Contemplative Spirituality for Everyday People

HT-Jesus&Disinherited

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.

Healing Current Hurts

“As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom.  I know if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind I would still be in prison”…Nelson Mandela

The doorbell rang and there stood Jill.  Her long blond hair tied back in a ponytail flailed in the gentle early spring breeze.  Missing were her brightly colored workout clothes replaced by a pair of faded jeans and a t-shirt.  Next I observed that her typically ruddy complexion lacked a certain radiance.  Jill did not look like her bubbly, positive, effervescent self.  A certain dimness shaded her eyes and her mood was considerably more subdued than normal.  I sensed that she was either sad or depressed.  I smiled, welcomed Jill into the foyer and gave her a tight hug. I asked if she wanted water or a cup of tea.  “Tea,” she replied.  An exercise fanatic and strong advocate of drinking eight glasses of water each day, tea was uncharacteristic for Jill.  I knew our meeting today would be different.  We would soon listen to her sacred story during our spiritual direction time.

I walked into the living room with a tray filled with our tea cups and saucers, honey, small pitcher of cream and a pot of brewing tea.  “I think the tea might need about 3 more minutes” I said as I set the tray on the coffee table filled with burning candles and an array of spiritual icons.   I always placed a wooden box with a sacred dove carved into it, lots of hearts and bowl filled with water on the table I set for spiritual companioning.  A vase of daffodils picked from the backyard completed the arrangement.

“Let us begin today with a very brief reading by Howard Thurman called, ‘I Let Go of My Accumulations’ from his book, Deep is the Hunger and then we will take a minute or two for some silence.”  I began most spiritual companioning meetings with a short reading and some silence to help both of us center ourselves in the present moment.

As Jill opened her eyes after a few minutes and began to speak,  I saw they were brimming with tears.  “So as you know I married Rob, a man with adult children and I didn’t think it would be this difficult.  I mean I haven’t ever treated his children with hostility or negativity, in fact I’ve tried to be a good stepmother.  Actually I could hardly be their stepmother.  After all, they were in college when we married.  Well, anyway let me get to the point.  So my stepson, Chase and his wife, Alicia, live in Arizona and they announced last year that they were going to adopt a child.  Rob was a little lukewarm about the idea initially but I persuaded him otherwise.  What a miracle to have a child and to love this wondrous, beautiful baby.  Then, Chase emailed me and asked if I would write a letter, kind of a recommendation, to the birth mother.  You know this adoption thing is so different now.  I mean with some adoption agencies, couples and birth mothers connect, they sort of match them and the adoptive parents can be present at the actual birth.  There wasn’t a lot of time and they really needed a letter so I just dropped everything and worked on it—for almost two days.  I don’t know Alicia at all and I find it a little strange that we haven’t had much contact but you know I didn’t want to say anything that might upset anyone.  These relationships in blended families, I don’t understand them.  I feel like there are layers of complexity and sometimes I don’t know what’s going on.”

I nodded and poured the tea in the cup.  “Would you like cream?”

Jill shook her head “no”  and continued.  “Anyway, little Conner was born in June and we were scheduled to fly out there in July but I caught some God awful cold and I didn’t want to give it to sweet baby Connor so Rob flew to Arizona without me.  I was a bit envious when I saw the pictures but we re-scheduled for August.  Then on the weekend we were to go, Alicia threw out her back or something and the trip was postponed.”

“I see.  So just for clarification, how old is Connor now?”

Jill burst into tears and I reached for the kleenex box I keep under the coffee table for such moments in spiritual direction.  She started sobbing.

“That’s the problem.  They were supposed to come for a visit next week but they canceled and there hasn’t seemed to be a “good time” (using her fingers to indicate the quotes) for me to see the baby.  Now we’re invited to his first birthday party next month!  Can you believe that?  I am supposed to be a grandmother and I haven’t held or kiss this sweet grandchild of mine—I’ve seen him on a few FaceTime calls.  How is it that in a year there was never a “good time” for a short visit?  What kind of priorities do these young people have?  And I am the one who wrote them the damn letter.”

I had never heard Jill curse so I knew she was pretty upset.  “You’re pretty angry, aren’t you, Jill?

