Tuesday, September 20, 2022

Feel-Good Book 10: The Journey Home

The Journey Home: Autobiography of an American Swami by Radhanath Swami is the reason for my desire to discuss books that guide me to higher understanding--and yet it has been the hardest one to write about. To refresh my memory, I started reading Swami's story again and it offers so much it was as if I hadn't read it at all. Sigh. Radhanath Swami has written a deep, thoughtful, heartfelt book with great wisdom and amazing stories, and all I can do is shine a flashlight on the vast night sky that is the wonder of this book.

Even as a boy growing up in Chicago, Radhanath Swami (born Richard Slavin in 1950) is different from others. Shy, reserved, and unusually compassionate, he seems out of sync in his surroundings, but fully aware of his need to find his true self, his calling in life. He embraces the counterculture of the seventies and ends up traveling, at 19, to Europe and to India. He openly shares, in vivid detail, the memories of his life. It's clear from the beginning that he will stop at nothing to reach his goal. And when he becomes a renowned spiritual guide, he returns to us with this powerful story and its simple message: stay in contact with your creator.

I still can't quite believe he sits on a rock in the Ganges River every day for a month in solitary meditation, but he has a picture of it. He lives in Himalayan caves, eats only what is offered to him as a mendicant, and travels any way he can to meet great Indian saints, gurus, and yogis who inspire him. He writes heartbreaking letters to his family back home and, as the reader, you see his struggle--and imagine theirs.

Radhanath Swami is an incredibly brave man, and driven by the need to find his truth. He says, "I tend to compartmentalize my thoughts, saying, 'Now I'll think about the political situation. Now I'll feel appreciation for this wonderful life. Now I'll think about food.' But what if my appreciation, my love for a divine being, can float above the compartments?"

Twice he quotes the beautiful guru and Indian saint Anandamayi Ma: "All sorrow comes from the sense of I and mine. All sorrow is due to one's keeping apart from God. When you are with Him all pain disappears. There can be no security, no stability here. These are to be found in God alone. Whenever you possibly can, sustain the flow of the sacred Name. To repeat His Name is to be in His presence. If you associate with the Supreme Friend, He will reveal His true being to you." She also says, "When your mind becomes vacant, endeavor to fill it with the awareness of God and His contemplation."

Guru Babaji Maharaja says, "Love of God is the inherent nature of the soul and is dormant within everyone. Chanting God's name reawakens that love from within the heart. We should aspire to be the humble servants of the servant of the servant of the Lord." And, "Just serve every creature in God's creation with humility, respect, and love. Just sing the names of Rama and everything else will be attained."

He also meets Mother Teresa, who is cleaning a cooking pot at the time. When someone asks why she is doing this, she says, "Serving God and humanity is an honor, not a chore. Any type of service to God is a blessing. There is no high or low." When asked where she finds the strength, she answers, "All my strength comes from the Lord's Holy Names."

I'm the cleaner of cooking pots in my home (and grateful that Chris likes to cook!) so I've posted a little reminder over my sink. "Here Now" it says. I learned (on Tiktok, I'll admit) that a profound way to become aware of the present and to think of my Higher Power is to narrate what I'm doing, especially as I clean the dishes. Somehow, saying to myself, "Rinsing the coffee cup, watching a cardinal, pumping soap into my hands," brings me into the moment. It's an easy step from there to taking a deep breath and feeling the presence of my Higher Power.

I'll leave you with one last quote from Swami sitting on his rock in the Ganges with the hope that you'll consider delving into the book yourself. "Except for the birdsong, that evening the Ganges valley was still with an almost mythical silence. My mind floated, recalling how God had taken from me so little and given me so much. For a moment I contemplated that to the degree one feels unworthy of grace, one will be grateful when it comes. It is gratitude that makes the heart receptive to receive the Lord's blessings. Closing my eyes, I merged again in the endless chant of Om, the river's song. It was just so beautiful."

Saturday, August 27, 2022

Feel Good Book 9: Holy Cow!

