9 Life Tips from a Tiny Book that’s Spiritual Dynamite.

Law-of-Success-150x150He is the wisest who seeks God. He is the most successful who has found God. ~Yogananda, The Law of Success

It measures a little over 5 inches by 3 ½ inches and is only 39 pages long. You can comfortably read it in about an hour. Yet it’s jam-packed with wisdom and a true Wake Up Call for anyone who has wondered off the spiritual path. It’s The Law of Success, Using the Power of Spirit to Create Health, Prosperity and Happiness by Paramahansa Yogananda.

Perhaps best know for introducing millions of westerners to meditation through his Autobiography of a Yogi, Yogananda penned many books during his lifetime. But for me, The Law of Success is his masterwork because it so concisely sums up what living an active, engaged spiritual life is all about.

Yogandada uses what might best be called the KISS approach (Keep It Simple Silly). And for me his book serves as a guide book to daily living. I pick it up whenever I feel off-kilter and feel the need to get my life back on track. It makes me realize that success is not measured by material wealth, while reminding me of the vital role God plays in the process.

What follows are passages that mean the most to me, strung together as a loose narrative. If you find these compelling, I’d suggest you pick the book up as this only skims the surface. It will be a few dollars well spent.

9 Life Tips from The Law of Success.

  1. Success is not rightly measured by the worldly standards of wealth, prestige and power…success is measured by the yardstick of happiness.
  2. Your work can be called a “success” only when in some way it serves your fellowman.
  3. Develop the powers that God gave you—unlimited powers that flow from the innermost forces of your being.
  4. Before deciding any important matter, sit in silence, asking the Father for His blessing. Then behind your power is God’s power; behind your will, His will.
  5. When the consciousness is kept on God, you will have no fears; every obstacle will then be overcome by courage and faith.
  6. When you do your part and rely on God to do His, you will find that mysterious forces come to your aid and that your constructive wishes soon materialize.
  7. Along with positive thinking, you should use will power and continuous activity in order to be successful.
  8. Always be sure, within the calm region of your inner Self, that what you want is right for you to have, and in accord with God’s purposes.
  9. In order to be happy one should have good health, a well-balanced mind, a prosperous life, the right work, a thankful heart, and, above all, wisdom or knowledge of God.

This post originally appeared at my Patheos column Wake Up Call, March 22, 2014.

I go to church in the middle of a Thursday—and don’t get stuck by lightning.

StAgnes_ext

I’m not a regular church-goer, more of a Christmas and every-other-Easter kind of guy. I prefer connecting with God in the solace of my own home and see spirituality as more of a solo venture. But on this particular Thursday, I’m breaking the rules.

I decide I need to break away from an especially insane day at the office—I work in a fast-paced New York City advertising agency—and find a quiet place for contemplation. I think I know just the place to go and it’s right in the middle of Manhattan.

It’s 1pm and I leave my office and venture north on Lexington Ave. The sidewalks are clogged with business people on their lunch breaks, but as I make a right on 43rd Street the traffic thins a little. There, midway on a block lined by towering office buildings and inexpensive lunch joints, is an out of the ordinary site: a weathered but well-maintained church.

I swing open the church’s thick wooden doors, walk up a few steps, open a second door, and I am in another world. The noise from the street has been silenced; I’m in the midst of a Catholic mass. I take my place in the back row, and join in on the proceedings, kneeling as the priest delivers the Eucharistic Prayer. I find myself silently mouthing the appropriate responses.

I’m in the Church of Saint Agnes, which is unlike the ornate Catholic church I grew up in with its ubiquitous stained glass windows and shiny marble floors. By comparison, Saint Agnes has minimal ornamentation. There are a few color paintings of the disciples, a simple wood cross hangs over the altar. And while the church of my youth had a single morning mass, St. Agnes is an active place with weekday services held at 7:10, 8:10, 8:40, 12:10, 12:40, 1:10 and 5:10.

As I look around, I see that I’m surrounded by people from all walks of life. There’s a man who appears to be homeless down the row from me and others who look like they come from the lower rungs of the social ladder. Amongst the hundred or so people in the church, I also see many in business attire who I’m sure, like me, have slipped in for a few moments of respite from the stress of the workday.

Even as I tune in and out of a sermon, I find something comforting about this ancient ritual. This communal gathering has me feeling at ease and oddly comforted. Maybe it’s the unfolding of the mass itself, which has been permanently imprinted on my brain. It soothes me with its familiarity, like putting on an old sweater.

There’s a spiritual energy in the air, something I normally associate with places far from here, like when I’m sitting on the beach staring at the ocean. Maybe it’s the sense of community or the fact that these people are attending church not as a Sunday obligation but as a way to link to the divine in the middle of a weekday afternoon. All these hearts and minds are uplifted to God and, as if listening, the divine seems to be quietly making her presence known.