“Yes I am!  I mean they rarely call and wish me a Happy Birthday even though my birthday follows Rob’s’ by three days.  They manage to call him.  They would be hurt if I missed their birthdays.  It’s like I feel so disrespected and used.  I really don’t get it because I’ve never done anything—I’ve always supported Rob’s children like for graduations, weddings, even made certain all of the college tuition was paid on time even though I didn’t have any biological children of my own.  I know that God would want me to be forgiving but I am having a hard time with this one.”

As Jill sipped her tea she continued to sobbed.  “This crap has been going on for about 15 years.  Like I said I’ve  have always been kind to Rob’s children and I swear at times, you would think I was the Wicked Witch of the East or the ugly Stepmother.  Actually I could care less if I saw any of them again, really.”

“And Jill, under that rage, it sound like you are hurt, too.  You know hurt typically resides beneath all of anger, rage and resentment, “ I said gently.

Moving closer to Jill who sat on the other side of the long red jacquard covered couch which sits in my living room, I grabbed her hands and held them as she cried.

“Let’s take a moment and pray.  Let’s be still and listen for what the Spirit has for us in the pain you’ve brought to share today.”  We sat in silence for about three minutes.

As I opened my eyes, I sensed Jill relax a bit.  Her lip had stopped quivering and her eyes brightened.

“Did you hear anything in the Silence? “ I asked.

“I think this stuff is about their mother.  They’ve had quite a bit of difficulty with her, some emotional issues or something from their childhood.  I think they have limited contact with her.  I guess I heard that I shouldn’t take this so personal.”

“Yes, being aware that their behavior may not be about you might help a lot especially if you have been a loving stepmother or spouse of their father.  Quite frequently people project things on to us that have nothing to do with us or the current incident.”

I paused a moment before proceeding.  “I heard that perhaps you have some healing to do around feeling excluded, slighted or disrespected.  Have you ever felt this way before?”

Jill pulled out her journal and started to take notes.  “I’ll have ponder that idea some.  I am certain I have.  I don’t know what their behavior is reminding me of.  I’ve always felt different, even as a little girl and well into college and beyond.  I am a deep thinker, intellectual, very spiritual and lots of people don’t like to engage in those types of conversations.  I know in college sometimes girls would exclude me from parties because I often sat around with the guys and talked about politics, current affairs or sports.  I didn’t join a sorority or participate in cliques.   I think I intimidate insecure people who then try to create situations to exclude or ridicule me.   I will journal about it some more later so I can get to the bottom of this.”  She started to smile for the first time today.

“And if you are seeing a therapist right now, that sense of sadness that was triggered by the incident with Chase and Alicia is a perfect topic to discuss with her as well.  My suspicion is that the hurt, the sadness that you brought with you today didn’t begin start with Chase and Alicia.  It may be something you’ve been carrying around in your heart for years and you may want to explore it in a deeper way.”

“Maybe so.  I am not seeing a therapist right now but I promise you if I start to feel more depressed, I will contact her.  I am just feeling kind of sad.”

“I know you mentioned that you like to paint.  Have you thought about painting about this incident or your sadness about it?  It might be great for you to utilize your hurt and anger in another way.”

“That is a great idea!  I need to get back to my brushes and canvas.”

“Also, I know it may be a little early for this but have you thought about cultivating a forgiveness practice?”

“Forgiveness practice?  What is that?” Jill inquired.

I learned about it through a book, Making Peace with Your Parents, I read many, many years ago written by a guy named, Harold Bloomfield.  I needed to forgive my father because at age 30 or so, I couldn’t stand to hear his voice on the phone. That’s a whole other story but I started this practice each morning and evening, by saying, “I forgive you, Dad” and each time he came to mind during the day, I would say the same thing,  “I forgive you, Dad.”  It took nearly three years but I finally got to a point where I could think of him and feel neutral or positive.  I learned a lot about him during those three years that helped me understand why he acted domineering and distant.  Once I felt a certain peace when I thought about him, I knew I was done.  Perhaps when you are ready, you can begin the practice with Chase and Alicia.  I think Spirit will be able to heal some things about you and them in the process.

Jill’s smile grew broader.  “Wow, I wasn’t anticipating talking it through like this, I mean I don’t quite know what I expected.  I do feel better already.  And maybe after some journaling I will try the forgiveness practice.”

