How To Center Your Thoughts in God

Center your thoughts in the well-beloved, rather than in your own selves. (Baha’u’llah)

I’ve kept the above Baha’i quote pinned to my bulletin board and taped to my dresser mirror for over ten years.  Sometimes I think I understand what it means, and sometimes I’m not sure.

A few months ago, I lost my job in a layoff and while unemployed I often grow weary of contemplating myself and my situation.  So I’ve decided to use my increased free time and my heightened anxiety as an opportunity to turn more towards God, the well-beloved, to see if I can gain a better understanding of this verse and how it can help me cope with this uncertain time.

When I contemplate myself, my thoughts are often scattered, disjointed.  Sometimes I wonder when I will work again and panic floods my mind.  At other times, I feel giddy with freedom after more than 30 years of continuous employment, and I revel in the possibilities of each day.   Yet at other times, I feel angry with disbelief as I relive the events that brought me to this painful state.

Obviously, my mood is unstable when I think about myself and my future.  This is understandable, as I have limited control over my destiny, as we all do.

However, when I contemplate the well-beloved, my creator, I feel more relaxed and grounded.  I begin to appreciate this fixed point that I can focus upon, something sure and unshifting that reduces my anxiety.

So, how exactly does one go about focusing her thoughts on God?  For a Baha’i, this involves prayer and meditation.  The Baha’i teachings recommend that we read and recite the word of God every morning and evening, and I do find that these special times of focused attention lift my spirit and ease my suffering.

Yet after a period of soulful reflection, I often return to a more conventional state in which my thoughts wander over painful territory again.

My goal, of course, is to stay in this prayerful condition as much as possible.

The question that returns to me is this:  How can I center myself in God when I can’t really know God?

The Baha’i teachings state that God is unknowable to humankind, and that we must know him through his divine teachers, the prophets that he sends to enlighten us in every age.  Yet the prophets are beings above our ken and unknown to us personally.  In truth, even our friends and family members – the people we know best – are largely mysterious to us in their inmost reality.

The irony is that while we are seemingly locked inside our own minds, inside our separate beings, we are also intimately connected to God because he has placed within us the image of his own spiritual radiance.  We can turn to this higher aspect of our nature and find him dwelling within us.

Turn your faces away from the contemplation of your own finite selves and fix your eyes upon the everlasting radiance  (Abdu’l-Baha)

I believe that the first step to accessing our higher nature is to read and study the word of God.  This can be the scripture of any of the world religions.  Then the second step is to remain open to its transformative, healing influence.

For me, a very effective tool in this process is present moment living.  In the present moment, it is easier for me to open my heart to love and healing.   If I leave the moment, my mind begins to wander into thoughts about the past and the future and I start to worry and fret about all kinds of things.

Focusing on my body and breath as I move through my day helps me stay in the moment.  This is a common form of meditation and can be practiced any time, whether we are washing dishes, working, or talking with a loved one.

Body awareness keeps you present.  It anchors you in the now. (Eckhart Tolle)

Body awareness opens the spirit to the placeless.  The body is God’s gift to us that links our physical and spiritual natures.  If we listen quietly and feel the body from within, we can tap into a wisdom beyond our own finite concerns and limitations.  Then we can feel the rush of spirit that takes us beyond our selves and lets us feel the influence of God’s holy presence in each moment of our lives.

This is my goal:  to study the word of God, to recite the prayers and contemplate the teachings of the holy messengers, and then to stay in the present, grounded in the reality of each moment as spirit moves within me.

As I increase this practice, I watch the storms of tests and uncertainties move over the surface of my life, yet my spiritual core remains undisturbed as I make God the center of my world.

Peace of mind is gained by the centering of the spiritual consciousness on the prophet of God.  (Lights of Guidance)

Sweet Body: Anchor of the Soul

img_83464637943705As a teenager, I found mindfulness a little insulting.  One book on the subject instructed me to take a shower as if it were the only activity in the world, to feel all the lather and the hot water and to focus on every swipe of the washcloth; to breathe in the steam and to “be” the shower. Frankly, it seemed limiting and kind of sad.

