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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Storyteller by Breean Cox

The Storyteller by Breean Cox

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

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

Here’s my abbreviated spiritual story:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three Bible passages that may blow your mind (in a good way).

Jesus-150x150A version of this post originally appeared about three years ago at Elephant Journal and attracted over 20,000 views. I rewrote the story for my Patheos column “Wake Up Call” where it appeared 6/24/14.

Though I was raised in a strict Catholic family, one book I deliberately avoided for most of my life was the Bible. While I have long been interested in spirituality, I always found the Bible to be too dry, too boring. But several years ago, right before my daughter’s baptism, I decided to read the New Testament from front to back.

As you might imagine, the most interesting stories were the ones found in the four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, that tell about the life and teachings if Jesus. I recall that every once in while I’d hit a passage that made me sit up and take notice, because Jesus was saying things I didn’t recall hearing in church.

I recently picked up the Bible again, and was glad to see that I had underlined the good parts for future reference. There were three specific passages that stood out to me, because they presented Jesus in a light we seldom hear about, with teachings that seem to cut against what many of us think about God and the church.

Mind Blower #1. “The Kingdom of God is within you.”

This passage starts with Luke 17:20 and continues in Luke 17:21 and I think it’s a real shocker—because it has the power to change your perspective on just where God is located and how you might access the Divine.

One day the Pharisees asked Jesus, “When will the Kingdom of God come?” Jesus replied, “The Kingdom of God can’t be detected by visible signs, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the Kingdom of God is within you.”

Wait a second, isn’t the Kingdom of God supposed to be in the heavens, a place where the white-bearded Almighty sits on a golden throne? That’s the image of God the Father I recollect from my grade school catechism class, but it’s a description never referenced in the New Testament.

So what does it mean if, as Jesus says, the Kingdom of God is within? It means we don’t have to go very far to find all that we need in this life. All the wisdom and guidance we seek can be accessed at any given moment internally, once we learn to quiet the mind and tap into this amazing resource at the center of our being.

Mind Blower #2. “Ask and you will receive.”

This one comes from Mark 7:7 and deals directly with what we may ask for in prayer and out of life. It sounds so beautifully easy:

Ask, and you will receive. Search, and you will find. Knock, and the door will be opened for you.

This one I take with a grain of salt, as I don’t think you can take this to mean that God is a fairy godmother granting all wishes. But I do think it’s another sign that divine help is available to us at any given moment, if what we ask for is aligned with our purpose in this life (which is sure to involve you helping others).

Want a new Porsche convertible? Don’t even think about asking. But if you need help in guiding a troubled friend or solving a difficult family issue or even finding direction in your own life, assistance is available. Always do what you can with your own abilities—but feel free to ask for help and it will be given.

Mind Blower #3. “When you pray, pray privately.”

I was raised to believe that the place to pray was in church. Sure, you could say a bedtime prayer, but if you really wanted a direct connection to God, it was best done on Sundays from a church pew. This passage from Matthew 6:6 counters that ides in a big way. Here, Jesus instructs:

When you pray, go to your room and close the door. Pray privately to your Father who is with you. Your Father sees what you do in private. He will reward you.

As you may know, the idea of setting up a church was not the brainchild of Jesus, but of Paul of Taurus. Paul, who’s prominently featured in the New Testament, never actually met or received any direct input from Jesus on prayer or the church. In fact, the preceding passage in Matthew 6:5 actually seems to say don’t go to church: When you pray, don’t be like hypocrites. They like to stand in synagogues and on street corners to pray so that everyone can see them.

Now I am fully aware that there are many benefits to church attendance and gathering with a community of like-minded individuals. But it’s refreshing to hear that a twice-a-year church-goer like me can receive the same rewards from praying in private, something I do on a daily basis.

Final note: I’ll be the first to admit there’s a lot in the Bible that can rub you the wrong way or even leave you scratching your head. But as a local reverend once told me when I asked him about some parts of the Bible I found questionable, “you’ve got to find the passages that have meaning to you”. And that’s where I believe the value of the Bible lies, in finding the hidden chestnuts that talk to you.