“It is vital that you start where you are so if you have to say, ‘I forgive you, you damn Chase’ then that’s where you start.  It is important to acknowledge everything you are feeling—that includes the rage as well as the sadness.  Whatever words you choose, if in your heart you want to let go of the resentment and hurt, you’ll discover that it will happen.  It may take some time.  Eventually, you will be able to feel more peace and joy in your heart.”

Jill stood up and began to walk toward the door.  She turned to me and we hugged for a moment.  “Thank you and thank God for spiritual direction.  It is truly transforming my life.”

“You’re welcome, Jill.  I look forward to seeing you next month.  I’ll be praying for you.”  I waved as she walked down the brick stairs on the path past the rose garden toward the driveway and her car.

This fictionalized portrayal of a spiritual companioning meeting illustrates how it can facilitate the uncovering of Peace in one’s hearts.   As Nelson Mandela points out, if you carry around hatred and bitterness in your heart, you might as well be in prison.  Quickly new or current hurts can become smoldering resentments if they remain unacknowledged.  Is your heart imprisoned by some new hurt that is ripe for developing into a bitterness?  What do you need to do to relinquish it from your heart? How can you let your heart be free to feel the Peace that lies within?

Cousin Louise

I awoke to a voicemail this morning informing us that my husband, Walter’s 106 year old cousin passed away in her sleep overnight.  What a blessing it was to peacefully let go of her body in the comfort of her own home.  No unfamiliar facility or beeping machine with doctors and nurses hovering around or even a long list of medications.  “Cousin Louise” as we referred to her lived a long and fabulous life.  In many ways I am not sad.  In fact I want to stand up and give her a standing ovation for the kind of living she modeled.  I want to applaud her for the peace and joy I am certain she felt and expressed with her heart.

I often wonder about the ways in which people “transition.”  I purposely choose the word “transition” because I am not certain if our spirits, that essence or energy that gives life to bodies ever “dies.”  Yet I understand that the human body like all other kinds of bodies—birds, dogs, horses, fish, insects die.  I suspect death occurs because bodies serve as the vehicles that allow our spirits to move around in the physical world.  But why do some people leave this place as a result of an automobile accident, drowning, sustained illness, or shot by a family member or in a war?  Why aren’t more people able to die peacefully in their sleep like Cousin Louise?

I also believe Cousin Louise passed away with a happy, peaceful heart.  In the few years that I knew her, I never heard her say an unkind word about anyone.  She was full of stories many of them from the Civil Rights Movement in which she and her husband played active roles.  Although I am certain she encountered some frightening situations and in some cases, downright hostility, she seemed to hold a positive attitude about it all.  Cousin Louise felt bad for hateful people instead of being outraged by them.  She understood the relationship between ignorance and fear that quite often leads to bigotry and discrimination.

In addition, Cousin Louise taught English Literature to college students.  She loved poetry—Shakespeare, Tennyson and Chaucer and tried to ignite that love of literature in her students at Morris Brown College in Atlanta, GA.   She also loved playing the piano and continued to do so until she was 105.  When Walter videotaped her on that special birthday, he asked her how it felt to be 105.  She replied, “ Splendid.  It is just splendid!”

Her favorite scripture was Psalm 139, which she repeated often.  She was certain that she was held by some Presence no matter where she ventured.  Active in civic and social groups and her church as well, Cousin Louise rarely missed a Sunday at Big Bethel AME Church in downtown Atlanta until she became too fragile to attend.  Grateful for visits from her pastor that connected her to a church family, she also continued her monetary support until the end.  Her legacy includes her love of helping people especially encouraging young people.  She realized early that life was about service to others and living became even sweeter when her passions were combined with her desire to give.

Cousin Louise drove until she was much beyond age 95, in part because she fudged her age a bit.  It’s not clear if her husband, a few years her junior ever knew that she was older.  Yet because she was raised with Walter’s grandmother, the two being born just 2 weeks apart, we always knew her true age.  So when Cousin Louise turned 100, Walter and I took her dinner on her birthday and she admitted that it might be time for her to reveal her true age.

I’m not sure if I will live to 106 or if I want to.  But I know that in whatever time I have remaining on earth, I want to maintain the poise, elegance, and attitude of this great woman with a heart brimming over with love for others, a desire to help, and the radiant joy she emanated in living with a peaceful and grateful heart.

How might you describe your heart right now? What is it full of?  How do you think you would feel at 106?

