“Jesus is just like you and me”: the radical message of R. W. Emerson.


Ralph Waldo Emerson

Imagine graduating from one of the top religious schools in the country, entering the ministry, and after a few years deciding the job isn’t right for you. You find yourself troubled by public prayer, the act of communion, and most of all by the formality and stiffness of the church service itself.

Well, if you’re 29-year old Ralph Waldo Emerson, you quit your job as a minister at a Unitarian church and chart a new course. You start writing essays and lecturing, you publish your first book, and little by little, you begin attracting attention—and for good reason. It’s the 183os and your message is unlike anything most Americans have ever heard.

You see, Emerson believes that God does not dwell up in the heavens, but is within each of us:

“The highest revelation is that God is in every man.” ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

On top of that that Emerson also believes that “while Jesus was a great man, he was not God”. In fact, Jesus is just like you and me. He says that:

  • We possess the same divine spark as Jesus.
  • We share the same connection to God as Jesus.
  • We can communicate with God just like Jesus did.

And for good measure, Emerson discounts any biblical miracles involving Jesus as pure fiction.

So given his thinking, which was contrary to the beliefs of every other religious or spiritual leader of his time, it’s surprising that six years after leaving the church, Emerson is invited to deliver a commencement speech to his alma mater. It’s known as the “Harvard Divinity School Address” and in it he talks about faith—and how the church extinguishes it.

The test of the true faith should be its power to charm and command the soul…faith should blend with the light of rising and setting suns, the singing bird and the breath of flowers. But now the priest’s Sabbath has lost the splendor of nature; it is unlovely, we are glad when it is done…we shrink as soon as the prayers begin, which do not uplift, but smite and offend us.

Emerson’s solution is not to improve the church service, but to rely on our inner selves and the grandeur of nature as conduits to the divine. He instructs his audience of graduating religious students to establish their own relationship with God.

Let me admonish you, first of all, to go alone…dare to love God without mediator or veil…trust thyself…that which shows God in me, fortifies me. O my friends, there are resources in us on which we have not drawn.

As you might expect, the speech was not well received, at least not by those in power. Emerson was denounced as an “atheist” and “a poisoner of young men’s minds”. But what he had done bears some resemblance to Jesus’s act of turning over the moneychangers tables in the temple—Emerson saw what he believed was a spiritually bankrupt status quo, and fearlessly tried to disrupt it.

Closing Note: How Emerson communicated with God.

Emerson believed in something he referred to as “lowly listening”, a way to access God within us and get the guidance and comfort we need, through solitude, stillness and reflection. Emerson’s favorite place to do this was out in nature, but it can really be done anywhere you can reach a quiet and peaceful state. In Emerson’s words:

Belief and love—a believing love will relieve us of a vast load of care. O my brothers, God exists. There is a soul at the center of nature and over the will of every man, so that none of us can wrong the universe.

The whole course of things goes to teach us faith. We need only obey. There is guidance for each of us, and by lowly listening we shall hear the right word.

For some past stories I wrote on the life and philosophy of Ralph Waldo Emerson, see here or here.

My wise 86-year old friend just passed away. Here are his final words.


John on the Pacific Palisades circa 1968, about the time he packed up and moved from California to France.

I first met John Gray in early-2014. He was a reader of this column and we began a regular exchange of ideas via e-mail. I soon found myself collecting some of his choicest sayings and, to his great enjoyment, wrote a story about him titled Musings on God and Life from an 85-Year Old Expat Living in France.

Over the past several months, his once lengthy e-mails grew shorter, his responses more clipped. He had been in the hospital, was receiving some sort of treatment–and then the messages stopped altogether. I recently received a note from his daughter that John had passed away.

I had saved a few of John’s more recent e-mails—and when I cut-and-pasted the best parts into a single document, I realized they read like a complete letter. With a little editing, I pieced together the parting message that John would have surely liked to share with others, had we been able to discuss it.

One of the more interesting parts of John’s backstory is that he left Los Angeles in the 1960s and moved to a small village in France, never to return to the US. But rather than escape from the world, it turns out that John ended up embracing it. I’ll let his words speak for himself, as I bid my friend a fond farewell.

For some context, the letter begins with John encouraging me to enjoy an upcoming vacation after a tough stretch at work. We had previous conversations on the nature of God, and he continues that dialog here.

