Making the world a better place: one kind act at a time.

Pink Sherbet Photography, USA

Pink Sherbet Photography, USA

You have not lived today until you have done something for someone who can never repay you. ~John Bunyan

Want to feel better about yourself? I can think of no better way than by engaging in a “random act of kindness”. It’s a gesture that not only makes the recipient feel better, it has a funny way of making the initiator of the act feel good as well. So it’s a win-win for everyone involved.

There may be no one who exemplifies the spirit of “random acts” better than the amazing Chris Rosati who, while suffering from ALS, has just begun his latest kindness initiative. Out at breakfast one morning, Rosati saw two girls at the table next to him and gave them each a $50 bill with a simple instruction—do something kind with the money. He forgot all about it until he got an e-mail several weeks later that included pictures from a village in Africa with people holding signs that read, “Thanks a lot for spreading kindness—Chris Rosati.”

It seems the two girls, who were only 13 and 10-years old, knew about a village in Sierra Leone where the residents had been working to fight Ebola. So, to put their money to good use, the girls paid for a feast so the local community could celebrate being Ebola-free. Rosati calls this act the “butterfly effect” and it sparked his new kindness campaign: he is now giving out hundreds of $50 “butterfly grants” to “any kid who wants to change the world”.

Also worth noting is a nonprofit group that is turning kindness into a movement. It’s called the Random Acts of Kindness foundation and its mission is to educate and motivate all of us to engage in kind actions. Their Web site is filled with real life stories of kindness, like the man who each Valentine’s Day visits a local nursing home to give each woman there a red rose. There are also ideas on how to add acts of kindness to your everyday life, with actions as simple as “smile at 5 strangers today”.

I think there are two broad ways to look at providing kindness to others, listed in bold type below. And I didn’t have to look far to find recent examples of both, because they came from people close to me—my brother and my wife.

Look for opportunities to surprise and delight strangers.

I recently traveled with my brother to Florida to catch a few Spring Training games, and during our last night there we treated ourselves to dinner at the Rose and Crown pub in EPCOT Center. We were enjoying a couple of post-meal pints of Guinness when we noticed something odd.

A girl wearing fuzzy mouse ears had been seated at the two-top table next to us, and as she quietly spoke to the waiter we heard him issue a hearty “happy birthday”. He walked away and we fully expected the girl’s Mom or Dad to appear at any moment and sit down next to her. Only they never appeared.

We watched as the waiter returned with a glass of ice water, and then with a fish and chips dinner. The girl ate her birthday dinner in silence alone. She looked to be no more than 15, 16 tops, and we both sat there wondering what events had transpired to cause her to dine solo in such a convivial, family-friendly place.

As I paid our bill, my brother handed the waiter a small wad of cash. “Please pay her bill for us”, he requested and the waiter said he would gladly oblige. We left without saying a word and were long gone before the girl with the mouse ears discovered her birthday dinner had been paid for by someone she did not know.

Look for kindness opportunities in everyday life.

My wife teaches fitness classes at a massive local health club and several elderly people had recently become members. They tended to congregate by themselves in a far corner of the main exercise room and appeared to be disconnected from the rest of the gym, out-of-sight and out-of-mind.

Though it’s not her job, she decided to go over and talk to these seniors and see how they were doing—and she now makes it a habit to stop and chat with them each day she’s there. She tells me how much they appreciate her outreach efforts and I know it makes her feel good as well. It’s further proof that we can derive just as much joy from giving, as we can from receiving.

As always, I believe my spiritual mentor John Templeton has some wise parting words I’d like to share. If you want to add a few random acts of kindness to your life, consider this a call-to-action, a reminder for the days ahead:

Shift your awareness outside of yourself to others. Surely, someone whose life you touch can use your gift of kindness.

This post previously appeared on my Patheos Wake Up Call column, March 17, 2015.

What makes us happy? (It’s not what you might think.)

By Faisal Akram from Dhaka, Bangladesh

By Faisal Akram from Dhaka, Bangladesh

In the United States, we place a premium on being happy. (Cue the Pharrell Williams video.) Yet, a recent study shows that not all cultures approach life the same way. In a story titled “Not Everyone Wants to Be Happy” at Scientific American, social psychologist Jennifer Aaker points out that our perception of happiness varies according to where in the world we live.

