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.
How are you feeling this Christmas holiday season? Frazzled? Exhausted? Peaceful? Maximum Joy? For another take on what Christmas is all about, listen as I share a bit about Howard Thurman and his lovely book, The Mood of Christmas and Other Celebrations with Lisa DeLay on her podcast Spark My Muse. Listen Here
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
- Reflect on whether or not your heart is open or closed to everyone,
- Consider what you may be carrying in your hearts, and
- 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.
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.
I recently finished a lovely book, How the Light Gets in—Writing as Spiritual Practice, by Pat Schneider. As you can see from the picture pasted below, I underlined and tagged many pages. How the Light Gets In earned a place on my favorite books shelf. I love books that are part memoir and part instructional manual. Schneider takes readers on a journey of her life and highlights the links between writing, spirituality, and healing. In the final chapter, she makes several poignant statements about vocation or calling. Schneider suggests that each person, no matter what the social category; age, gender, race, or social status possesses a calling.
Similarly, I would argue even more passionately that each of us is constantly being called. But most people appear confused about what a vocation or calling is. My former students believed that vocation or calling are terms only applicable to the ministry. As I tried to disavow them of this misnomer, I wondered what would happen if educational institutions took the discernment of a vocational or calling as serious as seminaries do. As an academic adviser, I hoped a structured discernment process existed for students interested in all occupations. Moreover, the issue of calling arises many times over the course of a lifetime. Currently, questions about calling dominate my conversations with adults of varying ages, even some I perceive as elders in spiritual direction/companioning. Pat Schneider maintains one method of discovering a calling is to pay attention to what brings you joy.
This idea is very similar to Howard Thurman’s famous quote: “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who can come alive” or Joseph Campbell’s admonition “Follow your bliss.” What would the world be like if every person could listen for and become engaged in work or activities that brought them joy. Yet the quotes by Thurman and Campbell allude to a different term; passion. Are they the same or interchangeable experiences? Synonyms of passion include fervor, enthusiasm, zeal or an intense desire while descriptions of joy include delight, pleasure, happiness, and jubilation. Is there something special about the feeling of joy that is different from passion?
I see this contrast playing out in my life. I held a passion for teaching but now I know deeper joy. It almost feels oxymoronic for me to declare the delight I feel when I arise to work. Eagerly I sit down to my desk to write or to greet those who walk through my front door for spiritual direction/companioning. I look forward to the retreats I lead and talking with spiritual seekers. What characterizes my present work that seemed absent in my past labors?
Since retiring, I have carved out a set of activities instead of adapting to the tasks associated with my job. For example, I noted earlier one of my favorite aspects of my profession was advising students. I could have advised students all day, every day. I felt especially jubilant when I witnessed a student discover a calling. What helped me to determine if a students had unearthed a hidden occupational delight? Often I posed a series of questions and observed their behavior. I would inquire, “What would you do if you lacked any constraints, if you had all the time and money in the world?” “What kind of work would you do for free?” “Which activities bring you joy?”
I noticed as students, seated across from me on a couch or chair, talked about a variety of possible careers, there was a moment in the conversation when they lit up like a Christmas tree. The light in their eyes and the joy in their voices provided the mighty clues that we had stumbled upon a calling.
A few students would note their own inner excitement, and pursue that path. Unfortunately, I also encountered students who could or would not follow their dreams. Many chose careers that their parents wanted for them or fields of study that might generate the most income. I would remind them that whatever vocation they chose, it would need to get them out of bed for the next 30 or more years. I counseled further that some occupational choices would be more difficult to undo than others. Becoming a doctor for example, involves a deep investment of time, energy, and money. Further, once students start families and begin to purchase cars and homes, changing careers becomes far more challenging, if not impossible. What is most remarkable is that my advice was quite similar to Patricia Schneider’s or Howard Thurman’s even though I neither knew of or had read anything by either author at that time.
The experience of joy is important for daily life balance as well. The frenetic world we live in, burdened with overactivity, overstimulation, and relentless distractions requires counterbalancing. Joy helps to uncover the counterbalancing activities. What is most joyful—watching a movie, sitting outside in nature, listening to music, dancing in the living room, or reading a book? Regardless of the activity selected, it is essential to surround ourselves with our delights. Otherwise if we become stuck on the treadmill of life, the endless tasks will wear us down. We must get off for some rest and fun.
Where is joy beckoning you? Following it whether it leads you to the kitchen to bake cookies or brownies, to the swings in a park, to a sporting event is what gives you vitality. Perhaps taking a moment to observe the changing colors of autumn leaves or watch hummingbirds and butterflies, will provide the joy that is the perfect antidote to what might ail you. Following your joy will definitely lead you to feel more of the peace and joy in your heart.
