It’s time to take Mark Twain back from the Atheists.

Mark Twain, famed humorist and writer of the classics The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, is perhaps the most celebrated American author of all time. He is also a favorite of atheists and atheist Web sites, who claim Twain as one of their own. But is their faith in Twain misguided?

I stumbled upon the Mark Twain-atheist connection recently, when I went online to verify that a quote came from the author. I found Twain’s name and writings on one atheist Web site after another (Celebrity Atheist, anyone?) and it’s easy to see why non-believers are attracted to him. The author had a knack for writing sharp one-liners like this:

If Christ were here now there is one thing he would not be – a Christian.

While Twain was raised a Presbyterian, and his funeral was held in the local Presbyterian church, he spent much of his life highly critical of organized religion, especially the Christian religion he grew up in. For instance, Twain wrote:

There is one notable thing about our Christianity…ours is a terrible religion. The fleets of the world could swim in spacious comfort in the innocent blood it has spilled.

Twain was often equally hostile to the mixed messages he found in the Bible. He saw the books not as the word of God, but as works of pure fiction:

I believe that the Old and New Testaments were imagined and written by man, and that no line in them was authorized by God, much less inspired by Him.

And while Twain claimed to believe in “God the Almighty”, he also went so far as to say, “If there is a God, he is a malign thug”. Yet, what this and the other cherry-picked quotes you’ll find on the atheist Web sites don’t reveal are Twain’s more nuanced statements on the subject. Take this passage:

I am plenty safe enough in his hands; I am not in any danger from that kind of a Deity. The one that I want to keep out of the reach of, is the caricature of him which one finds in the Bible.

Read the first part of that statement and it’s clear that Twain had developed his own concept of the Almighty, one that was at odds with the God of the Old Testament. He appears to have believed in a just and loving God, which is further evidenced by the quote below:

I think the goodness, the justice, and the mercy of God are manifested in His works: I perceive that they are manifested toward me in this life; the logical conclusion is that they will be manifested toward me in the life to come, if there should be one.

So Twain even leaves open the idea of an after-life. In other instances, his tone softens to the point that he actually seems to see the value of organized religion, even if its benefits don’t relate directly to him:

I am not able to believe one’s religion can affect his hereafter one way or the other, no matter what that religion may be. But it may easily be a great comfort to him in this life–hence it is a valuable possession to him.

There’s another interesting fact about Twain, that you also won’t read about on the atheist Web sites. Late in life he spent over a dozen years researching and writing a book about a Catholic saint—the legendary Frenchwoman Joan of Arc. The book is titled Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc and it was his last major work, completed just a few years before his death. He claimed this book was his personal favorite and his best work, writing:

I like Joan of Arc best of all my books; and it is the best; I know it perfectly well. And besides, it furnished me seven times the pleasure afforded me by any of the others; twelve years of preparation, and two years of writing. The others needed no preparation and got none.

What did Twain see in this farm girl turned legendary leader, who claimed to be personally directed by the voice of God and who regularly spoke with angels? Certainly, the core religious beliefs of Joan of Arc were very different from his own, but after reading excerpts from the book, it becomes quickly apparent that Twain holds his subject in high esteem:

She was deeply religious, and believed that she had daily speech with angels; that she saw them face to face, and that they counseled her, comforted and heartened her, and brought commands to her direct from God. She had a childlike faith in the heavenly origin of her apparitions and her Voices, and not any threat of any form of death was able to frighten it out of her loyal heart. She was a beautiful and simple and lovable character.

And therein lies the enigma of Mark Twain. He hated organized religion, saw the Bible as a book of dubious value and while he appeared to believe in God, wrote little positive on the subject. Yet he spent over a decade of his life writing about a women who claimed to be in regular contact with the Divine, and he did not write a single disparaging word about her saying:

She is easily and by far the most extraordinary person the human race has ever produced.

Perhaps Mark Twain is not the man the atheists think he is.

Earlier this month, the Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford, Connecticut, had an exhibit on “Spiritualism, Séances and Sam”. It seems that Twain’s wife was a fan of séances and Twain himself occasionally sat in on the proceedings. Asked to explain Twain’s take on the spirit world, a curator at the museum, Mallory Howard, said: “He was always trying to figure out an answer without ever coming to a conclusion.”

And that possibly explains Twain’s motives best—he was just trying to figure things out. He was a man of contradictions who while quick to deliver a humorous and acerbic barb about religion and God, spent the twilight years of his life studying and writing about Joan of Arc, a woman for whom God was the primary reason and motivation for her existence.

Twain may have been like many of us spiritually-minded individuals, who shun organized religion and find little of value in the Bible—yet believe there is a greater life force, what some people call God, out there. We seek it ourselves and while we may come up short, we admire those who seem to have tapped into this force in such a meaningful and powerful way.

This post previously appeared on my Patheos Wake Up Call column, October 22, 2014.

Life Lessons from the Reverend who was visited by ETs.

Reverend Michael J. S. Carter

Reverend Michael J. S. Carter

What do you do if you’re a man of the cloth and have a UFO-related experience? I’m not talking about a run-of-the-mill flying saucer sighting, but a middle-of-the-night visitation by a gray alien—an incident that’s repeated over and over again, with a changing cast of extraterrestrial visitors.

