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


Matthew Bowden/

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Jerry Attrick/

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

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

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

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

The tunnel leading to the #7 train.

The tunnel leading to the 7.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Surrender Experiment: Can letting go improve your life?

Jan Jacobson

Jan Jacobson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Mystics Who Discovered God’s Hiding Place.


St. Julian of Norwich, via Evelyn Simak

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Priest and an Atheist Walk into a Bar. (A Story about Faith.)

Andrew Marx/

Andrew Marx/

What is the nature of faith? Why do some of us believe that there is a God that watches over us and impacts our lives, while others believe we are alone in the world and left to our own devices?

These are questions I have been pondering since I wrote my last Patheos story on “The Third Man” phenomena. In a nutshell, it was about how certain people in life-threatening situations detect a “presence” around them that they perceive as a guardian angel. I received a few reader comments questioning this assertion, some siding with neuroscientists who believe the effect is not supernatural, but is a function of the brain.

But what does it really come down to? Faith. You either have it or you don’t, and I recently came across an anecdote that cleverly illustrates the issue. It comes the late-author David Foster Wallace in a commencement speech he gave titled This is Water. In it, Foster Wallace tells the tale of two men chatting in a bar, and their different takes on the role God plays in our lives. I’ve paraphrased the story below:

There are these two guys sitting together in a bar in the remote Alaskan wilderness. While they’re old friends, they have very different ideas on God—one is a priest and the other is an atheist. They begin arguing about the existence of God.

The atheist says, “Look, it’s not like I haven’t given God a chance. I even tried the prayer thing. It didn’t work.”

The priest asks with some incredulity, “Did you really pray? When did this happen?”

“Just last month,” replies the atheist. “I got caught away from the camp in a terrible blizzard. I was totally lost and I couldn’t see a thing. It was 50 below, and so I prayed. I fell to my knees in the snow and cried out ‘Oh, God, if there is a God, I’m lost in this blizzard, and I’m going to die if you don’t help me’.”

The priest looks at the atheist with a puzzled expression and exclaims, “Well then you must believe in God now. After all, here you are, alive!”

The atheist rolls his eyes and says, “No way, that’s not how it happened. A couple of Eskimos came wandering by and they showed me the way back to camp.”

The same story. Two different perspectives. The priest sees the man’s rescue as an act of divine intervention, while the atheist sees it as sheer happenstance, his own good fortune. Is one point-of-view correct and the other misguided? Or is it possible they both men are correct and that God’s existence is dependent on our belief—if you’re a non-believer, God ceases to exist?

I turned to my spiritual mentor, the late businessman-turned-philosopher John Templeton, for guidance on this issue and found a passage in one of his books that may provide an answer. Templeton believes that spirituality is a personal issue, based on “the unique divine experiences of the individual believer.” He wonders if there isn’t a reason why some believe in a higher power:

Can a person’s consciousness become activated through spiritual practices such as prayer? And can this activation in a person’s consciousness generate greater expressions of spirituality? Could this be what some people describe as “living the spiritual life,” rather than being “religious”?

Perhaps faith is not something we are born with, but something we activate by engaging in practices like prayer and meditation. And those who do these activities on a regular basis find that they are better able to connect with something greater than themselves, a life force that many identify as God.

The atheist did not believe it, but perhaps prayer was the key to his survival in the Alaskan wilderness. Yet, if Templeton’s adage is true, he would need to continue his practice of prayer to make his sense of faith come to life, to become fully receptive to the idea that his encounter with his rescuers on that night was more than just a stroke of good luck.

This story previously appeared on my Wake Up Call column at Patheos, July 29, 2015.

The “third man” phenomena—proof of guardian angels or something else?

Paul Frances McDonald via

Paul Frances McDonald via

Have you heard the story of “the third man” encountered by Ernest Shackleton during his legendary Antarctic expedition? You may already know the tale of how Shackleton’s boat The Endurance became trapped in the ice and how he and his crew narrowly escaped with their lives—but one fascinating fact that drew less attention was the otherworldly presence that accompanied him during the final leg of his journey.

After a harrowing 800-mile open water voyage, Shackleton and two crewmen then made an exhausting 23-mile trek over ice-covered mountain ranges to reach a British whaling station on the island of South Georgia. In his memoir, Shackleton reported that he and his two traveling companions were joined by a fourth person—an “unseen presence”:

I know that during that long and racking march of thirty-six hours over the unnamed mountains and glaciers, it seemed to me often that we were four, not three. I said nothing to my companions on the point, but afterwards Worsley said to me, ‘Boss, I had a curious feeling on the march that there was another person with us.’ Crean confessed to the same idea.

