of us in my spiritual direction peer group meeting promised to incorporate more fun into our lives over the summer months, the summer months traditionally devoted to relaxation and rejuvenation.  As we checked-in around the table in August, only Sheila could recount engaging in a couple fun activities.  In my attempt to challenge the “demon of busyness” (a term coined by Janet Ruffing) by going off the grid for 5 consecutive days I reported one major fun event.  I chose to swing while on a silent retreat.

As I walked along the path that led from a labyrinth cut out of the brush on this 100 acre farm, I remembered the swing that hangs from a very large old oak tree.  I figured that tree which sits majestically on the grounds of the retreat center was at least 80 years old.  I’m certain if that tree could talk she might share some fascinating tales about the people who farmed the land and those who now come to retreat, rest and take in some stillness and silence.  There it hung, a swing with a long rope and a wooden seat just inviting me to take a whirl or two.

The previous day had been a scorcher, the South Georgia heat baking me, the grass, and dirt.  On this morning day I felt compelled to arise early before the heat and humidity made my time outside uncomfortably hot.  Fortunately the midnight rain created a cool mist that mixed with a slight breeze.  Covered in rough green khaki pants, long sleeve shirt, socks covering the bottom of my pants, sneakers, and a scarf on my head I set out for a walk.  Being a double organ transplant recipient, I needed to protect myself from mosquitoes and ticks, which sometimes carry West Nile virus and lyme disease respectively.  So I sprayed myself generously with Lemon Eucalyptus oil, a scent that mosquitoes detest.

I didn’t worry about the semi-damp swing seat and any leaves or dirt that might have blown on it during the rain.  I hopped right on after backing up as far as my petite frame could take me.  Then the loveliness began–swinging in the cool morning breeze.  Back and forth rhythmically and sometimes swinging from side-to-side, I found myself smiling, almost laughing with delight.  In the midst of my unadulterated happiness I also noticed an accompanying deep peace.  Suddenly I remembered how much I used to love the swings at the park as a little girl.  The slide was okay, and the sand box satisfactory but for me nothing beat the swing.   I felt like swinging forever.

Amazed that I took such pleasure in something so simple as swinging, I recollected how I enjoyed small gratifications like swaying in a hammock, watching the beautiful cloud formations above or observing butterflies and bees dance from one gorgeous flower to the next.  Unfortunately, I, like so many adults hold onto the belief that playing is only for children.  But that same child who experienced such a thrill from swinging still resides in me.  Little Rita didn’t go away.  I just stopped paying attention to that sweet girl who likes to play with no other goal in mind but to have fun.  What happened to the lightheartedness in my life?

Earlier in the summer I lamented about my life.  Clearly I was suffering from a moderate case of caretake burnout.  After spending a week with Warren’s parents both with memory impairments and with only a day in between I repacked and hopped on a flight to the Bay area where my brother struggled with cardiac issues.  Shortly after returning from that trip, I learned my younger brother lay in a hospital miles away in another state.  As I surveyed my relationships, I realized I cared for a lot of people–not necessarily in a physical way but more frequently by carrying their burdens in my heart.  People–friends, relatives, even “almost strangers”–people I’d met at recent events who emailed or called me filled my daily life.  Overdue for a silent retreat I knew I needed some time to restore my reserves.

I also observed that in the two and half years since I stopped working, I wasn’t having much fun.  I sensed “Little Rita” rebel using a soft but persistent voice nagging me about playtime.  My pat response was “we” will have fun once I get through the “to do” list.  Who ever gets through the “to do” list when new things are constantly being added to it?  The fun, whether it be sewing, reading, or sitting in the backyard I pushed further down on the priority list.

A memory bubbled up in my cogitations about fun.  Many years ago, my female colleagues and I in the psychology department intentionally set reservations for afternoon tea during the most chaotic times–the first week of the semester or during finals when people were so busy that they didn’t exchange pleasantries in the hall.  We found taking some time away from the busyness for tea was akin to a heavenly pause, an act that equipped us with an inner calm and resolve to re-enter the fray once again.  Stealing away from work for tea created a joie de vivre that lasted for weeks.

