Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Athletes of the Spirit

Living the spiritual life is not for cowards.  It takes guts.  It takes belief.  It takes perseverance.  Our goals and dreams will not materialize in our lives unless we do the required work necessary for their manifestation.  When we exercise our spiritual muscles, we become athletes of the Spirit.

Being an athlete of the Spirit means centering and aligning yourself with your Inner Source. It means visualizing and seeing the completion of such things in your mind's eye. It means focusing daily on what you plan to achieve. It means connecting with other like-minded people who will support, encourage, and inspire you on your path.

It means re-setting your mind when it detours. It means cracking open the hard shell of ego when it closes in to stop you. It means getting up when you fall down. It means keeping the faith when all you want to do is give up.

And it means giving gratitude every single day for everyone and everything that comes into your life because all things work together to push you toward authenticity. An athlete of the Spirit faces life head-on with determination, knowing that some days will require harder work than others. As we renew our minds and align with Source, we reshape who we are and create the lives we've always wanted.


Monday, April 29, 2013

The Body, The Temple

Dr. Candace B. Pert writes, "My research has shown me that when emotions are expressed--which is to say that the biochemicals that are the substrate of emotion are flowing freely--all systems are united and made whole. When emotions are repressed, denied, not allowed to be whatever they may be, our network pathways get blocked, stopping the flow of the vital feel-good, unifying chemicals that run both our biology and our behavior."

Not only is the Universe outside of us, but it is within us. Everything is connected. Our emotions, when linked to thoughts, produce biochemical reactions in our physical bodies. When we feel stress, cortisol and norepinephrine (the stress hormones) are released into our bloodstreams, causing discomfort in the form of stomach aches, headaches, muscle pains, and if we have a continual release of these hormones, it leads to dis-eases and terminal illnesses. The body breaks down under the weight of stress, falling into disrepair.
 



On the contrary, when we are doing or thinking about things that make us happy, seratonin and/or endorphins release themselves into our systems and decrease stress hormones. Seratonin acts as a neurotransmitter and regulates our nervous system, while endorphins allow the body to feel calm and relaxed. It's the body's natural drug that relieves tension and helps us to sleep better. Any type of physical movement releases endorphins. Certain foods like chocolate and most fruits (oranges in particular) boost seratonin levels. When we open ourselves up to activities and the kind of thinking that makes us feel good, the body begins to repair and heal itself. Of course, moderation and balance is key.

We live in an amazing, complex, divinely designed physical body. When we take care of it, it takes care of us. The body is the temple. It's where each of us lives with the Universe as our partner and co-creator. It's a relationship offered to us as a gift. Honor it. Love it. Respect it. Celebrate it.


Photos Courtesy of Google Images

Thursday, April 25, 2013

The Shad Beatitudes (or, Shaditudes)

For years I've attended Lambertville's Shad Festival on the banks of the Delaware River in New Jersey.  For those of you who don't know what a shad is, it's a fish.  It's the largest member of the herring family.  The American shad is an anadromous fish, meaning it lives in saltwater but it spawns in freshwater.  Each spring, shad make a run from the ocean up their natal streams to spawn and then return to the sea.  Known as poor man's salmon, shad have been harvested by Native Americans during the annual spring spawning run for hundreds of years.  Native Americans also taught colonialists how to catch shad to feed their families.  This fish is also credited with saving George Washington's troops from starvation in Valley Forge as they camped on the banks of the Schuylkill (pronounced skool-kill) River.  In a sense, the shad saved our country from the grips of British imperialism. Long live the shad!

Over 30 years ago, Lambertville was in need of reinventing itself due to challenging economic times. At the same time, efforts were being made to clean up the Delaware River. The clean-up efforts paid off when Alosa sapidissima re-emerged.  What a fortuitous event. Shad saved the day again and quickly became a symbol of rebirth for the town. The Shad Fest has run the last weekend of April ever since.

About 30,000 - 40,000 people descend upon the tiny river town of Lambertville over a two-day period to see live music, artists, crafters and to enjoy food and drink.  Shad, while very bony and oily, is a full-flavored fish and can be difficult to prepare, but weep not for there are historians and vendors who will show you the way should you plan to cook it yourself, whether it's shad chowder, shad wraps, grilled shad or shad roe, a favorite delicacy. It's all about the fish at the festival.  Well, not really.  But it gives reason to celebrate the warm weather after a long winter and to commence the party season in Lambertville and New Hope, another artsy town directly across the bridge in Pennsylvania.



Sadly, I will not be able to attend the festival this year since I have moved out of the area.  I will miss watching fishermen go shad seining, a Colonial-era method of using long nets to catch the shad. I will miss making my own shad prints, done by painting an actual shad and then pressing it onto paper.  I will miss the message board on the local church with it's clever sayings like "seek and ye shad find," and "knock and it shad be opened." It has been a tradition in my life for many years to attend with friends and family and to buy the "O-Fish-l" Shad Fest tee-shirt for my father, who loved to fish the Delaware River for bass and shad before he retired and moved away.  The shirt became his birthday gift each year since it falls during the same week as the festival.  But ask and ye "shad" receive...one of my friends will be attending and has agreed to send me a shirt so my father doesn't miss out.  He prizes his collection of shad fest tee-shirts like the fish he's caught and mounted on the wall of his man cave.

For many people, the shad is "just a fish" and nothing more. It swims, it breeds, it dies. For the folks of Lambertville, it represents renewal, economic recovery, and a time for celebration.  I root for the shad the way Southerners do for catfish because it is part of the regional heritage of an area that I grew to love over the years.  It strengthens the bonds of community, bringing friends and family together each spring as spirits are rejuvenated after hibernating all winter.  Here's to honoring a fish that saved a town, the troops, and the nation. Who would have ever thought that a fish would become so special?  If it's not the national fish, it should be.

For more information about the Shad Fest, go to:  http://www.lambertville.org/ShadFestival.jsp
Photo courtesy of Google images at www.dec.ny.gov

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Spirituality of Being You


Being ourselves is not always an easy thing to do.  Most of the time we wear masks to disguise our true identities for fear of being ridiculed and rejected.  Other times we wear those masks so as not to offend the easily offended, especially in a world of political correctness.  But, the Universe gave you one job when you agreed to incarnate into this world:  to be YOU -- not someone else.