You may also be interested in “10 True Things Jesus Said That You Won’t Find in the Bible.

Want to reduce stress and lose weight? Becca Chopra recommends you check your chakras.

Becca_ChopraBecca Chopra is my go to-person when it comes to learning about the chakras, the body’s seven “energy centers” of spiritual power. She has written a couple of informative and entertaining books on the subject that teach how chakras can affect everything from your love life to your health, wealth and happiness.

She has a new book out titled The Chakra Energy Diet and this time the topic is how eating right can not only balance your chakras—but help you lose weight, lower stress and gain more energy in the process. So you’ll not only look better, you’ll feel better too.

According to Becca, there’s a simple way to determine if your chakras could use a realignment: If you’re stressed out, feeling not so great, unhappy with the way you look, or out-of-control with food cravings, your chakras are not balanced. That means it’s time for some chakra work.

In the book, Becca moves from chakra to chakra, reminding the reader of the role of each chakra and helping the reader determine if a specific chakra is out of balance. If there is an issue, she talks to how it can be addressed through changes in diet, visualization techniques and yoga poses that can help you get your chakras realigned.

Here’s a quick overview of her approach as it relates to your diet:

Are you financially stressed, insecure or angry? Start feeding your Root Chakra with high-quality protein and foods that vibrate with the same color as that chakra—red foods like cherries and strawberries and root vegetables like red potatoes and red cabbage.

Are you lacking energy? Give your Solar Plexus Chakra a helping hand by eating complex carbohydrates like yellow millet or brown rice.

Want to be more loving and compassionate? Open the Heart Chakra with the help of fruits and vegetables, especially leafy green ones.

Need help with intuition and insight? Invigorate your Third Eye Chakra with dark blue, brain-supporting foods like berries and grapes, and without overdoing it, chocolate.

What about losing weight? Becca believes that one of the leading culprits when it comes to weight gain is stress. She points out that when you’re stressed, it causes a hormone called cortisol to surge, stimulating your appetite. The body decides it needs extra stores of fat or glucose and you reach for something to eat. She writes:

Most people are driven to eat comfort foods when stressed out, even if they’re not hungry. And comfort foods are usually high-fat, sugary or salty foods. You may be eating whatever is within reach to fill an emotional need, or cruising to the closest fast food window because you have no time to shop and cook a healthy meal.

So what’s the best approach to dealing with stress—and the overeating that comes with it? The author admits that the first thing she used to do when stressed was to reach for a bag of potato chips. But she’s found a better approach: take a breath and relax! She advises us to:

Put your hands on your tummy, below your navel, and feel it rise and fall with your breath. We often breathe very shallowly or even hold our breath when we’re stressed. Simple deep belly breathing can both calm the release of stress chemicals in the body and oxygenate your cells.

She then layers in how adjusting your chakras can help as well:

Using chakra colors, imagine breathing in bright yellow energy from the sun into your Solar Plexus or navel area and breathing out your stress. Or pull in inspiration from the heavens, visualizing violet or white light coming in with the breath through the Crown Chakra, and exhale your stress by breathing it out with awareness at the bottom of your feet.

Here’s one more tool that can help keep your appetite in check. Chopra credits Ann Doherty for the following meditation that can help you better manage your diet, by making you more aware of what and how you eat:

Hunger Awareness Meditation

  • Before you eat, breathe in and out of your belly a few times to relax.
  • Focus on your body and how you experience hunger.
  • Rate your hunger on a scale of 1 (none) to 10 (very).
  • If you’re not actually hungry, your cravings may be caused by dehydration – sip a glass of water or cup of herbal tea and see how you feel. If you’re fatigued, take a short nap or listen to a guided meditation (preferably with your feet elevated).
  • If you’re truly hungry, make nourishing choices.
  • Periodically stop, put down your fork or spoon and breathe. A fun idea is to try eating with your opposite hand to slow things down.
  • Chew fully and slowly to give your body time to note satiety or fullness – it usually takes 20 minutes.
  • Using non-judgmental awareness and experimentation, periodically rate your fullness on a scale of 1-10 (very).
  • Stop eating when you feel 80% full or when you reach an 8, still feeling comfortable enough to go for a walk.