Silence is like Fertilizer for the Soul

As I emerge out of a long, dreary, and frightfully cold winter even for warmer climates my thoughts turn to spring and the reminder that flower and vegetable gardens are on the horizon.  Today I prune the roses and the warmth of the sun shifts my thoughts to providing them with an offering of fertilizer to stimulate their new growth.  Pouring a special solution of vitamins, minerals and disease prevention around the roots of each bush, I sense that souls are like gardens and the adage, “Silence is like fertilizer for the soul” returns to my mind.

I made this statement to someone recently who immediately wanted to tweet it. The idea came from my own practice of Silence one early morning and I realized it was an apt description about what silence does for me.  I can always tell when my soul is well-nourished.  My spirit expresses great gratitude through felt expressions of peace and joy.  I am not speaking of an ecstatic response to some external event like the jubilation that comes with buying a new car, acquiring a new job or the excitement of an anticipated wedding day.  Typically, that kind of euphoria soon dissipates as ecstasy becomes anxiety.  Worry sets in as I think about the cost of car maintenance, insurance, and gas or all of the details of planning a wedding day.  Yet Silence for me morphs into an uncontrolled sense of joy emanating from within. Bubbling up like a natural spring out of the ground swell of my being, I smile for no apparent reason.  I suspect many people want to know how silence nurtures the soul and what needs a soul has.  Yet I notice that most people support their bodies and minds and either resist or aren’t aware of, or don’t consider feeding their souls.

Everyone seems to be on the health and fitness bandwagon.  Well, maybe not everyone since obesity rates for all ages are still on the rise.  And there are so many ways to take care of my body.  I frequently hear about walk/runs, neighborhood fitness centers, local gyms, special programs for women, people rushing to yoga and tai chi classes.  And when there’s even an entire clothing industry of body wear to accompany our increased focus on fitness, I know there’s a movement underfoot.  My husband, Walter even requested tai chi pants for Christmas a few years ago.

Then there are sports drinks.  I walked into Whole Foods the other day and stood paralyzed in front an entire aisle devoted to sports and energy drinks.  There were innumerable possibilities to choose from in nearly every flavor—actually some flavors I‘ve never heard of.  And water has been elevated to a new level.  I can have it in any flavor, with or without vitamins, alkaline, or from some rare spring.  Or people sit pitchers of filtered water in the refrigerator or use a special filter connected to the kitchen faucet. Growing up in California we always had an Arrowhead water cooler in the house and my mother even cooked with its water.  She too, a native of Hot Springs, AR grew up drinking spring water.

I also grew up with supplements as Mom became a Shaklee dealer just so she could keep us supplied with vitamins.  The growth in this industry is so vast that there are entire stores just devoted to supplements.  I see or read about vitamins and herbs that either weren’t discovered or certainly weren’t previously marketed to regular folks but are now common parlance (e.g., acidophilus,  folic acid, and COq10).  So it appears that everyone I know from newborns to those who are terminally ill take supplements.

Then there is nutritious food.  I loved vegetables as a child and that desire for them continues. However, as a child, I don’t remember seeing kale, swiss chard, butternut squash, or arugula gracing our dinner table on a regular basis. Walter, now a master gardener and site leader for a large local community garden brings home more leafy greens than we can properly digest.  I am grateful for all of the organic vegetables including rattle snake beans (a little sweeter than a Kentucky Wonder), three different kinds of lettuces, beets, Yukon gold and sweet potatoes, tomatoes, cauliflower, bell peppers, and brussels sprouts.

Clearly, I know how to take care of my body.  It’s unclear though if I take care of my mind with similar enthusiasm.  I often wonder why I fill it with news of disasters and gossip about celebrities that pervade the television and radio.  I listen to audiobooks just to escape the overstimulation of my brain brought on by a television screen that contains too much action.  Sometimes there are four talking heads, action on another split screen and a crawl at the bottom. Admittedly, I have friends who devour books especially during the summer months when the living seems less frenetic.  On occasion we entertain dinner guests and find a good old discussion makes my intellect very happy.  Attending theater and dance productions, poetry readings, art openings, fabulous films also provide ways to stimulate my mind but I notice that they also nourish my soul.  An excellent musical gives me a thrill for many days and makes my heart sing.  With some plays and movies, the acting is so good that my soul tingles.