How could I pretend that a shower is everything, I thought, when there is so much more in the world, when I have a complex mind and emotions and my life is so complicated?  Why, it makes me sound like nothing more than an animal!  It reduces me to less than a human being, and denies my spirit and puts me in a box that reads “this is all life is”. Is this all we can hope to attain: the enjoyment of a good shower?  It seemed small and silly.

But years later, I often find myself caught up in tiring, circling thoughts that lead nowhere.  I feel resentment about my past and anxiety about my future.  I feel like I’m floating aimlessly, with nothing to anchor me to  life, nothing to make me solid and whole.

Yet I find that I am happy when I slip into nature.  The warm breezes and shimmering leaves speak to me and settle my spirit in wordless silence.  And I have moments of conversation with friends when we stand side by side, breathing together, laughing, and I feel a deep connection that I can’t explain.  We are like trees in the sun, warmed and rooted to the earth, as we sink into each other’s physical presence; lost in the moment, and found there, as well.

I begin to see that these moments felt deep in my body anchor me to life, give me a place from which to connect and know.  God gave me a physical body for a reason.  I am not a formless, floating spirit.  Well, maybe I actually am, on some level, but this spirit has its current home in a physical body; a body crafted to experience one moment at a time, one step at a time, one breath at a time.

The irony, I am learning, is that the more deeply I go into my body — my physical presence right here, right now — the more I connect to my spirit and its shining joy.  I feel the solidness of my back and stomach as I sit in this chair, I feel the openness of my beating heart and the light that pours into it and moves into my eyes and ears, and I relish all the sights and sounds that flow through me and feed my spirit and move back out into the world.  I am spirit tethered to a body that is a world of wonders, a gateway into all connection within and without.   And I am awed and comforted.

The journey continues…

Breath

Misplaced Longing: What Should We Be Striving For?

Hello, my name is Jennifer, and I am a constant striver.  If there were a 12-step program for people who strive too much, I would certainly join.  In fact, I would want to make it a better program, fix anything that was wrong with it, and if there wasn’t anything wrong with it – by gum – I would find something, and fix it pronto.

I’ve often read that children subjected to instability from a young age will often grow up to be strivers and fixers.  My parents divorced when I was five, and from that time, I have been trying to get them back together.   Not literally – at least not for long – but inside me, in an attempt to mend my brokenness.   In the sudden whirlwind of changing homes and changing schools and absent parents (I was sent to live with my grandparents for a time) I felt I was at the center of a raging storm, and must have somehow caused it.  But nothing I did made it any better.  I got angry and scared and cried, but that didn’t change anything.

Eventually, I settled into a new life with my mom and sister, and regained some stability.  Yet, I retained the feeling that things could go wrong at any moment, and no one around me could prevent it.  So I learned to make things right myself, to make disaster prevention my lifelong project.

It began with striving for perfect grades in school.  If I got less than an A, I was very upset with myself.  And I had to keep the house clean when Mom didn’t feel well enough to do it.  If everything was tidy and in order, chaos could be kept at bay.   Mom – while loving and protective – was always the wildcard.  Sometimes she was happy, and sometimes miserable.    So I had to learn to keep an even keel, to be steady and strong for the three of us.

One safety net was my dreams for the future: for a time when I would be an adult and could have a different life, a more ordered life of my own where I was in charge and everything made sense.  Another was the many books that I read to learn how to live, how to behave, how to escape when the world was too scary.  I could be the heroine of a novel, a completely different person; I could try on different roles until one felt complete and real.

I have carried these defenses into adulthood, the belief that with enough striving I could make any situation better.  It has served me well in some instances, but hampered me in others.

It has made me want to shape life in a way that it can’t be shaped, to organize my life into submission.   It has made me believe, on some level, that because my life was painful and chaotic in childhood that God and the universe owe me an ever-improving future, with all the things I missed out on growing up.