Oscar Wilde said, "Be yourself; everyone else is already taken."  True, but the adage "be yourself" is not as easy at it sounds.  However, there are ways to grow comfortable with who you are.  First, it's important to define yourself on your terms, not someone else's terms.  You can't be yourself if you don't know who you are.  This is when you must contemplate your life and your choices.  Take a self-inventory.  Ask yourself about the things you like and don't like.  What attracts you and what doesn't?  To what things do you find yourself gravitating? Then act on those things.  Your action will bring you into contact with those who are like-minded and who will accept you for who you are.  Sure, you may feel self-conscious at first, but that will wear off in time as you get used to wearing your "new" skin.

Second, leave the past where it belongs -- in the past.  It is gone and it no longer serves a purpose.  Forgive yourself for past mistakes.  You had reasons for your choices and the decisions may have made sense at the time, but they are done and nothing will change what has happened.  Your mistakes do not define you.  If anything, mistakes are our reminders of our human side.  We are going to make them no matter how informed or educated we are.  Accepting mistakes allows us to learn and to grow.

Third, don't take things personally.  Stop caring about others' perceptions of you.  Some people will like you and some won't.  You can't be yourself when you are constantly wondering "Am I intelligent enough?  Am I pretty enough?  Am I popular enough?"  These kinds of questions undermine your confidence.  If you find yourself around people who don't accept you for reasons of their own, leave their company and seek those whose opinions you value.  Internalizing others' negative ideas of who you are is self-abuse.  Comparing yourself to others is the quickest route to unhappiness because you give too much power to image, thereby reducing your own power and worth.  This is unhealthy and leads to resentment.

Fourth, be your own best friend.  Value yourself as you value your friends.  Do for yourself what you would do for them.  Take responsibility for boosting your own self-esteem.  Self-affirmations like "I am deserving.  I am wonderful.  I am worthy" can be very effective.  As you positively affirm yourself, others will begin to notice that glow of self-confidence emanating from you.  Love and accept yourself as you are, just as you do for those with whom you are close.

Fifth, develop your own style based on your terms.  If what you like is not mainstream, be proud of it.  What matters is that you like it and that it has positive outcomes; it doesn't matter whether others like it or not.  Copy-catting a person complements the original and it shows that you are trying to fit in with the crowd.  Be bold.  Stand out.  Be different.  There's beauty in being different and it is magnetic.

When the Universe created you, it created an original.  You are not a copy, nor were you designed to be a copy.  You were designed to express your individuality.  Our humanity may have its imperfections, but our divinity is perfect in every way.  When we accept and love who we are, flaws and all, we can apply this philosophy to others, and in so doing, we become the "perfect" beings we are meant to be.

(Photo provided by www.freegreatpicture.com)

Friday, April 19, 2013

A Meditation on Death

There's nothing more sobering than writing your Last Will and Testament. While it's important to get your end-of-life details in order, seeing the words "Last Will and Testament" spelled out in front of you is akin to seeing your name engraved in a chunk of polished granite. It's that feeling of finality that shakes you to the core. Let's face it -- we're all going to die. It is a part of life. I know...this doesn't sound too comforting, does it?

For most people, death is that dark unknown to be feared. People fear it because they don't know when it will happen. Some of us live in denial of death; we pretend it doesn't exist, or that it will never happen to us.  We distract ourselves from ever thinking about it. That fear blocks the awareness of what death can actually do for us. Death can actually save us from ourselves when we open up to its teaching.

While I was writing my will, it gave me pause to think about my life and my death, about what I have accomplished and what I would like to accomplish. I thought about the opportunities I took and the ones I missed. I thought about the relationships I've entered and the ones that have since ceased. And I realized my experience of life, moment to moment, has been a series of births and deaths. A moment comes; a moment goes. It's what I do with the moment that is important.

I was a curious child. Probably too curious for my own good, some would say. While my friends were playing with dolls and toys that didn't interest me, I was exploring the woods and my surroundings. I loved the adventure of discovering things. Whenever I came across a dead animal, I couldn't help but wonder about its death and its life. I made it a habit of burying them out of respect. One day I got the bright idea to bring home two dead muskrats. I wanted to know why these two creatures died. I grabbed the muskrats by their tails, dragged them home, and laid them out on top of my mother’s brand new picnic table, the perfect lab table for my new scientific laboratory. My mission was to discover how life worked. And what better way to study life than to study death? Victor Frankenstein, eat your heart out.

I immediately went to work. I sharpened some of my mother’s kitchen knives, laid out some of the needles I found in her sewing basket, and began my search. I made the first incision without any qualms. I slid the knife from the neck all the way below its stomach. I repeated the same incision on the second muskrat. I didn’t want to cut too deeply because I didn’t want to damage any of their organs, so as I made the incisions, I slowly peeled the layers open and pinned them so I could get my ungloved hands inside. Once inside, I suddenly felt deeply connected to something much bigger than myself.  But my exploration stopped when my mother came home.  She wasn't too pleased.  She gasped in horror and made me throw everything away. "Why can't you be a normal child!" she exclaimed in frustration.  Off to my room I was sent.

I felt terrible after she made me throw the muskrats' bodies into the trash. So, later, while she was taking one of her long showers, I untied the trash bags and carried my muskrats to the back of the yard. I plucked lilac blossoms from the unshaped bushes that lined the fence, grabbed the shovel from the shed, and proceeded to give them the proper burial they deserved. I prayed, “God, please accept these muskrats into heaven. Amen.” I covered them up and placed the lilacs on their little graves. God had two new playmates in heaven, and I helped them get there.  I never did discover what made them die, but I did discover a new-found respect for life at an early age.  I made friends with death that day.  I even told my mother that I wanted to be a pathologist.  I was sent to my room...again.