While Shackleton later referred to this presence as his “divine companion”, in other circles the phenomenon became known as the third man. And when I read The Third Man Factor: Surviving the Impossible by John Geiger, I discovered that this presence has been encountered countless times, on land and at sea, by men and women who were in crisis situations and facing the real possibility of death.

Geiger has uncovered over 100 instances where those in duress have been accompanied by the “presence of some ineffable good”. Sometimes plainly visible, sometimes off in the shadows, sometimes talking, sometimes silent, the presence has been perceived as a ghost-like apparition, a guardian angel or a visitor from another realm. The author recounts how the stories have a common theme.

All have escaped traumatic events only to tell strikingly similar stories of having experienced the close presence of a companion and helper. This presence offered a sense of protection, relief, guidance, and hope, and left the person convinced he or she was not alone but that there was some other being at his or her side, when there was none.

One explorer, Frank Smythe, was lost high on a mountain in near-blizzard conditions. He described the presence he found alongside him as an old man who whispered advice and offered him suggestions. The climber explained it this way: “He seems to have been acting as a guardian angel—a wiser self prompting caution and perhaps, stimulating instinctive self-preservation”. Among other notable cases where the third man has made himself known:

  • During the 9/11 attacks, Ron DeFrancisco was trapped high above the impact zone when a plane hit his building. He was overcome by smoke and began to fall into unconsciousness. At that point, according to DiFrancesco, “someone called me and told me to get up”. Only it did not belong to a person around him, but what he calls “a presence”. The voice encouraged him and directed him to “run through the fire” as it was his best means of escape. The voice encouraged him to keep moving until he reached safety, when “it let me go”.
  • While on his historic flight from the U.S. to England aboard The Spirit of St. Louis, Charles Lindbergh had an odd encounter that he did not report until almost 20 years later. He said there were “disembodied beings” in the cockpit with him. According to Lindbergh, “I’ve never believed in apparitions, but how can I explain the forms I carried with me through so many hours…transparent forms in human outline—voices that spoke with authority and clearness”.
  • After a difficult night struck on the side of an ice-covered mountain with an injured companion, the famed climber Reinhold Messner found he was not alone. In his words, “Suddenly, there was a third climber next to me. He was descending with us, keeping a little to my right and a few steps away, just out of my field of vision”. He felt a renewed sense of calm. “The mere presence somehow helped me regain my composure”. He made his way to safety.

The Third Man has been termed many things by medical professionals who try to explain it rationally: “A sensory illusion caused by extreme physical exertion or monotony”. “A condition attributable to low blood glucose or cerebral edema”. But there seems to be something more there.

Some have referred to it as the “angel switch”, an otherworldly mechanism that kicks in when we reach our limits of endurance. Peter Hilary, a noted adventurer who has witnessed the third man himself, believes that there is “a benevolent being assigned to each of us on a permanent basis, who sometimes works in the background like a discreet servant” and in times of emergency makes itself known in the physical realm.

For me, the third man brings up more questions than answers. Is it possible that some part of the self actually leaves the body at those moments when death may be imminent, much like those who leave their body while on the operating table? Are we viewing and aiding ourselves from a different plane of existence? And if we can call up this guiding force in times of great need, might we also be able to use this resource for comfort and guidance in everyday life?

This post originally appeared on my Wake Up Call column at Patheos, July 15, 2015.

Will the texting, TV-watching monks of Cambodia find enlightenment?

Monks in Cambodia.

Monks in Cambodia.

If you asked me to name the place where enlightenment could most easily be obtained, I might guess a Buddhist monastery in the Far East—that is until I read a recent article in the United in-flight magazine Hemispheres.

It seems that in recent years, Internet use has become widespread at temples across Cambodia. According to the article, “It is common to see monks toting iPads and smartphones. Many have their own Facebook pages.” This seems a bit out of character to this uninformed westerner.

I’ve always suspected that many who choose the life of a monk, or for that matter the priesthood or any holy calling, were also seeking to escape the complexities and distractions of the modern world. Addition by subtraction.

But it appears that offering Wi-Fi and TV are now seen as necessary in many monasteries, because “to deny your initiates media access, would likely lead to a severe drop in the number of monks”. This is in spite of the fact that Buddhist monks are not supposed to do anything that would encourage passion or craving.