Hello my dear friend,

Take some time off, you’re not missing anything. Or have you forgotten what that was? Do you have time like Thoreau or Burroughs to know all the different bird calls, to listen to the silence? Are those days gone forever?

As for me, I live my life as best I can, helping my neighbors and friends in my simple way. I believe that God resides in my own being and manifests itself in my acts of kindness, my simple sincerity, trying to respect each person I meet just as they are—prying smiles, tenderness and love out of them; softening their hatreds, their prejudices, their frustrations of the moment.

How I do this is simple. I smile, shake their hands and cheer them up! It is my contribution to humanity and it costs nothing. I try to live each day, in spite of the ugliness I see in our world, with friendship and kindness to all I encounter. I love showing affection to all and my being kind to the hobo on the bench, my complimenting a friend, my feeding the animals and birds, all of these things are the beauty in me that I am sharing.

I do not know where this love and tenderness, compassion and caring, and these other wonderful instincts that perhaps all of us have comes from. Perhaps we accumulate it throughout our lives, each and every one of us; and with time it penetrates and reaches our souls.

So many times joy and happiness swell up inside me, especially when I see a gentle gesture from one toward another. I feel it when I am looking at beautiful paintings, scenes in Nature, a happy couple holding hands walking in the park. I wonder about even the trees who must dread the tornados and dry spells. This idea is not absurd, for even plants seem to react to the love and care of the human hand.

But if God is within us, why is it just in some of us? It is not religion that instills this in Man, it comes from within and why some have it and not others, we do not know. Were the great painters and writers and romantics like us given something special or is it just a quirk of Nature? Is it God or an omniscient power?

This, I cannot answer. But it is an instinct within me that has prevailed my whole life. Whatever its origin, it exists in me. My Dad also had it within him, so this sense of a divine presence may well be part of our genes. And along with all the other positive and beautiful human instincts, it needs to be encouraged and fed.

The spirit is indeed within us. How it flowered in me or you and the millions of others that radiate with this light will remain our mystery. I have accumulated my beliefs from Lao Tzu and our great writers throughout history whose wisdom was wise and positive. What more do we need to guide us in being good to our fellow Man?

Relax now and enjoy your freedom! Enjoy your family in depth and quiet!

Love, happiness and a big hug for all,

A 10-step guide to being “spiritual but not religious”.


Contemplation by Ghassan Salman Faidi, via Wikimedia Commons

I will soon be writing about the brand new book from Thomas Moore, a modern-day translation of one of the New Testament gospels, The Book of Matthew. But as I did a little research on that book, I was reminded of Moore’s previous release, the groundbreaking A Religion of One’s Own.

If you are one of the many who consider themselves “spiritual but not religious”, this book is a must-read as it lays out a blueprint by which you can develop your own spiritual practice. This is important because if you are truly serious about your spirituality, a regular routine can enrich your spiritual awareness and strengthen your faith. This practice doesn’t just replace religion, it becomes your religion and an integral part of your life.

Moore has written that he sees the world “heading for a completely secular approach to life, which is to say soulless, which is to say disaster. We need a new way to be religious, a really new way. A way that honors the traditions of the past but moves on.” And A Religion of One’s Own shows us the way, offering us guidance in building our own spiritual practice while sparking our imagination as to what being spiritual really means.

What follows is a summary of the main tenets found in A Religion of One’s Own, a 10-point list written by Thomas Moore himself. It lays out the keys to developing your own spiritual practice and offers a glimpse of what a “spiritual but not religious” life can be.

  1. Meditate. Learn a formal way of meditating, or be contemplative in nature, alone, at work, or at home.
  2. Live ethically. Do no harm and make your life a positive contribution to humanity. Work ethically for ethical companies or organizations. Change work if necessary. At least, stay on track toward a highly moral life work.
  3. Live responsively. Read the signs for who you are to be and what you are to do.
  4. Have a dream practice. Dreams give you strong hints about what’s going on and how you can adjust. Without them you have no guidance but your own consciousness, which is too limited.
  5. Be a mystic. Expand your sense of self through art and wonder. Achieve special states of awareness. Have a greater sense of self through losing yourself.
  6. Be intimate with nature. Especially take daily note of the sky: sun and moon, clouds, weather, planets, stars. Learn from animals. Be astonished by geology and plant life.
  7. Be a monk or monkess. Adapt monasticism of any variety to your daily life and to the world in which you live. Spend time carefully. Read deeply. Study. Honor the book, good food and community.
  8. Aim for bliss. Not superficial happiness or possessions or wealth. Not entertainment. But bliss: knowing you are in the right place and doing what you are meant to do.
  9. Develop a philosophy and theology of life. Think about your life. Work out some principles for yourself. Don’t follow the crowd. Take the road less taken, the narrow gate, the path you see behind you.
  10. Learn from the world’s religions and spiritual traditions. You don’t have to join or believe. Find insights and methods and beautiful expressions and images. Don’t separate secular from sacred. Make your own collection of truths and art works.