Every year we celebrate a birthday.  Have you ever stopped to think that every year you also pass your death day, that day when you will shed your physical shell and depart life as you know it?  What day will that be?  Will it be on August 10th in 40 years?  Will it be on December 22nd in ten years?  We will never know until that day arrives.  

How does one possibly make friends with death?  It requires that we change our whole approach.  First, you must challenge your fear about it. Examine your beliefs about death.  Where did these beliefs originate? How did you develop your beliefs about it? Once you become conscious about those fears, then you can work to overcome them either through prayer and meditation, research and study, or some kind of counseling.  When you face your fear, you take control of it and you take control of your life.  Deprive death of its strangeness.

Second, cultivate an awareness of the immediacy of death.  For many, this is a frightening thought because it threatens our sense of control.  But at any given moment, realize that a part of our life is already gone.  The other part has yet to happen.  If you're 40, then 39 years are gone forever. Such a realization that death is imminent helps us to reconnect with the immediacy of life in the here and now. Keeping the thought of death in the forefront of our mind is to remember what is uniquely important to each of us. Being aware of the uncertainty of the time and date of our death is to be mindful that we are still alive. To accept death is to accept life.

When we accept death as a part of life, then we free ourselves from the fear of it. We free ourselves to live authentic, meaningful lives. We don't waste any part of life. We stop postponing what we really want. We begin to appreciate all that we have. In this way, death becomes a wise adviser and a true friend.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Rumors

As an educator, I approach teaching as a spiritual endeavor. The challenge is to make subject matter, and in my case literature, relevant to the lives of students so they can connect with characters’ conflicts and plights in order to gain a better understanding of themselves, others, and the world in which they live. I rely on Spirit to guide me and to present teachable moments that students never forget. Sometimes extreme measures have to be taken to get the point across.

We had been reading and analyzing The Crucible by Arthur Miller, a dramatization of the Salem Witch Trials that occurred in Massachusetts in 1692 and 1693. Miller wrote it as an allegory of McCarthyism when the U.S. Government blacklisted accused communists. In the 1940s and 1950s Americans feared the encroachment of Communism. With the Soviet Union growing in power, Americans feared a nuclear holocaust. Eastern Europe was in bed with Communist satellite nations. With China added to the mix, Americans felt surrounded by a Communist threat. Paranoia ensued. During this time, Joseph McCarthy, a U.S. Senator, claimed that more than 200 "card carrying" members of the Communist party had infiltrated the United States government. It became a witch hunt. Rumors spread uncontrollably.

As my students and I discussed the topic of the power of rumors, I felt that familiar inner prompting to test the velocity at which rumors spread. Without hesitation I said, “What if we start our own rumor? Mwah ha ha...” My students immediately perked up. We decided to start a friendly rumor, with the permission of another willing teacher, who happened to be out of school for three days at a conference. I called the teacher from the phone in my classroom to let him know the plan to which he wholeheartedly agreed. We agreed to start the rumor that he had won $2.5 million. My students were to record their observations and then complete a written assignment about what they learned. When class ended, the rumor mill began. Before my next class ended, my phone rang. “Is it true? Did Gerald* win the lottery?” Trying not to laugh, I said, “I don’t know. But I heard he did. I’ll talk to him later today.”

Later that day in the hallway, whenever I saw my students from first period, they couldn’t wait to report what was happening. “Ms. McDaniel, so far Mr. Johnson* has won $25 million, and and and...he bought the apartment complex where he lives and kicked everyone out so he can turn it into a mansion for himself!” Corey said. Oh, jeez. This was really getting out of hand. When I saw the superintendent and the principal in the hallway, walking past Mr. Johnson’s room, wondering if the reason he wasn’t in school was because he won the lottery, I knew I had to fess up. And I did. Surprisingly, I didn’t get reprimanded. Instead, I was told, “Great lesson for everyone in this building to learn. Good job. Just let us know ahead of time the next time you do a lesson like this.”

While this rumor didn’t hurt anyone, it was a big risk to prove the power and speed at which rumors move. Students are no strangers to rumor and gossip; they deal with it on a daily basis, and they know the damage that can be done. In their written responses and in our follow-up discussion, my students realized that while rumors can’t always be avoided, they can take positive steps when rumors happen. Below are tips for rumor control, as suggested by my students:

A. When a rumor is circulating about you, respond quickly and directly. Confront it head-on. Saying “no comment” only adds fuel to the fire. If the rumor is about someone else, don’t perpetuate the rumor by gossiping about it. Instead, challenge those spreading the rumor to stop.

B. Use evidence. Present the facts. Rumors will dissolve fairly quickly, providing that the rumor is untrue. If the rumor is true, you may have to own up to it. One student commented, “A rumor started about me once. I told everyone, ‘Yeah, I did it. So what? Get over it.’ They left me alone after that.”

C. Educate others and begin changing the culture of a particular environment like work or school. Be a positive role model by treating others with honesty, respect, and dignity. Such behavior may encourage others to do the same. Some of my students went on to create and implement a school-wide campaign to combat rumors and bullying, and they developed events and activities that promoted team-building and new friendships. Students love being connected to a cause.

Rumors cast a harsh spotlight on a person, pushing him or her to feel alone and isolated. Stopping rumors starts with us. But some rumors can be beneficial, especially when it tips you off to something potentially life-threatening or dangerous. Whatever the case, rumors are reminders for us to be the bigger, better person. Rumors offer us the choice to engage in gossip and thereby contribute to the negative energy of the situation, or the choice to do something positive about it and thereby combat and diffuse such negativity. When moments, such as this one, transcend the classroom to teach a life lesson rather than a grammar lesson (not that anything is wrong with grammar!), then I know I did what I was called to do in that moment. By the way, did you hear...


*Names changed to protect the guilty...

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Sunday School Drop-Out

If I had to pinpoint the start of my spiritual journey, I'd say it began with my Great Aunt Bonnie.