I walk back to the office to find that things are still a little crazy. But I feel removed from the commotion, the tiny part of me that might get a little anxious or uptight is now at peace. I’ve been reminded that there is a greater dimension to life, one that dwarves the role-playing and responsibilities of the office. My perspective on what really matters has been renewed and I am ready for whatever trivial circumstances the afternoon may bring.

A version of this story previously appeared at Contemplative Journal.

 

Finding your way on the winding path we call life.

Winding-Road-150x150How do you walk through life? Are you sure-footed with a specific destination in mind? Or do you meander, unsure of your direction or where you’re headed?

Several months ago, I wrote about finding your path in life, or what’s also known as “finding your calling“. I thought this quote by David Spangler did a great job of summing up what a calling meant:

We all possess a gift or talent that we are attracted to and enjoy doing…this gift ultimately connects us to others. This is our calling.

Yet, while at first glance this may sound easy, finding the “gift or talent that connects us with others” can be hard. In fact, I believe it may be one of the most difficult tasks we tackle in this lifetime. Because there can be a lot of questions that come with our quest for calling or purpose:

  • What exactly is my gift or talent?
  • How do I incorporate it into my path in life?
  • How can I be sure I’m on the right path?
  • What if my calling makes life more difficult?

There are no road signs that alert us that we’re on the right course—or tell us that we need to make a turn or a course correction. So the fact is we need to figure it all out for ourselves, and determine how we can best build a life with meaning and purpose, and make the most of our own personal potential.

Since my last story, I’ve come across several additional pointers, that may help you get closer to finding your calling—or perhaps offer you some motivation or comfort if you’re already on your path.

Pointer #1. Your purpose can emerge in a number of different ways.

In her book The Wisdom to Know the Difference, Eileen Flanagan writes of an Episcopalian group of laypeople on a mission: they want to uncover the best way to find “God’s purpose for our lives”. To do this, they read through a ton of scripture and spiritual autobiographies. Their conclusion? Our purpose can come to us not in one way, but in one of many ways:

It can emerge through a gnawing feeling that we need to do a specific thing. On occasion, it can burst forth as a sudden awareness of a path that God would have us take. (Our) call may be emphatic and unmistakable, or it may be obscure and subtle. In whatever way (our) call is experienced, God has chosen to speak to us and bids us to listen.

Pointer #2. When you need answers, look within.

From John Templeton to Napoleon Hill, the spiritual leaders I admire most believe the answers we seek can be found within. So what’s the secret to tapping into this internal source of knowledge? I start by quieting the mind, through meditation or prayer, and once settled, contemplate what my next best move might be.

But I was recently reminded that there’s another key component to finding the answers we seek: faith. We have to believe the answers are available to us or they’ll continue to remain a mystery. In The Spirit of Happiness, Discovering God’s Purpose for Your Life, the scholar T. Byram Karasu describes faith like this:

To believe—to have faith—in God means trusting there is a reason for the existence of everything in his world and beyond, and there is a meaning in its mystery. It means believing that there is a Holy Purpose (for you).

Pointer #3. You can find help along the way—one way or another.

I recently wrote about mentorship, and how if you don’t have a person to emulate in your own life, you should find a public figure you admire—and study all you can about him or her. You can then intuit how these people might handle situations and opportunities that are occurring in your own life.

I’m a fan of the inspirational blogger and author James Altucher who also recently talked to mentorship and came to a similar conclusion. Our net: we don’t actually need a living, breathing mentor at our side to receive the expert guidance we need. According to Altucher:

Everyone wants a mentor. I picture some old guy saying, “Ha ha, here’s how we did it in my day. Here’s what you should do.” and then he lays it out exactly what is the secret mystical formula for life fulfillment. It doesn’t work that way. Everything in life is your mentor. Think of everything you see or do as mentoring you.

Pointer #4. No one said it was going to be easy.

One of my go-to biblical experts is Pastor Joe Quatrone, Jr. Through his blog, he has brought me a greater understanding of the Bible by talking about how its lessons relate to our everyday lives. Joe points out that we can expect to face hardships along our path.

The journey of life is not paved in blacktop; it is not brightly lit like the “Yellow Brick Road.” It is a rocky path through the wilderness. It is not a linear road where we take one step after another in a straightforward progression. That is not what the road is like. Rather, it is a series of twists and turns, and there is nothing simple or straightforward about it.

Yet once you get past the rough patches, you will always come out stronger on the other side. And while your own path may not move in a straight line, there are always interesting life lessons to be learned along the way. As Byram Karasu points out, the important thing is to keep your destination in mind, and should you ever believe you have lost your way, pause and look within.