This post originally appeared on my Wake Up Call column at Patheos, May 11, 2016.


Norman Vincent Peale’s 7 life-changing words—and why some call them blasphemous.


Norman Vincent Peale, via Wikimedia Commons

Norman Vincent Peale may be best known as the author of The Power of Positive Thinking. First published in 1952, the book went on to sell 5 million copies and is still a Top-10 “religion & spirituality” book at Amazon today. It was one of 41 books Peale wrote during a distinguished life that included receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award of the US, in 1984.

More than a writer, Peale was also an ordained minister. He served as head of the Marble Collegiate Church on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan for over 50 years and preached there well into his 80s. During his tenure, the church grew from a few hundred to over 5,000 congregants and is still active today.

Now if you have ever read the work of Norman Vincent Peale, his positive aphorisms seem innocent enough. After all, who can disagree with sayings like this:

Believe in yourself! Have faith in your abilities! Without a humble but reasonable confidence in your own powers you cannot be successful or happy.

Empty pockets never held anyone back. Only empty heads and empty hearts can do that.

If you have zest and enthusiasm you attract zest and enthusiasm. Life does give back in kind.

Yet, despite his success as both an author and preacher, there were many in the Christian community who saw his “power of positive thinking” as downright dangerous, even cultish. For instance, consider these harsh opinions of Peale that came from three fellow religious leaders in the 1950s.

“This new cult is dangerous. Anything which corrupts the gospel hurts Christianity. And it hurts people too. It helps them to feel good while they are evading the real issues of life.” ~ Reinhold Neibuhr, Professor of Applied Christianity, Union Theological Seminary

“It has sort of a drug effect on people to be told they need not worry. They keep coming back for more. It is an escape from reality.” A. Powell Davies, pastor of All Souls’ Unitarian Church, Washington D.C.

“There is nothing humble or pious in the view this cult takes of God. God becomes sort of a master psychiatrist who will help you get out of your difficulties. The formulas and the constant reiteration of such themes as “You and God can do anything” are very nearly blasphemous.” ~Liston Pope, Dean of Yale Divinity School

To Pope’s point, Peale believed there was a simple 7-word combination that had the power to cause a dramatic and positive impact on your life. He claimed that it helped many people he knew and all you had to do was silently repeat these words throughout the day. As retold by John Templeton, this “formula for success” had the power to “erase failure, increase strength, eliminate fear and overcome self-doubt.” The words are:

I can do all things through God.

These seven words sum up Peale’s belief that all things were possible if we went about out lives with a positive attitude and recognized there was a higher power that could help us along the way. Yet, it was statements like this that ran (and still run) contrary to the beliefs of many in the religious community.

While Peale was a Christian, he believed that Jesus Christ wasn’t the only pathway to God and that no religion had a monopoly on our ability to connect with God. Take this statement from Peale that was first published in his Plus: The Magazine of Positive Thinking:

Who is God? Some theological being? He is so much greater than theology. God is vitality. God is life. God is energy. As you breathe God in, as you visualize His energy, you will be reenergized!

Or this thought he shared with the talk show host Phil Donahue:

It’s not necessary to be born again. You have your way to God. I have mine. I found eternal peace in a Shinto shrine…I’ve been to Shinto shrines and God is everywhere…Christ is one of the ways! God is everywhere.

God is a source of energy! God can be found in a non-Christian religion! God is everywhere! Blasphemy say the critics! Yet, I find it all very refreshing. It takes the concept of God beyond the rigid dogma of religion and positions this higher power as a powerful force in our everyday lives–one that’s available not to a select few, but to everyone. And what’s wrong with that?