Perhaps you are caught on the treadmill of life and cannot seem to press the red STOP button or your caretaker burnout is turning you into a grouch that you don’t recognize.  Maybe you are afraid that if you choose to have fun, you’ll lose your positioning on your career trajectory or the competition will surpass you.  But how happy is your heart and when is the last time you took in some recreation?  Do you yearn for more joy in your life, some semblance of peace?  Then you might want to plan a playdate for yourself, buy some legos, stop by the bookstore just to browse or pick up a sketchbook or locate a public park with a slide or swing.  Making FUN a priority can lighten a heart that is likely burdened with obligations, unrealistic work schedules or an ego-driven identity.  I’d love to hear what you do for fun and how it makes you feel.

Here’s a link to Janet Ruffin’s article, ”Resisting the Demon of Busyness.”

Gentle Weeding

Several weeks ago my husband Warren and I decided to jump in the car and drive to the local home improvement store. Ostensibly we were looking for stones for a raised bed he was about to build for me so I could grow some summer annuals. Once there we noticed they were having a sale on herbs and flowers and we each chose our favorites. Warren dived for the hot peppers; poblanos, cayenne, habaneros, while I chose tangerine and sunshine colored bell pepper plants. We both picked tomatoes although I stuck mostly to the lemon looking grape tomatoes that cost so much in the grocery store.

Next I eyed the herbs. One of the delights of summer is to step outside the kitchen door and quickly snip the ones I want for a breakfast or dinner dish. Despite the fact that I grow most of my herbs from seeds, this year I didn’t want to wait on the cilantro, dill, and Italian parsley. I also knew I was running out of time for dill and cilantro which tend to wilt in the hot Georgia sun and humidity by late June. After carefully examining our pickings for bugs and dead leaves we piled them into a whiskey barrel that I chose for growing tomatoes in my container garden and headed home.
The slowly setting sun allowed me to savor every moment of each gorgeous spring day. The winter of 2014 was long and hard for everyone everywhere so a week of warm weather brought a deep gladness to my heart. As Warren poured in new organic soil into my large pots, I feverishly tore off plastic wrapping and opened out roots to set in the fresh dirt. Watering the plants in, Warren called me over to look at the flags he placed to mark out where the new raised bed would be located along side of the house. It was difficult for me to envision so I let him know that I trusted him with the landscape design. I yearned for some well tilled soil and seeds so I could “play” with which flowers would flourish in my new space.
After a series of major afternoon thunderstorms the following week, I crept through the patio where my vegetable container garden began to take shape. As I examined the flowers for bugs and other chewing insects, I noticed some weeds growing into the large irises that Warren planted near our bedroom window. I had scrutinized these plants regularly since their fall planting. At first the irises seemed to just stand there, semi-erect watching the falling leaves dying all around them. Soon they even slumped over, laying in the soil as rain and snow and snow and rain, like big boots trampled them into the ground. As steady and warmer temperatures followed the deep cold, as if on cue the irises gathered some inner energy to once again stand even straighter and taller like soldiers saluting. I wondered once again about the power of spring energy, a power so great that plants emerge through rock.
Yet the weeds appeared as strong as the irises, budding and thriving right along side of and into them. As a master gardener, Warren often reminded me that a weed is just a flower in the wrong place. For me these “flowers” were definitely in an undesirable spot and they were about to choke my precious irises. As I pulled the first weed with its tall stem and pillar of yellow flowers, I observed that I would have to tug on it gently otherwise I would pull out the well rooted iris along with the weed. Then it hit me. Sometimes gently weeding works better than finding a shovel or trowel and jerking the weeds out of the soil. And this process of gentle weeding worked even better than the commercial weed killers which were likely to kill the irises as well.
Slowly and gently weeding these irises prompted me to ponder my life and the lives of others. Didn’t I need to do some gentle weeding this summer and fall? Were there some clothes and other items that I wasn’t using that needed to be removed and given to someone who would wear them? Then I thought about some bad habits, compulsions and recurrent behaviors that I could begin to let go of. Complaining and talking too much immediately came to mind. When I am around people who complain all of the time, it doesn’t look or feel good. I knew I needed to start focusing on what worked instead of what wasn’t working. And TMI (too much information) is never good. There also might be some people that needed some gentle weeding out of my life. Oh I always feel guilty when I think this way. But I’ve learned that toxic people along with their kin, “energy vampires” can quickly drain my energy. When I talk with people who always see the glass half empty and are not making any attempts to fill up the other half, I know I need to minimize the time I spend with them.
There is something healing about the practice of gentleness but that is a topic for another blog. Undoubtably, taking the gentle approach to people and situations in my life seems better than using a sledge hammer or heavy pesticide. I would much rather be awakened gently than to have someone frighten me with a loud voice or noise to wake up me up.
Is there something or someone you need to gently weed out of your life? Is some obstacle keeping you from growing and thriving like a beautiful summer flower or a succulent gorgeous tomato or cucumber? Maybe you have an addiction to television or social media when you know that time and energy could be used in a more constructively manner? What weeds need to be gently removed from your life so you can feel Peace in your heart?