There is one lesson I continue to learn over and over again. Seeking answers to the mysteries of life does not have to be complicated or expensive. The great African American theologian and mystic, Dr. Howard Thurman, writes about an oak tree that he turned to again and again for solace and strength. He said he would talk to the oak tree, sharing his triumphs and sorrows with it.
“I needed the strength of that tree, and, like it, I would hold my ground…I cultivated a unique relationship with the tree..I could sit, my back against the trunk, and feel the same peace that would come to me in my bed at night. I could reach down in the quiet places of my spirit, take out my bruises and my joys, unfold them, and talk about them. I could talk aloud to the oak tree and know that it understood. It, too, was a part of my reality, like the woods, the night, and the pounding surf, my earliest companions, giving me space.”
Earlier, biographer, Elizabeth Yates wrote:
“He also learned from the oak tree that despite the tempest or storms, it stood stalwart. Somewhere in life, he reasoned to himself, there was a constancy that was not subject to tempests; but whatever it was, it would not be outside a man but with his spirit. He read that night to his grandmother from the Psalms about a godly man…he shall be like a tree..What was this soil wherein a man’s roots, as those of a tree, could find sure hold?”
As I began to reflect on my own contemplative spiritual journey, I thought about where and when I found renewal and guidance. For many years I chided myself for lacking the desire to take a pilgrimage, to walk the great El Camino, hike the Grand Canyon or walk the shores near Iona, Scotland. Sometimes I need not go any further than my own backyard or bedroom. Below is a description of my spiritual spot, my time and place that is equivalent to Dr. Thurman’s oak tree. It is my bed in the morning wherever I am.
I turned over in my bed just becoming aware of the early morning quiet. Awakening among tossed pillows, sheets, and lightweight blankets always offered a place of strength and solace for me. The tranquility of daybreak reminded me of the times as a child I spent sitting in the wind inhaling the deep peace within it. As, “Little Rita,” my childhood nickname, I didn’t understand why I was so drawn to serenity or that a bed and the daybreak hush would serve as my anchor for an unimaginable life journey.
From morning calm, I donned my uniform to march off to master the discipline of parochial school, and later arose to face a sea of white faces, as the lone brown one in my college classrooms. In the newness of morning, I jumped out of the bed to boldly defend my dissertation, and then later sobbed into its fitted sheets when I realized that my tenure denial wasn’t a dream but a real professional and public humiliation. Still the early morning calm gave birth to the strength and wisdom I needed as a professor to awaken students for more than 30 years. Virgin time and the caress of handmade quilts created a space where I summoned the courage to face a looming heart transplant, and ten years later accepted the diagnosis of renal failure knowing my recovery would require months of dialysis and another transplant. Opening my eyes in great joy, I awoke in the freshness of the day to see my wedding dress hanging across the hotel room, celebrating in my new heart my imminent marriage. After a restless night of grief, I grabbed my teddy bears and tissues, and wailed into the pillows as I felt the sting of being orphaned, now with both parents deceased. In all of these moments, I knew that the constancy of a sturdy bed whether in homes, college dorms, hotels or hospitals, and the Guidance revealed in a touch of morning stillness would steer me through anything.
Howard Thurman found peace and understanding from an old, sturdy oak tree near his home. Memories of times with that tree sustained him throughout his life. For me, I acquire wisdom and courage in bed in morning quiet to walk the spiritual path. Where do you go to refuel, to connect with inner wisdom? When do you pause to capture moments of calm and serenity, and to gather the strength to endure the vicissitudes of life? How can you experience the peace and joy in your heart?
Howard Thurman, With Hand and Heart-The Autobiography of Howard Thurman. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1981, p. 9.
Elizabeth Yates, Howard Thurman: Portrait of a Practical Dreamer. New York: The John Day Company, 1964, p. 30.
“Don’t cry because it is over. Smile because it happened.”
Although the Academy Awards have come and gone, conversations about the Oscars spur me to view as many of the nominated films as I can. However, one of my favorite films last year, Collateral Beauty was not considered for any awards. I didn’t understand the horrible reviews and small audiences for a film with such a profound and deep message. I concluded after a year in which most media outlets devoted their time to trash, to the very base instincts of society, that people are addicted to fear, insults, fake news, and social media overload. Thus, I suspected that Collateral Beauty, a movie that contains no sex or an overabundance of violence (i.e., no kill count), seemed boring to many. Yet when I looked beyond the unrealistic storyline, I found some engaging dialogue and an overall message of love designed to speak to our souls and uplift our spirits.