Aunt Bonnie was one of the first manifestations of God that I can remember, though I didn’t realize it at the time. I had no previous religious training or understanding. Aunt Bonnie lived in Florida, near Disney World. Disney World had just opened and this was our first trip to Florida. I was nine years old. Aunt Bonnie welcomed me and my brothers into her home. I didn't know much about her. I never knew she existed. I learned that she was married and had two children, a boy and a girl. The girl couldn't walk or speak and could only lie in bed. She was much older than I was. "Is she retarded or something?" I asked my aunt. In those days, using the word retarded was acceptable. "Yes, she is," my aunt answered matter-of-factly. “She was born with a cord around her neck.” I had never seen a “retarded” person before, and here I was related to one. This left me with a strange feeling I couldn't quite understand.

But Aunt Bonnie tended to her daughter with total mindfulness. I watched her feed her, clean her, dress her, comb her hair, change her diaper, performing acts only a mother, or a saint, would. I admired my aunt, but she scared me. She was very religious. Maybe too religious. I didn't know what it meant to be religious, and she wasted no time in giving me a crash course. Moses. Noah. Job. Jonah. Mary and Joseph. Jesus and his rising from the dead (what?). The Apostles. Heaven and Hell. And, then the kicker: If I didn't want to go to the fiery pit of Hell, then I needed to get down on my knees and accept Jesus into my heart as my Lord and Savior. Say, what? Out of respect for my aunt, I kneeled down and repeated whatever she said. None of it made sense but the “Hell” thing scared me. I don’t think Aunt Bonnie meant to scare me, but she did, and maybe this was God’s wake-up call for me. That’s when all the questions began.

When I returned from Florida, I had a lot of questions for my mother. Who is God? What's a virgin birth?  Why did God let his son get killed? How did he come back to life? What's Heaven like?  Is there really a Hell?

“What’s with all the questions?” she asked, “Go play with your dolls.” I guess my questions annoyed her, so rather than answer them, she enrolled my brothers and me in the religious education program at St. Paul's Lutheran Church. Another day of school? At a church? Are you kidding? Since we weren't baptized as babies, Sunday School and confirmation classes would pave the way to being “christened" into the Christian life.  Our church didn't practice full immersion baptism.

Once the pastor completed his opening remarks, he excused the children from the pews to Sunday School. I wanted to stay with the adults to learn the answers to all of my questions. "Get your ass to Sunday School...now!" my mother whispered, with a sharp elbow to my side. "Okay, okay. Jeez, mom."

My Sunday School teachers weren't very helpful or knowledgeable. I don't know how much training they had to teach us. Nothing they taught was new. I was aware of most of the bible stories, thanks to Aunt Bonnie, but they were just stories. We played games and did crafts most of the time. One of our projects was to create a clay head of Jesus on a block of wood on some kind of egg-beater device that was designed to hold the head. When I finished, the teacher walked over for inspection, and said, “Your Jesus is too fat. And why is he smiling? Jesus never smiles.” Perplexed, I looked around at all the other Jesuses. They looked emaciated and sad. “Well, if he rose from the dead, wouldn’t he be smiling? ” I answered back. “Who said Jesus has to be skinny? You told us to make him the way we picture him. And he’s not fat. He’s healthy. My Jesus is happy,” I finished. If there were a principal’s office in Sunday School, I would have been sent. Instead, I had to sit out in the hallway for the remainder of class.  It wouldn't be the first time this happened to me.

Finally, the day came for my brothers and me to be christened. Supposedly, this was a big deal in a Christian's life, and it was to be performed during the Sunday service. From what I learned about baptism, it meant a new life with God. John the Baptist had baptized his cousin Jesus in the Jordan River, and a holy spirit dove descended from heaven over Jesus' head. Maybe I expected too much, but as the pastor sprinkled water over my head, I felt absolutely nothing, except the water dripping into my eyes and off of the end of my nose. The heavens didn't open. A bright, blinding light didn't shine down upon me. No voice spoke. "That's it?" I asked the pastor. He didn't look too pleased. I went back to my seat, dejected. God didn't make a big deal over me. So, I put him on the back burner. But Spirit would move in other ways to push me along the spiritual path, though I was unaware at the time.

It's hard to pinpoint the exact moment of my spiritual birth; rather, it has unfolded and evolved. Kneeling next to my aunt in front of a crucifix on her wall with one hand on the bible and repeating words that I didn't understand was simply an act.  I mimicked what my Aunt did and repeated what she told me to repeat, much like I did in the various churches I attended over the years.  But that one act left me with so many questions.  Those questions sent me on quest; they became my guides on the spiritual path.  Since the religious education program couldn't answer my questions, I dropped out of Sunday School, determined to find answers through other avenues.

Do I still have questions?  You bet I do.  God may have his hands full with me and my constant questions, but at least He lets me stay in class.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Storms

It had been a very warm day.  We sat down to a dinner of fried chicken, collards, white beans and cornbread.  The breeze through the windows suddenly picked up in intensity, enough so that my grandfather took notice.  He slowly lowered his fork and in a slow southern drawl said, "Kids. Get to the storm shelter.  Now."  Without hesitation, we sprinted toward the shelter across the road.  Granddaddy stood outside, surveying the skies with a stoic calm and an I-dare-you attitude.  He never feared storms.  Sometimes I think they actually feared him.

This was at a time when warning systems were not in place for tornadoes or other severe weather.  Granddaddy knew the weather patterns.  He could always tell when rain was coming.  Said he could smell it in the air and feel it in his bones.  "Wind is like a woman," he told me.  "When it gets angry, all hell breaks loose."  His simple wisdom spoke volumes.  Not long after, an F5 touched down and devastated the town in which I was born.  Warning systems were finally put into place.

The weather forecast today is sunny and warm.  It's been 39 years since that tornado whipped its fury on an unsuspecting town.  And severe storms are expected later this week.  Spring is here and so is the turbulence that comes with it here in the South.  The threat of severe weather can be quite unsettling for some.  For others, it is what it is.  For some, storms bring excitement as they watch the skies in anticipation.  Some even chase storms.  Whatever the case, storms affect people in different ways.

Our perspective about storms is akin to our perspectives about life.  Life is either mystical, magical, powerful and full of meaning, or it is not worth getting up for in the morning.  Life is either something totally out of our control, or it is something we co-create with the universe's energies and laws.

