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

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.

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