Aaker mentions a Victoria University of New Zealand study that shows “the desire for personal happiness, though knitted into the fabric of American history and culture, is held in less esteem by other cultures. It seems there are many parts of the world that view personal happiness, defined as “experiencing pleasure, positive emotion, or success”, with suspicion.

When Taiwanese and American students were asked about the meaning of happiness, American participants considered happiness to be the supreme goal of their lives, a primary reason for their existence. But Taiwanese participants placed an emphasis “on attainment of social harmony” or a sense of community and belonging.

The author wonders if we, in America, don’t have our priorities out of whack, focusing too much on the self and our own personal happiness. In Aaker’s words:

Perhaps we need a more balanced approach to happiness in American culture. Personal happiness is beneficial in some contexts, a limitation in others. In some moments, we may need and benefit from feeling good, but in other moments, we might be better served anchoring on a balanced, meaningful life focused on others.

Further evidence of the importance of focusing on others can be found in a story on Business Insider, “Does success bring happiness? Or does happiness bring success?” The article cites a Harvard researcher, Shawn Achor, who looked at people who were highly stressed, in this case, students in the demanding and competitive environment at Harvard University. He found that many of the students who “burned out” had cut themselves off from one of the greatest predictors of happiness: our social interaction with others.

He discovered that the students who “increase their social investments” during moments of stress—those who worked with and supported others—actually coped better and were more successful and happier. He found the exact same thing was true in a study of Fortune 100 companies. His advice:

Want to resist stress, increase productivity and get a promotion? Then don’t just seek social support — provide it to others.

This theory seems to be backed up by a recent story in the Wall Street Journal that asks the question “Can Money Buy Happiness?” Elizabeth Dunn, a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia, conducted research that found while earning more money “tends to enhance our well-being, we become happier by giving it away than by spending it on ourselves.”

The takeaway: happiness is found not in our own self-centered actions, but by reaching out to, connecting with, and helping others. But it’s an idea that seems to run counter to the American concept of looking out for number one.

As I often do, I looked through the writings of my spiritual mentor, the businessman turned philosopher John Templeton, for additional insight on happiness and success. And Templeton, writing in his book The Worldwide Laws of Life, shares a similar sentiment:

The greatest happiness in life comes not from the comforts and pleasures that money can buy but from the investment of the days of our lives in a purpose that transcends purely personal interests.

Templeton points out that we need to commit our resources—ideals, love, talents, time, energy, money—to the activities that support our larger purpose. And I believe this purpose needs to be a continual pursuit, something we incorporate into our lives each and every day.

Helen Keller once said, “I do not simply want to spend my life, I want to invest it.” And maybe that’s what it’s all about. Investing ourselves not just in our own selfish pursuits, but in the lives of those around us. We’ll feel better and be happier because of it.

This post previously appeared on my Patheos Wake Up Call column, March 2, 2015.

4 Life Lessons from the Minister who helped win a Super Bowl.

Jack Easterby

Jack Easterby

If you’re even a casual football fan, you probably know by now that the New England Patriots won the 2015 Super Bowl. But you may not know about the man called “a critical part of the team’s success”, though he’s not part of the coaching staff and has never played a single down.

His name is Jack Easterby and he’s the Patriots’ team chaplain. In that role, he hosts regular Bible study classes and has an office in the Patriots’ complex where he counsels players and their wives. Interestingly, Easterby doesn’t push religion. He considers himself “a character coach” and his goal is to help the football players become better human beings.

Easterby was featured in a recent story on ESPN and one thing that becomes clear is that he has established close personal bonds with many of the players. He is known as a “hugger” and when he meets people “he pulls them in for an embrace, raising their handshake to his heart”.

He’s available to the Patriots’ players 24/7 and it is said that “when he’s not listening, he’s texting, when he’s not texting, he’s writing individual notes”, recapping the players’ personal goals and reminding them of how thankful he is to know them. One player says, “he just wants to love you, to be your friend”.