This post previously appeared on my Wake Up Call column at Patheos, May 24, 2016.

Mother Teresa—on why loving your family is the most important thing you can do.


Robert Pérez Palou (robertperezpalou.com/) via Wikimedia Commons

I was recently reading one of my favorite life philosophy books, when author John Templeton asked a question that stopped me in my tracks:

Was the Earth a better place because you were born?

Wow, that’s a tough ask, isn’t it? For some context, Templeton credits this line to an old American Indian myth. When a tribe member made the journey to “the new life” (or what we call death), he was met by a figure known as “the Great Hunter”. Before he could move on, the deceased had to answer the question in the affirmative, as in “yes, I have made the world a better place.”

So how do we accomplish this noble task in our own lives? I stumbled upon some pertinent advice from Mother Teresa, the Catholic missionary known for providing basic services to the poorest of the poor, including treating those with HIV/Aids, leprosy and tuberculosis. (She is now nominated for sainthood in the Catholic church.)

It seems that when Mother Teresa received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 (donating her $192,000 prize to the poor of India), she was asked “what we can do promote world peace?” Her response: “go home and love your family”. She went on to discuss what she saw as “the poverty of the west”:

When I pick up a person from the street, hungry, I give him a plate of rice, a piece of bread, I have satisfied. I have removed that hunger. But a person that is shut out, that feels unwanted, unloved, terrified, the person that has been thrown out from society—that poverty is so hurtable [sic] and so much, and I find that very difficult.

While Mother Teresa spent her life helping some of the most destitute people in the world, she looked at our society and saw a different kind of poverty—one of the spirit. And her recommendation to cure this ill was a simple one: The good you can do in this life starts at home. That’s the first step. She elaborated further advising us to:

Spread love everywhere you go: first of all in your own house. Give love to your children, to your wife or husband, to a next door neighbor…let no one ever come to you without leaving happier.

So it starts with your family and expands outward, to your neighbors, your workplace and on to your community. Mother Teresa believed not in grand gestures, but in the power of these small acts of compassion. She is quoted as saying “we can do no great things—only small things with great love.”

As a recap, below is a version of the initial question put forward by John Templeton, followed by Mother Teresa’s words that I believe provide the perfect answer. They are truly words to live by.

Q: How do you make the world a better place?
A: Spread love everywhere you go…let no one ever come to you without leaving happier.

This post previously appeared at my Patheos “Wake Up Call” column, May 2, 2016.

10 truths about Jesus that may surprise you.


Heinrich Hoffmann, via Wikimedia Commons

About once a year, I’ll pick up a book about Jesus in search of fresh insights on the man and his mission. My personal preference is that these books not be tied to any specific dogma or religion, but that they explore the many mysteries and myths that surround Jesus and his life. And I found just such a book in Jesus, the Human Face of God by scholar Jay Parini.

The author identifies himself as a Christian and a regular churchgoer, but he is decidedly a man who looks beyond the Bible for answers. He has done his homework and uses Gnostic and historical texts to look at the misconceptions about Jesus, as well as uncover hidden truths. Below are 10, some of which I knew but that continue to fascinate me, as well as a few others that surprised me.

