How to improve your spiritual well-being—morning, noon and night.

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Jasper Zeinstra/freeimages.com

I wrote this story in early January for my Wake Up Call column at Patheos, but its “new year” message is still relevant today. It’s about the power of rituals to help calm and center us, and how by adding a simple evening ritual to our routine, we can close each day with a sense of gratitude.

The new year is the time to make big resolutions, and for many of us this includes becoming healthier and more physically fit. But this year, why not strive to improve your spiritual health as well?

I’ve written about about how important it can be to start each day with a morning ritual and how it can have a positive effect on your mental and spiritual well-being. For instance, my morning practice includes a morning run, spiritual reading and a moment of contemplation over a cup of freshly brewed coffee.

When we start our days with this type of regular routine, it nourishes us both body and soul. A morning ritual has a way of calming and centering us, better preparing us for the day ahead. So no matter what challenges life puts in front of us, we can deal with them from a place of greater compassion, humor, kindness and love.

(And for those especially tough days, remember one thing: breathe. When we’re in tense situations, we often shorten our breath. And by engaging in rhythmic breathing, we can calm our mind and soothe our soul.)

I was recently reminded of another tool we can use to maintain our spiritual health—a short evening ritual we can engage in at the close of each day.

If you’re like me, you meditate each morning for a 15 to 20-minute session—and while another meditation session is recommended toward the end of the day, work and family life often get in the way. That’s why I’m happy to share a simple, 5-minute practice you can do each night at bedtime to cap off the day and put your head in a good place before you go to sleep.

The idea comes from Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg who, while recovering from the sudden death of her husband last year, began a simple practice. Before she went to bed at night, she started writing down three things she did well that day. The list started with small acts like making a cup of tea. She found that by focusing on things she had done well, even if small, she was able to record something positive each day and rebuild her confidence.

Now Sandberg is moving on to the next step. According to a recent story in USA Today, she intends on continuing this practice in the new year, but with a new and important twist:

Instead of recording three things she did well, Sandberg said her resolution was to write down three joyful moments because, to quote Bono, “joy is the ultimate act of defiance”.

What a great idea—appreciating the good that happens each day before it’s forgotten. And it squares with another practice I just heard about via the pastor Steve Wiens of Minnesota. He reminds us of a centuries-old ritual called examen. It involves “noticing God’s presence and discerning God’s direction” each evening by reflecting on the day’s events and asking ourselves two simple questions. To quote Wiens:

At the end of each day, take ten minutes to stop and review the day’s events, becoming aware of God’s presence all through it. Then ask two simple questions:
1. When was I most alive today?
2. When was I most drained today?

You can write your answers down in a journal or simply contemplate them. (Wiens recommends “praying through them”.) Either way, the point is to find out what in your life is bringing you closer to God (a happy place) and which actions take you further from God (a negative place). By noticing these patterns, we can then make the necessary adjustments to help ensure our good days outnumber the bad.

By ending the day with the practices suggested by Sandberg or Wiens, we bring our day full circle. With our morning ritual, we ready ourselves for the day ahead. With our nighttime ritual, we reflect on the day’s events and learn to appreciate all that is good and right in our lives. It also helps us better realize our true selves in the process.

Were Jesus and Mary Magdalene a couple?

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Martin Schongauer, 1473, via Wikimedia Commoms

I’ve been reading a book titled Jesus Behaving Badly, and it reminds us that the Jesus of the New Testament exhibited more than a few human traits. Author Mark L. Strauss calls them “the puzzling paradoxes” and they include Jesus losing his temper (Matthew 23:33), Jesus railing against families (Mark 10:29-30) and Jesus being vengeful (the parable of the fig tree).

Which got me thinking—if Jesus occasionally showed flashes of anger or spite, didn’t he also experience the whole spectrum of human emotions—including joy and wonder and, dare I say it, lust and romantic love?

I bring this up, in part, because of the recent press on Jesus and his relationship with Mary Magdalene. A few months ago an ancient papyrus fragment was discovered called “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife”. While the jury is still out on its authenticity, in it Jesus refers to Mary as his wife. But it is not the only evidence that a special relationship existed between Jesus and Mary.

While most of us are familiar with the four gospels found in the Bible, in the first few centuries of Christianity there were dozens of gospels in wide circulation about the life and teachings of Jesus. These gospels were passed around fledgling churches throughout the Mideast and beyond, and show the rich diversity of early Christian beliefs.