If you’re the Reverend Michael J.S. Carter of Baltimore, who currently serves as the minister of a Unitarian Universalist congregation in North Carolina, you try to make sense of the experience. And since you’re religiously-inclined, you don’t go to Google for answers, you turn to various spiritual texts, especially the Bible.

That’s the story behind a slim but oddly fascinating book that Carter wrote titled Alien Scriptures, Extraterrestrials in the Holy Bible, where the author first touches on his strange encounters, and then goes looking for a Biblically-based explanation.

The Alien Encounters: Unwelcome Visitors in the Night.

Carter makes it clear in the book and radio interviews that at one point he didn’t believe in UFOS or extraterrestrials. All that changed one night while he was home sleeping in bed, not in some rural setting but the middle of New York City. He writes of his initial experience:

My room was lit-up with a bluish white light—lit up as if it was daytime. Standing at the end of the bed staring at me was a being with an egg-shaped head and wrap-around eyes. It truly freaked me out. I don’t believe I have ever been that frightened in my life!

Carter’s response to seeing an alien? Like the 5-year old in all of us, he pulls the covers over his head. He then hears a whooshing sound and feels like the temperature has dropped drastically in the room. He pulls down the covers and looks again, but the being is gone.

The visitations continue for several months. The beings who drop in on him have different appearances and while most are the classic “grays”, they include a “green and scale-y, Spiderman-looking” entity. He watches as this ET “simply walks through my window and outside the building. I lived on the 15th floor at the time!”

Searching for Meaning: in the Bible.

It’s unclear what messages the visitors had to pass onto him, though for the most part they leave him with a positive, loving vibe—and he finds himself voraciously reading all the spiritual texts he can get his hands on. He gets special meaning from several passages of the Bible, which seems to reinforce his newfound belief that UFOs and aliens have been around since the beginning of man and may even be messengers sent by God. (Kind of like angels from another dimension.)

For example, Carter calls out the visions of the prophet Ezekiel as illustrated in the Old Testament (Ezekiel 1-28). In this biblical passage, Ezekiel claims to have seen “the likeness of the glory of the Lord”. But a quick read reveals that what Ezekiel actually saw was something odd indeed. Check out Ezekiel 4-6:

I looked, and I saw a windstorm coming out of the north—an immense cloud with flashing lightning and surrounded by brilliant light. The center of the fire looked like glowing metal, and in the fire was what looked like four living creatures. In appearance their form was human, but each of them had four faces and four wings.

Carter also cites 2 Kings 2:1 where Elijas and his companion Elisha are walking together and “behold a chariot of fire and horses of fires”. To Carter’s way of thinking this is how someone unfamiliar with a UFO, and living in biblical times, might describe one. He also sees the strangely mobile star of Bethlehem as a potential UFO, as described in Matthew 2:9-11:

The star which they saw in the east went before them, until it came and stood over where the young child was.

So is the Reverend a kook?

I admit his personal accounts are tip-toeing on the edge of credibility. Yet I came away convinced that something happened to the Reverend. I have written here before how our myths can sometimes come to life in weird and unexplainable ways. The Reverend may simply be one of many who has come up against something he can’t quite explain and attached his own personal meaning to it. Some see angels, he sees ETs.

It’s also interesting to note that Carter believes his encounters with the visitors have been “very positive” and have accelerated his spiritual growth. (They have also brought him some national attention, as he has become a frequent guest on the History Channel program Ancient Aliens.) It has also sharpened his religious and spiritual beliefs.

There is an afterword in the book titled “Lessons from my Contact Experiences on Life and Spirituality”, where Carter offers several compelling insights. I have pulled out my favorite bits and put them in the list you see below.

10 Life Lessons from Reverend Michael J.S. Carter.

  1. I have come to know that what we call “god” is really an Energy…a Spirit…a Source of all Consciousness…and that we are a part of this consciousness.
  2. We can tap into this consciousness, if we are willing to, by just sitting still, through meditation and prayer.
  3. This Energy/Consciousness/Intelligence moves through us, in us, and as us. It is all there is. There is no where we can go where this Source is not present.
  4. Recognizing the connectedness of our planet and the universe is the first step in becoming mature spiritually, or in cultivating an inner life.
  5. We all have a mission that we come to this planet to fulfill. Our younger years may be used in just trying to figure out what that mission is.
  6. Of course, we can choose not to fulfill that mission. But if we choose to accept it, a good part of that mission is to learn to love and to forgive, oneself as well as others.
  7. Thoughts are things. If you think that life is #$@&%*! and then you die, that is just what life will mirror back to you. We attract to ourselves what we are.
  8. All the answers you need are inside of you. Because all that is Consciousness is inside of us.
  9. There are as many paths to God as there are people who walk those paths.
  10. We might see God not as a person, distinct and separate from the material world, but rather as a spiritual reality in which all life participates.

This post previously appeared on my Wake Up Call column at Patheos, October 31, 2014.