At the Buddhist Wat Preah Prom Rath monastery in Cambodia, ‘there are two satellite dishes on the temple roof and a big-screen television in the communal dining room”. On the day the writer of the article visited, several young monks were huddled around the TV watching a soccer game.

According to Bout Pranang, the monk who oversees the monastery and its 50 or so initiates, “They used to eat in silence. Now they want action kung fu movies from Hong Kong. There are just too many distractions.”

The head monk admits to having difficulty with “the newfound worldliness of his young charges, but he tries to keep an open mind”. He states that: “One can still pursue the path to enlightenment while living in the modern world. It is just harder with so much access to pornography.”

Social media posts? Kung fu movies? Pornography? Add a keg of beer and it doesn’t sound too far different from a college frat house. But more importantly, don’t these distractions of the modern world make it difficult to hear the voice and insights of the heart?

This got me wondering if my idealized view of a Buddhist monastery was wrong-headed or if the living situation at Wat Preah Prom Rath was an outlier. But with a quick Web search I found a discussion on the PBS Web site about the “decline in Buddhism in Thailand”.

Like in Cambodia, it appears that there are a diminishing number of young men who choose to become monks. They are instead lured by the potential riches that come from working in the growing Thai economy and the fact the country is “embracing consumerism with gusto”. The story points out that:

Scandals have also contributed to the diminishing numbers of monks, scandals revealed by social media. Pictures of monks at parties with women, drinking alcohol, watching porn, driving expensive fancy cars. Things monks are not supposed to be doing.

Now at this point, your Wake Up Call columnist would normally tell you a “good” Buddhist story, something about monks on top of a Himalayan mountaintop finding enlightenment under the guise of a wise old sage, or the tale of American Chris Lemig, who went from a life of drink and drugs to become a Buddhist monk in India.

Instead I took a look in the mirror—and had to ask, “Who am I to judge?” Because on further reflection, the iPad-toting, sports-watching, beer-quaffing monks sound an awful lot like me…trying to stay on the righteous path, getting distracted, getting back on the path, stumbling, getting back on the path again. And I believe as long as we continue to return to the path, there is hope for me, and the Cambodian monks, yet.

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

Jack LaLanne on improving your spiritual and mental well-being in 10 easy steps.

Jack LaLanne, 1961

Do you remember “The Jack LaLanne Show”? As a child, I can recall my mother watching the program on our black-and-white television. Jack was a “fitness expert” before there was such a thing, and I remember him as a man in constant motion. Wearing his trademark jumpsuit, he took viewers through exercise routines they could easily do right at home, using props like a kitchen chair and a broom.

I hadn’t thought much about LaLanne since then, until a few days ago when I saw a short video clip of him online (since taken down)—and noticed a hand-written list of 10 words just over his right shoulder. I tracked down the footage, and it turned out that Jack was promoting an easy-to-follow “10-Point Self-improvement Plan”. And surprisingly, his plan is as relevant today as it was 50 years ago.

For those who don’t know Jack LaLanne, he is regarded as the “the founder of the modern fitness movement”. And after looking back on his life, I now see what made him such impressive figure. His life mission was to “help people help themselves” and he meant all people. Jack insisted that exercise was for everyone, regardless of your age or physical condition, and that you could engage in it anytime, anywhere, even with meager equipment.

Most importantly, what made Jack different from the exercise gurus of the past, was that he took a 360-degree view of life. While he preached the benefits of regular exercise, he also spoke of the importance of a proper diet, having the right attitude and the need for faith. He wanted to improve his viewers’ well-being, body, mind and spirit.

Jack called his 10-point list “little secrets to help improve yourself from the bottom of your feet to the top of your head”. And he promised that if you tried it each day for a week, you would begin to see “an amazing change in the way you feel and look”. Check out the list and Jack’s advice below, with my comments noted in italics.