These alternate narratives of Jesus are part of what is known as the Gnostic gospels. But during the year 325, Constantine, the emperor of Rome, called a conference with the aim of literally getting all Christians on the same page. And only the gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke and John were officially sanctioned, while all other gospels were excluded—and banned by the church.

What we lost with this purge of competing gospels was a richer, more fully developed picture of Jesus the man, especially as it relates to his close relationship with Mary. Take the three excerpts from the Gnostic texts below, the first is from Gospel of Phillip, the two that follow are from the Gospel of Mary:

The companion of the Son is Miriam of Magdala.
The teacher loved her more than all the disciples;
He often kissed her on the mouth.

Peter said to Mary, “Sister, we know the savior loved you more than any other woman. Tell us the words of the savior that you remember, which you know but we do not, because we have not heard them.”

Levi said to the other disciples: “Surely the Lord knew her very well. That is why he loved her more than us”

As the author Thomas Moore states in Writing in the Sand, while Mary was at one time confused with a prostitute by the same name in the bible (perhaps intentionally by those in the church seeking to downplay her importance), she is now recognized as “perhaps the beloved disciple to whom the Gospels never refer by name, and a figure of great importance in the earliest leadership of Jesus’ followers.”

Over the years, the legend of Mary Magdalene has grown and there have been books written that make the case that she and Jesus were even husband and wife. Several, including Holy Blood Holy Grail, lay out evidence that after the death of Jesus, a pregnant Mary traveled to France, gave birth and began a long line of Jesus’ descendants.

But to me what is most intriguing is the relationship Jesus and Mary Magdalene had in life. Did the love of this close disciple cross over into a romantic relationship? As Moore points out:

What is shocking about the new view of Mary Magdalene and Jesus, of course, is the implication that Jesus was not celibate. People who see Jesus in an entirely spiritual light may have trouble considering the possibility that he was a sexual being as well. Yet…if you’re going to acknowledge Jesus’ humanity, you have to include his sexuality.

Does it matter if Jesus had a romantic relationship with Mary Magdalene? For some in the church it poses a problem, who I suppose see Jesus as above the earthly desire for romance and sex. But I believe this notion presents us with a Jesus that is easier to relate to, a savior that knows first-hand not just the pain and foibles of our flesh and blood experience, but also its pleasures. As Moore writes:

How you imagine Jesus’ sexuality may depend on how you feel about sex. If you think it’s contemptible or at least a low part of human nature, you may not want a sexual picture of Jesus. If you see the beauty and full significance of sexuality, you may understand how important it is to allow Jesus his sexuality. Anything less acknowledges his incarnation except for sexuality—and that makes no sense.

This story originally appeared on my Wake Up Call column at Patheos, December 7, 2015.

On being in the moment—with a little help from The Three Stooges.

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The Three Stooges, via Wikimedia Commons

Larry: “I can’t see! I can’t see!”
Moe: “What’s the matter?”
Larry: “I got my eyes closed!”
~The Three Stooges

Funny how inspiration can come to you from the strangest places. When I watched a few minutes of the Three Stooges and heard the dialog above, it got me thinking: How often do we go about our own daily lives with blinders on, oblivious to the small but important things that are happening all around us?

Unlike Larry, our eyes are open—but due to the frenetic pace of our lives, we sometimes fail to be totally in the moment. We look at our surroundings, but don’t take in the full picture. We hear someone speak, but don’t listen to all they have to say. We have the chance to compliment or thank someone, but don’t take the initiative to act.

But the truth is, we intuitively know that when we go through our daily lives alert and aware to each moment, our world becomes a better place. We begin to appreciate the small wonders and pleasures that life has to offer—the taste of that first cup of coffee, the sound of bird chirping to greet a new day, the smile of a child or a passing stranger. And we can do more than just be a better observer of life. We can also become a more active participant.

I named this column Wake Up Call with the intent of waking people up from the stupor we can sometimes fall into—myself included. So I’m always looking for fresh ways we can more consistently engage and connect with those around us. It’s what’s what life is all about. (By example, see this story on the merry prankster Bill Murray, who engages with others not just for their benefit, but his own as well.)

With this in mind, I just read some down-to-earth life advice that really resonated. It came from the blog of a young expat American named Ali who writes about her overseas adventures in Amsterdam & Beyond. For the most part, it’s a travelogue on her frequent trips around Europe, but now and then she chronicles her personal life and offers indispensable advice.