Pointer #5. Once you discover your purpose, life becomes easier.

It is the toughest task you will ever face. But once you define your purpose, the meaning of your life will become clearer and all other tasks, no matter how difficult they may seem, will become easier.

This quote, again by Karasu, points out that the sooner you’re able to uncover the gift or talent that connects you with others, the better. Because once your purpose is uncovered, you get to practice getting better at it each day. You can practice being a better coach or mentor, a better veterinarian or volunteer, a better baker or painter, a better whatever your calling may be.

And as time goes by, you not only make more connections, you make stronger connections. You find that you’re not only helping to enrich the lives of others, but that this is the key to your own happiness as well.

Finding the Spiritual Silver Lining in a Long, Blue Winter.

snowynight-150x150Arctic air. Sleet and snow. Black ice. Commuting nightmares.It has been one brutal winter in most of the United States and I, for one, have had enough. This year, like most, when the calendar hit January 2, I was officially ready for summer. But after one of the coldest months on record, even the promise of spring seems far away.

I suppose I could be one of the millions who suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). It’s what some call the winter blues, a seasonal depression that can sap your energy, make you feel cranky and give you a serious case of the blahs. It is estimated it has a severe impact on four to six percent of the population, while another 10 to 20 percent are said to suffer from milder cases of SAD.

Yet some have a different perspective of these blue periods and see them not as a time of darkness–but as an opportunity for spiritual growth.

When the 16th-century Roman Catholic mystic Saint John of the Cross was imprisoned for not obeying a church order, he used this darkest moment of his life to pen the book Dark Night of the Soul. As hinted at by the book’s title, John’s incarceration was hellish and included regular beatings and solitary confinement. But he saw it as the “start of a journey that will lead to the blessed place of perfection”, one in which there would be a divine union between his soul and God.

It’s hard to imagine such a divine union when one is trying to stay afloat in a sea of seasonal depression. During these times it can seem as if God has disappeared, leaving us to fend for ourselves. The religious scholar Mirabai Starr, in her  new translation of Dark Night of the Soul, describes this state of mind vividly:

The soul is left baffled and bereft. The soul sits helpless…and simply breathes into the darkness. There is nothing else to do. The seeker in this state may be shy about disclosing his inner struggle to anyone for fear it will reveal nothing but his own deadly doubts and spiritual failures.

So what do you do when you feel like a spiritual loser, abandoned by the divine spirit, left to fight off the bullying emotions of doubt and despair all by yourself? Starr says there is really only one course of action:

All the seeker can do is surrender to the darkness and take humble refuge in the ineffable stillness….we have nowhere to go but into the silence.

It is here in the silence that Starr believes “the divine reality secretly reveals itself to a consciousness cleared of the ongoing chatter of the false self”. She writes that we must be fully present in “the tender, wounded emptiness of our own souls” and that means not hiding from or ignoring the darkness (even though this may be our natural instinct) but facing it head on.

It’s about not turning away from the pain but learning to rest in it. Rather than distracting ourselves from the simple darkness at our core, we sit with it, paying close attention, and opening our hearts to all that is left, which is love.

Sage advice on living with the symptoms of seasonal depression can also be found in the words of Thomas Moore from his book Dark Nights of the Soul, A Guide to Finding Your Way through Life’s Ordeals. Moore advises us that the best way to proceed is not to fight the depression, but instead to “live in, and with, the darkness”:

Go with developments, rather than against them. If you feel empty, empty out your life where it needs it. If you feel sad, let sadness be your dominant feeling. Being in tune with your deep mood is a way of clarifying yourself. Speak for it. Show it. Honor it.

Moore argues that when feeling these extended periods of sadness, it is best not to treat them with pharmaceuticals. And I agree that, unless one is clinically and chronically depressed, it is best to ride out these periods as best you can, especially when the symptoms of SAD can be mitigated through exercise, proper sleep and diet, meditation and prayer. Moore warns:

Ours is still a therapeutic society that values the removal of symptoms over the soul’s sparkle and shine…broaden your imagination of what is happening to you. If you’re only idea is that you’re depressed, you will be at the mercy of the depression industry, which will treat you as one among millions, for whom there is only one approved story.

The dark night is a time for soul work, for digging deep into the self, and in Moore’s words discovering “what it is to live religiously”. The author explains what happens during this period, when you experience the world from the point-of-view of the soul:

It is the deep, dark discovery of roots and cellars, the opposite of enlightenment, but equally important and equally divine…letting your spark light up a dark and dangerous world is a way of healing both you and your world.

