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.

You already know how to talk to God. Here’s how to listen.

listeningLet us be silent, and we may hear the whispers of the Gods. ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

What do devotees of the Bhagavad Gita, Evangelical Christians and this humble blogger have in common? We all believe in the power of a direct and personal relationship with God.

For me, this personal relationship means that I start most mornings with a specific ritual. After rolling (or some days, hobbling) out of bed, I flick on the coffeemaker and begin stretching, followed by a cup of coffee, a 5-minute meditation session, more coffee and a three or four-mile run.

It’s at different points during this morning routine that I find and connect with the essence of God within. It literally gives me a feeling of warmth and love inside and gets me ready for the day ahead, hopefully to spread the compassion and good vibes I feel to everyone I encounter. Oh—and to borrow a phrase from a colleague, I have a conversation with God.

Now, this is not a traditional conversation, as it’s usually wordless and involves a lot more listening than talking. I simply ask for guidance in whatever single area of my life most needs it most. And while this may sound kooky to those less spiritually-inclined, I’m practicing a tradition that has been around for some time (see John 10:27) and recommended by some of the leading spiritual lights of our age.

One regular conversationalist with God was Ralph Trine, an early New Thought Movement leader. Trine believed there was a “divine inflow” that we all could tap into for guidance and advice on any life matter. In his great, forgotten classic In Tune with the Infinite, which early last century sold over two million copies, Trine wrote:

It is through your own soul that the voice of God speaks to you. This is the interior guide.

More recently, the modern-day poet and wise man Ivon Prefontaine explained it this way:

Regardless of faith and even when we do not have it, there still exists a source deep within each of us that when we touch it and let it speak to us is able to guide us in wonderful and amazing ways.

Perhaps our greatest American philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson, also believed there was a source of guidance available to us all called the “divine soul.” Emerson had his own way of communicating with this source, which he referred to as “lowly listening” (more on that later):

There is a soul at the center of nature and over the will of every man…we prosper when we accept its advice…we need only obey. There is guidance for each of us, and by lowly listening we shall hear the right word.

When it comes to talking and listening to God, I’ve distilled my personal process down to three steps—but by no means do I want to make this sound easy. It probably took me a decade or so to perfect the first step. Step two came much faster, as did step three though I know this can be a tricky one for a lot of people. Here goes:

1. Go to a place where you can quiet the mind and be still.

Unless you walk around in a perpetual state of Zen, this is a necessary first step. And as a Patheos reader, you probably already have a good idea what technique for quieting the mind works best for you. (If not, try this one.)

For me, I’m best able to quiet my mind by focusing on my breathing via meditation or by taking a brisk run along the river that lines my neighborhood. But there are many other ways to get there, as well. As Douglas Block points out in his book Listening to Your Inner Voice:

You can achieve this stillness through any process that relaxes you and slows down your thoughts—meditation, visualization, long walks, exercise, driving on a country road.

2. Engage in what Ralph Waldo Emerson refers to as “lowly listening.”

It’s pretty much what it sounds like. Once in a relaxed state, put your concern out to God. Then, while not trying too hard, “listen” within. Scholar and author Richard Geldard, who has written two books on Emerson’s philosophy, explains what happens during this lowly listening phase:

Solitude, stillness, reflection, judgement and understanding all come together to guide us.

Emerson discussed the process of lowly listening is in one of a series of essays titled Spiritual Laws. He wrote:

Place yourself in the middle of the stream of power and wisdom which flows into you as life, place yourself in the full center of that flood, then you are without effort impelled to truth, to right, and a perfect contentment.

The key is listening. As author Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee points out in his thought-provoking book Prayer of the Heart in Christian and Sufi Mysticism

Learning to pray is learning to listen. Within the heart we learn to wait with patience for God’s words, which may come even when we have not asked.

3. Separate the word of God from the voice of the ego.

A friend once told me that she hears lots of words in her head, the problem is figuring which are the right ones. And maybe that’s the hard part. But once you’re able to tune in to the “soul at the center of nature” as Emerson calls it, you’ll find there’s a single, authentic voice there.

When I say voice, it doesn’t always come through in words (though it can), but usually in the form of a deep-seeded intuition. One moment you’re questioning the correct next step at work, at home, in love or in your life. The next moment (or day) you know the answer with some certainty.