She just put out a piece called “Twenty-Eight Tidbits of Wisdom” to mark her 28th birthday—and I think it’s pretty brilliant. Some of the advice is specific to single woman in their 20s or 30s, but she also shares what I would call universal wisdom about living in the moment. Here are my favorite bits, very lightly edited:

  • Stop looking at those dates marked far off in your calendar. Stop counting down to warm weather or the next big celebration. Heck, forget what you’re doing tomorrow. Life comes and goes at an alarming velocity. Savor every second, and focus on moments, not time.
  • Spend less time wondering about who exactly you are and just do what makes you happy. You don’t need a label. Follow the colors you love, the melody ringing in your head. Eat the food you like and be with the people you love. This is who you are. Live it.
  • Ask more questions. And genuinely listen to the answers.
  • Stop consuming and start creating. Paint a birdhouse. Start a collection. Write. Take photographs. Bake cookies. Volunteer. Stop staring at a screen and do something tangible with your time.
  • Live with intention. Find meaning in everything you do.
  • Every day, make time to stop running, breathe, and be still. Life will be still too. Enjoy this moment of quiet and take a mental picture. It will keep you sane.
  • Be curious, wander, and explore without a destination in mind. I guarantee you will find the most magical things.
  • If you need more love, give more love. Bake a friend cookies. Pay for a stranger’s latte. Send a postcard home. The same goes for money, time, friendship, and trust. If there’s something lacking in your life, give it. It will be returned to you tenfold.
  • Live as much as possible. Wake up at 6am to explore a new city. Watch the sunrise. Stay out way too late. Life only happens once.

Thanks, Ali! (And thank you Larry and the Stooges for getting the ball rolling.)

This post originally appeared on my Wake Up Call column at Patheos, November 12, 2015.

The 7 Keys to Spiritual Investing.

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freeimages.com/Svilen Milev

If you’re like me, and you have money in a 401K account, the last few weeks have been a bit stressful. The stock market has been swinging up and down like a yo-yo, with more than a few triple digit declines. So how do you stay calm and spiritually centered as you watch your retirement fund dwindle?

As I frequently do, I turned to a wise source for advice—John Templeton, the billionaire businessman turned life philosopher best known for the mutual fund that bears his name. In the book Spiritual Investments, Wall Street Wisdom from the Career of John Templeton, author Gary Moore looks at the principles that guided his thinking. (It should be noted that Moore worked for Templeton for many years and the book was published by the Templeton Foundation Press.)

Spiritual Investments looks at 17 key investment principles of Templeton, and how they were informed by his spirituality. I’ve edited the list to what I believe are the core 7 tenets. (If you’re looking for deeper insights, I recommend picking up the book.) In each example below, the financial principle is backed up by the spiritual principle that stands behind it.

  1. Investdon’t trade or speculate. As Moore points out, “we do better in the long run by viewing the stock market as a “home base” rather than as a trip to the casino.” That means not overreacting to a sudden market downturn, chasing the latest hot stock or jumping in and out of the market on a whim. Calm your mind and stay relaxed as you pursue your life’s goals. Constantly jumping from one relationship, job or spiritual calling to another seldom offers long-term gains or happiness.
  2. Buy low—at the point of maximum pessimism. This is a key maxim of Templeton’s philosophy and is the best way to make money in the market. Yet while every investor knows to buy low, sell high, few follow through on it. Many jump into the market when stock prices, and enthusiasm, are high. Don’t follow the crowd. And remember that just like in real life, those who hit bottom often become the greatest success stories.
  3. Search for quality. Invest in funds that are well known and companies that are leaders in their category. Look for categories that are consistently growing. When you surround yourself with quality, it can’t but help you grow as a person. Associate with individuals who you trust and admire.
  4. Diversify. In stocks and bonds, there is greater safety in numbers. Do the necessary research, and then spread out your investment dollars, diversifying by company, industry, country and risk. Don’t dedicate your energies to just one facet of life, ignoring everything else. Balance and diversify when it comes to devoting time to your family, friends, the arts and your spiritual life.
  5. Don’t panic. It’s the worst thing you can do as an investor, because acting out of fear often results in bad decision-making. The only reason to sell during a market downturn, is to buy other, more attractive stock that has also dropped in price. If your portfolio performed well before a crash, there’s no reason to think it won’t do well after one. During challenging times, relax. Breathe. Rely on your faith, because faith and fear cannot coexist.
  6. Learn from your mistakes. The only way to avoid mistakes is to not invest, which is the biggest mistake of all. When something goes wrong, figure out how you might avoid the same error in the future. Turn each mistake you make in life into a learning experience. Your progress in life is based on the mistakes you make and how you learn from them and grow.
  7. Use prayer to gain perspective and quiet your mind. Before you make a financial decision, pray. The serenity that comes from prayer can help you think more clearly when making an investment decision. The simple act of prayer, or asking for guidance can help you with any life choice. Often the answers come when we are still enough to hear them.