Ah…finally back to the soul.  I wondered what most people did to take care of their souls.  I posed the question to a group of friends last week. “So what have you done for your soul lately?” and besides the blank looks I received, they remarked, “Do you mean when is the last time I attended church?”  No, not exactly although many people feel fed by some form of communal worship.  Maybe a walk through a beautiful garden or arboretum, a hike on a mountain trail, a bike ride or taking in a beautiful sunrise or sunset, or a simple pause from all of the doing so the soul can just be is what came to mind.  Seeing or creating beautiful art also moves me in a way that feels like my soul is being watered.

So what does the garden of the soul need to grow? It needs water (sorrow) to rinse away the soot of life and it requires sun (encouragement and affirmation).  Weeding (set-backs and letting go of unnecessary people or things) is essential as well.  But fertilizer is that extra component that helps growing things like flowers, trees, and vegetables develop even stronger root structures and bear larger flowers or vegetables.  Thus, like the flowers and vegetables in my garden, I know my soul needs more. Just like my plants need some nitrogen or magnesium, the soul needs a boost, some extra nutrients to enrich it.

I believe the best food for the soul is stillness and silence.  Often I engage the stillness which is all around when I observe the flowers along the walk, stop to listen to the birds chirp, lie on patio chaise or hammock and watch the clouds slowly move across the sky, take in a gorgeous multi-color sunset or stand before vistas of mountains.  What also helps is to turn off the iPod, shut down the tweets, get off of Facebook, turn off the phone, radio, television and take a few moments to pause.  When I shut it all down, that’s when I hear my soul whisper, “Thank you.  I need this time to exhale.”

In order for our souls to flourish, like our bodies and minds, we don’t necessarily have to be “doing” anything in church or any place else.  Actually I think our souls desire regular attention in the form of a contemplation that may not necessitate more than pausing from time-to-time to acknowledge its existence.

Early mornings even before I check my smart phone or go outside where the stillness awaits me to admire the roses, zinnias, cosmos, rattle snake beans, or basil, I try to feed my soul with 10-20 minutes of Silence.  Afterwards I begin the day and all that awaits me grounded and well-nourished. I also try to stop throughout the day to pause and give my soul some quick nourishment with a minute of silence. In fact there are times when I try to build up a reserve so on ridiculously busy days, I have some peace and joy to lean into.   And I know that the Peace and Joy that often bubbles up after Silence is the way my soul chooses to say, “Thank you.  I love the quiet.  I yearn to be fed too.  I am ready to expand you—to enhance your inner sanctum.”

Do you think a few moments of silence, of soaking in the stillness around you will feed your soul today?  Would some Silence help you to unearth the Peace in your heart?

Healing Old Hurts

Last November I watched an interview Oprah Winfrey conducted with Rev. Al Sharpton.  I was struck by the journey “Rev. Al” traveled from an angry black man protesting at any and every event to a well-respected political commentator and advocate for social justice.  The most intriguing aspect of his life centered on what fueled the anger of his adolescence and early adulthood.  As the story goes, Rev. Al was living a classic middle class life with his entire family in tact.  His father owned several businesses that allowed his mother to stay home with little Al and his sister as well as obtain a new Cadillac each year.  But all of that changed when his father fell in love with Rev. Al’s older half sister, Ernestine, his mother’s daughter by a previous marriage.  When Ernestine became pregnant, Rev. Al’s father left his mother only to return to take his other sister.  Little nine year old Al wondered what happened—and what was so wrong with him that his father didn’t take him too (especially since he was named after him).  Moreover, Al’s mother went from living in a very nice home to the projects and scrubbing floors just to so little Rev. Al could wear a suit to church.  Despite his proclivities toward the church, scripture, and preaching, none of these could erase Rev. Al’s outrage at his father and the situation he left them in.  He became a very angry man.

This story reminds me of another one from several years ago.  John, whose beard and hair reminded me of the abolitionist and freedom fighter, Frederick Douglas, always looked like he had just marched in from a demonstration.  A colleague and professor in the English department, John shared over lunch one day that when he was 13 years old he discovered that he had been adopted.  He found the papers in a desk drawer while looking for pen.  When questioned, his African American adoptive parents told him that his German mother left him in the hospital.  I observed for years that John possessed an aura of rage, especially at white people.  Yet he avoided the need to resolve this obvious contradiction.  As I saw it, being half-white meant he hated a part of himself.  I suggested that he write and obtain the adoption records.