Reshad Feild and the “7-1-7″ breathing exercise that can help change your life.

reshad-feild

Reshad Feild

I once read a story about a singer who was asked what the best advice she ever received was. Her response: “Breathe”. She had been given this life tip from her father who had correctly pointed out that when we’re stressed or feeling a little tense, we tend to shorten our breath. And at those moments there’s nothing better we can do to steady ourselves than take a big gulp of air.

I was reminded of this advice the other day when reading The Last Barrier, the autobiography of the English mystic and spiritual teacher Reshad Feild. In the book, Feild is told by his spiritual mentor that learning to breathe properly is “the study of a lifetime” and the rhythm and quality of your breathing can “help change the course of your life”.

Today, almost 40 years later, Feild is still stressing the importance of breathing. He is the founder of the spiritually-based Chalice School and if you go to the school’s Web site, in large 90-point type, you will be greeted by these words:

‘All is contained in the Divine Breath, like the day in the morning’s dawn’

There is a page at the Chalice School site that is dedicated to the importance of breathing titled “Breath is Life”, where Feild echoes the lessons he was taught so many years ago. He tells us that:

The secret of life is in the breath. We come into this world on the breath and we go out on the breath; but if we are not awake to breath, we will surely die asleep to the reality of life itself. Breath is life.

He recommends that we engage in a practice he calls the “7-1-7 Breathing Exercise” which is also known as the Mother’s Breath. This simple exercise originates from ancient Egypt and is designed to get you totally focused on your breathing. I have edited Feild’s words on the subject and put them into 9 steps:

Practicing the 7-1-7 Breath

  1. Sit in a hard-backed chair. Keep your back straight, without forcing it. Feel the flow of energy move through you. (I imagine it moving up and down my spine.)
  2. Place your feet flat on the floor, with heels together and toes apart forming a triangle. Legs should be uncrossed. Your arms should be relaxed and your hands should rest on your knees.
  3. Before you start the conscious breathing practice, visualize the most beautiful object in nature you can imagine. It could be a plant, a tree, a waterfall, the sea, or whatever has special meaning to you.
  4. Your eyes can be open or closed. Either way, focus on a point approximately eight feet in front of you. If your eyes are closed, imagine the picture of what you’ve chosen. If you’re focusing on an object, put it as close to eight feet away from you as you can.
  5. Next comes the sacred rhythm, the 7-1-7-1-7 rhythm of the Mother’s Breath. The method is simple, though initially it may seem difficult, since we are used to breathing without any form of attention or consciousness.
  6. Breathe into the solar plexus (the pit of your stomach) for the count of seven, pause for one count, and then for another seven counts radiate out breath from the “heart center”, the point in the center of your chest. IMPORTANT NOTE: When counting to 7, you do not have to count in precise measured seconds. It’s not the speed that matters, it’s the actual number of counts. Choose the speed, fast or slow, that suits you.
  7. Having breathed in for the count of seven, pause for one count and at the same time, bring your attention to the center of the chest. Then breathe out for the count of seven. As you breathe out, radiate love and goodwill from the center of your chest.
  8. To complete the practice, return to the senses. Feel your body and take responsibility for it once more. Be awake to the room or your surroundings.
  9. As you continue your practice, you’ll become better at it and find there’s no need to force the breath. At this stage, you are not breathing. Rather, you are being breathed.

The whole exercise should take you about 10 minutes and Feild recommends trying it a few times a day. I find it’s a great companion to and substitute for meditation, with many of the same calming and revitalizing effects. As Field says, it will leave you with a “tremendous sense of wonder and gratitude”.

This post previously appeared on my Wake Up Call column at Patheos, October 7, 2014.

You’re spiritual, your job is not. So how do you cope?

hide_face-150x150Are you a fellow participant in the rat race? If you’re like me, and regularly work 40-plus hour weeks in a high-stress environment, you know how hard it can be to keep your spiritual bearings intact. It can often seem like the working world and the spiritual world are at opposite ends of the life spectrum.

So how do you maintain a spiritual focus, when the stresses of the secular world come knocking on your cubicle? Is there a way to stay centered and at peace, even when those around you are in states of work-induced irritability and angst?

Advice from the Front Lines.

Like anything else you want to be good at in life, the key is preparation and practice. That starts with having a daily spiritual routine as part of your regular schedule. It should be as integral to your mornings as taking a shower, brushing your teeth and having that first cup coffee (which itself can be part of your routine, more on that later).

Your prep-work should start upon awakening and can be tailored to what works best for you. For example, my personal workday routine involves the following steps:

  • Getting up early each morning and after some stretching, going for a 3-mile run (though any form of exercise will do)
  • Meditating for 10-15 minutes when I can, especially on days when I don’t have time to run
  • Engaging in some spiritual reading during my bus commute (when I drive to work, I use spiritual books on tape and podcasts)
  • Taking a few moments to engage in a prayer of gratitude, giving thanks for everyone and everything I am grateful for
  • Enjoying brief spiritual breaks throughout the day—slowing down and focusing on my breath and going on short walks as needed

When we think of our spiritual practice, we often see it as a passive activity, best done while sitting in a comfortable chair at home. But the fact is you can also engage in active contemplation. So for me, activities like morning runs and afternoon walks serve dual purposes, exercising the body while relaxing the mind.