If you have a broker you can trust, continue to follow their wise counsel. Don’t trust your broker? Find another. But if like me, you do your homework and believe you are your own best financial advisor, these seven tips may help.

In closing, I should point out that John Templeton was a great humanitarian who gave away much of his fortune before he died. Moore reminds us that Templeton believed that “those who do good, do well.” He suggests we give at least 10% of our income to charities and that “giving an even greater percentage of our time and energy to worthwhile causes” is an investment that will pay huge dividends.

This post originally appeared on my Wake Up Call column at Patheos, September 7, 2015.

Spooky Spirituality: Snakes, Aliens and other Freaky Encounters.

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Visionary art via the San Francisco artist Clancy Cavnar who considers ayahuasca her main teacher.

In Supernatural, Meeting with the Ancient Teachers of Mankind, Graham Hancock writes about the powerful plant hallucinogen ayahuasca and its use by Indian shamans in South America as part of a sacred ritual. It’s a practice that continues through today and recently has attracted many westerners seeking everything from cures to depression to spiritual enlightenment.

A funny thing happens when most people take ayahuasca: they share a common vision that hasn’t changed for centuries. They enter a world where powerful spirits dwell and frequently encounter snakes, serpents and other strange beasts—creatures that often speak to the spiritual seekers telepathically.

Hancock himself has had several “sessions” with ayahuasca and during one he saw rows of brown and yellow snakes laid out in front of him in an intricate pattern “winding around each other like the DNA double helix”. In another session, he sees a an alien-like creature, then comes face-to-face with a large muscular man with the head of a crocodile that he determines is his guardian, protection from any dark forces that may try to enter his life.

In most ayahuasca journeys, the creatures encountered are benevolent, though their message is often not clear. In an article in the National Geographic, the writer talks of ingesting ayahuasca and encountering a God-like being who most closely resembles Santa Claus. She asks why God seems to hate her and is told “I have always loved you as my own child. Know that suffering is the greatest teacher on Earth. It leads us out of our belief in separation,” though it is not clear what this separation might be.

Hancock believes that “only a thin veil separates the world of everyday reality from the supernatural otherworlds”. And ayahuasca breaks through this thin wall, showing us realties that exist just outside of our perception. He believes that “the spirit world and its inhabitants are real, that supernatural powers and non-physical beings do exist’ and that under certain circumstances we are able to interact and even learn from these “spirits”.

So why do these spirits from the otherworld appear in such strange forms? Hancock speculates that “we are forced to cloth the external forces or beings that otherwise might be invisible to us, in a manner that we are able to recognize. Angels, demons, imps, elves, dwarves, are similar creatures but ones that appear in a guise that is culturally or personally determined.” They are, in fact, our myths 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 and Hancock proposing that that UFO encounters contain mythic and legendary elements—and may come from somewhere deep within our own 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 also suggests that it’s our cultural upbringing that determines how we interpret what we see—angel or alien, friend or foe—and whether our encounter is positive or negative.

One person who has had such an encounter is the Reverend Michael J.S. Carter of Baltimore, who currently serves as the minister of a Unitarian Universalist congregation in North Carolina. Carter had a middle-of-the-night visitation by a gray alien—an incident that was then repeated over and over again, with a changing cast of extraterrestrial visitors.

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!”

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. He gets special meaning from several passages of the Bible (see Ezekiel 1:16), which seems to reinforce his belief that UFOs and aliens have been around since the beginning of man and may be messengers sent by God. Once again, showing how we interpret the strange things we encounter through the lens of our own personal beliefs.

This story originally appeared on my Wake Up Call column at Patheos, October 31, 2015 and contains elements from my past stories on angels, aliens and mythology.

“How do I go with the flow of life when I’m broke?”

A response from Michael A. Singer, the author of The Surrender Experiment.

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Petr Kurecks/ freeimages.com

I recently wrote about the new book The Surrender Experiment. In a nutshell, it’s about Michael A. Singer’s philosophy that the key to a happy and successful life is to “surrender” to what life brings you, instead of trying to call the shots on your own. Singer believes that life has a plan for us that is better than anything our own minds can conjure up, and that by accepting what “the flow of life” presents us, we are more likely to have a richer life.