Could a Fleck of Hate and Other-ing Keep the Peace in Your Heart at Bay?

You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught

You’ve got to be taught To hate and fear,

You’ve got to be taught From year to year,

It’s got to be drummed In your dear little ear

You’ve got to be carefully taught.

You’ve got to be taught to be afraid

Of people whose eyes are oddly made,

And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade,

You’ve got to be carefully taught.

You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,

Before you are six or seven or eight,

To hate all the people your relatives hate,

You’ve got to be carefully taught!

Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, from the musical, South Pacific (1949)

I sit stunned in silence for several days before I can begin to write.  I know I must speak, say something about this most despicable crime. By the cover of my usual middle of the night “morning pages” routine, the thoughts and words begin to form.  How could any person enter a church, sit and pray with people and then kill them in cold blood? As a former social psychology professor and researcher who studied race and ethnic identity, I cannot ignore this atrocity and others like it that occur daily around the world.  See the sickness of Dylan Roof is not just his alone.  Clearly he is troubled and possibly mentally ill.  But the hatred he possesses about Black people is representative of many people who cultivate and nurture hate like his in their hearts and minds.

In the US, frequently the category chosen for hate and oppression is race whereas in other countries it may be ethnicity, clan, caste, religion, or gender.  No matter where one lives or travels, there are people stigmatizing and devaluing individuals and thus giving them license in their minds to hate, dehumanize, and kill.  Some psychologists would argue that racial stereotyping and bias are natural cognitive processes frequently operating unconsciously which is why stigmatizing is so prevalent.  Yet infants are not born with hatred in their hearts.  As the song, “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” suggests, hating people who appear to be different is learned.  This cultivation of hatred is helped along by talk around the dinner table, teachers who hint at or speak of the inferiority of Blacks, portrayals of Blacks on the news and in the media including television programs, movies, blog sites, and books.  And it is not new.  From my shock at viewing the movie, Birth of a Nation to watching a video tape of a policeman shoot an unarmed black man running away from him, racial hatred is supported if only indirectly everywhere.  I’ve spent many years wondering why, why would one racial or ethnic group need to dehumanize another?  What purpose is this enmity serving?

One thing we rarely talk about in our discussions of race relations is the undercurrent that supports the notion of White supremacy.  Even those words give people chills  Yet if I speak truthfully about what stimulates racial hatred to sprout and grow,  I believe the source lies in the meanings we attach to race in America–being a White person means you are inherently better than a Black person.  I suspect many people feel uncomfortable with this notion about how race is constructed.  Yet everyone in the US has racist tendencies.  Sometimes even I feel wary of young black males for no good reason which is ridiculous.  Now that I am aware that I’ve internalized this meaning of race, my goal is to undo this inclination. Among the many reasons touted for racial tensions recently, one of the socio-cognitive processes that has not been proffered is “othering.”  Yes, othering happens and continues to operate even in spiritual and religious domains.  What is othering you ask?  The technical definition of othering is any action by which an individual or group becomes mentally classified in somebody’s mind as “not one of us.” (James Norriss,–Also see Centre for the Study of Otherness,  It is a way for members of a dominant racial, ethnic, or even gender group to psychologically or socially exclude a person.