I found this gem on audio at my local library and loved it so much I bought the book version to read again, and to dog-ear some pages. Holy Cow, published in 2002, is the story of Australian reported Sarah Macdonald who follows her fiance Jonathan Harley, also a writer, to India for six months. It becomes a two-and-a-half-year quest for inner peace.

When she begins with having her palm read, I knew I'd love the book. (In Courage Without Grace, my main character is a palm reader.) Although Holy Cow is beautifully written, full of humor and wit and thoughtful observations, it is not for the squeamish. Macdonald describes with unflinching detail the crowds (one billion and counting in an area about one third the size of the States), the pollution, the begging, and what seems to be ever-present death. This ugliness seems to be India's strength. When Macdonald sees how happy its people are, a man explains that Indians see those who have a harder life than they do and are grateful, thanking God for what they have. But we Westerners look at the people above us and think, why don't I have what they have? This constant comparison creates our unhappiness. Hmmm...

"India is beyond statement, for anything you say, the opposite is also true," Macdonald says. "It's rich and poor, spiritual and material, cruel and kind, angry but peaceful, ugly and beautiful, and smart but stupid. It's all the extremes."

When Macdonald goes on a silent meditation retreat for ten days, she describes it in her usual candid way, as a "brain enema." This is Vipassana, an ancient Buddhist training technique, and one of its theories states that, "Unconscious thoughts create physical sensations, so letting sensations arise and pass without reacting gets rid of unconscious pollutants within our mind." For the first few days, she is overwhelmed by the silence, the aches and pains, and her restless mind, but by the end she says, "I skip out the gates, down the hill and back into India on air. My mind is clear, my heart is open, everyone is beautiful, everyone is worth loving, the world is wonderful and I feel universal love and compassion for all. For the first time in my life I'm living in the moment and I no longer miss my job, perhaps because my need for outward success to feed the ego has diminished."

Alas, she doesn't maintain the euphoria, and her quest continues as she learns about Islam, Hinduism, Sufism, American Sikhs, Hare Krishnas, Jainism, Judaism, Indian Christianity, and Parsi Zoroastrians, who "leave out their dead for vultures believing it's the cleanest, most hygienic way of getting rid of the soul's temporary home."

"I've made a start in India along my path to personal transformation and inner peace. "The Sikhs have shown me how to be strong, the Vipassana course taught me how to calm my mind, India's Muslims have shown me the meaning of surrender and sacrifice, and the Hindus have illustrated an infinite number of ways to the divine."

And yet, after all her seeking, she adds, "A phrase from the Dalai Lama's teachings comes back to me; 'Some will be drawn to Buddhism but I really think it's best that you try and find truth in the religion of your forebears and ancestors. It is very hard to change religion. I think it's safer not to.'"

Some may say I've left out the best aspect of this book: the people Macdonald meets as she travels all over India in this rollicking adventure. Oh, and the part where her now-husband Jonathan is in Afghanistan--and it's September 11, 2001. There's something in this book for everyone, and what speaks to me is her spiritual journey.

"I've learned much from the land of many gods and many ways to worship. From Buddhism the power to begin to manage my mind, from Jainism the desire to make peace in all aspects of life, while Islam has taught me to desire goodness and to let go of that which cannot be controlled. I thank Judaism for teaching me the power of transcendence in rituals and the Sufis for affirming my ability to find answers within and reconnecting me to the power of music. Here's to the Parsis for teaching me that nature must be touched lightly, and the Sikhs for the importance of spiritual strength. I thank the gurus for trying to pierce my ego armor and my girlfriends for making me laugh. And most of all, I thank Hinduism for showing me that there are millions of paths to the divine."

Saturday, August 13, 2022

What I'm Reading: Feel-Good Book 8

Bestselling author Dr. Joe Dispenza says 95% of the thoughts we have today are the same ones we had yesterday, and he wants to make sure our thoughts are helping us move forward, not holding us back.

I bought a hardback copy of Becoming Supernatural: How Common People Are Doing the Uncommon from Amazon because my friend Julie insisted I read it. It's a cerebral book, and my brain hurt from the effort of understanding it, but I certainly learned a lot. Dispenza, who's mantra is "Where attention goes, energy flows," opened my eyes to the scientifically proven importance of thinking positive thoughts. He says, "How you think and how you feel literally creates your personal reality." 