I received several comments on the story and one that stood out to me was from a reader stuck in a low-wage job. Given her circumstances, she believed that surrendering to life was something she literally couldn’t afford to do, as she needed to pay the bills. So I reached out to Michael Singer and asked if the surrender philosophy would work for someone struggling to get by. Here’s what he wrote back:

There is no one who cannot afford to surrender. It is really quite the opposite; the worse it gets, the more we cannot afford not to surrender. Surrender doesn’t mean not dealing with the issues life presents us; it means dealing with them in the most effective way possible—from a place of peace and absolute clarity.

Consider the following example: When a car cuts you off on a slippery road and you begin to skid, you had best surrender to the reality of the situation you are in. Relax and fully accept it so that you are prepared to deal with it. If you resist the situation and start complaining about how it’s not fair and you didn’t deserve this, then you will not be able to deal with the skid properly. You will be preoccupied dealing with your own resistance to the situation. Ultimately, you may become so panicked that you close you eyes, start screaming, and jump into the back seat trying to protect yourself. Well, needless to say, that’s about the worst way possible to deal with the skid. You are way better off accepting the situation you find yourself in, getting clear and quiet inside, and doing your best to focus on and deal with the skid.

Truth is, it is exactly the same with every one of life’s situations you find yourself in. You are always better off surrendering to the reality of the situation, and then doing your absolute best to deal with it from a place of clarity and one-pointed focus. You are never better off getting lost in your inner resistance to the situation instead of dealing with the situation, itself. If you start to practice this type of surrender to life, you will find that life is actually a very enjoyable experience. Life presents you with a constant flow of interesting situations, and you do your best to interact with them with respect and honor to the best of your ability.

When you begin by surrendering to the reality of what is before you, life becomes a dance, a sport, instead of a struggle. It has nothing to do with rich or poor, married or single, it has to do with your inner attitude about your interaction with life.

Singer’s response reminds me that trying to make something happen through the sheer force of our will often doesn’t get us the results we want. When something is meant to happen, it happens. It’s similar to trying to fall asleep at night. There’s simply no amount of will power that can help us go to sleep, we need to let it happen naturally.

Are you in a difficult life situation and find you can’t surrender totally? Then, I think that at a minimum you need to find a way to try a softer touch. In Worldwide Laws of Life, John Templeton recounts an exchange between a man and his good friend. The man is trying very hard to rectify a difficult situation and his friend advises him a lighter approach may be needed.

Man: “How can you deal lightly with something that means a lot to you?”

Friend: “Perhaps by not being so tense. Perhaps by realizing that we don’t have to, in fact, can’t do all the work. Perhaps by being aware that in trying so hard we are really insisting on our own way of solution.”

This is the same point that Singer makes: We’ve got to let life do the work, or depending on your spiritual perspective, allow God to do the work. Our own will may only take us so far. Sometimes we need the help of a higher power.

This post originally appeared on my Wake Up Call column at Patheos, October, 27, 2015.

Five Steps to a Better Day: Starting a Morning Ritual.

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Matthew Bowden/ freeimages.com

I was recently listening to a podcast by the author Tim Ferriss (The Four Hour Work Week) and was reminded of just how important it can be to establish a morning routine. With regular practice, it can help you get each day off to a fresh, clear-minded start, better prepared for the challenges and opportunities that may come your way.

On his podcast, Ferriss regularly talks about “life hacks,” ways to better manage time and squeeze more joy and value out of life. The morning routine is one of them. Ferriss has found that if he can do five specific activities each morning, he can practically guarantee he’ll have a great day. Here’s his list, with my notes in italics:

  1. Make your bed. It may sound silly, but it sets the tone for the day. This small accomplishment can lead to bigger ones.
  2. Meditate. For 20 minutes each morning. He recommends the Headspace app. I’ve tried it and it can be a big help if you’re having trouble focusing.
  3. Hang upside down using an inversion table. Not for me, but there is lots of evidence that it cures back pain and helps fight stress.
  4. Enjoy a cup of good, brewed tea. Ferriss prefers exotic blends.
  5. Write in a journal, including making a “to do” list. On his list, Tim includes all the people he needs to give thanks to that day.

One important note here is that like many of us, Tim’s busy schedule often means he can’t do all five activities. But he has found that if he can check off at least 3 of the 5 items from his list, his whole day seems to go better.