  1. Jesus never set out to create a new religion. He considered himself a devout Jew with his own ideas on how to reform Judaism, not someone who planned to start his own religion. Even his earliest followers, who called him Rabbi or Teacher, mainly saw themselves as Jews who wanted to modify Judaic practices, not create a separate religion.
  2. According to Jesus, he didn’t perform miracles. Those around him did. Jesus emphasized that he wasn’t the reason miracles of healing occurred, what mattered was the faith of the person being healed. Jesus thought of himself as an instrument of God—who enabled people to be healed through their own belief. For instance, in Luke 17:19, Jesus heals ten lepers and proclaims, “Rise and go, your faith has made you whole.”
  3. Jesus told us a secret: how to access his kingdom. Parini reminds us that in the Beatitudes, Jesus emphasized that the kingdom of heaven was immediately available to those who practiced the same virtues that he did. These include humility, mercy, peacefulness and, of course, love. If you lived your life with these qualities, Jesus said that you too could open the doors of heaven here on Earth.
  4. Post-resurrection, even his closest followers didn’t recognize Jesus. After the death of Jesus, Mary Magdalene arrives at the tomb—but does not recognize the resurrected Jesus, mistaking him for a gardener. Neither did several of his other disciples, including two who saw him at the shore (John 21:4). Parini believes there is a subtle teaching here: “We should not expect to recognize Jesus at first, even as he wakens within us.”
  5. His family members may have thought he was nuts. His family appears to have regarded him as somewhat volatile, even mad, and that his ideas were strange. When he was preaching to a large crowd one unidentified family members even yelled out, “He’s out of his mind” (Mark 3:21).
  6. Like President’s Day, the birthday of Jesus was combined with another holiday. Christians didn’t settle on December 25th as Christmas Day until the fourth century. This choice probably had something to do its proximity to the winter solstice—and the fact that it was near a “feast day” celebrating Sol Invictus, the official sun god of the Roman Empire.
  7. Did Jesus really raise Lazarus from the dead? Maybe, maybe not. Parini sees the meaning of the raising of Lazarus as potentially symbolic, not a literal raising of the dead, but a figurative one. It ties into an early-Christian belief that many of the teachings of the Bible were not meant to be taken literally. Lazarus stands in for everyone who follows Jesus and finds himself raised from the “living dead” to a new life.
  8. “Wake up to God…his kingdom is inside you, within your grasp.” The bold line above is Parini’s take on the true meaning of Matthew 3:2, which usually reads: “Repent ye, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”. He believes the original translators inserted the word “repent” for an Aramaic word that has a very different meaning. Additionally, as several early Christian texts point out, the kingdom of heaven is found not above, but here within our reach.
  9. The letters of Paul come second in the Bible. But were historically first. The first complete versions of the gospels date to the fourth century—a very long time after the events they describe. It is also important to note, that while the letters of Paul appear after the four gospels in the Bible, they represent the earliest Christian documents. The four gospels were written after them. Also curious: Paul makes no mention of either the life or death of Jesus, only his teachings.
  10. To be a follower of Jesus, you don’t have to go to church. To quote Parini: Jesus never meant to found a formal church with rituals and organized practices, to ordain priests, or to issue doctrinaire statements that formed a rigid program for salvation. Other than “follow me,” his only commandment was “to love one another as I have loved you.”

This story originally appeared at my Patheos “Wake Up Call” column, March 25, 2016.


The guy who gives thanks for his Stage 4 cancer.


Courtesy James Chan, freeimages.com

His name is Mike and I’ve known him for over a decade. While we work for the same company, we’re now in different offices and I hadn’t seen him for a while. So it was through the grapevine that, about six months ago, I learned Mike has Stage 4 cancer.

I visited his office recently and had the chance to sit down and talk with him. Mike still goes to work every day. Some mornings he has chemo and is at his desk in the afternoon. He does this because he loves his job and his co-workers. (And, while not big in stature, he does it because Mike is one tough dude.)

He has now had a total of 26 sessions of chemo. At best, Mike is fighting this thing to a draw. But it’s not like a ref will step in and call the fight over. The cancer is still there, so the battle continues each day. Mike tells me it’s a grind, it’s not so much the cancer but the treatments that wear on him. He gets tired more easily. He has obviously lost some weight.

Mike believes in Jesus and prays to him each day. He gives thanks for all the good in his life, what’s known as a prayer of gratitude. And yes, he even gives thanks for the cancer. Mike mentioned something that a friend who had cancer told him once, and it’s a saying that he takes to heart:

Cancer brings hardships, but it also brings gifts.

Mike has found these gifts. It has brought him closer to his three college-age children and to his friends. It has rekindled his relationship with his kids’ mother, his ex-wife. It has caused him to stop and think about how fortunate he is, because life has given him so much.

We discussed Mike’s prognosis, and he told me he had “a 3% chance of making it 5 years”. I don’t know what that means if broken down to a year or two. But his answer told me that Mike is taking the long view, looking at the best possible scenario. At the same time, he tells me he has led a good life, and if it happens sooner he will be ready.

In a week, Mike is going to Lourdes. While there, he will bathe in the holy waters and pray to the Virgin Mary. It was not his idea, a friend told him he was going, the trip had been bought and paid for without Mike’s consent. His reaction: “I’ll go, and that way I can help all the people sick with cancer.” You see, even with Stage 4, Mike considers himself “healthy with cancer.”