The storm has long been a metaphor for the struggles we face in life. They will come, and they will go. Some storms will be large and fierce, and some will be quiet and gentle. They can be life-threatening, yet life-quenching. They can be destructive, yet cleansing. Storms bring us face to face with who we are, or who we aren't. Our struggles may seem destructive and life-threatening at the time, but as we weather them, we come out stronger, wiser, renewed, and happy to be alive.  Our personal storm may rage for a night, but we can take comfort in knowing that it too shall pass.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Paths of Spirituality

For many years I church-hopped while my friends bar-hopped.  As they were altering their states of mind with libations and other substances, I was searching for the perfect spiritual high.  I shopped for the "right" denomination, the "right" pastor/priest, the "right" kind of service, the "right" congregation, the "right" message, and it didn't occur to me until later that I was wrong in trying to squeeze God into my idea of what God should be.  What an ego.  I had a lot to learn.

Attending church had been a very meaningful path for me; however, when the rituals became rote, dry, and increasingly meaningless, I knew it was time to leave to find another church.  My spirit felt stagnated; it wasn't growing.  I began to think that something was wrong with me, that I was such a "sinner" that God didn't want to have anything to do with me.  I felt like a spiritual orphan.

Dejected and disappointed, I left the church and its religious practices altogether. I wandered in my own personal desert for years, searching for something.  I had always been drawn to Eastern philosophy and traditions and the kind of thinking that would be deemed heretical by the Church.  I had also been attracted to Native American Spirituality, Wicca, and Earth-based traditions.  But I had grown up thinking that the study or practice of any other kind of religion or tradition other than Christianity is blasphemous.  I could go to Hell.  The fear ingrained in me about burning in damnation if I veered off the path shook me to the core.  But why?  What was there to fear?  If God is a God of love, why would He use fear?  And in a moment of clarity, I realized, "God doesn't use fear.  Man does -- to control."  Boom.  The doors blew wide open and I was flooded with an intense knowing.  All the fear I had known fizzled.  I was free.

That one question of "why?" opened the door to many more.  I had been brought up not to question the authority of the church.  "You just don't question God," I was told.  Well, Why not?  Moses did.  The prophets did.  Jesus did.  After being fed up with getting nowhere, I couldn't help but begin to question what was happening.  Questioning became my path to enlightenment.  Those questions became doors through which I walked, and I found myself on my own unique path of spirituality, one that broke the confines of a building with a steeple, one that transcended religious laws and dogma, and one where God-Spirit is alive, dynamic, and leading me to answers.  

I realized that there are as many paths to God/dess, Enlightenment, Spirit, etc. as there are individuals. The path for one will not be the path for another because each person has different lessons to learn and different blessings to receive. Paths may be similar, but they are never the same. Following the same path as others has the trappings of religion...following your own path is spirituality.

What matters is that your spiritual path is uniquely yours. No one else will travel the same exact path as you. There’s a certain comfort and freedom that comes in knowing this. As Paulo Coelho said, “Having faith in [your] own path, [you do] not need to prove someone else’s path is wrong.” I have no need to prove anyone's path as wrong; in fact, I celebrate it, as I hope you will celebrate mine in knowing that Our Highest works in mysterious ways to bring all things together. We can learn from all of God’s Avatars (Jesus, Buddha, Krishna, Mohammed, etc.); their messages are the same. These Avatars came to teach, to preach, to warn, to give hope, to heal, to comfort, and to show us the way to our Highest Self, no matter which faith we follow. . .all paths lead to the One Same God. God is a diverse God; S/He transcends all religion, and no one religion can define God.  God manifests in and through my life every day, and God manifests in yours -- through others, through animals, through places, through things, through art, through your work, and through you. May we all come away from this with a little more enlightenment on our respective paths.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Transformation

The writer Ellen Bass said, "There's a part of every living thing that wants to become itself...the tadpole into the frog, the chrysalis into the butterfly, a damaged human being into a whole one. That is spirituality."

Spirituality and transformation go hand in hand. Transformation is a shedding of old ways, old habits, and old thinking, especially those that are detrimental to our growth. Some of us go into it willingly, while others go into it kicking and screaming because of a refusal to admit or accept change. Whatever the case, transformation implies a marked change in life. When your need to change outweighs your need to remain stuck and stagnant, transformation is around the corner.  Be ready!

In the process, though, we sometimes cling to our old ways, resisting the new with indecisiveness while wavering between fear and doubt. But we can start with small changes by mixing up the routine of the day, so we can develop newer and better habits that will promote our growth or healing. Try taking a different way to work or school.  If you are right-handed, do things with your left hand, and vice versa.  Small changes will lead to bigger changes. Doing something new and different increases your joy, enthusiasm and zest for life. New things give new perspective. This shows Spirit that we are willing to accept change, and in turn, Spirit will live in and through all of our transformations.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Avatars and The Mind of God

As beings on the spiritual path, were it not for God’s divine messengers, we would be completely lost in our quest to evolve into our Highest Selves.  Our mortal self is surrounded by unsolved and unsolvable mysteries in the universe. Trying to wrap our limited minds around something Infinite is daunting, overwhelming, and incomprehensible; it could lead one to insanity. What’s a God to do?  S/He sends avatars, God manifested in bodily form, enlightened beings sent to remind us of and reveal us to our spiritual selves.

God didn’t incarnate only once; S/He’s incarnated many times, and S/He continues to incarnate.  S/He’s incarnated when appropriate to the times and purpose of the incarnation. Is Jesus the only Son of God? No. But that doesn’t diminish his divinity. He never claimed to be the only son of God; instead, he clearly taught that those of us who do the will of God become, like himself, one with God. Jesus came to teach us how to become a "Christ" -- an enlightened one -- like him.

Buddha, another avatar of God’s in another time and culture before Jesus, came to remind his forgetful generation of karma and of taking responsibility for the consequences of its actions. Buddha breathed life back into the Vedic religion of India, whose rituals and teachings had become rote and dry.  He came to teach people how to reach buddha-hood to become enlightened beings, like himself.