Jack LaLanne’s 10-Point Self Improvement Plan

  1. Exercise. It’s the key to everything, if you don’t exercise you will look and feel old. Jack exercised daily right through his 96th year of life.
  2. Nutrition. Eat more fruits and vegetables, and more lean meats. Cut out white flour, sugar and fried food. Be conscious of what you’re putting in your body. Jack swears he had a life-changing experience once he cut junk food out of his diet.
  3. Positive Thinking. Think wonderful thoughts. Count your blessings. Appreciate what you have and don’t focus on what you don’t.
  4. Good Habits. Replace a bad habit with a good one. Have 10 minutes to spare? Instead of mindlessly scanning your phone, try a mini-meditation session or a walk around the block.
  5. Grooming. Be aware of your personal appearance, the way you look, how you dress. “Be a lovelier you.”
  6. Smile. Keep a pleasant look on your face. Smiles are infectious.
  7. Posture. Whether walking, standing or sitting, “pull the tummy in and keep the shoulders back”.
  8. Help Others. It is more blessed to give than to receive. Help others have a better life. When you help others, you also help yourself.
  9. Relaxation. Spare 5-10 minutes each afternoon to lie down in a dark room, completely relaxed. “Recharge the human battery”.
  10. Faith. You can’t do it all by yourself, have faith in Nature and God above. Put forth some effort and you’ll find that God helps those who help themselves.

It all makes sense even today, doesn’t it? Read these 10 points again. Then, print them for easy access and try them tomorrow, and the next day and the day after that. And see if the result isn’t a happier, healthier you.

This post originally appeared on my Patheos Wake Up Call column, June 30, 2015.

How Eileen Flanagan Turned a Midlife Malaise into a Life with Purpose.

Eileen Flanagan

Eileen Flanagan

What do you do when you reach middle-age and realize you’re living a life that is far less fulfilling than you expected? When you become aware of the fact you’re not living the simple and idyllic life you once imagined, but something that more closely resembles the consumeristic, upward-striving lifestyle you were trying to avoid.

Well, if you’re Eileen Flanagan, you reexamine your life and you do something about it. In her new book Renewable: One Woman’s Search for Simplicity, Faithfulness, and Hope, Flanagan points out a common problem among those of us in our 40s and 50s, which she alternately refers to as “midlife despair” and “midlife angst”. She sums up her own uneasiness this way:

How the hell did I become a woman who has a big house, a chemical peel appointment, and stock in a fracking company? How did I become so sucked into the American mainstream, and what can I do to create the kind of life—the kind of world—I really want?

The funny thing is at this point in her life, Flanagan has all the external trappings of American success. A big house, two cars in the driveway, a family with all the latest electronic gadgets. Yet when she begins to talk to friends she discovers she’s not the only one wishing she had “less house and more freedom”. She comes to the realization that:

At the very least, everyone I knew had too much junk in the basement and too many e-mails. Those who were lucky enough to keep their jobs through the recession often worked longer hours than they liked to pay for stuff they were not sure they needed. Many of us yearned for a different way of living and a sense that our lives mattered.

For Flanagan, her angst comes from the nagging sense that she was not fulfilling her own life’s purpose and that her life was “out of sync”. She believed she was not doing the thing she was put on this earth to do. In her words:

When I confided to friends that I felt I wasn’t fully using my gifts—that I was meant to be more than I had become so far—many sighed in recognition. Their lives had not turned out as they had expected either.

So how did Flanagan find her raison d’être? She didn’t have to look far, for it came from a specific place and time that informed who she was today. In her young adult life, she was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Botswana, Africa, helping others in a poor community and learning to live simply. She compares that time of her life to where she found herself many years later:

(In Botswana) there was always time for a cup of tea, a song, or to spend time with a friend. Being able to watch the Southern Cross traverse the night sky was entertainment enough. At the end of my first year, I wrote in my journal, “I think I might be content being poor for the rest of my life.” 27 years later, when I reread my journals in the office of my new five-bedroom house in Philadelphia, that sentiment felt painfully naive.

So Flanagan retraces her roots, making a return trip to Africa to visit with old friends and find “something to infuse the next part of my life with meaning, some inspiration to carry me home to my family and a more committed life”.
She finds it, rediscovering a sense of purpose. And at the age of 49, she returns home and quits her job as a professor at a small university, becoming active in causes that are near to her heart.

She is helped along the way by her faith, which she sees as “not just something you trotted out on Sunday morning but a compass for how you lived every day”. As a young adult, she had become a Quaker and there is an interesting passage where you can see why the religion, where everyone has the power to directly access God, appeals to her.

The first Quakers believed that the religious institutions of seventeenth-century England had lost touch with their spiritual source, so they stripped away anything that distracted them from God—stained glass windows, gold candlesticks, bishops, fashion, and gambling, for starters. They waited in silence in “meeting for worship” to directly experience God without a priest or ordained minister. The “Inward Light” or “Inward Teacher” could be accessed by anyone, they proclaimed, regardless of gender, race, or even religion.