This post originally appeared on my Wake Up Call column at Patheos, June 13, 2014.

What if we looked at each day like it was shiny and brand new.

NewDayIs it possible that our senses are dulled by our daily routine?

You know, the 9-to-5 rut. For me personally, after working several years at the same job, traveling the same route to work, performing similar tasks each day, I can testify to how easy it can be to walk through life with blinders on. And that’s a problem:

When we don’t expect to see anything different, we miss the small but important changes that take place around us.

I was alerted to this fact the other day, as I sat eating dinner after a long day at the office. My wife asked ne if I noticed anything new. My eyes darted from her hair to her top to the table I ate on. Nothing. She pointed up and I then noticed it. Perched atop the dining room chest was a small statue of a red mermaid. She informed me it had been there for weeks and had been waiting for me to notice it.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could wake up each day and see life as if for the first time?

It’s an idea that the author Alan Lightman put forward in his book Einstein’s Dreams. In one memorable chapter, Lightman’s Einstein imagines a world where people awake each day to a blank slate. They have no memory of the previous day (or days), so they consult notebooks to uncover the details of their lives.

The notebooks tell them where they work and they go off to jobs that are new and full of promise. When the workday ends, they check the notebook again to be reminded of where they live. They come home to spouses they have never seen before and children they have never met. And with great curiosity, they reacquaint themselves with each other and tell stories about the day’s events.

Once the children are put to bed, the husband and wife talk, not about balancing the checkbook, but “about the stars in the night sky.” They look into each other’s eyes. They learn about each other’s dreams. And each night they fall in love all over again.

If their lives sound full and rich, it’s because they are. In Lightman’s words, “It is only habit and memory that dull the passion for life.” Without habit and memory, they live each day as if it were a new and exciting adventure.

And while it may not be possible to live in Lightman’s imagined world, Thomas Moore believes it is possible to bring the same kind of zest to our own daily existence. In his book The Re-Enchantment of Everyday Life, Moore sings from the same hymn book as Lightman, explaining how we must let go of what we know in order to uncover the new. Moore believes that:

The first step is to recover a beginner’s mind and a child’s wonder, to forget some of the things we have learned and to which we are attached. As we empty ourselves of disenchanted values, a fresh paradisiacal spirit may pour in…we may discover the nature of the soul and the pleasure of being a participant in the extravagance of life.

Because when we go through life as if we have seen it all, done it all and heard it all before, we stop listening and learning. We begin tuning out the small details of life that have the power to surprise and delight us. We miss the nuances that add texture and meaning to our lives, like a red mermaid sitting atop the dining room chest.

The good news: solving our attention-deficit problem is easy. We just need to start interacting with life as it interacts with us.

It starts by making a conscientious effort to live at a slower and more thoughtful pace, open to the people and places and experiences we encounter. We must walk through each day alive and alert, our eyes wide open, looking a little bit longer, listening a little more intently, digging a little deeper to recognize the small but important details that make up our lives.

When we teach ourselves to look past the things we know and expect, we may be surprised. We may find that our lives are richer and full of more interesting and rewarding experiences than we ever imagined. We may notice that the happiness we’ve been chasing or found elusive has been with us all along.

A different and longer version of this story appeared at Contemplative Journal.

The Bible I read for wisdom and guidance is not the Holy Bible. It’s this book.

Worldwide_LawsEach morning I do a little reading as part of my spiritual practice. And over the years, the one book I have turned to more than any other is The Worldwide Laws of Life, 200 Eternal Spiritual Principles, by John Templeton. A close second would be Wisdom from World Religions, Pathways Toward Heaven on Earth by the same author. They are the equivalent of my Old and New Testament.