The Ferriss podcast got me thinking about my own “list” and made me realize there were five things I tried to do each day as part of my regular routine. In fact, I’ve turned them into a morning ritual. When I take the time to engage in this practice instead of rushing into the day, I find I’m more relaxed and better able, both mentally and physically, to handle anything that comes my way. My list:

  1. Stretch. I’ve found that as I get older, my body is stiffer in the morning. That’s why the first thing I do upon awakening is hit the floor and stretch my back, arms and legs.
  2. Exercise. If you want to stay healthy, you’ve got to move! I run at sunrise four times a week and walk at various points throughout the day.
  3. Meditation/Prayer. The benefits of meditation are well-known, but I also make sure that, at minimum, I say a prayer of gratitude each day.
  4. Spiritual Reading. I find this just puts my head in a good place. I read new texts but also frequently go back to what for me are classics.
  5. Coffee. This well could have been #1 on my list, drinking coffee is a ritual in our house. I grind the beans and prep the night before. There’s nothing like sitting in a comfortable chair, when the house is still dark and quiet, and enjoying that first sip.

In his new classic book A Religion of One’s Own, Thomas Moore recommends that we take the idea of ritual a step further and schedule our days like those of a monk. This means setting specific, simple tasks to accomplish not just in the morning, but throughout the day. This both grounds us and reminds us that there is more to life than our daily chores or work. Moore advises:

Instead of just letting your days unfold spontaneously or being at the mercy of an inflexible busy schedule with family and work, you might set up a few regular activities, like meditation before breakfast, listening to music before lunch, being quiet after 10 p.m., eating simply in the morning and taking a quiet walk afterward.

But the place to start is with a morning ritual. It’s easy to develop your own list of 5 activities, based on your intuition and comfort level. If you consider yourself a spiritual person, be sure to include meditation and/or prayer, plus some spiritual reading (or listening via a podcast). It’s an easy practice to start and follow, and by devoting 30-45 minutes to your ritual each morning, it pays big dividends all day.

This post originally appeared on my Patheos Wake Up Call column, October 17, 2015.

Underground Spirituality: Preachers, Rogues and True Believers of the NYC Subways.

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Jerry Attrick/freeimages.com

When I come into New York City to go to work each day I usually walk a mile from Port Authority to my office on the east side of Manhattan. But, when it’s precipitating or I need to shave a few minutes off my commute, I head underground to the NYC subway system, specifically the 7 train.

To get to the 7, I pay my fare and walk a few hundred yards down a wide tunnel where I pass throngs of people of all colors and nationalities. It is the United Nations of subway lines and reinforces the idea that we are truly a nation of immigrants. But most interesting to me is that most days I spot men and women promoting their own version of the spiritual truth.

The most obvious are the subway preachers, calling out to all who pass in their Hispanic or Caribbean-flavored English. There is one passionate fellow in short and tie who stands out. A worn bible in hand, he moves swiftly from person to person, side-stepping 10 feet to the right, then to the left. He implores each one he can reach to “find the Lord Jeeeeeezus, he is your salvation”, and says it as if he believes it is the key to his own salvation. And maybe it is.

There are the mostly African-American Jehovah’s Witnesses, always dressed in their Sunday best. They solemnly stand by their portable carts of religiousmagazines and books. They do not preach but it appears they are available for counsel and I wonder if their advice is filtered through their belief that the end of the world is imminent, that God’s kingdom is near at hand.

The tunnel leading to the #7 train.

The tunnel leading to the 7.

Then there are the pairs of well-scrubbed, smiling 20-somethings, dressed like young professionals. They pass out postcards invitations to a free showing of Dianetics, The Story of Book One. It’s “the film about the book that started it all”, the all being the Church of Scientology. What’s with these kids I wonder, have they not seen Going Clear? They always appear to be out-of-towners, probably new to the city, looking for a place where they can fit in and this is it.

On more than one occasion, I have seen the flip-side of the Dianetics kids, middle-aged men who look like they have led hard lives, handing out religious pamphlets from the shady Tony Alamo Christian Ministries. Yes, the same Tony Alamo who was convicted in 2009 of being a child sex offender for having underage brides in several states. He is now serving 175 years in prison, yet somehow his ministry lives on.

Perhaps most puzzling to me are the two elderly, Asian grandmother-types who I see every few months. They hand out the same pamphlet with a message that seems contrary to their always smiling faces, warning (in all caps) to “NEVER RECEIVE 666, THE MARK OF THE BEAST”. I am aware this is pulled from a biblical prophecy in Revelations, but this brochure has given it a modern-day twist.

It seems that as part of the upcoming “cashless society”, the “global government” will be implanting microchips into the back of our hands. These chips include some sort of bar code that contains the number 666, otherwise know as the mark of the beast or Antichrist. And once these chips are implanted in us, well, the Antichrist has won and we are in big trouble.