Not by his choice, Mike will be ushered to and from Lourdes by the Order of Malta, a religious order that serves the sick. He will be watched over at all times by eight uniformed members of the group who will accompany him, carry him actually, to each prayer session at the Sanctuary of our Lady Of Lourdes and each visit to the healing waters of the nearby spring.

Will this cure Mike? I don’t know. But even if the cancer does eventually take Mike from this earth, it has lost. The cancer may break down his body, but it has not defeated his spirit or damaged his soul.

To paraphrase the words of Rudyard Kipling, Mike is one of those rare individuals who can meet triumph and disaster and treat those two imposters just the same. He has looked cancer squarely in the eye and seen it for what it is, one more phase in what amounts to a long and happy life.

I will write a follow-up to this story in a few weeks about Mike’s experiences at Lourdes.

The Bible Passage more potent than the Law of Attraction.


Adam Jackson via freeimages.com

What is the key to getting more success and happiness out of life? If you believe in the Law of Attraction, you might trust the maxim that “like attracts like” and that by focusing on the positive you can attract the positive. Believe you’re going to land that job, win that contest, find the ideal mate, and good things will come your way.

To a certain degree it makes sense, because nothing good ever comes out of negative thinking. But if you’re like me, you may have discovered the Law of Attraction doesn’t always work the way we envision it. In spite of our best efforts, the outcome is not always what we expected. Sure, the Law seems to work sometimes—just not all the time.

But recently I read a twist on the Law of Attraction that makes a little more sense, that rings a little more true. It was called out in a book by John Templeton, the billionaire businessman turned spiritual philosopher, who believed the following Bible passage held the key to a happy and successful life. It’s found in Acts 20:35 and reads:

It is more blessed to give than to receive.

Now Templeton didn’t just quote this passage, he took it a step further and put a little more context around it. He linked it with the Law of Attraction to form this simple but powerful idea:

Giving can make you a magnet for success, because good attracts good.

What Templeton has done is swapped the idea of positive thinking bringing you a positive outcome—and replaced it with the notion of doing good bringing you a favorable outcome. It’s a formula that’s set in motion by the act of giving. Templeton has even set up some rules around this idea:

  • If you want to be happy, strive to make someone else happy. Give happiness.
  • If you want to have more love in your life, strive to be a more loving person. Give love.
  • If you want to be successful, help others to succeed. Give of yourself.

It’s the Law of Attraction brought to a higher, more meaningful level—because it doesn’t just center around positive outcomes for ourselves. It recognizes that we’re part of something bigger, that what is good and positive for us must also be good and positive for others.

As Templeton points out, “if you only receive, that’s all you end up having. If you give, you have the pleasure of knowing that you have helped others, plus the rewards that giving brings back to you.” And it all starts by taking to heart a simple Biblical passage:

It is more blessed to give than to receive.

The truth is if we want more happiness, success and love out of life, we have to give more to life. It’s a good reason to forget about receiving and start “giving” today.

5 Ways to De-Stress Almost Immediately.


Supreet Vaid/freeimages.com

The marketer Seth Godin recently put out a short blog post that was so thought-provoking, it stuck with me all day. It was about the nature of work and how, no matter where we’re employed, our jobs often leave us feeling stressed. Godin reasons that:

Responsibility without freedom is stressful. There are plenty of jobs in this line of work, just as there are countless jobs where you have neither freedom nor responsibility. These are good jobs to walk away from.

Does this sound like your job? The fact is while many of us have great responsibilities at work, we usually don’t have the freedom to control our work environment, the hours we put in, or the pace at which we need to complete our tasks. And this “responsibility without freedom” often leads to stress.

But if you can’t “walk away” from your job, how do you combat the stress that often comes with it?

A current story in Spirituality & Health magazine, titled “Five Ways to Transcend Stress”, takes the long view of de-stressing, including acts like detaching, journaling and loving yourself. But it struck me that when it comes to real life, you need a faster way to relieve stress, whether it comes at work, at home or while standing on line at the DMV.

What follows are five small acts that can help you almost instantly. Most of these tactics take only a few seconds, though they require a little practice. (And by practice, I mean remembering to use them.) I think of them as my arsenal of stress relief tools and often use them in combination, employing 2, 3 or all 5 of them of them to bring me back to an even keel.