I have read through each of these thick texts twice and as their titles imply, they provide both wisdom and guidance. By reading a couple pages in the morning, I get a daily dose of spiritual nourishment, every bit as important as the vitamins I take. They put my head in the right space for the day ahead with lessons on love, virtue, gratitude and forgiveness.

Almost as compelling as the knowledge inside these books is the man who wrote them. The late John Templeton may best be known as the investment guru behind the Templeton Funds, but he was a man who combined two full lives into one. Believing that while science has advanced over the centuries, religion was in the dark ages, he devoted much of his life to the pursuit of spiritual understanding and discovery.

John Templeton

John Templeton

Templeton bequeathed the billion-plus dollars he made in his lifetime to a foundation that bears his name. Today, the Templeton Foundation spends tens of millions annually researching the scientific underpinnings of faith and religion. In addition, his annual Templeton prize, valued at well over a million dollars, has been given to the likes of Mother Teresa and the Dalai Lama.

But for me, even more important are the several vital religious and spiritual texts he left behind. While raised a Presbyterian and strongly influenced by his Christian faith, Templeton did not believe that any one religion had a monopoly on the truth. So he began collecting the wisdom that made the most sense to him, pulling pieces from all of the world’s religions, as well as various authors and philosophers, until he had in fact created what amounts to a new belief system.

Interestingly, Templeton once used the following words to describe the life of the astronomer Ptolemy: His genius lay rather in his extraordinary ability to assemble the research data of his predecessors, to introduce improvements of his own, and to present the result as a logical and complete system, written in a readily intelligible form.

And that’s what Templeton himself has done with these two major works, The Worldwide Laws of Life and Wisdom from World’s Religions. There are quite literally words to live by, and below I offer just a few samples of this treasure trove of inspiration and guidance. While Templeton uses a lot of short quotes and excerpts by others to illustrate his points, all words below are from the author himself, except where noted.

On Love

Love is an inner quality that sees good everywhere and in everybody. It insists that all is good, and by refusing to see anything but good, it tends to cause that quality to appear uppermost in itself and in other things. Love takes no notice of faults, imagined or otherwise.

On Inner Peace

The place of inner stillness and quiet is termed “the Silence”. We enter an elevated state of awareness, of heightened receptivity, a time of being fully alive to the moment. It may sound strange, but when we are in the Silence, we do absolutely nothing. We are content just to be, and we luxuriate in the ecstasy of being consciously with God.

On Beauty and Life

Is your life beautiful? Do you live in surroundings that you have made beautiful through your own unique, creative ideas? To expect and lovingly require beauty to be apparent in all areas of your life is to be deeply loving to yourself, your soul, your world, and shows reverence to God and all of life.

On Seeing the Good

Seneca said, “Eyes will not see when the heart wishes them to be blind.” How can we open our inner eyes and begin to see with the “eyes of the spirit”? By lifting our vision. By choosing to look for the good in all situations. By deciding to place our attention on workable solutions to problems rather than focusing on what we perceive as wrong.

On Going with the Flow

We have the ability to work with the forces in our lives in various ways to experience greater expression of who we are and what we’re capable of being. We can choose to work with and not against the spiritual forces of life and to experience the good that is present for us.

On the True Meaning of Wealth

If we have not developed a reservoir of spiritual wealth, no amount of money is likely to make us happy. Spiritual wealth provides faith. It gives us love. It brings and expands wisdom. Spiritual wealth leads to happiness because it guides us into useful or loving relationships.

On Purpose

Your mission in life is to have a “why” to live for, to use your best qualities in the service of the kind of world in which you would like to live. That is your purpose. That is what life expects of you.

On the Silence of God

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. The divine ideas we receive from God in the silence are like manna from heaven. The pour forth through us ever new, ever alive, ever beautiful, ever more wonderful every day.

On Flow

The wonderful substance of God flows in and through us and extends from us in every direction. Truly, there is no place we can go where we are not bathed in the infinite sea of the substance of the universe. There may be a number of ways to open the channel for good to flow to us, but have we looked recently at the many ways good can flow from us?