Much like Saint John of the Cross, Mirabai Starr also sees the darkness as an opportunity to strengthen our relationship with God. She advises us to “stop and touch down with the stillness that is your true nature, which is God’s true nature, which is love”. She writes that through this action:

God will whisper to the soul in the depth of darkness and guide it through the wilderness of the unknown until it is annihilated in the flames of perfect love.

Moore sees the dark nights as indispensible to our spiritual growth. While he recognizes the difficulties and challenges they pose, he believes the darkness can add “character and color and capacity” to our lives, and are a gift to be appreciated. He writes:

Nothing could be more precious then, than a dark night of the soul, the very darkness of which allows your lunar light to shine. It may be painful, discouraging, and challenging, but it is nevertheless an important revelation of what your life is about.In that darkness you see things you couldn’t see in the daylight.

 This story originally appeared on my Patheos column Wake Up Call, February 6, 2014. 

If Jesus saves, can Buddha save too?

BuddhaChris Lemig was one messed up dude. He had gone 23 years without having a single sober day, overindulging in all manners of booze and drugs. He had hurt friends, family, anyone who ever got close to him. Wracked by guilt, confused about his sexual identity and without hope, he hated himself.

And then, just when he had hit rock bottom, Lemig was saved…by Buddha.

Funny how when you hear stories about people being saved from addiction, it’s often Jesus who does the saving. But Chris, in his most dire moment of need, was called to a different path. He tells the story in his book The Narrow Way—and it is one harrowing tale of a man in a vicious downward spiral who somehow finds his way to a safety net of clarity and inner peace.

How bad was it for Lemig? He reaches the point where he believes his inner demons have won and he gives up. He writes what amount to suicide notes to the people he loves, apologizing “for all my failings and all my broken promises”. He believes his situation is hopeless and tells them he “just can’t bear to live one more day as a failed human being.”

But as he sinks from one moment of depravity, then deep despair to the next, something kicks in. He needs to save himself. There is not one single point of enlightenment, no flash of lightening, more a gradual awareness that there is a potential path of survival. It is the way of the Buddha.

Chris Lemig

Chris Lemig

Lemig doesn’t have a clear understanding of what this path entails so he begins devouring Buddhist texts, reading everything from Robert Thurman to Sommerset Maugham to the life stories of the Buddha and the Dalai Lama.

He also comes to the realization that he must heal his body as well as his soul and declares “war on the enemies of my body”. He changes his diet, cutting out sugar, fast food, dairy products. He begins a daily exercise regime. But not surprisingly, after 23 years of self-inflicted abuse, the doubts creep in. Lemig writes:

I am still scared. I am on new ground that shifts and sometimes even crumbles under my feet. I do not know how to stand, how to walk, how to run. But I put one foot out anyway, hoping it will touch solid earth.

Lemig then takes his new faith practice a step further. He makes a pilgrimage to India to study at a renowned Buddhist retreat center. Once there, the road is rockier than he anticipated. The drastic cultural and societal change of India leaves him “disoriented and bewildered”, at every turn he finds “noise, poverty, pollution, disease”.

While he seems to have conquered his alcohol and drug demons, his self-doubt resurfaces and he again begins to doubt his mission. But per the sage advice of the Buddha he continues to take one step forward. And slowly but surely he begins to sense a change within:

As I embrace all of these shortcomings I begin to feel myself let go. The merciless inner critic who used to slash me down to the bone is silenced and for the first time in my whole life, I feel real compassion for myself. Finally, I see the reality of my own suffering and I am not so afraid of it anymore.

With the help of a local healer, he discovers how to love himself again. He writes himself “love notes”, words of encouragement. He also begins telling himself “I love you” and while he admits to feeling foolish at first, he says that, “slowly, very slowly, I start to believe it”. He comes to realize that he is his own best friend.

So will Lemig live happily ever after? The author admits “there is every possibility that I could start drinking and using again, that I could become selfish and cruel again, that I could steal, betray, throw away a friendship for a drink or a hit. Nothing is certain or guaranteed”. He must take life one day, one step, at a time.

After reading Lemig’s enthralling book, I had one question which I forwarded to the author. Why Buddha? Could he not just as easily followed the teachings of Jesus or the Vedas or the 12 Steps of the Friends of Bill program. He wrote me back the following response:

I guess it doesn’t really matter. Buddhism just resonated for me. The important thing about recovery is that we connect and identify with something larger than the small self.

And after all, isn’t that really what spirituality, and our personal enlightenment, all about—identifying with something larger than the self, no matter where that something may come from?

This post originally appeared on my Wake Up Call column at the faith site Patheos, January 22, 2014.