What is collateral beauty you might ask? I had no idea how the concept was being framed for the movie, in fact I hadn’t thought about what it might mean until the end. I had heard of collateral damage, defined as the ”general term for deaths, injuries, or other damage inflicted on an unintended target.” In military terminology, it is frequently used to account for “the incidental killing or wounding of non-combatants…The unintentional destruction of friendly targets is called friendly fire.”
I’ve always felt, though, that collateral damage is a euphemism designed to distant or distract people from digesting the real death toll and destruction wreaked on the lives of “unintended targets” who find themselves in unwanted wars and physical conflicts. I wonder if people who engage in domestic violence in front of children, or gang members whose bullets miss the intended victim and instead kill or maim a child or elderly person, consider the long-term consequences of the damage they inflict. The deception of describing the loss of innocent life as incidental, just a person at the wrong place and at the wrong time, keeps us all from feeling the brunt of such news.
Given that definition, then, could collateral beauty denote? It is that stubborn new growth that occurs after a fire has destroyed a forest or a community of homes. Sometimes the new growth manifests as the loving actions of those who are moved by a tragedy to offer their help by making meals, bringing clothes, warm blankets, and water to fellow human beings who find themselves in a tragic situation. I find collateral beauty everywhere.
When I think of examples of collateral beauty in my life, my transplants and recovery from various illnesses immediately come to mind. My donor family lost a beloved daughter and sister and in the midst of their grief, they chose to donate a heart, liver, two kidneys, and some cornea that immediately brought new life to five people. One family’s heartbreaking loss became a joy and relief for another. And as I suffered through my recovery, friends, colleagues and new acquaintances emerged from their busy lives to offer prayer, food, company, and rides to and from the transplant clinic. Incredibly, six women from my former support group in Detroit each chose to take vacation time and travel by plane, train and bus to spend a week caring for me after my mother exhausted her unpaid family leave.
Collateral beauty frequently appears during the terminal illness of a loved one. Elizabeth Lesser writes about her experiences of donating bone marrow to her sister in the memoir, Marrow: A Love Story. Lesser describes the poignant healing that came as a result of conversations with her sister which resulted in their reconciliation after a lifetime of conflict. Sometimes collateral beauty appears in just those moments of presence, the baring of souls when people realize that their time together is limited and waning. In essence, collateral beauty is the love that emerges in the midst of devastation, whether it is in the loss of a loved one, destroyed homes, or a tragedy that affects an entire community.
In addition to introducing moviegoers to the notion of collateral beauty, the movie also elicited questions about how do we spend time, what love looks like in our lives, and what does life mean when one realizes their death is inevitable and possibly imminent? Recently I spent a week being present with my older brother who was visiting. We are both older and less physically vibrant than we were a few years ago. He suffers some effects of a stroke he experienced six years ago and I deal with chronic medical issues as a transplant recipient. We shared stories. I cooked for him and we reminisced about the events that bonded us for life. I knew that clearing the calendar and sharing this precious time with him was what love looks like and the best use of our time in the midst of our mutual physical suffering.
It takes time to see collateral beauty and frequently I don’t possess the patience to pause long enough. It requires looking beyond what I see with my eyes or hear with my ears. It allows a glimpse into the often unseen love that permeates all. Wherever there is seeming devastation, there is also collateral beauty—the healing, the joy of what has been, the celebration of a certain heavenliness on earth. If I stop for a moment to savor all of the beauty and goodness of life rather than focusing on what is missing or how I might want it to be, I gain a certain sacred perspective. It reminds me that beauty can be seen in anything as long as I allow my heart to see it, to feel the sadness and the joy, to perceive the whole rather than the fragments.
I believe Howard Thurman would characterize collateral beauty like this:
The seed of the jack pine will not be given up by the cone unless the cone itself is subjected to sustained and concentrated heat…It is not too far afield to suggest that there are things deep within the human spirit that are firmly embedded, dormant, latent, and inactive. These things are always positive, even thought they may be destructive rather than creative. But there they remain until our lives are swept by the forest fire: It may be some mindless tragedy, some violent disclosure of human depravity or some moment of agony in which the whole country or nation be involved. The experience releases something that has been locked up within all through the years. If it be something that calls to the deepest things in life, we, like the jack pine, grow tall and straight against the sky!
Meditations of the Heart, p. 82-83
Where are the moments of collateral beauty in your life? Would pondering such times or being present to others bring you closer to the peace and joy in your heart?