But I know that’s not how it works; that no one gets to create their own life.  Sure, we do to a certain degree, but life always throws us curve balls.  The unexpected presents itself regularly; it is part of the plan.

Many wise people have said that all we can control is our attitude.  I don’t really care for this reality, because I want to control all events as well.  Somehow I got the idea that I know what is best for me: that I need certain friends, or I need to live in a certain house, or have a certain job.  That God wants me to have the full, brimming life of “normalcy” that I have been trying to recover since I was five.   But what God really wants, I believe, is for me to love him, and he wants my spirit to grow, and he wants me to let go of everything but him.

And he has his own mysterious ways of making these things happen.  Maybe he put me in an unsettled family so that I would learn – eventually – that he is my only safety net.

Maybe he takes things away from us, and turns our lives upside down, so that we will learn that he is our one true reality.  We are the living, breathing images of God walking upon the earth; each of us a sign of his love and beauty.

Nothing else matters.  Sure, it’s good to have goals and hopes and dreams.  And, I believe, ultimately, that God will help us make this earthly world a reflection of heavenly virtue and beauty.  But I believe that our souls are the main thing: the only real thing.  And he will do whatever it takes to wake us up, to remind us again and again to strive for the only thing that matters.

Our hopes may be dashed; we may not get what we think we need; but in the ruins of the life we wanted, we can see a glimpse of the life we need.  A life where we look in the eyes of others and see God’s loving spark within.  Where we look at the rivers that flow and the sun and moon overhead and we know that God is father and mother and sister and brother.  And we know him by knowing each other and loving each other.  We are each an eternal reflection of his loving, heavenly light.

Misplaced

Beyond the World We Know

In the little Baha’i book called The Hidden Words, there is a passage that I often recite on my afternoon walks.  It attracts me endlessly because it highlights a spiritual paradox.  The words nudge me out of my limited sense of self.  Yet they also pull me into a deeper reality that is more “me”, more intimate, than anything I’ve known.  I believe these words offer a glimpse into the soul’s true potential, as endowed by our creator:

O Son of Man! If thou lovest Me, turn away from thyself; and if thou seekest My pleasure, regard not thine own; that thou mayest die in Me and I may eternally live in thee.  (The Hidden Words, No. 7)

This verse opens me to all the possibilities beyond my own cares and desires.  And I feel a profound peace, a spiritual expansion.  Yet it is also a challenging experience, because there is a part of me that wants to hold on to what I know, that resists letting go and following God wherever he wants to take me.

This is true for many of us, I believe, especially in a world where we are taught to relentlessly pursue a narrow, materialistic version of personal happiness and success that disregards our spiritual nature and growth.

The goal of The Hidden Words is to bring us back to the profound spiritual truths of our inner nature, truths that many of us have forgotten.  The book was written by Baha’u’llah, the Prophet and Founder of the Baha’i Faith, and is a  distillation of the spiritual teachings common to all the world’s great religions.

One of these spiritual truths is the concept of turning our inner life over to our creator, letting him remake us in his spiritual image, as in the Christian New Testament verse, Ephesians 3:17:

That Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; and that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled up to all the fullness of God.

“The fullness of God” calls our spirits back home.  We feel the joy of being saturated with love and goodness, leaving no space for our lower human qualities, such as fear or selfishness.

It sounds simple — to let God in and to be released from all the small, limiting parts of ourselves that we would rather be without anyway.

But what about releasing our pleasures?  The Hidden Words state that if we desire God’s pleasure, that we should “regard not” our own.  This is much more difficult, because we naturally seek pleasure and avoid pain.   So how do we take this step in our spiritual development?

I believe it comes down to a matter of knowledge and trust.  Can we trust that the pleasures of God are greater than the pleasures of man?   Can we become like a caterpillar and give up our limited experience to become a glorious butterfly?   I believe the answer is yes, and that God helps us with this transformation if we ardently seek him, and gives us the knowledge and courage to become our true selves, the reflection of his divine being.