One message that Easterby has passed on to the Patriots’ is that they need to keep their jobs, as professional athletes, in perspective. He tells them that “football is temporary” and to never forget how blessed they are to have the ability to earn a living playing a sport. He reminds them to “focus on their gifts—their beautiful wives or girlfriends or children”.

During the season, Easterby talked frequently with Super Bowl MVP Tom Brady and it seems to have had an effect. During Super Bowl week, when Brady was being peppered with questions about whether or not the Patriots cheated (in a minor scandal called “Deflategate”), he had this even-keeled response:

“Everyone will say, ‘God, it’s been a tough week for you. But it’s been a great week for me, to really be able to recalibrate the things that are important in my life and understand the people that support me, and love me, and care about me.”

FOUR LIFE LESSONS I PICKED UP FROM JACK EASTERBY

  1. Keep Things in Perspective. Easterby reminds us that our jobs are secondary to the important things in life—like the care, companionship and appreciation of our loved ones and friends. Jobs are temporary while our relationships can last a lifetime and are really what life is all about.
  2. Always Give Thanks. During Super Bowl week, Easterby texted players that he was grateful for “another opportunity to serve” and “blessed to have a chance to impact”. I believe a daily prayer of gratitude is the best way for all of us to recognize the good in our lives. Best of all, giving daily thanks has a funny way of opening the door for even more blessings to enter our lives.
  3. Communication is Vital. Easterby is continually checking in with the players who seek his counsel, making sure they’re on the right track. He calls, he writes, he texts. Ask yourself: who in your life could be better served by your regular recognition, encouragement or praise?
  4. Be Humble. “I’m so humbled to be a part of this,” says Easterby. In the words of John Templeton, “without humility, we may become too self-satisfied with past glories to launch boldly into the challenges ahead”. We must continue to strive to move the ball forward, never resting on our past accomplishments or laurels. Today is a new day with new opportunities to serve those around us.

This post previously appeared on my Patheos column Wake Up Call, February 17, 2015.

A Look at Non-Stop Prayer—and a Very Doable Alternative.

prayer-150x150I’ve always been fascinated by the simple edict found at in the New Testament to “Pray without ceasing”. Perhaps because, I have several times come across people and religious groups that take this proclamation quite literally.

A few years ago, I read about a group of young Christian men, who began praying in their local church, morning, noon and night. They stopped only for food and bathroom breaks. As I recall, they had troubled pasts and were hoping their non-stop petitioning would make Jesus a constant presence in their lives, a companion in their every activity. I can find no trace of the story now but I imagine that after a few weeks, one-by-one, they grew weary of their endeavor and returned to the secular world with varying degrees of success.

Taking a slightly easier route to fulfilling Thessalonians 5:17 is the Salvation Army. At this moment, in locations around the globe, “Salvationists” are engaging in a year of “Boundless Prayer” that extends through July, 2015. The site informs us that it is a “24/7/365” effort that basically moves “from one territory to another” with the goal of getting “the whole world praying”1.

Looking at the Army’s calendar it appears each territory commits about a week to the cause. For instance, there is currently a non-stop prayer-athon happening in Iceland. It appears to be more of a tag-team approach, whereby prayer happens in small groups working in shifts, with replacements coming in as needed to keep the invocations going without pause.

So is it really possible to engage in non-stop prayer? I know from vast experience that it can be tough to focus on meditating, or engage in centering prayer, for a solid 20-minute stretch. But praying hour after hour, day after day?

Well, according to one Christian site, it’s not that difficult. There is an online group called “Got Questions Ministries” that talks to ceaseless praying and makes it sound relatively easy. It does this by linking prayer to each breath we take. According to their Web site:

For Christians, prayer should be like breathing. You do not have to think to breathe because the atmosphere exerts pressure on your lungs and essentially forces you to breathe. The fact is that every believer must be continually in the presence of God, constantly breathing in His truths.

For those of us who believe this is a little too much prayer, it may be easier to follow the lead of the yogini Sara Courter. On her blog Body Karma, Courter makes the notion of on-going prayer sound a lot more doable by advising us to find triggers throughout the day that remind us to give a quick blessing.

For instance, Courter mentions passing through a doorway or stopping at a traffic light as possible prayer cues. I would also suggest passing along a silent blessing with each new human encounter you have, or, if you’re a coffee or tea drinker, saying a prayer at the start of each new cup.

