Moments of Refuge and Renewal

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.

Quiet Day, Anyone?

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.

HT-Meditations of the Heart

Can’t Get Enough of Howard Thurman

HT-Meditations of the Heart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Good to Center Down!

How good it is to center down!

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

The streets of our minds seethe with endless traffic;

Our spirits resound with clashing, with noisy silences,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(from Meditations of the Heart, p. 28)

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

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

Contemplative Spirituality for Everyday People

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.

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.