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

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

My Mother’s Voice

When I was a child, there was nothing more beautiful to me than my mother’s voice.  She was a classically-trained soprano, and when she sang, my heart rejoiced. She had a lovely speaking voice too, full and expressive. Both as a mother and as a school teacher, she spoke with kindness, always eager to encourage and inspire.  Whether talking to her class of second graders or at home with me and my sister, her words were gentle and reassuring.  They have accompanied me through my life, prompting joy and easing sorrow.

A kindly tongue is the lodestone of the hearts of men. It is the bread of the spirit, it clotheth the words with meaning, it is the fountain of the light of wisdom and understanding.  (Baha’u’llah)

Mom died nine years ago, at the age of 72, from a sudden illness.  As I grieved, my greatest desire was to hear her voice one more time; to hear her talk about her abrupt departure from this life (had it surprised her?) and about her newfound joy in her celestial surroundings, and to hear her say – though, of course, I knew – how much she adored my sister and me and would always be with us. Although we had talked about many of these things during her life, and I knew how she might answer, my broken heart needed to feel her presence in a tangible, visceral way.

I found her voice — the sound I longed to hear — in a cassette of Irish folk songs she had recorded several years before, and I listened to it again and again, relishing her warm and playful performance.   And I found her face — the sight I longed to see  — in an old driver’s license that my sister discovered among Mom’s things after the funeral.  Mom was rarely photographed as an adult, and this photo — taken in late middle age — captured her radiant essence and gentle humor.  My sister seized upon this find, enlarged and framed the photo — which I had never seen — and rushed the gift into my hands.  When I opened the package, Mom returned to me in all her familiar sweetness, like a warm breath upon my face, reassuring me that everything would be OK.   It is, dear sister, the best gift I’ve ever received.

As the years passed, I slowly learned to let Mom go.  And the more freely I have relinquished her physical presence, the more profoundly she has returned to me in every part of my life.  When I talk to both friend and stranger, I sometimes hear her voice emerge from inside me.  There’s a similarity in our tone,  but more importantly, I feel the resonance of her heart within me, helping me to be the kind of person I want to be.   Mom had a way of making people feel respected; when she talked to anyone — adult or child — there was no one else in her world.  More and more, when I interact with others, I find myself intent on their well-being.   I want them to know that the simple kindness between us — the recognition of our shared humanity — is a gift that I treasure.

O SON OF SPIRIT! 
My first counsel is this: Possess a pure, kindly and radiant heart that thine may be a sovereignty ancient, imperishable and everlasting.  (Baha’u’llah)

My mom’s love wove the fabric of my heart, every stitch a luminous memory.  Like the day we were driving in the country and she sang Ave Maria to me over and over again — laughing with each repetition — because it was the sweetest thing I’d ever heard and I cried “again, please, again!”  And the day she gave me My Friend Flicka –her favorite children’s novel — because she knew I was often lonely and wanted me to know the companionship of books.   And the way she loved animals and nature and helped us to protect every small creature — every injured bird, chipmunk, or turtle — that crossed our doorstep and wean it back to health.

Through Mom’s influence, music has long been my daily companion and helps me to appreciate the lyrical quality of life: words and melodies that move the heart; lights and shadows that dance in our eyes; feelings and desires that we all share — no matter what we look like or where we come from.

Mom taught my sister and me to look for the beauty in every soul.  As a Baha’i, she believed that God made humanity to live in love and unity.  She said that we all come from the same earth and grow toward the same sun, and that we are destined to live as one family — the fruits of one tree.  She taught us that people must learn to look into each other’s eyes and see this basic unity — across every border and barrier — until every child can grow up free of fear, alive in a world of love.

This is Mom’s voice in my heart — a song that never ends.

The utterance of God is a lamp, whose light is these words: Ye are the fruits of one tree, and the leaves of one branch. Deal ye one with another with the utmost love and harmony, with friendliness and fellowship. He Who is the Daystar of Truth beareth Me witness!  So powerful is the light of unity that it can illuminate the whole earth.   (Baha’u’llah)

 

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)

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.

Can I Accept Myself As a Baha’i?

I am a Baha’i, a lover of mankind, but it’s not always easy, because I am an introvert. My faith is about world peace and world unity, yet I don’t want to leave my house sometimes. I love my fluffy red robe a little too much on the weekends. Is this a contradiction?  I’m not sure.

Yet when I do go out, I have a friendly word for everyone I meet. And when I pray, I wish love and compassion for all, and feel myself connected to all things.

I think the real issue is whether I accept my introverted nature as a valid temperament created by God, or whether I feel the need to be someone different than who I am.

I chose the former.  Why?  Because it is very difficult to change ourselves, and because I chose the belief that I am a unique flower in God’s garden of humanity.   Every flower is different and adds to the beauty and diversity of the whole.  I will live as a self-affirming person and glory in my individuality, a unique part, connected to all in love.

And I will vow to change out of my robe by noon.

Un/Faithful