More advice on maintaining an even keel throughout the day comes from Thomas Moore and his book A Religion of One’s Own. Moore recommends that we follow the lead of monks who “intensify the spiritual side of life by incorporating a number of relatively brief times for meditation and reflection during the day.” He advises us that:

Instead of just letting your days unfold spontaneously or being at the mercy of an inflexible, busy schedule, you might start up a few regular activities like mediation before breakfast, listening to music before lunch, being quiet after 10 p.m., eating simply in the morning and taking a quiet walk afterward, if only for five or ten minutes.

Moore even mentions one of my favorite soul-enriching activities: enjoying a cup of coffee in the early morning hours. Now to put this is context, it’s not about sipping a cup as you surf the Internet with the TV blaring in the background. It’s about getting up before the family, quieting the mind and becoming totally immersed in the moment as you sip your coffee.

But what if, for whatever reason, you’re not able to engage in daily exercise, and meditation just doesn’t cut it for you?

Try starting the day with centering prayer. It’s essentially a prayer without words, or more accurately a prayer with a single word. Its aim is to help you establish a deeper relationship with the Divine, to the point that God becomes a living reality in your life, available to you at all times. With an assist from David Frenette and his book The Path of Centering Prayer, here’s a six-point “how to” guide:

THE SIX STEPS OF CENTERING PRAYER

  1. Choose a one- or two-syllable word such as God, Jesus, peace, love, stillness or faith. (I cheat and use three syllables that direct me to my ultimate goal: Rest in God.)
  2. Sit comfortably with your eyes closed. Silently introduce the word as the symbol of your consent to allow God’s presence.
  3. Repeat the word over and over, moving deeper and deeper within yourself.
  4. If the mind wanders, gently return to the word.
  5. Rest and simply be with God “as if you put your head back down on the pillow after waking.” Sense the presence of God within you.
  6. As your prayer ends, let go of the sacred word and rest your mind for a minute or two before going about your business.

I’ve read that it can take six months or longer to master centering prayer, but if you’re versed in meditation I think you’ll see the results much faster, perhaps immediately. Also, it’s important to note that as time goes on, Frenette recommends engaging in centering prayer without any words, to “let go of the life preserver and just float.”

And that’s what I now do. As this wonderful analogy suggests, I release the life preserver and float. I do this in the early morning before exercising, sipping coffee in the quiet of my home, while the family is still sleeping and only the cats are awake. Sipping. Centering. Feeling the presence of God. And I am better prepared for the workday ahead because of it.

This post previously appeared on my Wake Up Call column at Patheos, September 24, 2014.

Three prayers that can help you daily, starting today.

folded-hands174x174-150x150How often do you pray? I’ve always been fascinated by the Muslim religion and the fact its adherents pray five times a day, an act that serves as a constant reminder of the role God plays in their lives. Equally compelling are the devout Christians who take a particular Bible passage (1 Thessalonians 5:17) at face value and “pray ceaselessly”, though I imagine this would interfere with everyday life.

When I think about prayer in my own life, I quickly realize that I engage with it on a fairly regular basis. For me, praying has become an instinctual reflex—something I do throughout the day. I give thanks for the good in my life and the small blessings that pop up daily. I sometimes ask for guidance or patience or, on an especially tough day at work, pray for inner calm.

If prayer is something you only engage in at bedtime or when you’re in dire need, here are three times when you might consider prayer*.

#1. Praying when things are going well: the prayer of gratitude.

I’ve written about this before, but it’s so important I’ll gladly mention it again. The prayer of gratitude may be the single most powerful prayer there is and it’s one I use every day. It’s a simple prayer of thanks for all the abundance and good in your life, a thank you to God for all the things that makes life worth living, from your family members to a beautiful morning sunrise.

I was reminded of this prayer the other day while reading the Reshad Field autobiography The Last Barrier. In it, Field writes about his spiritual guide who stresses to him the importance of gratitude, telling him he should get up in the morning and go to bed at night giving thanks to God. He asks:

How many times a day to you remember to say thank you? You are completely dependent on God and it is to Him that all thanks are due. Until you can be truly grateful you will always be in separation from God.

And in a nutshell, that’s the reason for this prayer. It somehow seems to bring you closer to God, because by recognizing God in this way it makes the Divine a real presence in your life and can lead to even greater abundance.

PRAYER: Start with the words “God, I’m thankful for all the good in my life…” and from there you complete the thought, naming all the things you appreciate most on this day and in this life.

#2. Praying when you have to make a tough decision: requesting guidance.

Can God really help us make a difficult decision? I can tell you from experience, that seeking this guidance can’t hurt. It takes some of the weight off your shoulders when you remember there’s a greater source in the universe that can help guide you—and, in time, lead you to a decision with the best possible outcome.

My spiritual mentor John Templeton has written about prayer at length and says that “when we become very still and ask for guidance, we may be directed clearly and unmistakably, with a “yes” or “no”. But sometimes the best approach is to “release the answer to God and trust the flow of the divine to enter our lives”.