  1. Breathe. When we’re in stressful situations, we often engage in shallow breathing. What we need to do is take a deep breath. Innnnnnnnnnn. Outttttttntttt. Repeat. The increased oxygen intake has a way of clearing our heads and quickly calming our system.
  2. Smile. Now I’m not talking about a big, goofy grin, but a slight upturn of the lips at each corner. There’s something about a smile that can help lighten a tense moment, like a muscle memory that somehow takes us back to a happier time. Start with one each morning, and try to wear it throughout the day.
  3. Use your mantra. I just wrote about meditation and my take on the mantra—and the fact you need to find a key phrase that works for you. Once you begin meditating on a regular basis, a quick interior repetition of your mantra has a way of reminding you of the meditative state, relaxing the mind.
  4. Go for a walk. Stress has a way of tightening our muscles including the one inside our heads. Carve out 5 minutes and go for a quick brisk walk, even if it’s just around the block. There’s something about putting the body in motion that makes the mind feel better.
  5. Remember “It doesn’t really matter.” Surprisingly, these words come from Think and Grow Rich author Napoleon Hill who gave himself this advice whenever he felt overly stressed. In the grand scheme of things most of the things we fret over aren’t that important. What really matters is not our jobs, but the people and activities outside them.

For a story on a related topic, see my post “You’re Spiritual, Your Job is Not. So How Do You Cope?

Meditation made easy (for those who say they can’t meditate).


Crissy Pauley/freeimages.com

Have you ever tried to meditate and found you just couldn’t do it? Maybe you like the idea of meditation, are well aware of its benefits, but you just can’t get your racing, over-thinking mind to calm down enough to engage in the practice. This may help.

About two years ago I wrote a Wake Up Call column titled “How to Meditate like a Monk in 10 Easy Steps.” It was based on a slim paperback book called Deep Meditation by Yogani that was (and still is) far and away the best book on meditation I’ve ever read. (For your convenience, the “10 easy steps” are listed below.)

One of the things I liked about the book was Yogani’s empathetic approach to meditation. He realized that we have a tendency to start thinking about other things when we meditate, self-sabotaging our meditation practice. So the author gently, and continuously, reminds the reader that when your mind starts to wander, no problem, just come back to the mantra.

For me, there was just one hiccup. Even after months of practice, I found myself falling off the mantra constantly and thinking about anything and everything else, from the work day ahead to the repairman I had to call to planning the upcoming weekend. My meditation sessions turned into very choppy affairs, my “monkey mind” continuously losing focus and interjecting random thoughts, as many as 20, 30, 50 times over a 20-minute meditation session.

Then, I discovered the problem. My mantra wasn’t working.

In the book, Yogani recommends focusing on the word “Ayam”, or “I am”, while meditating. Most Buddhists favor using “Aum” or “Om” which in your head winds up sounding like “Ommmmmmmmmm.” And that was my issue. The sound just wasn’t strong enough for this Western mind to keep random thoughts from flowing in. So I tried a new mantra, one that had personal meaning to me:

God is Love. Love is God.

I repeat this mantra over and over (sometimes replacing it with “Love is Good. Love is God.”) And there’s something about this longer, more verbal mantra that locks me in. As, I repeat the words they create a circular pattern. I sometimes see the words visually flowing as if in a figure eight. And it works. I am now able to go through 20-minute meditation sessions with nary a disruption, the new mantra acting like a shield that fends off random thoughts.

Now there’s no need to take my mantra as your mantra—unless these words also have special meaning for you. Your words may be “Jack and Jill went up a hill” repeated over and over. So find the phrase that works best for you, something that’s easy to repeat and could be as simple as “I love my family, my family loves me.”

WHY MEDITATE? I don’t know how or why, but it works like a reboot to the system. I compare it to restarting your smartphone or computer when you’re having technical issues, and somehow the issues then disappear. After meditation, it’s as if your mind is working from a clean slate. You’re suddenly in a better place to deal with whatever obstacles or opportunities life sends your way.

Below are the “10 easy steps” I developed after reading Deep Meditation. Yogani’s words are listed verbatim from the book; I’ve added a few additional comments 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. Stay away from positions 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. See my take on mantras above.
  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.

This post previously appeared on Wake Up Call, my column at Patheos, February 29, 2016.