She had now come to believe that the core Quaker values of simplicity, equality and peace were all threatened by climate change and she makes it her mission to “keep the planet habitable”. So she becomes an environmental activist, helping to organize and lead a group called EQAT, the Earth Quaker Action Team.

She works to stop mountaintop removal coal mining, participates in marches against companies that are fracking, gets arrested in D.C. for civil disobedience while protesting climate change. By the end of her tale, she has again learned how to find the value and freedom of living a simple life.

I realized, you had to trust that if you only had one pair of jeans, you’d be okay if they got ripped, that if you didn’t stockpile onions, you’d be able to borrow one when you needed to. You had to trust that your worth wasn’t measured by what kind of car you drove or whether you owned the latest computer.

Flanagan finishes the book saying that she now believed she was “part of the many, connected to a spiritual force greater than ourselves”. She was “moving forward with hope”, her life and actions now connected with her core values and sense of spirituality, her midlife malaise a thing of the past.

This post originally appeared on my Patheos Wake Up Call column, June 5, 2015.

If gays are going to hell, are gluttons going too?

949285_40326566-e1432306788902-217x300A few days ago, here in my home state of New Jersey, a story appeared that irked me. The Director of Campus Ministry at Seton Hall University, Warren Hall, posted a pro-LBGT (Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/ Transgender) remark on his Twitter account. In today’s day and age, it seemed fairly innocuous: LGBT ‘NO H8′.

Who can argue with a no-hate message? But the next day Mr. Hall was fired from his job. Now, you should know that Seton Hall is a Catholic University and Warren Hall is a Catholic priest. (I myself am a lapsed Catholic.) And it appears his firing was made not by the university, but by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Newark which made the appointment at Seton Hall.

But you’ve got to wonder: during a time when Pope Francis himself has been quoted as saying “If someone is gay…who am I to judge?” it seems that the Archdiocese of Newark is doing a lot of judging. And it has decided that by making a statement supporting the LGBT community, Warren Hall was taking a stand that was against the church’s principles and beliefs.

It reminded me of another story I recently heard, as told by the American pastor Shane Willard during a sermon titled “We Are Not The Masters of Good and Evil”. (Special thanks to Patheos reader Jim Smith for pointing this video clip out to me.) I will paraphrase it here:

While Willard was ministering at a small church, he ran into an obviously upset congregant. The man walked up to Willard and practically shouted at him: “What are we going to do about the homosexuals in our church?” Willard asked why this upset the man so much; he responded that homosexuality was a sin, it said so in the Bible.

Pastor Willard then asked the congregant if he knew how many times homosexuality was mentioned in the Bible. The man did not know, and the pastor informed him it was only a handful of times, maybe three or four.

He then asked the man if he knew how many times the Bible mentioned gluttony as a sin or portrayed it in a negative light. Again, the congregant did not know. And the minister replied that gluttony was mentioned at least 25 times. (For some back-up to this claim, click here.)

Pastor Willard then asked the man if there were any gluttonous, or overweight people who were members of the church. “Yes, there are many,” the congregant had to admit. The pastor then mentioned the church’s long-time usher who had what my mother-in-law politely calls “a large body habitus”. He asked if he would say the usher was gluttonous? Yes, replied the congregant.

“Do you think we should kick our overweight usher out of the church for being gluttonous?” asked the pastor. The man did not respond. Willard followed up this question up by asking, “Does he make you want to go out and eat—eat so much that you will become a glutton yourself?” “No,” the usher sheepishly replied.

“We don’t chastise the overweight for overeating,” remarked Pastor Willard. “So why are you casting the gay people in this church in such a harsh light?”

The congregant thought about his words. He had to admit he had perhaps overreacted. The minister then left him with an important piece of advice:

“It is our job to love. It is God’s job to judge.”

The pastor went on to say that we are not called to be “the masters of good and evil’. That is not our role, and in fact, we are terrible at it. We should not be determining the worth of others. We should be using our resources to address the real problems here on earth and be “masters of love and life”.

It is our job to love. It is God’s job to judge. It is a message I thought about as I read the Seton Hall story I referenced at the top of this column. And I believe it is an idea that the Archdiocese of Newark should take to heart. After all, doesn’t this message reflect the true teachings of Jesus?

This post originally appeared on my Patheos column Wake Up Call, May, 22, 2015.