Prior to Buddha, there was God’s avatar Krishna who preached that the practice of bhakti yoga (union with God) as a devotional service was the avenue of divine love.   Not only did he come to re-establish religious practices, he came to deliver the pious, diminish the demonic and to teach people the way to God-realization through the Krishna Self, by putting on Krishna-Consciousness.

Not only were these beings Sons of God, but they were more than Sons of God as we try to understand them. They each carried the Mind of God within them, the omniscient Intelligence of God that is all-present in every bit of creation, and though they lived (and continue to live) among us as one of us, they came with the same message: that we, too, might learn to live like gods, becoming One with God’s Infinite Intelligence. 

Jesus housed the Christ mind. Siddhartha Gautama housed the Buddha mind. Krishna reached Krishna Consciousness.  Call it what you will, but THAT MIND is a state of consciousness that all spiritual leaders and avatars taught that we can all have.  It takes discipline and practice. Krishna said it could be achieved through the practice of yoga. Buddha used meditation. Jesus used prayer (and quite possibly meditation). There is no one correct way. And who is to say we can’t use all three ways, or a combination, or create our own special way, as long as it honors Spirit?  Wherever we begin is the starting place for us personally, especially since each spiritual path is as individual as the person traveling it.

Jesus.  Siddhartha.  Krishna.  Their missions were essentially the same:  to remind people of God and to show them the way back to conscious oneness with God.  Krishna Consciousness, Buddha Mind, Christ Intelligence...these are all the same mind, the same energy, the same universal consciousness, the same intelligence that pervades all life, living and breathing in and through each of us.  "Receiving" this Mind is not accomplished through any kind of church or temple membership.  It's not so much about "receiving" it as it is about "remembering" it and "resurrecting" it within us.  When Jesus spoke of "receiving him," he was talking about partaking of the same kind of consciousness he had, the Christ Consciousness, the God Mind.  This Mind transcends any church or temple and goes directly to the Holy of Holies within us, not outside of us.  Even John, Jesus's most advanced disciple, says, "As many as received him [the Christ Mind/God Mind], to them gave he power to become the sons of God."  This was according to Jesus's own teaching.  Anyone who unites with this Consciousness by intuitive Self-realization becomes a son/daughter of God.

How do we do this?  Close your eyes.  Go within.  Acknowledge the evolutionary promptings of Spirit as it draws you inward.  The divine power of God Realization is an internal experience.  Spirit seeks the temples of true souls who devote themselves through contemplation, prayer, meditation or yoga.  Let your Intuition guide you.  It's your path and yours only.  It's the path that is true only for you.  Let your consciousness expand beyond the your body and the physical realm.  Call on Jesus or Buddha or Krishna or Spirit to show you the way.  True spirituality comes from within.  It lies beyond the material world of proof.  It cannot be measured or counted.  It defies logic and reason.  It knows only love.  God's Avatars came to call us out of our ego-centered lives and back into this Love.  Why would we ever ignore this?

Monday, April 8, 2013

The Law of Attraction

The Law of Attraction is a gift from the universe.  It is always working in our lives. It is a Universal Law that has been working since the beginning of humanity. And science has proven the existence of this Law. Jesus taught it.  Buddha taught it.  Krishna taught it.  Many Avatars have taught this Law in one form or another.  

The Law of Attraction basically states that energy attracts energy that is a vibrational match. When one examines the physical and non-physical aspects of the universe, you will find that everything is made up of energy and intelligence that vibrates. The difference between the physical and non-physical is the rate of vibrations, the rate of energy that is being emitted. Beauty, love, joy, and peace vibrate at higher rates than hate, anger, and depression. All energy travels in waves. Light waves. Sound waves. Heat waves. Just because we can't see it doesn't mean it's not happening. Our thoughts are energy as are our beliefs. The brain is the most powerful electromagnetic tool in existence. Thoughts travel what is known as neural pathways in the brain. Every time we think the same thought, it travels the same path. This explains why habits form. But we have the ability to change old habits and create new ones just by changing our thought patterns. The brain is a pattern-making machine. We can replace old, limiting thoughts with new ones. It likes repetition, especially in the creation of new habits (it takes about 21 days for a new habit to be ingrained). 

Ask yourself what you want. Give it attention. Give it energy. Give it focus. See it in your mind's eye. Feel the emotion of it (very important step). Visualize and feel it every day in meditation or prayer or in some other activity. Then, at the end of your session, let go of your attachment to the outcome. Allow it to manifest in your life and receive it. Don't worry about how it will come to be. Trust the process. Trust the Universe's Laws to work in your life. The Law of Attraction works whether you understand it or not. Why not embrace it and make it work in your favor?

Friday, April 5, 2013

Thoughts About Jesus's Nature

I have given a lot of thought to Jesus and his nature.  Jesus is more than Jesus, just as God is more than God. Jesus is a man of perfect Self-realization.  Jesus is a buddha. I can say this because a buddha, by definition, is an enlightened being. Can I say this theologically? Probably not. But I'm saying it anyway.

Buddha lived some 500 years before Jesus. When Jesus was a child, he and his parents fled to Egypt to escape the death edict of King Herod. It is highly likely that Jesus learned of Buddha and Buddhist principles from the ancient library of Alexandria or from Buddhist ascetics and/or monks. If this is the case, then Christ's "religion" may have some roots in Buddhism, something I have always suspected. In fact, if one were to do a synoptic study of the sayings of Buddha and of Jesus, one would find their teachings almost identical. Hmm...gives pause for thought, does it not? And, what about the Nag Hammadi texts, those other gospels that the Church deemed heretical and therefore never made it into the canon of the Bible, those writings that show a different kind of Jesus than the one we came to understand in Sunday School, Bible School and church? Also, one has to wonder about the missing years of Jesus: Where did he go? What did he learn? From whom did he learn? We may never know the answers to these questions, and so we are left to appreciate the mystery, no matter how hard we try to find the answers. But my mission here is not to find or to provide such answers. It's to make connections and to shed some light on becoming an enlightened being like Jesus, like Buddha, or any other spiritual master who has graced or still graces our planet. And there is nothing blasphemous about equating ourselves with such enlightened beings or with God because we are of the same divine essence.