The cues make it easier to remember to quickly pray or give a blessing and can be worked into our everyday lives, as opposed to ceaseless praying where prayer is our life.

The good thing about this approach is there’s no planning needed, unlike a life where ceaseless prayer becomes your raison d’être. And it’s a task that, with a little practice, can easily be mastered. In Courter’s (lightly edited) words:

If you wake up one day and decide to start blessing every doorway you pass through, or deciding to say a prayer of gratitude at every red light you hit during your commute…it will take an adjustment period. But, in time, the act will become an art. The new habit awkwardness will steady into skillful execution. There will be a grace and fluidity about it, because you will have become it. No longer will you have to think before blessing each doorway, no longer will there be an “oh yeah,” before giving thanks at a stoplight.

And, best of all, you can start engaging in this practice today.

This post originally appeared on my Patheos Wake Up Call column, February 2, 2015.

A Wake Up Call from Bill Murray (and Life).

800px-Bill_Murray_by_David_Shankbone-150x150

Bill Murray by David Shankbone

There’s an article in a recent issue of Rolling Stone called “Being Bill Murray”. It tells the story of how the now 64-year old actor has a habit of engaging in sometimes mischievous, often beguiling public acts.

For instance, there’s the time he stopped to read poetry to a group of construction workers in New York City. Or the tale of how, while in a cab in San Francisco, he engaged the driver in conversation and found out he was a fledgling saxophonist who never got the chance to play. So Murray took over the wheel, driving himself to his destination so the cabbie could blow his horn in the back seat, stopping at a BBQ joint along the way.

Why does he do it? Murray believes that “no one has an easy life”, so he goes out of his way to surprise and delight those around him, helping to lessen their load. These small acts have an effect on those he encounters making their worlds “a little weirder, the mundane routines of everyday life a little more exciting”. Murray explains his actions this way:

If I see someone who’s out cold on their feet, I’m going to try to wake that person up. It’s what I’d want someone to do for me. Wake me the hell up and come back to the planet.

It’s a wake-up call and Murray makes them everywhere he goes. He has been known to stroll around Charleston, South Carolina, where he owns part of a minor-league baseball team, and make impromptu, spontaneous appearances at public and private events. He “photobombed” a couple taking wedding pictures in a local park, stopped by a birthday party in a bar to give an off-the-cuff speech and toast.

But perhaps what is most interesting is the fact Bill Murray performs these acts not just for the pleasure of others, but also for himself. In his words:

My hope, always, is that it’s going to wake me up. I’m only connected for seconds, minutes a day, sometimes. And suddenly, you go, ‘Holy cow, I’ve been asleep for two days. I’ve been doing things, but I’m just out.

Now you might say, he is Bill Murray and can get away with this kind of off-kilter behavior. But the fact is, we all have the ability to break away from our preconceived ideas of how we should act and behave in public. We all can engage in activities that add a little more light and joy to the world and ease the burden of others.

The renowned businessman and life philosopher John Templeton tells the story of a friend who was sitting in a park one day when she noticed a man “in his latter years” stroll by wearing a bright red cardigan, red cap and checkered pants. He smiled and said hello, then proceeded to walk to a playground where he got on swing and began vigorously and joyfully swinging back and forth.

The elderly gentleman later stopped by to explain that while on his daily walk he swung on that swing exactly 50 times each day. She noticed that the man “glowed with the fullness of life” and that his eyes “sparkled with the joy of living”. His age was clearly of no concern to him, nor did he worry what others might think about his behavior.

Templeton points out that we often curtail our childlike wonder and joy due to concerns about “our self-imposed limitations of age, appropriateness of behavior, the images we hold of ourselves”. This robs us of our ability to fully engage in life. He calls out the example of Jesus who asked us to “become as little children that we might enter into the fullness of life, which he called the kingdom of heaven”.

John Templeton was known by some as a staid businessman, but he also had a contrarian streak, zigging while others zagged. He showed that he is a kindred spirit with Bill Murray when he made the following challenge, one we should all take to heart:

When did you last swing on a swing? When did you last do something “outrageous” that pushed you beyond your present boundaries and radiated to the world that you are fully alive? When did the childlike spirit within you run free in joy and excitement? Age is no excuse; other people’s opinion of you is no excuse; and your own limiting opinion of yourself is no excuse for not embracing the gift of life and living it to its fullest expression.