The key here is to give it time if we don’t find the answer you’re looking for right away. Patience is sometimes needed, so delay making a final decision until the answer has been revealed. Templeton reminds us that we are never alone in this process:

Sometimes, when our prayers seem to be unanswered in the manner we think they should, we may feel that we are not in tune with the timeless, unlimited universal creator called God. But nothing can be separate from God. Everything that touches you, everything that touches each individual in the universe, is a part of God.

PRAYER: “Dear God, I ask for your guidance in making this decision. Please lead me to the choice that is best for me, my family, and my mission in this life.”

#3. Praying when you’ve hit one of life’s potholes: asking for help.

I think that Emmet Fox got it right, when he suggested that whenever we find ourselves in a tough situation that we “stop thinking about the difficulty, and think about God instead.” By putting the focus on God, we take some of the pressure off ourselves.

Ask the question: What is the lesson I am to learn from this experience? And do your best to turn

Many times our thoughts are counterproductive when we’re in trouble—we just dont, so it makes sense to take a break from our struggles and ask for guidance. Again, John Templeton provides some sage advice:

Trials can help us grow and may come into our life to offer a greater realization of God’s presence and power. As we maintain trust and peace, our problems are more likely to be solved, and sometimes in a mysterious hour and sometimes even at the eleventh hour.

PRAYER: Dear Lord, I trust in your wisdom and know that there is something . I ask you to lead me through this difficult time to a better day.

A NOTE ON PRAYER: Explaining “how to pray” could be a column unto itself, but let me give you my definition. By prayer, I simply mean going into the silent place within ourselves and engaging with what John Templeton calls “something wise within us” or what Charles Fillmore referred to as the “the great stillness that pervades our whole being”.

This post previously appeared on my “Wake Up Call” column at Patheos, September 11, 2014.

Angels, aliens and fairies: have our myths come to life?

angels-wings-blueAt any moment, I usually have seven or eight books in various states of completion—but recently the books that have surfaced to the top of my pile are about aliens and UFOs, angels and fairies.

I find these stories strangely fascinating. There’s a parallel between those who claim to have witnessed angels or the divine, and those who see aliens and fairies. These entities often appear out of nowhere and disappear just as quickly. They defy rationale or scientific explanation. Yet to the people who witness them, they are as real as you and I and seem to represent first-hand proof that there is more to this world than meets the eye.

Read enough of these stories and you will ask the question: why are they here and what do they want? A few of the books I’m reading have come to the same unique conclusion—that these unidentifiable crafts and strange entities, that from time to time interact with our world, are rooted in mythology and are all interconnected. They may, in fact, be myths that have come to life.

The mythology angle was first posited by the great philosopher Carl Jung, who tried to explain the meaning of UFOs in a book titled Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Sky. Jung speculated that the UFOs came from the collective unconscious, a vast repository of myths and dreams of people throughout the world, all connected in a complex matrix that transcends time and space.

While many believe that UFOs are spaceships from another planet, in the book Angels and Aliens, author Keith Thompson echoes Jung proposing that that UFO encounters contain mythic and legendary elements—and may come from somewhere deep within our psyche. Thompson compares UFOs to visionary experiences like “angelic visions, shamanic journeys and folkloric encounters with fairies”.

Most enthralling are the tales of those who encounter not just unidentified crafts, but their inhabitants. There are stories galore of people who have seen aliens, and many thousands who believe they have been brought to their “ships”, often for bizarre experiments. Here, Thompson suggests that it’s our cultural upbringing and own mindset that helps determine how we interpret what we see—angel or alien, friend or foe—and whether our encounter is positive or negative.

Angels can be as mystifying as aliens. (In fact, some have speculated that aliens are actually fallen angels.) In Angels Are for Real: Inspiring, True Stories and Biblical Answers, Judith MacNutt reports that angels are often invisible, though their physical presence can be sensed. Other times, angels appear with distinguishing traits that set them apart from the rest of us. Eyewitnesses have described them as “8 feet tall, in a robe”, “beautiful, androgynous, and dressed in white” and “glowing, surrounded by a bright light”.

Fairies are another category unto themselves. In her book Fairies, Real Encounters with Little People, Janet Bord points out that at one time in rural areas of Great Britain and Ireland encounters with fairies were so common that people took them for granted. She cites scores of examples dating back centuries, first-hand accounts of locals who have witnessed fairies, in all manners of dress, ranging in size from a few inches to a few feet tall.

They are frequently seen dancing and spinning in circles, other times running at incredible speeds, have been seen playing the fiddle, or even engaged in acts of great mischief. Like UFOs, they have the ability to disappear in the blink of an eye, just as quickly as they appeared.

Bord also wonders if UFO entities and fairies are one and the same. She believes that there is a life force present in all living things that can sometimes manifest itself in strange ways. As Bord points out, perhaps “people are influenced by their environment and upbringing” when trying to interpret their otherworldly experiences.