My approach to God or Jesus or the spiritual path is probably not yours, nor do I expect it to be. We are each individual expressions of the Sacred, all emanating from the same Source, the Mighty Inner I AM Presence. We are all familiar with the Genesis 1:26-28 account of our being created in the likeness of God. This so-called “likeness” refers to God’s nature, the Infinite I AM. Our Real Self, our highest evolution, has a unique and eternal identity that is different from every other God Presence, yet at the same time, it is ONE with the Highest I AM Presence. Our Christ Presence (or God-Self, Soham, Aham Brahmasmi, Tat Tvam Asi, Higher-Self, Atman, Vishnu-Self, Krishna-Self, Buddha-Self, Christ-Self...call it what you will) is our inner teacher, our Voice of Conscience, our inner guidance system, our Inner Christ that connects our physical self on the spiritual path with our Highest Realized Self, or the I AM. I have my Real Self, you have your Real Self, and we all come from the One and the Same I AM. In other words, I am divine, you are divine, and we all come from the Divine even as we are human incarnations. You are every bit as much of God as I am, as Jesus is, as Buddha is, or anyone else.  Jesus became a "Christ", an enlightened one like Buddha and other sages.  He came to teach us how to become Christs as well, and not necessarily Christians.  Big, big difference.  His example shows us that we can reach enlightenment the way he did and as others had before him.  He takes us beyond the dogma of religion and into the freedom of spirituality.  May we all attain such enlightenment.


Photo courtesy Google Images:  jesusforever.webs.com (artist unknown)

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Fingerprints of the Divine

The Sacred Hand has many fingers.  Each person, each animal, each plant, each insect, each creature of the sea -- everything that lives and breathes -- is a fingerprint of the Divine.  Whenever I see these things, I see the Sacred in action, living and breathing in and through us, expressing Itself in unique, creative ways.  We are Sacred gifts to ourselves and to one another, gifts that are meant to be enjoyed, appreciated, respected, and loved.  When we fail to do these things we are out of alignment with our Source.  This misalignment results in misdirection of our life's purpose.  Our purpose is to live, love, and serve as the Divine leads us.  When we are aligned with our God-Self, everything we think, say, and do becomes a sacred act, a living prayer for others.  We are works in progress, and as we partner with Spirit in creating our masterpiece, we become the individual fingerprints of the Divine, touching others in all that we do.


Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Signs

I happened to be listening to the song “Signs” by the Canadian rock group Five Man Electrical Band with its theme of exclusion and discrimination. It was released in 1970 against the backdrop of social upheaval and political change. It’s a song that has resonated with me since I was a child. In it, the speaker expresses his frustration over a series of signs he sees. Let’s break it down to see what it has to teach us.

The first sign the speaker sees discourages “long-haired freaky people” from applying for a job. This angers him, and in his effort to challenge the establishment, he “tucked all [his] hair up under [his] hat” and went in to ask why. The owner or manager judges the speaker to be a “fine, upstanding young man” and says, “I think you’ll do,” but to prove hypocrisy on the owner’s part, the speaker takes off his hat and says, “Imagine that! Huh...me, working for you!” The speaker confronts the problem head-on to illustrate his point of judging people solely on their appearances.

The second sign the speaker encounters reads, “Anybody caught trespassing will be shot on sight.” Again, this angers the speaker, who jumps over the fence and yells, “What gives you the right to put up a fence to keep me out, / or to keep Mother Nature in?” He sees the trespassing threat as something that would offend God when he says, “If God was here, He’d tell it to your face, ‘Man, you’re some kind of sinner.’”

The third sign proclaims to the speaker that he needs a “membership card to get inside.” He is stopped by someone who insults him by asking, “...can’t you read?” The speaker is told he’s got to wear “a shirt and tie to get a seat” and that he “can’t even watch, no [he] can’t eat. [He] ain’t supposed to be here.” The speaker is excluded from the scene altogether because of his kind and his appearance. He is discriminated against by the establishment once again.

In being denied membership into certain areas and groups, the speaker finds himself in front of a sign that reads, “Everybody’s welcome to come in and kneel down and pray,” but he realizes that he has no money to offer when the plate is being passed. Instead, he takes out a slip of paper and writes, “Thank you, Lord, for thinking about me. I’m alive and doing fine.” With all the railing the speaker has done against the signs of discrimination, exclusion, and intolerance, he turns around to create his “own little sign,” only this sign expresses gratitude to something much greater than the institutions that have shunned him on his journey. Despite being misjudged and misperceived, the speaker is happy to be alive and in good health, two essential gifts that take precedence over everything else.

There will be times in life when we will be discriminated against, judged by our actions and appearances, and told that we simply aren’t good enough to be included into certain circles. We will not always be accepted. This should not discourage us on our personal journeys. We do not need to change who we are to conform to others’ ideals and expectations. To do so deadens a piece of us because we have “sold our soul” to belong. With Spirit in our lives, there are no membership dues to pay. It’s an all-inclusive club to which anyone from all walks of life may belong. It doesn’t matter what you look like, who you are, or who you aren’t. Spirit embraces us with love, in love, with no conditions whatsoever. Walking and embracing the spiritual path is what separates us from an ego-driven world. Our eyes open; we see things for what they really are, and we hear the words of Jesus echoing in our ears, “Forgive them...they know not what they do” because what they do is done out of fear.

We may be in this world for a time, but we are not of it. While we are in it, we can channel our frustration and anger into action that leads to positive change and growth. We can forgive those who “trespass” against us. People will do and say things to us that will make our anger flare, but we can control ourselves because we understand the motivation behind their words and actions. If we retaliate, we lower ourselves. Instead, we can turn it into a “spiritunity” to help raise them to a higher level. If they accept, everyone wins. If not, then the best we can do is wish them well and move on, hoping for the best for all involved. Spirit will show us the signs along the way.

To listen to "Signs" click here:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uYsBDmqJfjQ

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

God: He, She, or It?

My theology of God continues to evolve.