The one important part is learning to separate the false voice of the ego with the true voice of the soul and God. Vaughan-Lee advises that

Such listening requires both attentiveness and discrimination, as it is not always easy to discriminate between the voice of the ego and the voice of our Beloved. But there is a distinct difference: the words of the ego and mind belong to duality; the words of the heart carry the imprint of oneness. In the heart there is no argument, no you and me, just an unfolding oneness.

What’s the importance of this morning conversation with God? I believe it’s invaluable and can help ready you for the day ahead or even help you find solace in the middle or end of the day. Again, in the words of Ralph Trine:

The little time spent in the quiet each day, alone with one’s God,that we may make and keep our connection with the Infinite source—our source and our life—will be a boon to any life. It will prove, if we are faithful, to be the most priceless possession that we have.

This story appeared May 1, 2014, on my Wake Up Call column at Patheos.

How to meditate like a monk in 10 easy steps.

639px-Abbot_of_Watkungtaphao_in_Phu_Soidao_WaterfallWhen it came to meditation, I was always kind of a dummy. It seemed easy enough, but I just didn’t get why I needed to do it. After all, I cleared my head each morning with a brisk four-mile run. Did I really need to meditate, too?

Still, as I read stories about the meditation practices of Sting and perused the filmmaker David Lynch’s book on meditation and consciousness, Catching the Big Fish, I couldn’t help but wonder–was I missing something?

So I tried meditating. On several dozen occasions. But my jumpy, synapses-in-overdrive brain was having no part of it. Why go blank, my jabbering mind would say, when there were so many plans to make, so many different things to think about? I was the world’s worst meditator.

Then, while window shopping at Amazon one day, I stumbled upon the book Deep Meditation by Yogani. I was familiar with Yogani as the guru who didn’t believe in gurus, and after reading several glowing “it’s the only meditation book you’ll ever need” reviews, I bought it. Now, after countless successful sessions, I’m sold on meditation, too. There’s no better way to refresh and recharge the mind.

When it comes to meditation instruction, Yogani is the opposite of a taskmaster, in that he is kind and forgiving—and the thing he is most forgiving about is falling off the mantra, the word you’re supposed to focus on as you block out all your other thoughts.

That was always my biggest obstacle when meditating—having my mind constantly jump from the mantra to virtually anything else going on in my life. But Yogani patiently and frequently eased my concerns by letting me know it’s alright, just come back to the mantra if you get off track. Even if that means refocusing on the mantra again and again and again.

Deep Meditation is a quick and easy read, a slim 100-page book in pretty big type, and can be had for around ten bucks. And while I recommend you buy a copy, I thought I’d provide ten key points from the book which I’ve listed below verbatim–with my thoughts added in italics.

  1. For most people, twenty minutes is the best duration for a meditation session. But it’s okay to start with 5-10 minutes and work your way up from there. Try it twice a day, once before the morning meal and the day’s activity, and then again before the evening meal and the evening’s activity. I make sure, at minimum, to get a morning session in each day.
  2. A word on how to sit for meditation: The first priority is comfort. It is not desirable to sit in a way that distracts us from the easy procedure of meditation. Or to do it in a position where you might fall asleep.
  3. For our practice of deep meditation, we will use the thought I AM. This will be our mantra. We can also spell it AYAM. I use the similar Sanskrit word “aum”. All Yogani asks is that you keep it simple.
  4. While sitting comfortable with eyes closed, we’ll just relax. We will notice thoughts, stream of thoughts. That is fine. We just let them go without minding them. After about a minute, we gently introduce the mantra.
  5. Whenever we realize we are not thinking the mantra inside any more, we come back to it easily.
  6. As soon as we realize we are off into a stream of thoughts, no matter how mundane or profound, we just easily go back to the mantra. Like that. We don’t make a struggle of it. The idea is not that we have to be on the mantra all the time.
  7. Thoughts are a normal part of the deep meditation process. We just ease back to the mantra again. We favor it. Deep meditation is going toward, not pushing away from.
  8. No struggle. No fuss. No iron willpower or mental heroics are necessary for this practice. All such efforts are away from the simplicity of deep meditation and will reduce its effectiveness.
  9. When we realize we have been off somewhere, we just ease back into the mantra again. We are reading it inward with our attention to progressively deeper levels of inner silence in the mind.
  10. This cycle of thinking the mantra, losing it, and coming out into a stream of thoughts is a process of purification. It is very powerful, and will ultimately yield a constant experience of inner silence in our meditation and, more importantly, in our daily activity.

Happy meditating!

This post appeared on my Patheos column Wake Up Call, April 16, 2014.