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?

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.

Recovering Perfectionist

I mentioned in my first blog I would post some thoughts each week.  That was 12 weeks ago. I could list innumerable reasons why I haven’t posted anything else.  They range from illness (mine and others) to deaths of friends.  Then there were the typical distractions of compulsive cleaning of the house, rushing to see movies before the Academy Awards and some movies since then, tax prep, being sucked into other people’s drama, other writing projects and a list of untold obligations.  It occurred to me recently that there was one yet unnamed obstacle, perfectionism, haunting and begging me to tell the truth. I have no new post because none were perfect enough.

The phenomenon of perfectionism or should I refer to it as a syndrome is increasingly pervasive these days.  Actually I believe it’s always been present but I am noticing it and more people are admitting to it.  Within the last few weeks I’ve attended groups where inevitably the individuals gathered would disclose their battles with perfectionism.  The sad conclusion is that perfectionism keeps many people (including me) from accomplishing dreams, from experiencing self-acceptance, from truly living.  Moreover, attempting to maintain such high standards for everything is simply exhausting.  I suggested to one friend, as he mentioned a sign he passed on the way home, “Perfection is not required” that now he could join those of us who think of ourselves as “Recovering Perfectionists.”   I define a recovering perfectionist as someone who can at least acknowledge that he or she is a perfectionist, a person who has broken through the shackles of denial that often accompanies perfectionism.

I think of recovering perfectionists like I do recovering alcoholics.  It is a malaise that is always with us and admitting that we are perfectionists is the first step to recovery.  Similarly, I must work with healing my perfectionism every day, and in every moment.  Although I publicly confess my perfectionism, letting go of the compulsion to straighten pictures, clear clutter, organize my husband’s study as well as my own, and revise everything I write at least 25 times remain.  I realize if I spend my precious time succumbing to my perfectionist tendencies, I’ll never post to this blog, finish a book or engage in other activities that make my heart sing.

It’s unclear when and where my perfectionism began.  In fact, I didn’t know I was a perfectionist until my sister pointed it out to me several years ago.  After that I started observing how important it is for me to have things “just right.”  It could be a table setting, or how the books are arranged on the book shelf (by height of course).  Maybe it was how my hair looked or how a particular dish I was cooking turned out.  Of course the measurement of perfection is based on my extraordinarily high standards.  I don’t even like the previous sentence I composed even though I’ve revised it at least five times.

Then I noticed that I applied this high standard to other people and events as well.  If I attended a church event maybe a wedding my eyes focus on the one thing that isn’t perfect.  Maybe the plants outside a building haven’t been trimmed or the shrubs needed shaping.  I wonder now how long my world has been decorated with the mis-takes of life.  How can I have a happy heart if I am judging everybody and everything?

I remember once my spiritual director told me to look out of her office window.  We peered at some dead branches on a nearby tree.  She remarked that according to our perfect perception (she is a recovering perfectionist as well) that branch needed to be removed.  Yet dying tree limbs and browning shrubs are natural.  I couldn’t see the beauty of a breathtaking spring with crimson red azaleas and dazzling pink and white dogwood blossoms, or the brilliant yellow of a ginkgo tree in fall for zeroing in on the dangling branches and trampled leaves.  Where did I learn that the natural environment needed manicuring?  The noted, xxx Brian McLaren once said, “What you focus on determines what you miss.”  I realized that I was missing so much love and beauty everywhere even at weddings because I was drawn to what was missing; what wasn’t going well.

The other issue that perfectionists (recovering or not) contend with is a strong internal critic.  Oh my how I beat myself up for even a minor infraction.  If I am a minute late to an appointment I internally pummel myself with a verbal barrage for staying in the bed 1 or 2 minutes too long or not leaving the house when I should.  It is difficult for me to tolerate my own mess let alone anyone else’s.  Whoever my internal critic is, I know she needs more attention and perhaps some care and compassion.

I used to blame my father for my perfectionism.  He modeled it well and demanded it from each of his children.  But he is no longer around and I must take responsibility for my being.  Like most bad habits or conditions, I know it will take practice (and a lot of prayer) to let go of my perfectionistic proclivities.  And like those in alcohol anonymous, I will need to make a list of people I should make amends to.  God knows how many people (especially former students) have been subjected to my perfectionistic standards.  Of course my perfectionist students followed my advice and produced superior work.  However, as one outstanding young woman revealed to me one day, “Professor, I am fine with a B or B+.  I don’t need to earn an “A” in very class.  I want to live a life that is not so stressed out.”

Now that is an attitude worth emulating.  And as I read more blogs perfection is neither the goal nor the purpose for writing for most bloggers.  Instead of producing perfect writing I would rather provoke conversation about how to have a peaceful heart.  Thus, in the coming weeks and months I hope to make “good enough” just fine.  I look forward to more posts and greater peace for my heart.

Where the Journey Begins

“What are you doing to maintain a peaceful heart?”

I like to talk.  I especially like to tell stories.  There is a lot of talking in the world these days, and I believe an even more relentless desire to connect.  I suppose that’s what social media is all about.  Yet I still don’t think people truly feel connected even when they are tweeting and addicted to their Facebook pages all day.  I wonder about all of the mindless and heartless babbling (read that as hatin’ talk).  “What is the purpose”? “Why am I doing this?” are the questions I pose to myself more frequently these days.  These questions particularly pertain to my speech and my conversation.  As Miquel Ruiz ask in his book, The Four Agreements, is my speech impeccable?

So I decided to start blogging.  This is not the first time.  I tried blogging several years ago in an attempt to encourage my students to write more.  It seemed that they expressed a desire to become better writers (especially after they received feedback on their college papers from me). But when I asked them how often they wrote, it appeared that writing was a required pastime.  To encourage my students, I told them that if they blogged I would blog.  The issues that emerged from a course on Race and Ethnic Identity were ripe for commentary and I also promised extra credit.  None of us blogged for very long, quickly losing steam as the semester rolled along.  However, not surprisingly, the best final grades in the class went to those students who blogged until the end.

Now I have a topic that I am passionate about and perfect for a blog.  How does one acquire and maintain a peaceful heart?  Having a heart transplant eighteen years ago set me on a path to understanding that possessing a peaceful heart is the key to happiness.  Most people believe that happiness is linked to having things; a nice car, big house, large bank account, fame, “having the life” if you will.  If there is one thing I learned recovering from three heart surgeries (one of them the transplant) and a kidney transplant is that none of things I listed could prevent the suffering I experienced nor could they help much in my recovery.  Yet there are lessons to be learned and resources and people everywhere that helped me uncover the peace in my heart and the subsequent joy that emanates from it.  Peace and inner joy are inextricably linked and they both reside in the heart.

Thus, I will be blogging about what I’ve learned and continue to learn about this “secret.”  I wish I could say that I will blog every day but that is creating certain expectations and “stress” both of which are likely to disrupt the peace in my heart.  I vow  to blog as least once a week hoping to get that frequency up to 2-3 times a week.  My commitment and goal stems from an urging in my spiritual heart to help others find and maintain the peace in their hearts.  Let the journey continue.