Apparently John’s mother gave birth to him when she was only 18.  Olga had become pregnant by the colored soldier next door and her father told her she could return home but she could not bring the baby.  After further investigation, John discovered that his mother later married an African American man and raised 4 or 5 of his half brothers and sisters before dying of brain cancer two years prior to his inquiry.  This information was the beginning of his healing.

Then there was Angela.  Shortly after surviving a heart transplant, I began to conduct “heart readings.” Somehow during my post-surgery recovery, I became very sensitive to feelings.  I could name the most prevalent emotion any person carried in his or her heart.   Yet I still cannot remember when these heart readings sessions began.  I believe I casually remarked to a friend, “Once I am well, we will have to talk about that sadness sitting in your heart.”  Startled, my friend was open to a follow-up conversation and then the word spread.

All kinds of people began calling and showing up at my doorstep ready to open up their hearts to me.  I became acutely aware of how burdened we are by what we carry in our hearts.  Thus, in the morning before a scheduled meeting I would pray that I could be helpful in some way.  When each person showed up, I lit a candle and asked a few questions.  Within 5-10 minutes I not only “knew” the emotion but often sensed its origin.

One winter day Angela stopped by.  Hearing about the heart readings Angela decided she wanted to check it out.  I had encountered Angela several times on campus and similar to John, I witnessed the wrath pulsating in her veins.  I didn’t quite know the source of the outrage but it was clear to everyone that a seething fury was no stranger to either of them.

Angela, petite with auburn hair and greenish-gray eyes entered my dining room and sat down on the other end of a round oak table as the three wick candle burned in the middle.  I paused and closed my eyes.  As I opened them I shared with Angela that I sensed that she was carrying a lot of resentment in her heart.  She smiled.  “Yeah I guess I sorta know that,” she said.  “So thinking  about your childhood, can you remember a time when you didn’t feel enraged?” I asked.  Angela hesitated for a moment and then replied, “Well, I guess it was a little before my father left.”  Bingo, I thought to myself.  As we talked, I learned that Angela and her father were quite close before at age 8, he left and stopped communicating with her.  She never received any phone calls, birthday cards, or Christmas gifts.  Every Father’s Day only fueled the growing resentment churning in her heart.  And beneath the fury lay layers of hurt, loss, and abandonment.  Now as a divorced single mother, each visit or weekend trip her ex-husband spent with their daughter triggered that sting of anger.

Since I perceived these heart readings as some kind of temporary spiritual intervention in the souls directed to me during this time, I prescribed  a forgiveness mantra to use for the throbbing ache Angela carried about her father.  I also knew that a heart bulging with rage and contempt was akin to a ticking time bomb—a potential stroke or heart attack hovered nearby.  Angela readily admitted that she already took multiple medications for her blood pressure.

Finally there was Cousin Vivian.  I first met Vivian when I moved to the Atlanta Metro area about 15 years ago.  I reunited with a few of my relatives who resided in Atlanta and began attending family gatherings on holidays like Labor Day and Thanksgiving.  We would rotate houses and each family brought some delectable dish for the bash.  In catching up with the family, I discovered that Tommy, my cousin on my Daddy’s side married Vivian, a buxom, velvety chocolate woman from Barbados.  When Vivian and I were first introduced I observed that she managed a forced smile as she sat seething at a table on the other side of the family room.  Moreover, there was no love lost between Vivian and her sisters-in law.  Then I noted that Cousin Tommy and Vivian’s two beautiful, precious children, Jeremiah and Brittany possessed a certain sadness about them.  I suspected that an undisclosed family tale lay buried in the midst.

About six months later Vivian called to talk with me perhaps because she felt I had just re-joined this side of the family and didn’t share their long, disagreeable history.  She vented about Tommy and his extramarital affairs hinting that his sisters had even entertained the other woman at their homes.  Shocked I suggested marital therapy but apparently did not know the depth of the hurt.  Each holiday when I embraced Vivian it seemed her bitterness grew like cancer and Jeremiah and Brittany looked even more melancholic.