We are warned to not comply with the chip implant program even though it means ‘THOSE WHO DO NOT SUBMIT WILL BE SYSTEMATICALLY EXCLUDED FROM EVERY ACTIVITY!” But no worries. Because it sets the stage for the ‘SECOND COMING OF JESUS CHRIST!! THE RAPTURE OF THE CHURCH IS IMMINENT!!” So it’s kind of a no win-win situation.

When I see these subway preachers, rogues and true believers, I take their literature, I listen to what they have to say, try to greet them warmly with my eyes. They are on their own path, one that is not my own. But ultimately we are trying to reach the same place, a sort of union with something greater than ourselves, even if our vision of how to get there is very different.

This post previously appeared on my Wake Up Call column at Patheos, October 5, 2015.

The Surrender Experiment: Can letting go improve your life?

Jan Jacobson

Jan Jacobson

What would happen if you totally and completely let go? What if you stopped making decisions and began saying yes to whatever came your way? Would life unfold the way it was supposed to instead of the way you forced it to happen?

These are the type of questions that led Michael A. Singer to try something he called The Surrender Experiment. It’s the title of his new book that details the amazing twists and turns that his life took when he stopped thinking and analyzing every decision he had to make, and began saying yes to everything that life brought his way.

First some background on Singer. He is probably best known for his 2007 book The Untethered Soul, which was praised by Deepak Chopra, landed him a guest spot on the Oprah Winfrey show and became a #1 New York Times bestseller. But his latest book reveals something even more interesting, the story behind the story.

Singer was a self-described “hippie” living near Gainesville, Florida, when he went on a quest to quiet the chattering voice inside his head, the one that analyzed and often criticized his every move. So he began a process where, through extended meditation sessions, he learned how to quiet this part of his brain, never judging, just going with the flow of life. And life takes him on a wild ride.

While in a Radio Shack one day in the late-1970s, he takes an interest in one of the very first personal computers. After making a few trips to the store to “play” with the display model, he buys one and teaches himself how to write computer code. He eventually ends up writing a billing program for a doctor’s office, and through a series of synchronistic events, winds-up creating the country’s largest medical software firm.

There’s much more to the story, but let’s first look at Singer’s way of thinking that got him to a place where he enjoyed such success. In this passage, he sums up the daily conundrum most of us face:

The battle between individual will and the reality of life unfolding around us ends up consuming our lives. When we win the battle, we are happy and relaxed; when we don’t, we are disturbed and stressed.

Singer wonders if it has to be this way. He speculates that “if the natural unfolding of the process of life can create and take care of the entire universe, is it really reasonable for us to assume that nothing good will happen unless we force it to?” To combat the negative effects of constantly doing battle with life, Singer charts another course:

I decided to just stop listening to all the chatter about my personal preferences, and instead, start the willful practice of accepting what the flow of life was presenting me.

He quite literally puts life in charge, realizing that “life was asking me to get out of the way and let her do her thing.” This is easier said than done because it often means saying yes when the judgmental part of him wants to say no, but Singer had spent years readying himself for this task. He meditated for hours each day and built a “temple” on his land in Florida where like-minded visitors came for yoga and spiritual discussions.

One important point I should mention here is that we should not confuse “surrender” with passivity or weakness. In Singer’s world, “it required all the strength I had to be brave enough to follow the invisible into the unknown.” He goes on to say that “I let go of myself and allowed what was meant to be—to be.”

By accepting the “challenge of serving the energy that came my way”, Singer is able to build a massive national company—that at the peak of its success is brought to its knees by an unscrupulous former-employee. One of his top salesmen is arrested by the government for taking kickbacks and to save his neck implicates Singer in the scheme. An overreaching federal prosecutor goes after Singer in a case that gets tied up in the courts for years.

Singer was forced to step down from the company he had created, but a funny thing happened during the time he was waiting for the case to be resolved. He wrote The Untethered Soul. And while some may wonder how a man following the righteous path to the best of his ability could deal with being unjustly accused of a crime, Singer writes that “life had dropped me off exactly where she had picked me up.”

The charges were eventually dropped and he went back to his temple where he had started his meditation sessions 40 years earlier. Over the years, thanks to his business success, his property had grown to over 100 acres and several structures, and hosted both morning and evening services. In his words, “because I had surrendered each step of the way, no scars were left on my psyche.” He goes back home in peace.