This post previously appeared on my Patheos column Wake Up Call, January 25, 2015.

Does God have a plan for your life? Ralph Waldo Emerson has a compelling answer.

Path of Life, Christopher Michel, San Francisco, USA

Path of Life, Christopher Michel, San Francisco, USA

God’s plan for your life isn’t a map you see all at once, but a scroll unrolled a little at a time, requiring faith. ~Rick Warren, pastor and author

In Christian circles, it’s common to believe that God has a plan for your life. It’s an idea called predestination (aka religious determinism) and, as hinted at by the quote above, it basically means that all the events in your life have been predetermined by God. To back up this claim, the following Biblical passage is frequently cited:

For I know the plans I have for you,” declared the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” ~Jeremiah 29:11

Now this may be comforting to some, but for a lot us this idea has a couple of issues. Problem one: What about free will? Don’t I get a say in what happens in my life? Problem two: How do I know what my plan is? Do I need to live my life on autopilot waiting for my plan to reveal itself?

Well, there are answers to these questions and they come from the person who I believe is our all-time greatest American spiritual philosopher: Ralph Waldo Emerson. It should be noted here that Emerson is a former Unitarian minister who left his post at age 29, as he could no longer live abide by the church’s rigid dogma. So his ideas are not solely Biblically-based. (See more on Emerson’s spiritual philosophy here.)

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Emerson was convinced we all had a preordained path in life, but also thought that you and I play a vital role in calling the shots. According to noted Emerson scholar Richard Gelhard, RWE believed in a “subtle order of divinity which lay beneath and behind the manifest world.” This meant that “human beings don’t have power…the universe does; it is full of power; flowing, waiting and accessible.

Yet Emerson also believed that “an individual who understands the laws of power can move into its flowing and allow it to wield its instruments.” In other words, by engaging with the flow of life, we can tap into this power source and use it to help guide us down the proper path.

In an essay titled Spiritual Laws, Emerson wrote that there was “guidance for each of us” that could help us “hear the right word”. He believed this higher power was self-evident if we stayed alert to our surroundings:

A little consideration of what takes place around us every day would show us that a higher power than that of our will regulates events; that our painful labors are unnecessary and fruitless; that only in our easy, simple, spontaneous action are we strong, and by contenting ourselves with obedience we become divine.

In another passage from the same essay, Emerson more passionately states his belief in a higher power that can comfort and guide us:

A believing love will relieve us of a vast load of care. O my brothers, God exists. There is a soul at the center of nature and over the will of every man…it has so infused its strong attachment into nature that we prosper when we accept its advice.

Like Emerson, another noted American spiritual philosopher, Ram Dass, also has a belief in the power of intuition to guide us. In this passage from his book Paths to God: Living the Bhagavad Gita, Ram Dass instructs us to use this inner sense of direction to our advantage:

Begin paying more attention to the inner voice of our intuition, because that’s the clue to what we should be doing. We start to listen to the tiny, intuitive whisper that the Quakers call “the still small voice within”.

My take is that Emerson’s ideas ring true: there is a personal plan for each of us to follow. If we listen to our intuition and the divine guidance we can find within, we can steer ourselves in the right direction. To help us, signposts, clues and coincidences appear along the way to verify we are on the correct life path or to help point us to a new one.

Of course, there is still free will, so you can always choose to make decisions that are strictly based on your own brain power and whims. But for me, it’s a little more comforting to know that assistance is available when and if you want it.

This post previously appeared on my Patheos Wake Up Call column, January 14, 2015.

Musings on God and Life from an 85-Year Old Expat Living in France.

ManBenchHis name is Johnny and in his daydreams we meet regularly in Washington Square Park, not far from where I work in New York City. He spent a few months in the city in 1968 and has fond memories of his visit. But, this being 2014, we actually meet online. Johnny commented on one of my Wake Up Call columns several months ago and we took the conversation offline. Since then, we have been communicating almost daily via e-mail.