Three years later as I arrived at another family gathering people were passing around the telephone.  Evidently Vivian was in the hospital with uncontrollable hypertension and when I took the phone to tell her I was praying for her and hoped she felt better soon she shared with me that Cousin Tommy had moved away and now lived with “the other woman” and the two children they had together.  As I looked around at Cousin Tommy who had flown in to see her laughing in the corner, Vivian insisted that she would feel better if Tommy just did the right thing and returned to their family.  The contempt in her voice was unmistakable.

In less than two week, Vivian lie dying in the hospital.  Apparently realizing her family life too had taken a turn for the worse, she stopped taking her blood pressure medications, developed an aneurysm, and suffered a stroke.  The doctors walked into the hospital conference room where all of the family gathered yet again and reported that Cousin Vivian was brain dead.

During the hospital vigil, I met Vivian’s parents and her brother, Wayne.  I observed that Wayne was consumed with rage as well.  Over the subsequent days that brought the family together again and again for Cousin Vivian’s wake, funeral, and repast, I learned that her anger actually didn’t begin with Cousin Tommy.  Allegedly when Vivian’s parents chose to immigrate to the US from Barbados, they left Vivian and Wayne as young children with an abusive grandmother.  Like little seedlings the rage, abandonment and hurt that blossomed in their hearts was cultivated by parents, grandparents and other family members alike.

Often people express a lot of anger, resentment, and hate that has nothing to do with the current circumstances.  Rev. Al, John, Angela, and Cousin Vivian represent classic cases of anger being symptomatic of a larger unhealed wound.  The rage is just the tip of the iceberg.  Many of us are born into challenging situations and nearly all of us to imperfect parents.  Often though we interpret their shortcomings as a commentary on our own worth.  What is so bad about me that Mommy or Daddy would treat or leave me like this?  It is rarely about us.

And not all stories about anger and rage need share the tragic ending of Cousin Vivian’s.  I hope that John and Angela made peace with their pasts.  Rev. Al provides a beacon for a healing transformation.  Now his countenance is more inviting and I suspect his weight loss reflects the relinquishment of all of that hurt.   Whatever he did, therapy, prayer, meditation, or preaching, it seems to have worked.  Rev. Al is indeed a different man who has more energy to devote to the things he feels called to.

Now when I encounter people who appear to be acting particularly angry or hateful, I step back and pause knowing that underneath all of that anger and “attitude” is a hurting child yearning for love, for care, for redemption.  So I send a blessing and pray that a balm will heal the wounds permeating their innocent hearts.

The obvious question here is are you holding on to some old anger and resentment that like some tasty but far too sweet frosting is covering up deeper pain or hurt in your heart?  We know that when pain is pushed down it becomes anger, rage, and resentment.  What pain, which hurts do you need to heal?  Is this what is blocking the Peace in your heart? If so, may you begin the journey today toward understanding and self-healing.  It is never too late to act on your own behalf to release the peace, to feel the joy residing in you heart.

Stillness of Mind

Stillness of Mind 

As I was clearing my desk a few days ago I came across an article in O Magazine about a woman, Mata Amritanandamayi (Amma), whose calling and purpose in life is to hug people.  The writer, Meredith Bryan, attended a weekend event which involved at least one hug a day.  Meredith wondered why Amma’s hugs are so powerful that she attracts hundreds of followers and even volunteers for her traveling seminars.  She inquired about what kind of spiritual blessing one might receive from engaging in such an embrace.  An accompanying translator for Amma suggested that the gift is “stillness of mind.”  That phrase stuck with me since silence and stillness are close companions in my life these days.

It began, well as a little girl.  I loved to go outside and sit in the wind.  Although I am certain I appeared “weird” to the neighbors and some relatives and friends who stopped by to visit my parents, I yearned to soak in the sun and Santa Ana winds permeating the San Gabriel Valley in Southern California.  “Why is that child sitting out there by herself in the backyard,” people would ask my mother?  Ruby would smile and let them know that it was fine by her.  I am certain she thought about the many mischievous activities a solitary female child might encounter in or outside of the house.   The fact that I chose to sit in solitude somehow warmed her heart.

Drawn to the stillness that hovered in the wind I even found something serene about the groans of mourning doves and songs of chirping birds.  I felt enveloped both by something (maybe Spirit) blowing in the wind and the peaceful quiet.  Resting in silence served as my escape from the background chatter of television, bark of the radio and swishing of the washing machine.  I could skip the ringing telephone, Mom calling my brothers, or Dad discussing things “little pitcher with big ears” shouldn’t hear.