For instance, she writes of a story from Peru where in 1977 a student named Jorge Alvarez fell into a swamp. As reported by Reuters, he was sinking fast when “four scaly little creatures of human appearance, but with three fingers on each hand” suddenly appeared and, holding out a branch, pulled him to safety. He later described them as three foot tall and covered with green scales. If Alvarez had been raised in a Christian household, might he have seen these entities as heaven-sent angels and not scaly green creatures?

So are these strange entities we see real or merely symbolic? Are they living in another world that is parallel to our universe? Or are they powerful myths that have come to life? We really don’t know for sure. Perhaps our ignorance was best summed up by the parapsychologist John L. Randall who when discussing the possibility of parallel worlds said:

What we regard as “reality”—the everyday world with its three spatial dimensions and linear time-flow—is no more than a distraction from a much more complex universe. We are indeed like the men in Plato’s allegory who, seeing the shadows of a higher reality on the walls of the cave, mistake these shadows for reality itself.

This post previously appeared on my Wake Up Call column at Patheos, August 26, 2014. 

City Monks vs. Country Monks. Can you really find inner peace anywhere?

TheKrishnaCenterIs a city environment detrimental to a rich spiritual life? As someone who commutes to and works in New York City, it is easy to see how the distractions of the city could easily extinguish your spiritual light. But I found a group that is totally committed to following the spiritual path—and they not only work in New York City, they live there as well. They’re urban monks.

Now if I was “going monk”, I believe I’d follow the lead of Thomas Merton whose Trappist monastery was located in the hills of Kentucky. Give me a bucolic country setting where the loudest noises are the birds chirping at sunrise and the brightest light is the morning sun bursting through the window of my sparsely furnished room. I’m inclined to think it’s easier to find inner peace where there’s external peace.

That’s why you might be surprised to learn the urban monks I’m writing about live in a place seemingly ill-suited to the contemplative life, the Lower East Side of Manhattan. It’s a neighborhood that’s buzzing all the time, especially on weekends, when it’s jam-packed with mostly twenty-somethings out for a good time. The scene is lively and loud, with music blasting from clubs, sidewalks overflowing with boozy revelers and the streets jammed bumper-to-bumper with horn-blaring taxis and cars.

Yet there, on First Avenue near First Street, is precisely where you will find a community of Hindu monks, which begs the question: Why would a group committed to the austerity and solitude of the monastic life choose to live on the raucous Lower East Side of NYC?

An explanation comes from the chief resident there, Gadadhara Pandit Dasa(a.k.a. Pandit), who is the author of the book The Urban Monk. He says that the monastery’s location is no accident as its inhabitants practice what’s called the Bhakti tradition of Hinduism. According to Pandit:

It is recommended that some monks live in the city because that’s where people are most stressed and therefore need the most spiritual guidance. The city is a very intense place where everyone is constantly scrambling from one activity to another, always keeping themselves busy, often times leaving their spiritual pursuits by the wayside.

Being in New York City 40-plus hours a week, I can relate to how easy it might be to lose your spiritual compass amidst the crowds, the fast pace and the noise. So how do the monks do it? How do they keep their spiritual bearings and provide “sacred service” to the community?

It may have something to do with their tightly-scripted daily practice, which every one of the 15 or so monks who live in this tiny monastery follows. Their schedule is repeated seven days a week and goes something like this:

4:00-4:30 a.m. Rise and shine.
4:30-5:00 a.m. Wait your turn to hit the shower; put on a fresh robe before entering the temple room.
5:00-8:00 a.m. Meditation, followed by morning services, including a devotional practice of song and dance.
8:00-9:00 a.m. Additional meditation or yoga. Some monks enjoy a quick nap.
9:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m. Various activities including cooking and cleaning, teaching and counseling, and going out into the neighborhood to engage with the local population.

After dinner, the evening can include hours of additional mantra meditation, as they “focus their entire being on connecting with God.” Pandit claims that “the city can actually push one to greater levels of focus in one’s meditation” and that their work in Manhattan “can be very satisfying and even blissful” in spite of the ever-present roar of the city. He admits, though, that this spiritual route is not for everyone. It all depends on one’s purpose in life:

If one is aspiring to focus only on one’s own individual meditation and spiritual practice, then a busy city environment can definitely be counterproductive. However, if one is residing in a city for the purpose of helping people, then there’s no better place.

Pandit almost had me convinced of the merits of city “monkdom”—but while writing this, I took a lunchtime stroll around the jam-packed streets of midtown Manhattan. It had me yearning for a quieter place to practice my spiritual pursuits, though not as a country monk. My home near the beach perfectly fits the bill. Regardless, to borrow a phrase from The Big Lebowski: I take comfort in knowing the urban monks are out there.

Moving away from formal religion—toward a one-to-one relationship with God.

The_Creation_Michelangelo-150x150The problem is that we have lost religion—in the deep meaning of the word. We have formal religions that contain the seeds of genuine religiousness, but they are weakened by…fundamentalism, moralism, empty ritual, misunderstood teachings and general irrelevancy. ~Thomas Moore

Are you one of the millions worldwide who classify themselves as “spiritual but not religious”? I count myself among that group and if you’re like me, at one point in your life you were part of an organized religion. You may have attended church or religious services on a regular basis, but abandoned this practice because you just didn’t get much out of it.

