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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Life Wisdom from Johnny of Isère.

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

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

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

Napoleon Hill

Napoleon Hill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finding Meaning in the Silence of God.

James P. Carse

James P. Carse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can you be spiritual and still have a wild streak?

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

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

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

But do these hedonistic pursuits mix with the spiritual life?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Life Lessons from the Reverend who was visited by ETs.

Reverend Michael J. S. Carter

Reverend Michael J. S. Carter

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

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

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

The Alien Encounters: Unwelcome Visitors in the Night.

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

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

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

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

Searching for Meaning: in the Bible.

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

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

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

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

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

So is the Reverend a kook?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

reshad-feild

Reshad Feild

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Practicing the 7-1-7 Breath

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

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

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

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

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

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

Advice from the Front Lines.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE SIX STEPS OF CENTERING PRAYER

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

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

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

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

Three prayers that can help you daily, starting today.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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