Finding your own personal spiritual mentor (with advice from Napoleon Hill).

wiseman-150x150The really smart marketer Seth Godin got met thinking about mentors the other day. While I’ve always believed the spiritual path is best navigated as a solo journey, and have railed against “gurus” in the past, the word “mentor” evokes a different image for me. I picture a wise sage who, when needed, dispenses valuable advice and counsel, ensuring that the spiritual journeyer stays on course.

But how do we go about finding our own spiritual mentor?

According to Godin, it’s easier than you think. He points out that our mentors can be anyone, living or dead, whose example we live up to and honor, “even if we never meet them, even if they’ve passed away”. He writes that most of us don’t have mentors within our reach, so “for the rest of us, heroes will have to do”. And the good news is there’s a vast supply of heroes available. In his words:

I find heroes everywhere I look. I find people who speak to me over my shoulder, virtual muses, who encourage me to solve a problem or deal with a situation the way they would. This is thrilling news, because there are so many heroes, so freely available, whenever we need them.

Once you find your own personal hero to emulate, he even coined an expression that can help guide you in your life decisions:

WWHD. What would my hero do?

Now commiserating with a dead hero may seem like an unusual way to receive guidance, but consider that Napoleon Hill, author of the classic motivational bookThink and Grow Rich, gave similar instruction. Buried deep in Hill’s long-time bestseller you’ll find a chapter devoted to “The Sixth Sense: the Door to the Temple of Wisdom” that addresses this very subject. His initial comments on mentorship mirror those of Godin:

My experience has taught me that the next best thing to being truly great is to emulate the great, by feeling and action, as closely as possible.

At this point, Hill ventures into more esoteric territory that may surprise those who view Hill as a straight-laced uber-capitalist. He reveals that “every night over a long period of years”, he “held an imaginary council meeting” with a group he called the Invisible Counselors. Who were his counselors? Some of the greatest minds of all time including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Edison.

Hill says that his communications with the panel of counselors worked like this:

Just before going to sleep at night, I would shut my eyes and see, in my imagination, this group of men seated with me around my council table…here I had the opportunity to sit among those whom I considered to be great…(I) called on my cabinet members for the knowledge I wished each to contribute.

Now it needs to be noted that Hill had extensive knowledge of each of his “cabinet members”, which also included Henry Ford and Napoleon, having studied their lives in detail. He knew their backgrounds, their manner of thinking and their individual characteristics. So it’s easy to see how he may have conjured up his league of mentors.

But Hill’s story goes a step further. After a few years of regular evening sessions, Hill notes that he “was astounded by the discovery that these imaginary figures became, apparently, real.” In his book, he details several encounters that moved beyond give-and-take conversations where his counselors begin giving him unsolicited advice.

One night Hill awakens to find Abraham Lincoln standing at his bedside.Lincoln informs him that: “the world will soon need your services. It is about to undergo a period of chaos that will cause men and women to lose faith and become panic stricken. Go ahead with your work…this is your mission in life.” Hill follows this advice (and who wouldn’t listen to a direct appeal from Abe Lincon) which leads him to write the aforementioned Think and Grow Rich.

As time goes on, Hill discontinues his these regular nightly meetings, but throughout his life he goes back to the counselors whenever he needs mentoring or advice. And they were always there for him.

On scores of occasions when I have faced emergencies—some of them so grave that my life was in jeopardy—I have been miraculously guided past these difficulties through the influence of my counselors.

Ready to find your own spiritual mentor?

For starters, let me point out that Hill was a voracious reader and in effect knew the counselors he enlisted well. So it only makes sense to choose a mentor whose teachings, and life, you’re well versed in—or to kick-off the process by studying books by and about your preferred mentor.

Additionally, Hill believes the earliest one can encounter the counselors is the age of 40–and that in most cases, they’re usually not accessible “until one is well past 50” and only after you’ve gone through “years of meditation, self-examination and serious thought”.

As for me, I’m buying into it and have enlisted the aid of my own spiritual mentor—the great American businessman turned philanthropist and spiritual author John Templeton who, by the way, passed away in 2008. I will write more about him and my experiences in an upcoming post.

This post originally appeared under a different title on my Wake Up Call column at the faith site Patheos, January 9, 2014.

10 true things Jesus said that you won’t find in the Bible.

Christ_orientalWhat if I told you some of the most amazing and compelling things Jesus said during his lifetime can’t be found in the Bible? That’s because they’re part of the Gnostic Gospels, a loose collection of almost 60 early Christian texts that have been referred to as  “the secret sayings of the savior”.

Many of the Gnostic gospels were written in the first through third centuries, about the same time as the four gospels found in the New Testament. Once in wide circulation, these gospels were passed around early fledgling churches throughout the Mideast and show the rich diversity of Christian beliefs in the years following Jesus’s death.