Yet, the spiritual world still calls you. You have a yearning to connect with something greater than yourself. So you fill that need with a hodgepodge of spiritually-related activities. You pray and/or meditate. You read spirituality books. You take yoga, engage in mindful exercise or go outdoors to find a spiritual connection with nature.

You’re creating your own one-to-one relationship with God, a religion of your own.

One person who knows where the spiritual-but-not-religious (SBNR) are coming from is Care of the Soul author Thomas Moore. He has written a groundbreaking new book that gives valuable instruction on how we can create and enrich our own spiritual practice. In A Religion of One’s Own: A Guide to Creating a Personal Spirituality in a Secular World, he talks about a future where we “move away from being a follower to being a creator of religion.”

Moore reminds us that we can just as easily discover the divine outside the church as inside it. In this new spiritual world, we look to formal religions for insight, but create and follow our own path.

We can, in fact, create a personal religion rooted in the practices and rituals of our own everyday lives. On this path, we treat “the natural world and everyday activities as sacred.” We sense the divine in nature, through the appreciation of art and music, by feeling “our soul stir at family gatherings and visits home, in deep friendships and romantic relationships.”

If you’re one of those of us on the SBNR path, Moore stresses that “the discovery or creation of religion of your own, is not an option. It’s a necessary step in your spiritual unfolding.” It is, in fact, a calling, a part of our essence that we cannot ignore if we want to achieve true spiritual fulfillment.

As members of the SBNR community, the key is to deepen and further enrich our spiritual practice—to move beyond paying lip-service to the “spiritual but not religious” designation and place ourselves squarely on a path of spiritual growth and development. Developing a real one-to-one relationship with God only works with our real intention and commitment to make it work.

The good news is we are not starting with a blank slate. No matter the limitations of your current practice, there is room for growth and we “don’t have to rely entirely on our originality” to enrich our spiritual pursuits. Moore instructs us that:

Language, ideas, techniques, methods and rituals are there to be borrowed. We can learn from many different traditions how to meditate, how to honor special days…how to go on a pilgrimage, how to pray, how to fast and abstain…how to forgive and heal and offer gratitude.

Among the spiritual activities Moore recommends is reading and studying classic spiritual texts, which might include teachings as diverse as the Bible to the wisdom teachings of Native Americans. He also calls out the Lectio Divina practice of the Benedictine monks, which involves four simple acts: read, meditate, pray, and contemplate.

Moore also places great importance on the use of sacraments in your practice, which he defines “as an outward sign signifying inward grace.” He calls out the example of Thoreau at Walden Pond and how he had his own set of “sacraments.” Thoreau saw acts as simple as taking a bath or rising early as connecting him with “the gods.”

The fact is, with the right intention, virtually every daily activity can be seen as a way to connect with the Divine. Moore even mentions one of my favorite soul-enriching activities: sipping a cup of coffee in the early morning hours, in quiet contemplation. The potential activities that can help you experience this connection are as endless as your imagination. Moore writes of the following historical examples:

Emerson lectured, Thoreau built a cabin and wrote a diary, Dickinson wrote poems, Kevin Kelly arranges flowers, Simone Dinnerstein plays Bach, you make gardens, I sturdy and write books. Just as we each may have a religion of our own, we may also have our own rituals and narratives and express our intuitions in ways that are most comfortable to us.

It’s all about staying “in tune with the rhythms of nature and the pulse of your life”. In following your own path, you discover, sometimes through trial and error, what activities work best for you. In time, you create a spiritual practice that is true to you, removing the veil of religion, until nothing separates you from God.

This post previously appeared on my Wake Up Call column at Patheos, July 30, 2014.

Everyone has a spiritual story to tell. What’s yours?

The Storyteller by Breean Cox

The Storyteller by Breean Cox

Are you familiar with StoryCorps? It’s a nonprofit group that records people telling stories about a key moment in their lives. Over the years, they’ve collected almost 50,000 stories that can be accessed online and at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. You may have heard one of their broadcasts on NPR’s Morning Edition where they air Friday mornings.

It got me thinking that we all have a story to tell about ourselves, especially as it relates to our spirituality. We all have taken a unique path to get where we are today—and just like those who tell their stories on StoryCorps, chances are there was a key moment or moments in your life that shaped your own personal religious and spiritual beliefs.

Here’s my abbreviated spiritual story:

I was raised in a strict Catholic household and forced to go to church and catechism classes weekly until the age of 16. But the church and Bible did not speak to me in words I could understand. Then, after a gap of over a decade with no religion or spiritualty in my life, I realized there was a hole in me that could only be filled by figuring out the greater meaning of life.

I began reading spiritual and religious books voraciously. I learned to breathe. I had several mystical experiences with nature where I became so tuned-in to my surroundings that I could sense the Divine in every leaf, in the chirp of each bird, in the blowing breeze. I rediscovered prayer. I heard the voice of God inside me clearly directing me to a different life path where I put the well-being of others ahead of my own self-centered interests.