"So if you want to create change, you have to do it from a level of energy that's greater than guilt, greater than pain, greater than fear, greater than anger, greater than shame, and greater than unworthiness. In fact, any lower-vibrational energy that you are feeling cannot carry the thought of your future dream. If you are going to perform something that's unlimited, you'd better feel unlimited. If you want to create freedom, you'd better feel free. And if you want to truly heal yourself, you'd better raise your energy to wholeness."

I appreciate that Dr. D has been able to track and explain the power of maintaining positive emotions, but for the life of me I wasn't able to feel unlimited last weekend. Chris and I visited family in Atlanta and we packed a month's worth of activities into three days. Somehow everything worked out, even the trip to the DMV, and we had a wonderful time. But there was definitely some lower-vibrational energy going on, mainly fear as Chris and my brave daughter maneuvered the Atlanta highways.

When Dispenza says, "You have to think greater than the way you feel to make any real, lasting changes," he adds great advice. An excellent way to level up is to look around for something - anything - to feel grateful for, like a beautiful red rose or a purring black cat. 

Another way is the following chakra meditation.

"Begin by placing your attention in the first energy center (the root chakra at the base of the spine), and then move to opening up your attention to the space around this center. Once you can sense this space around the energy center, bless that center for the greatest good, and then connect to elevated emotions --like love, gratitude or joy--to raise the frequency of this center and also create a coherent field of energy. Do this for each of the seven energy centers in the body, and when you come to the eighth center, a place about 16 inches above your head, bless this center with gratitude or appreciation or thankfulness, because gratitude is the ultimate state of receivership.

"Remember: the more powerful your feelings, the more you are up-regulating your own genes. Bless your body, bless your life, bless your soul, bless your future as well as your past, bless the challenges in your life, and bless the intelligence within you that is giving you life."


Here's what "up-regulates" me. Appreciation for my family and ancestors, dear friends, pets, my good health, my house, my books, the beach, morning tea, etc. I'm also grateful for the things that make me laugh. On those days when I can'ts seem to find my way out of fear (or Atlanta), I look back on the happy times I've collected, thanks to Jeanne Robertson. Those funny moments continue to delight, and as a result, my personal reality becomes a place of joy.

Thursday, July 14, 2022

What I'm Reading: Feel-Good Book 7

I'm shifting gears to a lighter kind of enlightenment with this book. I borrowed Humor: The Magic of Genie by Jeanne Robertson from the shelves of the Emerald Coast Writers conference room in Pensacola. I've been a member of The Emerald Coast Writers (formerly the West Florida Literary Federation) since 2006, and highly recommend this group to anyone wanting to write -- or to borrow books from their library. 

In this book, published in 1990, humorist Jeanne Robertson, who "grew up large in a small Southern town," shares "Seven Potions for Developing a Sense of Humor" along with plenty of anecdotes from her life as a 6'-2" beauty pageant winner turned professional speaker What a fun, uplifting experience it was to read her book and learn more about her!

My sweet mother loved to laugh, and I remember many funny times with her. Robertson also had a mother with a great sense of humor. Speaking about her mom, she writes, "Standing proudly by my waist [Robertson reached 6'2" at 13], she would say to the salesclerk, 'I want to get some things here for the baby,' and lovingly glance all the way up at me. Once a clerk asked, 'What size shoe does the baby wear?' ... 'She wears a seven and a half, but an eleven feels reeeeal gooood if you happen to have any.'"

Many of Robertson's anecdotes center around her height and her speaking engagements. Once, the contact for a group in Michigan told her, "Everybody is looking forward to looking up to you." She told him she looked forward to speaking at the banquet, and he answered, "As a matter of fact, when you get here you really don't have to be so funny ... but you darn well better be tall!"