As an African American woman, I frequently find that when I join an all-white group of strangers, I eventually become othered. This typically happens when Whites perceive me to be of equal or higher social status as them.  This fact alone violates the “Whites are better than Blacks” meaning that we attach to race thereby creating tension.  The process usually begins with a discussion of my name, Lerita and how unusual it is and maybe I said “Letitia.”  I try to help people by saying that I believe that my name is some variation of my father’s name, Leroy.  It is similar in spelling and pronunciation (Loo-Roy, Loo-Rita, not Lo-Rita, Lolita, or LaQuita).  As the conversation proceeds, I sense from those gathered that, “You are not one of us” and I begin to feel like “I don’t belong.” There is a distinct difference between sitting down with a welcoming group of people and those who feel uncomfortable with my race combined with my intellect, educational background and social status and thus must “other” me.

Race is an easy category to use for othering yet sometimes the category may be more subtle like social status, college attended or membership in a fraternity or sorority, neighborhood or region of the country.  With race, the phenotypic differences are obvious and mixed with some cultural distinctions it becomes perfect for the process of othering. Othering is not difficult to do in fact it feels quite natural.  We learn how to other as young children often on the playground or in a playroom.  Othering is the basis of cliques that form in middle and high school and later in college.  It is a way the ego uses to maintain our specialness and keeps us from recognizing our interconnectedness.

Yet it is the opposite of othering that we must learn.  How do we embrace each other and begin to realize that we complete each other?  Its like ying and yang—we need all of the parts that we’ve psychologically exiled and projected onto others in order to feel whole. Othering is one path toward developing the kind of hatred that Dylan Roof held in his heart for people who appeared different from him.  He obviously could not perceive the shared humanity that he has with all sentient beings—his hate was fueled by different physical attributes and his projections.  Isn’t ironic that he labeled African American “stupid and violent” when that was an apt description of him?  He knew if only unconsciously that he was “stupid and violent,” projected his own self-hatred onto a group of innocent people gathered together for prayer. Perhaps the question is not whether one engages in othering because most people do but to what degree and how frequently.

Are you “othering”  anyone in your life?  Is it your Latino sister-in-law or African American brother-in-law?  Maybe it is your White uncle or Asian cousin or multiracial neighbor. Perhaps someone at work intimidates or makes you feel uneasy?  Possibly you feel uncomfortable to have a “foreigner” in the family or work environment—someone who possesses distinctive physical attributes and cultural traditions.  What prevents you from perceiving your commonalities with individuals instead of your differences or experiencing the humanity in everyone?  What were you carefully taught and who taught you?  Is “othering” keeping you from the Peace in your heart?  Even a fleck of hate can take up space, a place for more Love, more Peace, and more Joy in your heart.

Can’t Get Enough of Howard Thurman

HT-Meditations of the Heart

I think I have Howard Thurmanitis.  Yes, my last post was about him and I made up that name. But after giving two workshops on his writings in the span of three days, one at a conference devoted to his life and work, it fits.  I love talking and writing about Howard Thurman, about his love for nature, stillness and silence.  I resonate with the fact that as a young boy he was a contemplative and a mystic.  He felt called to something deeper and he followed that call throughout his life.  In some ways it feels like a betrayal of sorts, expressing love for a man other than my husband.  Yet my guilt is lessened by the fact that Howard Thurman has been dead for more than three decades.  He continues to speak to me, though, through his writings, his lectures, his sermons, his love for the Sacred everywhere.  His quest for a profound experience of the Presence, of connection to all living things acts as a role model for me as a spiritual pilgrim stumbling along what sometimes feels like as an unknown path.  On occasion I sense that I am wandering away from the Peace in my heart and at other times I march steadily toward it.  Thurman’s writings, lectures and sermons feel like worthy companions to take along the way.

I remember wandering around in my mind pondering what I could write about.  In order to complete my spiritual direction training at the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation I needed a subject for my final project.  Fulfilling the requirements could involve a creative work, like building a labyrinth, composing sacred poetry or planning a silent retreat.  Another option was to write about someone, a mystic or spiritual person.  I wanted to research and write about a specific person, someone I could get to know intimately, to learn about how his or her spirituality unfolded.