And then they fell out of favor. In the fourth century, the early Roman church set out to centralize authority and get all Christians literally on the same page. So they declared the books to be heretical and ordered that all gospels not named Matthew, Mark, Luke or John, be destroyed.

In spite of the best efforts of this book-burning regime, many of these texts survived. A treasure trove of them were discovered in 1945 in Egypt at Nag Hamadi. But you won’t find them as part of your Sunday church service, as they are still largely ignored or even considered taboo by mainstream religions.

So what are these Gnostic books all about? I’ve read a few dozen of them and, like much of the Bible, it can be dry and difficult reading. The subjects covered include creation mythology, the feminine side of God and wild tales of a coming apocalypse—but most interesting, and perhaps most controversial, are the passages that quote Jesus.

I’ve selected 10 short passages from the Gnostic texts (see the gray boxes below) that are related in theme and grouped into three categories. I believe they deliver an important message from Jesus that is only hinted at in the Bible: skip the middleman, you can have a direct and personal relationship with God.

After each quote, you’ll find the Gnostic Gospel from which it originated. Some are trickier than others, but read them closely and you should be able to decipher their meaning.

The first step to knowing God is to know yourself.

He who has known himself has…already achieved knowledge about the depth of all.~The Book of Thomas The Contender

That which you have will save you if you bring it forth from yourselves. ~Gospel of Thomas

Those who have come to know themselves will enjoy their possessions. ~Gospel of Phillip

All the answers can be found within.

What you seek after (is) within you. ~The Dialogue of the Savior

Beware that no one lead you astray, saying ‘Lo here!’ or ‘Lo there!’  For the Son of Man is within you. Follow after him! Those who seek him will find him. ~The Gospel of Mary

Matthew: “Lord, when I speak…who listens? The Lord said: “It is the one who speaks who also listens, and it is the one who can see who also reveals.” ~The Dialogue of the Savior

What you are looking for is here on this earth.

The Kingdom is inside of you and it is outside of you. ~Gospel of Thomas

The disciples said, “What is the place to which we are going? The Lord said, “Stand in the place you can reach.” ~The Dialogue of the Savior

His disciples said, “When will the Kingdom come?” It will not come by waiting for it. It will not be a matter of saying here it is or there it is. Rather, the kingdom of the father is spread out upon the earth and men do not see it.  ~Gospel of Thomas

This Christmas Eve, I will be in church. I like the pageantry and sense of community and camaraderie. But I will do so knowing that the God I find in church that night, is the same God I will find in my home, and within myself, Christmas Day. This final Gnostic passage reinforces Jesus’s message that God can be found right in our midst:

Recognize what is in your sight, and that which is hidden from you will become plain to you. For there is nothing hidden that will not become manifest. ~Gospel of Thomas

This post originally appeared on my Wake Up Call column at the faith site Patheos, December 18, 2013.

Did Roger Ebert glimpse heaven days before his death?

RogerAn avowed “non-believer”, something strange happened to the movie critic Roger Ebert a week before his death: According to his wife Chaz, he visited heaven.

Did you read the recent best-seller Proof of Heaven? I did and while Dr. Eban Alexander spun a good tale of his journey into a heaven-like world while lying in a coma, there was just one problem: the author had credibility issues. As detailed in a long profile and follow-up in Esquire magazine, one couldn’t walk away from his story without the nagging feeling the author may have been fudging some of the details.

Which brings me to another story in the pages of Esquire where someone again claims they’ve glimpsed heaven. It’s buried within a short piece titled “The Death of Roger Ebert” and was written by Ebert’s wife and constant companion Chaz. It recounts the critic’s final moments and tells us how he left the world in total peace:“He was sitting almost like Buddha, and then he just put his head down.”

But most compelling to me were the events that happened in the days before Roger died. His wife, Chaz Ebert, tells us that her husband “didn’t know if he could believe in God. He had his doubts. But toward the end, something really interesting happened.” Continuing with her words:

That week before Roger passed away, I would see him and he would talk about having visited this other place. I thought he was hallucinating. I thought they were giving him too much medication. But the day before he passed away, he wrote me a note:

According to Chaz, she asked Roger, “What’s a hoax?” looking for some clarification. He then made it clear to her that “he was talking about this world, this place. He said it was all an illusion. I thought he was confused. But he was not confused.”

The idea that this world is an illusion is one held by many ancient cultures and faiths. Hindus believe that the world is “maya”, an illusion that is hiding something “different, deeper, invisible or unknown”. The Buddha, as well as the modern-dayCourse in Miracles, also declare that “the world is an illusion”, suggesting that we are all living in a kind of collective dream state. Which begs the question:

If it’s all an illusion, what is reality?