He assures us that he created us out of infinite love.  The Hidden Words say:

I loved thy creation, hence I created thee. Wherefore, do thou love me, that I may name they name and fill thy soul with the spirit of life.   (The Hidden Words, No. 4)

When we love God and welcome him inside, he calls our spiritual name, revealing us more fully to ourselves. We become more intimate with our unique essence created in love, and our spirit awakens.  We more clearly see the reflection of God within ourselves and others, and our greatest desire becomes to grow closer to him and to share our unique gifts in celebration, love, and service.

It is the kind of profound pleasure we all need.    The pleasure of God that transcends our superficial desires, and takes us beyond the world that we know to a place of real transformation.  It isn’t always an easy journey, but it is the path of our spiritual growth and fulfillment.  It begins by inviting God home, into our hearts created by love:

O Son of Being!  Thy heart is My home; sanctify it for my descent.  Thy spirit is My place of revelation; cleanse it for My manifestation.  (The Hidden Words, No. 59)

O Son of Being!  With the hands of power I made thee and with the fingers of strength I created thee; and within thee have I placed the essence of My light. Be thou content with it and seek naught else, for My work is perfect and My command is binding. Question it not, nor have a doubt thereof. (The Hidden Words, No. 12)

The Prayers of a Random Mind

A friend of mine once remarked “Each day, I think of every person that I’ve ever known”. 

Really?  I seriously doubted that.

Yet as I watched my own thought patterns, it didn’t seem that far-fetched.

Most of my activities, especially when I was alone, reminded me briefly of someone I knew.  If I didn’t watch carefully, I missed these images entirely as my mind skittered from thought to thought.

As I balanced my checkbook, a friend appeared to me for just an instant, a man whose ordered life I admired.  He seemed to nod approvingly, then vanished.

When I went to rest my tired legs, lifted them as I sat in my favorite chair, my aunt’s voice came to me, her weary sigh right in time with my own.

These images continued, unbidden. Most were benign, some a little troubling.  Introvert that I am, relatively independent of others, I am surprised that so many people appear to me in the course of a day.

I believe this is a remnant of childhood, a time of our total dependence on others.  We are attuned to the faces and voices of friend and stranger, those who protect us and those who could harm us.   This focal point remains and is internalized as we mature.

So what value can these images, these daily visitors, bring to our lives?  The encouraging ones bring a familiar warmth, a comforting connection.  But the troubling ones seem to ask something more of us.  They come to the surface, demanding attention, time after time.  We can push them away, but as we do, there is a sense of unpleasantness.  Suddenly, we feel a little down or angry, and may spiral into negative thinking, left with a feeling that something isn’t quite right.

But wait! Ten minutes before, it was a new, shining day and the possibilities for joy were endless, a gilded path before us.  So what happened?   How can a mood darken so quickly, how does one get back on track?

One method is meditation.  Human minds have always been plagued by random thoughts that can lead us astray.   Meditation comes in many forms, but the basic practice invites us to watch our thoughts as we would watch ripples in a stream, rising and falling, avoiding attachment to any of them.

We must realize that our thoughts are not our essence, but the associations created by agile minds that were designed to sense changes and possible dangers at every moment.

The value of detachment from our random thoughts becomes obvious, and brings stress relief and spiritual renewal, as we develop the practice of letting go.

My friend, quoted in the opening line, is a person capable of watching the faces from his past come and go with warm acceptance, perhaps nostalgia for days gone by.  And I believe that for him, troublesome guests provide an opportunity to spar, rather than a road to despair.

But we are all different, some pulled more forcefully toward the dark currents of life than others.

For me, the best approach is to offer a little blessing to those who arise before me, especially those whose insistent grip won’t let me go.

When someone tugs at my heart and mind, prompting a pang of sadness or regret, I say a little prayer for both of us.  For me, to help me open to the meaning of this pain: perhaps to smooth rough edges, release narrow aims.  For him, to send him on his way in love and peace, hoping that we meet again on better terms.