He had learned what were for him were the most vital lessons of life—that by putting life in charge, everything would work out just the way it was supposed to. Below are Singer’s parting words, lightly edited, summarizing his experience:

All I did was my very best to serve what was put in front of me and let go of what stirred up within me. Joy and pain, success and failure, praise and blame—they all had pulled at what was so deeply rooted within me. The more I let go, the freer I became. I realized to the depth of my being that life knew what it was doing. Once you are ready to let go of yourself, life becomes your friend, your teacher, your secret lover. When life’s way becomes your way, all the noise stops, and there is great peace.

This post previously appeared on my Patheos Wake Up Call column, September 20, 2015.

The Mystics Who Discovered God’s Hiding Place.

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St. Julian of Norwich, via Evelyn Simak

At some point in time, how many of us haven’t wondered if God really exists? We may have even echoed the voices of those who have asked God to show us a sign, any sign, that he or she is real—that our prayers aren’t going out into an empty void, that our faith isn’t a sign of some deeply ingrained ignorance.

Yet, history shows that there are those who have made this connection to a greater force, who claim to have not only sensed the presence of God, but who have felt the Divine within themselves, permeating their entire being. They are often labeled mystics and they have been around since the advent of religion.

Mysticism is defined as the knowledge of God that comes from a direct experience of God. So this knowledge is not learned from years of study or by following a specific religious protocol. It is an experience that is felt deeply and convincingly within, sometimes unexpectedly, a vision of something that is far outside the normal experiences of life.

I recently came across a now out-of-print book titled Mysticism, A Study and an Anthology by F.C. Happold, who points out that mystical experiences are common to all religions and that what stands out is not so much the differences in these experiences but their similarities.

In a prologue titled The Timeless Moment, Happold writes of several modern-day mystics he has studied and how through these supernatural experiences the mystic finds “an illumination and certainty which can rarely, if ever, be reached by the rational consciousness.” Two common themes emerge:

  1. A discovery of the unity of all things, or what Happold calls “a consciousness of the oneness of everything, a vision of the One in the All and the All in the One.” It is evidenced by the testimony here: A great peace came over me, I was conscious of a lovely, unexplainable pattern in the whole texture of things, a pattern of which everyone and everything was a part; and weaving the pattern was a Power; and that Power was what we faintly call Love.
  2. The realization that the God we are looking for, and call out to in our times of need, is found within us. Here’s another testimonial via Happold: The room was filled by a Presence, which in a strange way was both about me and within me, like light or warmth. I was overwhelmingly possessed by someone who was not myself, and yet I felt I was more myself than I had ever been before…overall was a deep sense of peace and security and certainty.

The great bulk of Happold’s tome is devoted to the Christian mystics. He highlights over a dozen, spanning both several centuries and several countries. And what again stands out are the similarities of these experiences. I have cherry-picked a few of my favorite writers and passages below:

The French abbot St. Bernard of Clairvaux: My curiosity took me to my lowest depth to look for Him, nevertheless, He was found still deeper…he had passed into my inmost parts. Only by the movement of my heart did I recognize his presence.

The philosopher Meister Eckhart (referring to the soul as the feminine “she”): She plunges into the bottomless well of the divine nature and becomes so one with God that she herself would say that she is God…where God is, there is the soul and where the soul is, there is God.

The reclusive nun Julian of Norwich: God is nearer to us than our own Soul; for He is (the) Ground in whom our Soul stands…Our Soul is kindly rooted in God in endless love.

The former-parish priest John of Ruysbroeck: Grace flows from within, and not from without; for God is more inward to us than we are to ourselves. God works in us from within outwards…not from without.

All these different mystics, separated by time and place, in the days before religious texts were widely circulated, come to conclusions that sound surprisingly alike: We are made in the image of God and when we go looking for God, we find what we seek within. It is a stirring call to arms for all of us who seek God in our daily lives—the realization that we should pause each day to locate and engage with the Divine within.

I’ll close with one more passage, from the English priest William Law and a book he wrote in the 1700s titled The Spirit of Prayer. Law believed in what he calls an “indwelling presence” and that heaven is “as near to our souls as this world is to our bodies.” What follows are his lightly edited words (replacing Law’s “thys”, “thous” and “wilts” with modern-day language):

You see, hear and feel nothing of God, because you seek Him outside yourself. You look for Him in books, in the church and outward exercises, but you will not find him until you have found him in your heart. God is already within you, living, stirring, calling, knocking at the door. Look for him in your heart and you will never search in vain, for he lives there.

This story originally appeared on my Wake Up Call column at Patheos, August 25, 2015.