God is more than God. Let's examine this. When we first "learned" about God, we learned he is a HE. Not a She. Not an It. Somehow, over time and in our minds, God morphed or "became" some ethereal man with a long flowing white beard, seated on a golden, jewel-encrusted throne, surrounded by legions of angels, and to his right, his one and only Son Jesus Christ, another man with penetrating eyes and a dark, flowing mane and beard. Such imagery tends to make them seem untouchable, out of reach, too holy for someone like me or you, and completely impersonal (and when I spent time in Israel, I couldn't understand why all the images of Jesus seemed so distant and sullen. The man never smiled; he seemed so. . .unhappy, a metaphor reflecting my inner state at the time).

With God established as a He in our early religious education, we have to ask the question, why? In the biblical time period, society existed as a patriarchy. Men ruled. Simple as that. Women held no place of power, unless of royalty, and so, women were considered property instead of equals. Women held the value of a goat, more or less. Men were taken more seriously than women. In a nutshell, to understand God, our little pea brains connected with the idea of metaphor and God became a He rather than a She because people were more likely to listen to men than women. Calling God "It" seemed too limiting, but so is calling God "He" or "She". Since our human minds need to compartmentalize and make sense out of things we don't quite understand, it becomes easier to identify God as something almost human or human-like. In this sense, we created (and continue to create) God in our own likeness and image.

God is more than the name we call Him or Her or It and is above and beyond any gender that we assign; since our big egos need to classify things in order to understand them, we remain content with the metaphor -- for now. But I am not content with the metaphor. God was and is more. Is God a process? A verb? Action? Intuition? And why does God have so many names?

It’s interesting to note that the most important name of God in Judaism is the Tetragrammaton, the four-letter name of God (designated by the letters YHWH), which carries masculine imagery and grammatical forms. Elohim, another name of God, when examined etymologically and grammatically, is a masculine plural ending; however, it does not mean “gods” when referring to the God of Israel since the name is mainly used with singular verb forms and with pronouns and adjectives in the singular. There’s the idea of plurality here in the Godhead (or, the Trinity). Yet, God’s presence (Shekinah , which means “to settle,” “to inhabit,” or “to dwell”) is grammatically a feminine word, and is often employed as a feminine aspect of God. One can see the trickiness and difficulty in trying to figure out who or what God is. God is much, much more than our little minds can possibly comprehend; however, for all intents and purposes, and because language in its current state is infantile and cannot begin to capture the enormity or essence of God, I refer to God as He or She  (sometimes S/He or Spirit), and this forces me to limit God in this context as a shard of truth because of the inferiority of language. Frustrating.

But rather than rack my brain over something as trivial as which gender to use to refer to God, I'm content in knowing that God is much greater than we can ever imagine, and I've learned to accept this mystery.  Religious educators and theological scholars can speculate all they want, but in the end it's still speculation.  Whether God is a He, a She, or an It doesn't matter.  What matters is the personal relationship we each have with God.  Only when we enter into a relationship with God do we come to know the truths meant specifically for us and no one else because each spiritual path is different.  God is multi-faceted and will reveal those facets of the God-Self that are relevant to our personal and spiritual growth.  I can live with that.    

Monday, April 1, 2013

Crab Mentality

When I was a kid, my parents used to take my brothers and me to LBI (Long Beach Island), New Jersey, where we crabbed from the rocks at the base of Barnegat Lighthouse. We’d bait our baskets with a combination of fish heads and chicken or turkey necks, hoist them into the water, and wait. I stood ready with a five-gallon bucket by my side. As I filled my bucket, I worried about the crabs escaping, when my mother said, “You don’t need a lid. They can’t get out. When one of them tries, it gets pulled back by the others.” What was even more interesting to observe was how the crabs waited until the potential escapee reached the top, almost tasting freedom, before yanking it back into the bucket. It became a sisyphean task.

Years later, I would learn the term “crab mentality.” A crab mentality, originally a Filipino concept, refers to people who pull other people down so they don’t advance in life or pursue their dreams. It’s a demonstration of selfish thinking and behavior, which runs along the lines of “If I can’t have it, neither can you.” Such a mental mindset is destructive, denigrating, and downright diabolical.

Unfortunately, this crab mentality is found everywhere. It’s found in business, politics, education, and religion. It’s found across gender, race, and social networks. It’s even found in the home. The person afflicted with a crab mentality is a saboteur. This person does not lend a hand to anyone, is plagued with jealousy and competitiveness, and possesses a need to stop the positive progress of another. This kind of person may try to break someone’s spirit altogether. How? Through criticizing one’s attempts at self-improvement, insulting one’s self-worth, and spreading negative talk in the form of gossip, lies, and rumors about someone. Ultimately, this “crabby” person has the inability to be happy for someone else who is attempting the path of self-improvement. S/he falsely thinks that the only way to get ahead in the world is to cut others down, and this person is ruthless about it. The sad thing is that such a person doesn’t realize that s/he suffers from the disorder of crab mentality.

People with a crab mentality are easily recognizable. Dealing with them can be a challenge, especially if you are the person on the road to escaping the claws and clutches of such a person. It’s not like we can throw these kind of people into a vat of boiling water, putting them, and us, out of misery. First, see these people for who they are. They are not going to change. Become aware of their behavior. Observe how they treat others. Know what you are dealing with. Second, distance yourself from them, if you can. If not, don’t divulge anything personal that they can use against you or shred to pieces. Protect your goals and dreams. Third, avoid gossip and other negative talk. If you do engage in such cheap talk, you lower yourself, not because of them pulling you down but because of pulling yourself down. Don’t spread rumors. Focus only on accomplishments, not negativity.

The adage “misery loves company” not only applies to crustaceans, but also to people who want to hold us hostage for selfish reasons. As you develop your awareness, protect yourself and monitor your own thinking and behavior so that you don’t fall into the trap of developing a crab mentality. Aristophanes said, “You cannot teach a crab to walk straight.” So it is with those infected with a crab mentality: one cannot teach them to think straight. Instead, use your intellect in a way that will allow you to meet your needs without violating the rights of others.