Johnny is an ex-Angeleno; he lived there for the first three decades of his life. He served in the Army during the Korean War, guarding high-profile prisoners of war. But when the 1960’s came, like many Americans, he became disillusioned with our country and headed for Europe. He got married, had a child, and settled in the French countryside, an expat living in a small village in Isère.

At 85 years old, Johnny is full of piss and vinegar and I mean that in the best possible sense. He is passionate about God and religion and life. He cares deeply about the state of mankind and where we are headed, as evidenced by this passage from a recent e-mail:

God has been taken out of our world of today. The feelings of humility, kindness and brotherhood of the past have also disappeared. Our individual world has collapsed where we no longer know or even care for our neighbor. They have been thrust out and the unknowns have become our obsession.

Johnny has a good heart and much wisdom to share. I’ve been collecting his thoughts via the e-mails he sends me, letting him know I would one day share his ideas with his fellow Patheos readers. And since he is beginning to think he may not have much more time in this life, I thought it an appropriate time to write this post.

I have written in the past how everyone has their own personal spiritual story. This is your story Johnny, my soul brother in France. I have lightly edited and organized your thoughts and hope I have done them justice. May we one day meet on that park bench in Washington Square Park, if not in this lifetime, in the next.

Life Wisdom from Johnny of Isère.

  • I am a peaceful man and love mankind as well as all other creatures that inhabit this planet of ours (except for crocodiles, hyenas, flies and mosquitoes).
  • Being a peaceful man I do not like violence, meanness, arrogance, jingoism, pretentious fools, know-it-alls and all the other ugly traits of our species. I greatly respect those who are humble and caring, people with love and respect for our fellowman.
  • I believe in something beyond us, something metaphysical, something that you and I and those like us believe. I believe in the goodness of Man and that he can be good and can be beautiful.
  • If God does exist, he has nothing to do with organized religions whose sole purpose is for their self-interests. They do not speak for him!
  • This true feeling of God that you search for and commune with is yours alone. You feel it personally. You believe in him and commune alone with him like the Buddhist and all the many others who have this feeling for an omnipotent power.
  • You pin your hopes on the existence of the God of Abraham whereas I place mine elsewhere—perhaps, in the unknown, or as Rod Serling said, in The Twilight Zone. But we both believe in a mystical force.
  • This higher power is like the sun, it feeds us, helping us to grow, making us feel good, causing us to want joy for all. It is this undying hope that feeds our eternal belief in God.
  • The beauty inside you is what will lead you. If God is there, He will smile down on you and your family. It will be your own belief in Him that is of importance. Your beauty is because of Him and your belief in Him.
  • It is a respect for something or someone outside of our little personhood that is important, something above and beyond our egoistical selves. It is a humbling force that keeps us respectful of earth, of nature and of all life living on this planet.
  • Concentrate on your own life and your own family and friends—that is your only world of importance—the rest, we are at the mercy of the fools that lead us, God have mercy on us!
  • We are part of those who believe in a better world without searching for metaphysical reasons to support our natural instinct. God gave us the power to do this on our very own. Let us stop blaming Him, asking Him, crying to Him! Let us, you and I and other sane persons plant our own trees.
  • The song from John Lennon says it beautifully; “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. I hope someday you’ll join us. And the world will live as one.”

This post originally appeared on my Patheos column Wake Up Call, December 15, 2014.

Napoleon Hill on Work/Life Balance: a Message for 2015.

Napoleon Hill

Napoleon Hill

You may know the author Napoleon Hill because of his book Think and Grow Rich. It’s one of my favorite inspirational/ motivational reads and is one of the best-selling books of all time. Even though it was first published in 1937, the book’s primary message—that you can get what you want through visualization, honest effort and a positive attitude—still rings true today.

But if you ask me to name my favorite Hill book, it would not be this classic. I actual prefer a far lesser known sequel to Think and Grow Rich published 40 years after the original. You see, in 1967, an 84-year old Hill had come to a slightly different conclusion about what success really meant and wrote a book titled Grow Rich—with Peace of Mind.

After a lifetime of hard work, fame and riches, the elderly Hill began to whistle a slightly different tune about the role of work in our lives and explains it in this book. Sure, he said, strive to be successful—but have a life, too. Hill’s not pitching a Tim Ferris-style 4-hour workweek here, but suggests that one of the best ways to achieve real happiness is to “make a time budget”.