I enjoyed reading about many of the mystics especially St. Theresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross but they felt so ancient and far away.  I also knew there were more contemporary figures like Thomas Merton and Evelyn Underhill.  Yet most mystics were typically nuns or monks, basically religious who lived in community.  I was curious if there were “ordinary mystics” as Marsha Sinetar refers to them in her book, Ordinary People as Monks and Mystics: Lifestyles for Spiritual Wholeness, regular people who communicated about their everyday mystical experiences.  Was there anyone out there who wasn’t living in a religious community but seemed to have contact with a Presence they couldn’t logically explain?  Were people having “peak experiences” as William Maslow labeled them?  Was there anyone listening to or following his or her heart?

I frequently experience mystical moments in the quiet of the morning or when I awake from a nap.  Sometimes a feeling of Oneness engulfs me when I view a gorgeous sunset or a vista of mountains.  When I find myself in the “thin space” as it is sometimes referred to—that place where heaven and earth appear to merge if only for a moment—my connection to a larger whole is palpable.  For a split second, I feel like the sun, the moon, and the trees all at once.

I continued to badger my spiritual comrades about ordinary mystics until a pastoral counselor friend asked if I had heard of Howard Thurman.  Given all of the spiritual material I’d read over the years and for my spiritual guidance program I was embarrassed to discover that he was unknown to me.  After perusing his autobiography, With Hand and Heart-The Autobiography of Howard Thurman, I learned he had written over 20 books, served as a spiritual adviser to Martin Luther King, Jr.  and was a “godfather” of sorts to the Civil Rights movement.  I was crestfallen to learned that he died in 1981.  I could have met him several times had I known about his existence earlier.

As a boy, Howard Thurman lived near the ocean in Daytona Beach, Florida and as he listened to it, he felt a Presence that held and embraced him.  In addition he became attached to a tall, solid oak tree in his backyard.  Thurman noticed that when the storms came off the ocean, while many trees toppled, the old oak tree stood firm.  Like the tree, Thurman sensed there was something inside of him, strong as that oak tree that could withstand the tempest and storms of his life.

My favorite Thurman books besides his autobiography include Jesus and the DisinheritedMeditations of the Heart, The Centering Moment, and Deep is the Hunger.  Clearly there are many more books, articles, lectures, and sermons on a variety of topics ranging from building and sustaining a beloved community to listening for the “genuine” in one’s self, in others, and in the world.  I especially savor his meditations and work that emphasize the power of silence and stillness and the gift of pausing more frequently to obtain spiritual renewal.  Here is one of his meditations:

How Good to Center Down!

How good it is to center down!

To sit quietly and see one’s self pass by!

The streets of our minds seethe with endless traffic;

Our spirits resound with clashing, with noisy silences,

While something deep within hungers and thirsts for the still moment and the resting lull.

With full intensity we seek, ere thicket passes, a fresh sense of order in our living;

A direction, a strong sure purpose that will structure our confusion and bring meaning in our chaos.

We look at ourselves in this waiting moment—the kinds of people we are.

The questions persist: what are we doing with our lives?—what are the motives that order our days?

What is the end of our doings?  Where are we trying to go?  Where do we put the emphasis and where are our values focused?  For what end do we make sacrifices?  Where is my treasure and what do I love most in life?

What do I hate most in life and to what am I true?  Over and over the questions beat upon the waiting moment.

As we listen, floating up through all of the jangling echoes of our turbulence, there is a sound of another kind—

A deeper note which only the stillness of the heart makes clear.

It moves directly to the core of our being.  Our questions are answered,

Our spirits refreshed, and we move back into the traffic of our daily round

With the peace of the Eternal in our step.  How good it is to center down!

(from Meditations of the Heart, p. 28)

Sometimes just reading one of Thurman’s meditations renews the Peace in my heart.  Google him, view one of his videos and see if his commanding voice does the same for you.