Lately I’ve been pondering what my historical mentor and spiritual guide, Howard Thurman might say as we inaugurate the 45th President of the United States. I suspect he would not be on Twitter or any other social media platform. I don’t think, like me, he would be blogging about it either. But I believe he would have an opinion and perhaps some recommendations about how to live in the current social and political atmosphere.
Dr. Howard Washington Thurman experienced great social transitions in his lifetime. Born in 1899 in Daytona Beach, Florida, Thurman lived through the severity of Jim Crow legal segregation, state sponsored domestic terrorism, and a host of racial insults and indignities. He spoke of the time when he had been invited to give a talk at a major meeting only to learn that hotel would not serve him lunch in its main dining room. Thurman was so enraged that he decided to forego eating and walk through the city instead. I sense that during the walk he heard some of what he would later talk and write about in his classic book, Jesus and the Disinherited. This same book inspired Dr. Martin Luther KingJr., to begin his civil rights work and he carried Jesus and the Disinherited whenever he marched.
In preparing to live through the Inaugural weekend and the days to follow, Howard Thurman would likely advise us to; 1) use our outrage constructively, to better someone else’s lot rather than become bitter. 2) He would discourage the use of violence and instead admonish us to use our energy to educate and enlighten, and to wake up those who sleep in the fog of racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, classism, and materialism. 3) Thurman never thought that changes in laws and social policies meant much if they did not change people’s hearts. He would want sustained, regular exchanges between people who are different because he felt this would create the Beloved Community that he and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., dreamed of.
Howard Thurman knew from spending time with his grandmother, Nancy Ambrose, a former slave, that what sustains people through challenging, difficult and sometimes horrendous conditions is their internalized knowledge that they are holy children of God. He believed this spiritual self is what Jesus was trying to awaken in his own oppressed Jewish people in the hostile Roman society they lived in. Clearly right now in 2017, there are so many who need such an awakening, a shift in personal identity that includes an exploration of a deeper spiritual nature, especially among those who perceive themselves to be powerful as well as those who think of themselves as powerless.
If I were fortunate enough to have lunch today with Howard Thurman, I think he would suggest a few antidotes to the media circus, confusion, and chaos of actual news, fake news, and tweets in lieu of actual conversation. I imagine Thurman would smile and instruct me to be still. Take some pause pockets so I can create a deep, peaceful sanctuary within my mind and heart. Create my own inner retreat, a sacred space that I can return to again and again and again to dim the lights and lower the volume on the cacophony of the outer world.
Next, Thurman would sit back and quietly suggest that I go outside and commune with nature. Certainly walking along a beach, taking in its quiet calm, and watching the birds glide across the azure sky with billowing clouds, or observing how gently snowflakes float to the ground would engender some peace. Feeling the cool breeze and watching the trees sway in the wind, noting their strength even in the midst of storms is how Thurman sensed a Oneness with everything. This connection with the All helped him most when the “tempests of life” as he called them blustered through.
Finally, after finishing a luscious dessert, I suspect Howard Thurman would lean in and remind me to increase my practice of inner authority. Inner authority is just another manifestation of living from a sense of authentic Self; the one God created and a Self deeply embedded in the Presence. Mastery of this principle is vital for people who suffer any form of discrimination, particularly individuals from visible stigmatized groups, because although a body may be assaulted or a mind temporarily disturbed, “The inner sanctuary cannot be breached without consent.” It is only by our own inner authority that we allow it to be disturbed. By being rooted in and living from the Spirit of God, whether that Presence is within us or in nature, one can develop the “authority” to move against oppressive forces in one’s life.* Thurman portrays it best in this short excerpt from his book, Meditations of the Heart.
The Inward Sea
There is in every person an inward sea, and in that
sea there is an island and on that island there is an
altar and standing guard before that altar is the “angel
with the flaming sword.” Nothing can get by that
angel to be placed upon that altar unless it has the
mark of your inner authority. Nothing passes “the
angel with the flaming sword” to be placed upon your
altar unless it be a part of “the fluid area of your consent.”
This is your crucial link with the Eternal. (p. 15)
In summary, Howard Thurman would believe that contemporary times are ostensibly no different from the times he lived in—just the players on the stage have shifted. Even if laws or policies are altered, a real change won’t occur until hearts soften and we learn to embrace each other—enemies and friends—with love and compassion. He would certainly admonish me to pay attention to my thinking, because that determines what I see in the world, and to cultivate a greater rootedness in God rather than putting my faith and power in elected officials.
Howard Thurman would also remind me
to be still and listen each day for what my role is
in the change I wish to see in the world.
I am certain he would know that quiet, inner listening
brings more peace and joy to the heart.