Spread out over a 24-hour day, Hill’s time budget looks like this:

  • 8 hours a day for sleep and rest
  • 8 hours a day for work at your profession
  • 8 “particularly precious” hours “devoted to things you wish to do, not have to do.”

Now, it is duly noted here that Hill does not account for the time-consuming chores and errands that are a part of our lives. But even with that caveat, it’s easy to agree with his assertion that we need to find time for “play, social life, reading, writing, playing a musical instrument, tending a garden, or just sitting and watching the clouds or the stars”. My personal list includes meditation, downtime with the family, prayer, writing and running. Your list can include any activity or non-activity that makes you happy.

Hill is very serious about putting our “precious hours” to good use and I feel confident that, had he known about them, scanning your Facebook page, texting ad nauseam or playing video games would not have made the list. Yet, he does believe it is up to you to decide what these activities might be, amplifying his message with this passage:

Do not let a day go by without taking some time for yourself — some time you spend in pure pleasure, as you see it.

Hill also points out, that should you have the ability to do so, you should aim to work less than 8 hours a day as you become successful. Success shouldn’t mean spending more hours at the job, but less. In Hills words, once you meet a modicum of prosperity: “You should increase your hours of pure enjoyment. Do not allow these hours to be eaten away by business or anything else.”

The bottom line is that, yes, we all (or at least most of us) need to work and make money. But in the year ahead, let’s remind ourselves—and those close to us who need reminding—that success is measured by more than our status at the office or the money in our bank accounts. Success is measured by the richness of our lives.

This post originally appeared on my Wake Up Call column at Patheos, December 31, 2014.

Finding Meaning in the Silence of God.

James P. Carse

James P. Carse

Some books and authors try to define the nature of God and Lord knows I have tried this futile exercise myself. But in reality I believe God is undefinable, beyond our ability to be adequately explained. Albert Einstein may have described this best when he was asked to provide “the ultimate explanation of the world”. His response to this unanswerable question:

“I can not tell you in words, but I can play it on the violin.”

The words that resonate with me most on the nature of God come from writers who know they cannot define this great mystery. So they don’t give us the answers as much as they get us to ask the right questions, helping us shape our own personal concept of God, a vision of the Divine that is uniquely our own.

One writer of this ilk is James P. Carse, the former Director of Religious Studies at New York University, where he taught for over 30 years. Now retired, he wrote several books on God and religion that have fascinated me as much as they have baffled me. His arguments are often deeply intellectual, just beyond my reach, but he often makes points that get me scrambling for a pencil so I can underline them for future reference.

Toward the beginning of his book The Silence of God, Meditations on Prayer, Carse asks several questions that most people who consider themselves spiritual would love to know the answers to: Are prayers really answered? How is it possible that we could persuade God to give us what we want? Does God not already know what we want anyway?

Carse then proceeds to not really answer these questions, for the answers are truly unknowable. (As the title of his book suggests, God is silent.) But he does point us in the direction of the answers, allowing us to reach our own conclusions. It should be noted here that the silence of God does not sit well with Carse, who for years looked for proof of God, a sign from above that never materialized. In his words:

What I have experienced, and experienced repeatedly, is the silence of God. For many years, this was a distressing matter for me. I did not consider it an experience, but the absence of an experience.

Yet, in time, Carse comes to see the positive spiritual value of God’s silence. He writes that “in an encounter with divine reality we do not hear a voice but acquire a voice, and the voice we acquire is our own”. My personal take on this is that God enters our being and speaks through our own heart, so that our own voice echoes the voice of God.

There are many passages in The Silence of God that resonate with me and below I share a few of these nuggets of wisdom from Carse. I have lightly edited his words and strung them together in a loose narrative:

  • The silence of God is everywhere.
  • It is not a silence into which God has disappeared, but a silence in which God is most remarkably present.
  • God comes to us first as a listener, not a speaker. There is not a conceivable human setting in which God is not present, listening.
  • God does not come when we call. God is there, then we call.
  • We must move toward God from the heart, then God will respond. God will first wait until we do what it is possible for us to do within ourselves even if that action is exceedingly modest in scope.
  • The simplest point is that if you do speak from the heart, God listens.
  • God does not respond to us; we respond to God. God is already silent, and does not become silent when we speak.
  • To speak from the heart is to ask and to receive at the same time. Whomever you speak to from your heart you receive in your heart. You will have God in your heart—in the very act of asking.
  • It is not theology or philosophy, but only your heart that will lead you to God.