I was reminded of why I find stillness so powerful when I visited the South rim of the Grand Canyon during spring break several years ago.   As I stood there in awe of this wonder of the world, it was suddenly revealed—in a word, stillness.  As I surveyed this magnificent space, felt it, and listened to it, I noticed an energy emanating from it.  It was an energy pulsating at a special frequency…and I knew in that moment that it was the same energy that holds all things together.  “Wow,” I thought, “wouldn’t it be nice if I could just pitch a tent and stay at the Grand Canyon all the time?”

When I returned home, I started getting up earlier so I could feel the stillness in the morning and then I observed that sometimes that same stillness permeated my office.  And there was actually stillness in my car as other cars whizzed past on the highway.  Then it seemed that when I stopped and paid attention–stillness was showing up everywhere—in the kitchen, and in the classroom or was it there all the while and I just hadn’t notice?

Now many moons later I wonder what do I need to do to re-capture the “stillness of mind” that I enjoyed as a little girl perched on a log in the backyard.  Must I rush out on a blustery day to sit on the deck, travel once again to the Grand Canyon or take an early morning walk to feel that deep peace again?  Would stilling my mind achieve the same result?

And I wonder how might my life be different if I practiced stillness of mind?  Eckhart Tolle reminds us, “To meet everything and everyone through stillness instead of mental noise is the greatest gift you can offer to the universe.”  There’s that word “gift” again.  So stillness of mind is the gift?

The need for and gift of stillness became more obvious when I faced a heart transplant in 1995, a major heart transplant rejection episode which landed me in the hospital for 27 days in 2003, kidney failure in 2004, followed by a year of dialysis, a kidney transplant in 2005, and a heart valve replacement on the transplanted heart and a pacemaker in 2006.  Accompanying this laundry list of medical challenges were countless medical procedures, pain, pills, and mood shifts.  I realized in the midst of each crisis that I needed to “still my mind” and listen within because often my life depended on it.  Moreover, I spent a lot of time on my back, frequently awake in the middle of the quiet night and I felt re-assured time and again that I was being held by a Holiness that I could not see but that I knew was present.  At times, I gained a peace that passeth understanding as well as guidance.  I doubt that I would be writing this reflection in 2014 had I not been aware of the power of silence–how stilling my mind renews my physical energy, enhances my mental acuity and softens my heart.

As I began to read more widely on the topic of spirituality I noticed a pattern among spiritual figures across many faith traditions.  They all regularly spend substantial amounts of time being still often in solitude, silence, or contemplative prayer.  Since I started taking time for silence twice a day in “Listening Prayer,” as I term it, I’ve noticed profound changes that help me maneuver the chaos and craziness of my personal, professional, and medical lives.

What have I learned when I still my mind and heart to listen within?  Among the multitude of answers to innumerable questions and concerns, four things stand out:

  • I’ve learned that in the past when I prayed, I did a lot more talking than listening;
  • I’ve learned that the words “silent” and “listen” contain exactly the same letters but they are just re-arranged;
  • I’ve learned about who I am and who I am not;
  • I’ve learned that by engaging in the practice of letting go of fear thoughts, anxiety, depression or anything that disturbs my peace of mind, I later find that I have more peace as well as love, hope and joy in my heart.

Perhaps it is my background in psychology that makes me think there is a link between a quiet mind and a peaceful heart.  I remember reading many years ago about “hot cognitions” or the notion that neutral thoughts do not exist.  Every thought has affect and my thinking and feelings are connected.  I suspect that I could spend time examining each thought for its affective content and determine which ones to keep.  Or I could just practice quieting my mind when I notice that I’ve lapsed into some disruptive rumination.

I now believe the same stillness I felt outside in the backyard as a little girl, at the Grand Canyon, on silent retreats, or in the early morning is everywhere—even in my mind and heart.  And there too lies a Peace that passeth understanding.  Noticing and awareness are key, however.  Practice too.

So I wonder what it would feel like if you paused and stilled the inner chatter and listened to the chirping birds, to the wind, and to all of the lovely stillness that always surrounds you?

Perhaps “stilling your mind” might help you feel that peace in your heart.