Have you ever come away from a “mystical or peak experience “ with a greater sense of Peace, a sense that Someone or Something loves and cares for you?  Have you ever found yourself out in nature—listening to the ocean crashing against the rocks or the chirping birds in early morning or felt awe at the sight of the green leaves of tall trees against the backdrop of a blue sky?  Just for a moment were you touched by a Oneness with everything that gave you a deep Peace and abiding Joy?  Next time you have an opportunity to pause and be present— to feel that sense of unity with everyone and everything, grab it.  See if it might lead you to uncovering more of the peace and joy in your heart.

Contemplative Spirituality for Everyday People


Last summer in a meeting with some fellow Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation graduates in Atlanta, we prayed and pondered about ways to expose more people to the gifts of contemplative spirituality. Our prayer centered on the impression that most major spiritually oriented events, whether speakers, workshops or retreats, are expensive. Hence, many everyday people whose yearnings for spiritual deepening echo our own simply cannot afford to participate. How could we share the gifts of contemplative spirituality we’d received from programs like Shalem with more people, our congregations, our worship services and bible studies or even our workplaces? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, and offices created more opportunities to pause and bask in the loving Presence of our Creator?

I turned to my spiritual and ancestral mentor, Howard Thurman, mystic, theologian, and spiritual adviser to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who shared this same sentiment. He wanted to introduce masses of people to the wonder, peace, and joy of contemplative experience and he wrote about this desire and other topics in Jesus and the Disinherited. Thurman found it both intriguing and inspirational that Jesus chose to conduct his ministry with everyday people, the poor and outcast like himself, and not with the aristocracy or even middle classes of Jewish and Roman society.

Jesus and the Disinherited became a favorite of Dr. King’s and whenever he marched he carried this classic book. Thurman encouraged Dr. King and other organizers of the Civil Rights movement to utilize contemplative spiritual practices. In particular, he stressed the importance for marchers to examine and cultivate their inner lives before being thrust out into nonviolent confrontation.

A strong advocate of seizing moments of Presence—whether in nature, walking down the street or sitting in church—Thurman also knew that introducing silence into a worship service would be a mighty challenge in the 1940’s and 1950’s. So he wrote meditations (Meditations of the Heart, The Centering Moment—see recommendations) for this very purpose. What better way to ease people into a contemplative practice than by anchoring them with a written piece that orients them to the Presence? Stressing the necessity for silent contemplative prayer, he circulated the meditations for that time in the service when members could quiet their hearts and hear the messages always abiding in the Presence.

Yet the questions linger. How do we feed those who hunger for spiritual connection, for stillness, for peace? Where and in what ways can we insert openings for moments of quiet reflection, communion with nature, and tranquility of mind that engender a contemplative atmosphere and expand the awareness of Presence?

A few years ago my former pastor asked me to conduct bible study when she needed to travel. I prayed and sought to present relevant topics such as, “In God We Trust?” “Practicing Forgiveness,” and “Putting God on the ‘To Do List’.” However, I also felt guided to begin each session with a short meditation by Howard Thurman or Henri Nouwen or Mother Teresa, followed by two to three minutes of silence. Everyone loved it and asked for more. Likewise after organizing a faculty/staff retreat at a local monastery, several people inquired about how to maintain at work the inner peace they obtained. Out of this desire emerged a “Friends of Silence” group on campus so faculty/staff of all spiritual persuasions could sit together for 20 minutes each week.

Now as I reflect on those actions and the work of Howard Thurman, I wonder what each of us can do to nurture the contemplative longings of the everyday people we live, work, or worship with each day. What more might you and I do every day?

Would reading or listening to some meditations or lectures by Howard Thurman bring more peace to your heart?  Look him up on the web and read more about his life and writings by borrowing or purchasing one of the many books he wrote—listen to the wisdom in his audio recordings and YouTube clips that are sure to awaken the Peace and Joy in your heart.

“Surrounded by all of the memories and the dreams and the hopes and the desires of so great a host of witnesses, we still ourselves in the presence of God, gathering together all of the things that are needful for our peace. The mood of thanksgiving overwhelms us when we remember how good and great is our fortune, even as we are mindful of the ways that are hard and difficult for so many whose names are known to us and whose pictures are vividly in our minds. It is so great a privilege to experience the watering of one’s roots at a time of such dryness in the world.”

Howard Thurman The Centering Moment

A version of this article was previously published in the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation e-Newsletter, October, 2014.