You can find ever more wisdom from John Templeton by clicking here.

This post originally appeared on my Wake Up Call column at Patheos, May 28, 2014.

Mastering the Dalai Lama smile. (Or how to let your love shine through).

DL_mainThe 14th Dalai Lama is one of the most revered people in the world. Spiritual leader, head of the Free Tibet movement, best-selling author—it’s hard to think of anyone who has done more with his or her precious life. Yet, if you ask me, the most compelling part of the Dalai Lama has nothing to do with his many accomplishments. It’s his ever-present smile.

In virtually every photo you see of the man, the smile is there, conveying warmth and compassion. In fact, it’s virtually impossible to find a shot where at least a hint of a smile is not present. It’s his natural countenance. I’ve included a few examples on this page, but there are literally hundreds of different examples. (Do a Google image search on “Dalai Lama” and see for yourself.)

dalai-lama-laughIt’s a genuine smile that starts at his mouth and spreads to his cheekbones and eyes. There are also photos where it looks like the Dalai Lama was just told a joke and is enjoying a good belly laugh. But no matter the image, I feel like this is one man I can judge by his picture alone. He is at peace with himself, he loves mankind, and he lets this love shine through. Which got me thinking:

Wouldn’t it be great if we all could master the Dalai Lama smile?

Now, I’m not suggesting we fake a smile, but the fact is many of us go through life feeling pretty good about ourselves and the world around us. But we often leave this feeling bottled up inside and don’t project it outward to those we encounter in our everyday lives.

dalai_lama_1So what I’m recommending is that we take a cue from the Dalai Lama and shine our inner light and love outward. It’s easy really, and just involves loosening our face muscles a bit, thinking about all the things we love and are grateful for, and letting our mouths do the rest.

One person who has tried the “spreading the love through smiling” approach is the humorous and always inspirational blogger James Altucher. His method does not involve mimicking the Dalai Lama, but he does have a unique way he connects with those he encounters:

I pretend I am everyone’s mother or I pretend that everyone who passes me is going to die tomorrow and I care deeply about them…I smile at each person’s eyes. I don’t stop until they pass me. I love them. They are my babies.

As you can tell, James is a little bit out there (and I love him for that), but I think his intention is right on. In fact, one day he committed himself to smile at everyone he passed on the street—not just anywhere, but on the perceived mean streets of New York City. And his results were pretty amazing. He not only saw a change in each person who caught his smile, he saw a change in himself:

Their faces lightened up. All of them. I could see their faces relax. The tightened cheeks fall a little. The eyes start to smile. Until finally they smiled back as they passed…and for each smile that I gave, it was sent back to me, I felt stronger. Like the rays of a yellow sun hitting Superman. Giving him his super powers.

Now, James carries no misconceptions that he could make the people he smiled at any happier, and admits this was somewhat of a selfish exercise. But it did ultimately seem to have a great effect:

I traveled for a tiny bit into their lives. And my smile locked with theirs, like a kiss. A small kiss on the forehead. A brush of the lips. A tiny subconscious impulse sending an electric message back and forth between me and each person.

This idea of spreading love around like this is actually based on a very old premise, something the ancient Greeks called agape (pronounced ah-gah-pay). While mentioned in the Bible, I think the spiritual billionaire (who gave away all his money), John Templeton, explained it best:

Agape is a love that’s distinctly different from erotic love or romantic love, as it exists on a higher, more spiritual plane. It’s the unselfish love you give to everyone and everything around you, while expecting nothing in return. It’s love simply for the sake of loving.

With agape, your actions have nothing to do it with the actions of someone else. It’s all about you giving love to others around you, even those you don’t know. Sound like a worthwhile idea? There’s no better way to get the ball rolling than with the Dalai Lama smile. Look at the pictures on this page and try it in the mirror for yourself. It’s easy. And it can really do wonders.

This post originally appeared on my Wake Up Call column at Patheos, May 13, 2014.