To get past the illusion, do we need to venture to what Roger Ebert called “this other place”? Was Ebert glimpsing the afterlife? His wife Chaz seems to believe it was heaven, but “not the way we think of heaven”. No puffy clouds or St. Peter at the pearly gates. Again in her words:

He described it as a vastness you can’t even imagine. It was a place where the past, present, and future were happening all at once.

This description veers into quantum physics territory, where the belief is that all time exists but that we are only aware of the present moment. As Albert Einsteinonce said, “the distinctions between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”  Perhaps, Ebert was able to get a sneak peek at what was next, a place where the illusion could finally be shed, revealing life in its purest state. Could this be heaven? Nirvana?

Did Ebert, knowing the end was near, simply use his imagination to dream up an afterlife?

After doing a little digging, I think it’s highly doubtful. In 2009, Ebert wrote a blog post titled “How I believe in God” in which he discussed his Catholic upbringing. While the former alter boy declared he did not want to be labeled an “atheist or agnostic”, he made it crystal clear that he was “not a believer”—and stated that believing in “an existence not limited to the physical duration of the body” doesn’t make it true.

Yet, this doesn’t jibe with the message he shared before his passing. While I question the veracity of Eban Alexander’s account of heaven, I have a different feeling about Roger Ebert’s departing words. When belief suddenly springs forth from a non-believer, with absolutely nothing to gain, I’m inclined to believe that belief is heartfelt and true.

A final note from the story: Chaz Ebert says she still hears Roger’s voice and that her time with him is not over. She adds, “I’m still waiting for things to unfold. I have this feeling we’re not finished.”

This post originally appeared December 6, 2013, on my Patheos Wake Up Call column.

Spirituality and the Rat Race: can you maintain a spiritual focus in the 9-to-5 world?

MorningCommuteI work in New York City in the frenetic world of advertising. After a two-hour early morning commute, I usually walk into the office with a couple of tight deadlines to make, two to three meetings to attend and an average of a crisis a day to handle. I work with people who approach their jobs with the same level of intensity you might associate with brain surgery.

Now I consider myself a spiritual guy and place the utmost importance on my relationship with God/the Divine. Which raises an important question:

Can a working professional in a high-stress job maintain a consistent spiritual focus—or are the stresses of work incompatible with the contemplative life?

One person who thought about this subject was the prolific American writer and Catholic mystic Thomas Merton. When Merton joined the Trappists at the age of twenty-five, he was already a man of the world. He had graduated from Columbia University in Manhattan and travelled extensively throughout Europe. Even after becoming a monk, he retained his love for jazz clubs and drinking beer.

Merton, who clearly knew the joys of life beyond the monastery, had an interesting take on vocation and spirituality. It’s a subject he addressed head on in his book No Man is An Island, where he saw the difficulty in trying to live the spiritual life while working in a city setting:

Everything in modern city life is calculated to keep man from entering into himself and thinking about spiritual things. Even with the best of intentions a spiritual man finds himself exhausted and deadened and debased by the constant noise of machines and loudspeakers, the dead air and the glaring lights of offices and shops.

Yet that did not mean that Merton thought we should follow his lead and head off to a religious community in the hills of Kentucky or elsewhere. Having lived both inside and outside the monastery’s walls, Merton realized the monk’s life could present an even more difficult path for those truly interested in the contemplative life.

The mere fact that everything in a contemplative monastery is supposed to be geared for a life of prayer is precisely what makes it difficult…there is more working than praying in the daily round of duties. In a life where all is prayer, those who do not have a special contemplative vocation often end up by praying less than they would actually do in the active life.

Merton offers encouragement to those who seek to live “the active life” while engaging in contemplative living, realizing that the path he had chosen for himself was not for everybody. He explains:

There are some people who are perfectly capable of tasting true spiritual peace in an active life but who would go crazy if they had to keep themselves still in absolute solitude and silence for any length of time…what a hopeless thing the spiritual life would be if it could only be lived under ideal conditions.

When Merton speaks of work, he does not differentiate between the daily chores and labor involved with monastic life and the responsibilities of the 9-to-5 world. He stresses the vital role work plays in our lives no matter where that work may take place.

Work occupies the body and the mind and is necessary for the health of the spirit. Work can help us to pray…and brings peace to the soul that has a semblance or order and spiritual understanding.

But later in life, Merton seemed to have a change of heart warning us about the perils of the active life. Writing in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, he railed against the specter of overwork and hyperactivity. He took a forceful stance on the subject suggesting that working too much takes us away from inner peace and in fact causes us great harm. He preached that:

The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence…to allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is to succumb to violence…it destroys our own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work [and life] fruitful.

So what is one to make of Merton’s seemingly contradictory advice?