In another of his books, a series of true-life stories titled Breakfast at the Viceroy, The Mysticism of Ordinary Experience, Carse tells the story of a seeker of God from the Sufi tradition. It may well sum up his experience, as well as the experience of all of us who seek the presence of the Divine:

After a lifetime of seeking God he looked carefully and saw that he was not the seeker but the sought. In reality he was not a seeker at all; he was in flight from God. Only when he acknowledged this could he see that God was pursuing him.

This post originally appeared on my Wake Up Call column at Patheos, December 1, 2014.

Can you be spiritual and still have a wild streak?

Man-drinking-pint-of-beer-011-150x150I consider myself a spiritual guy. Though I’m a lapsed Catholic, I believe in God. I meditate and pray daily. I like nothing better than to spend an hour or two reading a good spirituality book. Oh, and I write the Wake Up Call column at Patheos.

Yet, there is a side to me that craves more than just a fulfilling spiritual life. While the party-all-the-time days of my youth are long gone, I still like to engage in activities that keep me in touch with the wilder side of my soul.

I enjoy going out with my wife for a good meal, accompanied by a bottle of wine and often followed by a nightcap. I still go to clubs in the city to hear live bands. I enjoy quaffing pints of craft beer with friends, whether it’s at a local pub or while watching a sporting event, in person or on TV.

But do these hedonistic pursuits mix with the spiritual life?

At the spiritually-charged Web site Rebelle Society, there’s a story by Victoria Erickson titled “8 Wonderous Ways to Restore Your Wild Spirit” that talks to this issue. It offers several suggestions on escaping life’s often draining rules and routines, by feeding “our naturally wild spirit”. Here are three of my favorites, pulled directly from Victoria’s article:

Find live music. Find the kind of music that makes your soul soar from the sound. Music’s rhythmic beats exist to tell universal truths that awaken us from everyday hibernation.

Make love. Like it’s your last night on earth, gasping for air and sanity, frantic under clouds and stars and sheets. The kind that’s made of heartbeats, intertwined flesh, and fiery, blazing, all consuming passion.

Get wet. These are cures that open you in places you forgot could even open, for salt and water are a miraculous mix. Release disappointment through tears, sweat from awesome, bodily pumping movement, and swim in the soft caress of water.

I say bravo to all of these ideas, and have added three of my own:

Go for a drink. Invite a friend to a local bar, preferably one without the distraction of a blaring TV, and engage in the art of conversation. A bar may be a good place to drink—but more importantly, it is a place to laugh and share stories and enjoy the companionship of a good friend.

Do new stuff. Don’t have time to take up a new hobby or go on an exotic vacation? Tweak your current routine. Drive a different route to work, even if it takes a little longer. Go out for dinner on a weekday. Stop by that coffee shop, you’ve always meant to visit. Mix it up!

Sit in a church. Not on Sunday and not when any type of mass or service is going on. Sit in a church when it is empty or nearly empty of people. Clear your head of all thoughts and do not pray. Do nothing but immerse yourself in the great silence of a sacred space.

Set your life on fire—seek those who fan your flames. ~Rumi

Like Rumi, the spiritual author Thomas Moore believes that we must find and light the “spark” within, and pursue the intangibles that give us our passion for life. Moore writes that we must fight against “mediocrity in life”. He believes that “it is the failure to let the inner brilliance shine” and “doing only what is necessary and sufficient,” that leads to a life of mediocrity—and ultimately, to boredom and even despair.

It is in our own best interests to “fan our flames” (Rumi), to “light our spark” (Moore) and to “feed our wild spirit” (Erickson). The alternative is to live a less than full life, a life that’s less than satisfying. And who want’s that?

This post originally appeared on my Wake Up Call column at Patheos, November 12, 2014.