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)

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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

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 Thrill of Just-In-Time

I have an addiction.

In the past, it was often exhilarating.  But now it is making me ill, so it’s time to do something about it.

Five days a week, I allow myself plenty of time to get ready for work.  And five days a week, I am running out the door, heart racing, palms sweating, because I know I am going to be late.

But the thing is:  I am never late.   Or almost never.   And that is the thrill, and the trap.

It is a beautifully choreographed dance.  I rise at 5:30.   I eat a nutritious breakfast, pray and meditate, do a little stretching and reading, and pack a wholesome lunch.   I feel alive and refreshed, ready for the day.  I may even take a little time to straighten the house as I groom and dress.  I feel that I have lived a good morning, many worthwhile things have happened in this quiet space before daylight.

One would think the final object of this perfectly choreographed morning would be my early arrival at work – perhaps by ten or fifteen minutes – so that I can carry a relaxed feeling of clarity into my day.

But no, apparently the real object is for me to arrive breathless and dizzy, bounding up the stairs thirty seconds before our 8 a.m. start time, acutely aware of my boss standing a few feet away, checking his watch to see that I just barely made it (again) and wondering if this is the day he should reprimand me.

But he doesn’t reprimand me, because I am a good employee, and I do good work, and I stay a little late each day to make sure everything’s in order.  This is also part of the thrill.

I’m always just in time, just under the wire.  Not a moment to spare.  The irony, of course, is that I’ve undone most of my good work of the morning.  Well, not most.  I did eat well, and I enjoyed my reading, and I felt devotion in my prayers.   But I undid the relaxation, the peacefulness, that is a primary goal of my quiet morning routine.

So why do I defeat myself?  Why do I do this nearly every day?  Why have I done this in some form since I was a child?

I’ve read theories about attention-seeking and low self-esteem, but I’m not entirely sure.  That’s why I lay it out before you, hoping my attempts at an explanation will shed some new light, reveal a way out.

In the past, I didn’t care so much.  It was a game.  And the adrenaline rush that it produced gave a kick start to my day, like a strong cup of coffee that got me off and running.

But now, it just makes me ill.   Not at first, but in a matter of hours.  And even the rush itself is contaminated with anger.  Because I have tried to change, and I can’t.  I have reduced my morning activities, for instance, to allow time to leave my house earlier.   But I just end up sneaking something else in (like one more peek at Facebook) so that I am back on my breakneck pace and any gain I’ve made is lost.

I am compelled, and that is the addiction.  But now I see that aging, that old substitute for wisdom, is forcing me to change.  I just can’t do this any more.   What once gave me a charge, now leaves me drained.   My body has to recuperate from this sudden explosion of energy, sometimes with aftereffects late into the day.   It just isn’t worth it anymore.

So, perhaps, my tired body will force my unruly mind and spirit to take a higher road.   Maybe that is one of the benefits of aging: a forced humility that makes us confront things about ourselves that we would happily ignore, things that may nudge us toward finally being the person we really want to be.

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

Writing is Magic

When I was young, I didn’t know what to say.   I had feelings I couldn’t express, thoughts that seemed unformed.

When I needed to connect, I retreated into books. Spent entire afternoons on the couch.  Transfixed by Scarlett’s vanity.  Heartbroken when Rhett walked out.  Pulled into a world where words brought everything to life.

Eventually, I learned to speak more confidently.  I talked my mom’s ear off on car trips.  Sure that I knew things of which she had never heard.  She encouraged me, even when she might have preferred some peaceful silence.

In high school, I began to write.  Sometimes the teacher would read my essays aloud and classmates would look at me differently.  How does she do that?

Writing is enchantment.  Writing is magic.  And I was hooked.

As a young adult I sent a few stories to magazines.  Sometimes writing through the night.  Eventually a form letter would come back. Or nothing.  It wasn’t what they were looking for.

In journals I explained myself to myself.  Let it all out.  And I talked to those closest to me.  But I longed for more expression.  More connection.

Then the internet arrived, and I could suddenly write a long letter to a friend, and she would have it instantly.  But who had time to answer letters in such a busy world?   Most preferred the telephone.

Then blogging came along.  I didn’t understand it.  Wasn’t it for sharing baby photos and family vacations?  Didn’t sound right for me.

Finally, on a long weekend, I gave it a try.  I wrote a short post about my Baha’i Faith and my troubling introversion, responding to a WordPress daily writing prompt.

In an instant, it was online for others to see.  I felt hopeful.  I received a few “likes” and comments and encouragement to write more.  I saw what others were writing about and wanted to follow them.

That day, the world became connected for me in a new way.  And I am hooked.

Writing Brings Me Here

Writing brings together my loose ends, ties them into a hopeful package. I hold the parcel in my hands, and lovingly give it to you.

You understand these fragments. You have questions and loose ends of your own.

Like that time you pedaled so hard you flew, the wind stinging your eyes.  What if you never turned back?

The time you wanted to kiss those baby-soft lips, but you froze, a million miles you wouldn’t cross.

That day alone in the house when you sang at the top of your lungs, because the leaves were falling, and your hopes were rising.

Then spring came, wet and green.  You didn’t understand why she left, but it didn’t hurt so much now.

In bed half-asleep with the fan spinning overhead, and the world spinning outside, and you are at the calm center.  You don’t remember your name.

Many people appear, so many faces.  Some come toward you, then abruptly turn away.  Others travel with you a little while, then say they have to leave. One skips down the path with you, holding your hand as you laugh, and never lets you go.

They are all here, they weave in and out of your dreams.  They come to the surface and tell you true things, and you turn on the light to write them down.

Write Here, Write Now