If you would like to spend some solitary and contemplative time, listening and learning about Howard Thurman, visit the Howard Thurman Retreat Day (available online until March 31, 2017), sponsored by the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation. For more information and to register, visit the Shalem website, shalem.org.
*Lerita Coleman Brown, An Ordinary Mystic: Contemplation, Inner Authority, and Spiritual Direction in the Life and Work of Howard Thurman. Presence: An International Journal of Spiritual Direction, 18, 14-22, 2012.
Recently I led a Quiet Day at a local retreat center on Howard Thurman who was mentor and spiritual adviser to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. What is a Quiet Day you might ask? I describe it as a weekend silent retreat packed into a single day. It provides each person in attendance an opportunity to disconnect from the world for a few hours, power down the electronic devices and get off the grid. A Quiet Day allows for calming the inner chatter and just basking in the stillness that lies below it in our minds. Actually I’ve noticed that most environments especially natural settings possess quiet, stillness, and serenity until we introduce noise into them. A certain joy always emanates from the peace nestling in such places.
In preparation for the Quiet Day, I learned some new things about Howard Thurman and what brought peace and joy to his heart. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, Thurman was an extraordinary mystic, theologian and preacher and his life and writings offer a number of suggestions about how to live in a world of turmoil yet keep a certain awe, peace and hope in one’s heart. I want to share a few examples from his life here.
Howard Thurman found great peace outside in nature. He grew up in Daytona Beach so as a young boy he often heard the rush of the ocean, the tides washing against the rocks as well as the sea gulls adding a song each morning. There was something calming in the sound of the sea and he felt a certain serenity as he gazed at and rowed across the Halifax River near his childhood home.
Thurman also spoke of a favorite oak tree. He gained great wisdom from just observing the tree. He noticed that when big wind and rain storms came off the ocean, the tree limbs and branches would swing and sway in the storm, but the tree never toppled over. There was something about having a strong foundation and deep roots that kept it upright even though tossed and turned in a storm. Thurman knew the tree represented something about his center, a sense he possessed that as external events might appear chaotic, he could remain rooted and not be subject to the whims of life. Thurman also talked to the oak tree. He felt like the tree somehow listened deeply and carried some of his burdens for him. Sometimes he felt if he sat below the tree in quiet, he heard an answer to some burning question or issue he lay before it.
Thurman’s experiences remind me of my own many years ago when I lived in Santa Cruz, CA as a college student. I moved into a duplex my senior year that was located not far from the ocean. I too, could hear the ocean at night and there was a definite calmness that was brought on by listening to the ocean. In addition, I found a special large rock that I sat on and gazed out into the sea. I would go there and share my joys, sorrows and even ask some questions of the vast ocean. It’s the one thing I missed most after I graduated and left California.
Thurman was a lover of silence and stillness. He observed that we need to stop the traffic in our minds sometimes just so we can get a grip on what is going in our lives, to better understand the people that we are, and determine what we want. He advocated silence for everyone but especially for those who were on the front lines of the Civil Rights Movement. He felt that each one of us needs a sanctuary, a place to go where we could garner peace as well as inner strength. For Thurman taking some time for silence was the human equivalent of refueling ourselves. Thurman and Gandhi both (they met in 1936) felt that the vitality needed to change one’s circumstances whether they be personal or on a larger social scale came from feeding one’s spirit just like we drink and eat to feed our bodies. That nurturing of spirit comes through stopping and being quiet as often as we can. Some people might label this kind of lifestyle “contemplative living,” or a life of living in the present (practicing mindfulness ) and in the Presence.
Is there some aspect of nature that calms you? Perhaps it is the sound of running water or the birds singing or the tapping of a woodpecker. Maybe the wind gushing through the singing pine trees, or watching snowflakes gently kiss the ground gives you a sense of inner peace. How has nature befriended or nurtured you? Do you have a special tree, rock, lake, stream, park, garden, or place you can go to take your cares to? Could playing calm music while you complete daily chores like getting ready for school, cooking or cleaning or driving to work create a more serene atmosphere?
I am certain Howard Thurman would be delighted to know that a Quiet Day was held to listen to a few of his meditations, walk around in nature and have contact with the stillness in our minds. In fact, I am certain if he were still alive, the mere idea of a Quiet Day would make his heart sing. Perhaps in the midst of the political turmoil dancing all around or during the doldrums of February, the deep days of winter, you might create a “quiet day” in your own home, allowing the songs of the birds to be your music, a crackling fire to provide you with beauty and healthy snacks to nourish your body. I suspect like Howard Thurman, a day of quiet will kindle some deep peace and joy in your heart.