There have been many inspiring personal spiritual stories told in book form, The Last Barrier by Reshad Feild and Hidden Journey by Andrew Harvey, come to mind. They talk of each individual’s very different path to self-discovery and their own version of spiritual truth. And while both offer keen insights, they do not take the place of your own story, the one that is unique to you, the steps you took to get where you are today.

One person telling their spiritual story is Angela Kolias who I met through a LinkedIn Spirituality group. She self-published a book titled Alpha Omega Yoga that tells her own story of self-transformation through drawings and poetry and spiritual insights. She tells us who she is as person by showing us how she got to where she is today, her spiritual progression and growth, and she shares her wisdom with all who read her book. It will also serve as an important artifact in the future for those want to know who Angela is and was, it captures her true essence.

The biggest issue for many of us is that we don’t believe our stories are worth telling. We think they are too small or insignificant. So instead of crafting our own tales, we spend our time looking outside our own lives at the stories of others, oftentimes the rich, the powerful and/or famous.

Yet, we all have had special moments and spiritual experiences in our lives that make us the people we are today. These stories talk to your path in life, your passions, your spiritual explorations, the times when, if only for a fleeting moment, you sensed the presence of a higher power.

What’s your story? What gives your life meaning and purpose? How did you arrive at the spiritual place you now stand? Was there a single moment of enlightenment or many? Look into your past and find the stories that matter most to you. Write them down. Or, like StoryCorps, record them on audiotape. Then, share them with family and friends, with anyone who wants to know who you are and what makes you tick.

This post previously appeared on my Wake Up Call column at Patheos, July 21, 2014.

My Real-Life Encounter with the Bogus Buddhists of Broadway.

Buddhist_NYC-150x150I’ve been working on-and-off in New York City for much of the past two decades and have been approached by a number of aggressive panhandlers over the years. As a rule they are disheveled and most appear to be a bit off mentally. Some ask for money for food, others just ask for money, and it’s apparent that most will put the coins and dollars they collect toward drink.

Like many who live or work in New York, I keep an eye open for those in real need, so I can slip them a dollar or two—as a rule they are the ones who sit in the shadows and ask for nothing. I have also learned what my friend Kevin calls “the drill”. When a panhandler approaches you, you look straight ahead, ignore them, and keep on walking.

So it was a bit surprising when about 3 years ago, I first noticed a different sort of panhandler. He was a man of Asian-descent sporting a nearly-shaved head, dressed in a golden orange robe. I spotted him from way down the street and could see him approach one person, than another. And as I came up along side him at a traffic light, he approached me.

He had a beatific smile and looked like he could be a second cousin to the Dalai Lama. He handed me a sparkly card with a picture of a Buddhist deity. And as I held it, he made his sale pitch in broken English, something about raising money to repair his temple in China. He opened a worn notebook and in it were scrawled the names of apparent donors along with dollar-figures, $20, $35, $50. Something didn’t feel right, I declined and moved on.

Well since that time, these begging Buddhist monks have become ubiquitous in the Broadway/Times Square area, on some days there seems to be one on every block. The New York Times just wrote a story about them, the monks who seek donations to repair their temple—and the bottom line is that it appears every last one is a fake.

The Times reports that various real-life Buddhists “have confronted the men, asking about their affiliation or quizzing them about the religion’s precepts. The men remain silent or simply walk away.” One Buddhist confronted a man in orange robes in Brooklyn, and quizzed him on the Five Precepts of Buddhism*. The man “didn’t know even one”.

An ambitious Times reporter followed one of the robed monks one afternoon, after he had apparently finished his solicitations for the day. He reports that the “monk”:

“…headed to the restroom at Bryant Park, emerging minutes later in street clothes, his robe apparently packed in a leather bag. He eventually boarded a No. 7 train to Flushing, Queens, which has a large Chinese population. There, he and another man bought a $12.99 jug of red wine and repaired to a flophouse that caters to recent immigrants.”

So much for the temple repair work. I have also have since verified that this is not how any Buddhist would go about raising money, that in fact Buddhists don’t beg for anything but food, and that’s rare. As one person, Ernie from Queens, wrote on the New York Times Web site:

Authentic monks and nuns do not beg for money. Depending on the tradition to which they belong, mostly the Southeast Asian Theravada, they may beg for food, but for daily sustenance only, not to hoard or stock up. But money, almost certainly not. 

In the Chinese tradition there is no begging either for money or food. They will accept donations from followers, but they do not beg. 

So these people are almost certainly fakes. As such they are doing a disservice to Buddhists.

The moral of the story: You can’t judge a Buddhist by his cover.

And to give this story a wee bit of spiritual value, courtesy of Wikipedia, below are The Five Precepts of Buddhism:

  1. I undertake the training rule to abstain from killing.
  2. I undertake the training rule to abstain from taking what is not given.
  3. I undertake the training rule to avoid sexual misconduct.
  4. I undertake the training rule to abstain from false speech.
  5. I undertake the training rule to abstain from fermented drink that causes heedlessness.

This post previously appeared on my Wake Up Call column at Patheos, July 10, 2014.