Elvis After Midnight: Contemplating Our Obsessions

When I was a child, I had an early bedtime.  And once I was asleep, almost nothing could wake me up.

So decades later, it amazes me to recall a time in my life, around the age of 10, when my mom would regularly wake me from a sound sleep, often after midnight, to let me watch old Elvis movies with her. These aired on network TV, long before the advent of VCRs or on-demand.

Who initiated this ritual?  I don’t quite remember.  Did I plead with her to let me watch? Did she offer because she knew that I was as crazy about Elvis as she was? I can’t recall the negotiations, but I know that we must have reached an understanding that some things are simply more important than sleep.

A couple of years later, I had other idols, people closer to my own age. Teenage singers like Donny Osmond and Tony DeFranco, whose fan club posters covered my bedroom walls. What did I want from these boys who were strangers to me?  Why was I obsessed with them?

I remember lying in bed and yearning for something beyond romance, something I couldn’t name. I wanted to be taken out of myself, transported to a place where I was special and deeply cared for. And somehow these famous boys who made pretty music embodied this for me, as they did for many.

It wasn’t that I didn’t already feel cared for, that I didn’t feel loved. But life often hurt, life was often disappointing.  And I imagined being whisked away to a place where this wasn’t so.  For me, this yearning sometimes melded with something mystical, something almost reverent. I longed to unite with some one or some thing, to be part of something bigger than myself.

Isn’t this the feeling from which devotion of every sort is born? It starts when we are very young and we attach ourselves to many objects, some more deserving than others. Later, if we are lucky and persistent, we find an object worthy of these feelings.  A true mate, a passionate cause, a divine love that knows no bounds.  It is the spark that ignites our souls.

Teen Age Idol

In Praise of Sitting

When I was younger, I never sat. Or let me say more accurately, I never rested. I always had an agenda.

Young people can be terribly hard on themselves. In my twenties, I wanted to change the world, be an important writer, really make a difference. Nothing wrong with that. But it made it hard, sometimes, to enjoy a meandering conversation in front of the TV, or a relaxed cup of tea with my husband at the kitchen table.

I was always pushing myself. In my 30’s and 40’s, when my goals seemed less idealistic, I was still chasing a to-do list. Make that new Indian dish, finish my stack of library books, write that letter to the editor, work on my garden, and go for a couple of runs – all before work on Monday.

My goals changed through the years, but never the energy behind them. I was a young, healthy force in motion, staying in motion.

I reflected a little, but it was always with the goal of improving myself, being better, a winner in the game of life. Some might blame my unsettled childhood: making up for lack of friends and stability and self-esteem. Who knows? But I had to cross that imaginary finish line first every time, even in the most mundane arenas.

Then, one day, somewhere in my mid-40’s, I just couldn’t do it anymore. I couldn’t just go and go all day. I tired easily and developed insomnia. I couldn’t exercise as much I once had. I started reading books about aging and stress and hormones, and became a little depressed. I wanted my old self back, someone I thought I knew.

I learned I had to push myself less and rest more. I wasn’t happy about it at first, but I took the opportunity to learn some meditation, learn to sit in a room and do nothing.

And I really liked it. In fact, I loved it. As I sat, I glimpsed the bright recesses of my being, I found a core of love and peace, something that didn’t need fixing, just a little compassionate attention.

About 5 years have passed, and I still rest between tasks and take some down time every day.  My health has returned and I don’t take my strength and energy for granted anymore.  I have learned that stress will take it’s toll on all of us eventually, if we don’t make time to live off the clock sometimes:  to laugh and love and relax without an agenda.

Now in my early 50’s, I am looking forward to the adventures ahead. I have found a new normal: a place that honors the goals I have for myself, but also appreciates the stillness, the beingness that has no goal but love. I now seek a mixture of work and play, striving and rest, with time to reflect on the person within and all that she is.

Young At Heart