Like all things in life, I suppose it’s about balance, about finding the happy medium between the working life and the contemplative life. It’s a fluid situation, with the demands of work ebbing and flowing—but then isn’t finding and defining our purpose in life fluid as well, a constantly moving target?

For me, this ongoing shaping of purpose is intertwined with managing the work and spirituality balance, the former always threatening to squeeze the latter out of existence. But with diligent effort, I do my best to see that the balance is maintained.

This morning, for instance, I dug deep into my bag of spirituality tricks. After rising at 5:30 am, I sipped a cup of freshly brewed coffee, then hit the floor and stretched. I meditated. Then, I put in a brisk three-mile run. And once on the bus for my long commute into the city, I silently recited a prayer of gratitude and did some spiritual reading.

I will walk the mile to my building with my eyes and senses wide open, to fully take in my surroundings. Then, once I enter the office, I’ll remind myself to be kind and generous in spirit to all I encounter during the day, no matter the circumstances. And should things get especially intense, I’ll remember to b-r-e-a-t-h-e deeply and possibly take a short walk. I’ll try to put my best foot forward, hopefully having a positive effect on all those I encounter.

But as the years tick by, and I enter my fourth decade in advertising, I feel the pull of the contemplative life even more. Its call grows stronger, its rewards grow richer, and I know it’s merely a matter of time before I abandon the working life, or at least the path I’m now on, and give in to it completely. This is what life will demand of me. And ultimately, it’s what I will demand of myself.

This post is an excerpt from a longer article written for Contemplative Journal and published November 4, 2013. You can see the full story here.

How to be an even better you (by remembering 3 simple things).

MirrorI start most mornings with some spirituality-based reading and over the past several years this has included the works of the late-John Templeton. Better known for the investment fund that bears his name, after his retirement Templeton wrote several expansive philosophy and religion books that are absolutely overflowing with spiritual wisdom.

What’s compelling about Templeton’s work is that his spiritual teachings (often presented as lessons) can immediately be incorporated into your daily life. And I recently ran across a “lesson” I found so essential to living a fuller, more connected life, and so easy-to-do, I thought I would share it with you.

His idea starts with a simple premise:

Each of us walks through life engaged in our own personal ministry.

While the term “ministry” is often used in regards to religion, for Templeton it takes on a broader meaning. It encompasses “the way we live our lives—how we handle situations, our values and ideals, our goals and the way we strive to attain them.” But most importantly, it revolves around “how we treat others.”

Templeton believes that the key to the success of our personal ministry, and the success of our lives on this planet, relates to how we interact with the people around us. How do we connect with those we encounter each day? What type of messages or signals do we give them? Do we offer them recognition or make them feel special? To that end, he advises us to:

“…reach the hearts of others and give them something of vital value, something that will broaden and enrich their lives. Desire that every person be open and alive to higher inspirations and filled with a beauty and truth so splendid that it elevates his or her soul.”

Well all this sounds well and good, you may say. I want others to feel good. But how do I go about elevating others in my everyday life? What can I do?

Fortunately, Templeton gives us a very simple guide to follow, three key action words we can act upon each day, with each person we encounter: 

  • Recognize

  • Encourage

  • Praise

I personally have begun using the acronym REP to remember the first three letters of the words Recognition, Encouragement, Praise. And for me, the meaning and intent behind these words can be simply explained.

Recognize involves walking through life alert and aware, greeting those you know, and even those you don’t, with eye contact, a warm smile and a hello. From that point, you can take the next step and add encouragement or praise to the mix.Encourage those who need a kind word, who appear to be having a rough day, who need to be uplifted. Praise those who are doing something/anything of value, even if it’s commenting on the smart fashion choice they made that day.

Think you can’t do it? Templeton tells us the story (also featured in the bookSpiritual Literacy by Frederick and Mary Ann Brussat) of a woman named Maxine F. Davis, who has a job that is both hectic and stressful—she’s a cashier. Yet her personal ministry involves helping others feel good on a daily basis. According to Maxine:

It is the manner in which I present myself to others that will determine whether my customers will leave the store feeling better or worse because of their brief encounter with me. By doing my job well, I know I have a chance to do God’s work too. Because of this, I try to make each of my customers feel special. While I’m serving them, they become the most important people in my life.

As Templeton points out when you discover and develop the abilities of others, you’re not only helping others. At the same time, you’re helping yourself. And the fact is, it feels good to help others feel good.

R.E.P. Recognize. Encourage. Praise. Three simple words that when put into use each day, with each encounter, can actually help you become a better you—and help the world become a better place, too.

This post originally appeared on my Wake Up Call column at the faith site Patheos, November 13, 2013.