BREAKING NEWS: Now is the Time for Deep Inner Listening

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hearts Broken Wide Open for the World 💔🌎🌏🌍

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LERITA: I feel very disappointed.

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

LERITA: You did?

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

LERITA: Is it that bad?

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

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

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

LERITA: OK. OK.  I get the picture.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Beauty of Toni Morrison is a Gift from the Creator

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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