She also speaks of her son Beaver (6' 8"), who came by his nickname, as an infant from Red Ryder's faithful sidekick. Once, before Beaver was old enough to wear braces to straighten his teeth, the family went to a restaurant. Robertson writes, "I am like most mothers -- I give directions. 'Put your coat on that hook, Beaver.' 'Sit in that chair, Beaver.' 'Here's the menu. What do you want to order, Beaver?' All of the sudden, a woman at the next table grabbed me by the arm and said, 'How would you like it if he called you giraffe?'"

Excellent advice from this book: develop humor awareness by looking for humor in everyday situations; create your own humor; associate with humorous people, or just ask others to tell you something funny; and collect happy times.

Gretchen Rubin, best-selling author of The Happiness Project, points out, "One of the best ways to make ourselves happy in the present is to recall happy times from the past. Photos are a great memory-prompt, and because we tend to take photos of happy occasions, they weight our memories to the good." 

I have set out on a quest to collect happy times, like the moment of pure joy I captured of my mom. One of the reasons I love working at Hallmark is because of the funny cards, like this one of a dog saying, "I did not get you a car for your birthday." Inside, it reads, "It's a long story and I'd rather not talk about it." For the life of me I don't know why it's so funny, but it gets me every time!

A quick note about my book, Courage Without Grace. The stickers are in! Chris and I made this video, in hopes that it would give someone a laugh!



Sunday, July 3, 2022

What I'm Reading: Feel-Good Book Six

Sounds True, Inc. is a publishing company whose mission is to spread wisdom. When the catalog used to come in the mail, I'd pore over it, circling books that caught my eye, feeling uplifted just reading the titles! When I saw Polishing the Mirror; How to Live from Your Spiritual Heart by Ram Dass with Rameshwar Das, it was a Sounds True book I had to have.

This eye-catching book with its reflective cover is filled with Ram Dass's wonderful sense of humor and his sweet devotion to his guru Maharaj-ji. Ram Dass, born Richard Alpert, started out as a prominent Harvard psychologist and psychedelic pioneer and became an American spiritual teacher who wrote Be Here Now in 1971. I heard him speak long ago, and still remember his stories about India, some poignant and beautiful, others hilarious and heartwarming. He gave each of us mala beads with a strand of his guru's blanket on it, still precious to me.

On Daily Living:
"Use every situation you have with other people as a vehicle to work on yourself. See where you get stuck, where you push, where you grab, where you judge, where you do all the other stuff. Use your life experiences as your curriculum."

"When you live from your soul and your heart is open, you can awaken other souls. You go into a grocery store, [to work on the Hallmark aisle, for example] and it's like a temple. Everybody is a soul. Some think they are customers; some think they work there. You get to the checkout, and your eyes lock for an instant with the clerk's. 'Are you here? I'm here. Wow, a fellow soul!"' 

"I get on a bus, and by the time I get off, I feel like I have met intimate family members I've known all my life. We're all in love with one another."

"Don't take your melodrama so seriously. Let's remember who we really are -- that is, souls, not egos. The ego is who you think you are."

"Offering your work and all your actions to God takes daily life out of the realm of ego and into the higher Self."

"Christ said to be in the world but not of the world. You are simultaneously living your story line--keeping your ground, remembering your zip code --and having your awareness free and spacious, not caught in any thing, just delighting in the richness of this timeless moment."

On Attachments:

"Once you understand that there is a place in you that is not attached, you can extricate yourself from attachments."

"One way to get free of attachment is to cultivate the witness consciousness, to become a neutral observer of your own life. The witness place inside you is simple awareness, the part of you that is aware of everything -- just noticing, watching, not judging, just being present, being here now."

On Self-Awareness:

"Along with that self-awareness comes the subtle joy of just being here, alive, enjoying being present in this moment."

"I have pains throughout my body. I list them for my doctors. But I don't identify with them. I identify with being a witness of pain." (Ram Dass had a debilitating stroke in his sixties.)

"Much of my sense of contentment comes from my relationship with Maharaj-ji and the constant remembrance of his presence in my life. Being in relationship with him is like having an infinitely deep pool of love and wisdom that always mirrors my deepest being."

"When you are identified with your soul, you not only reflect God's light, but you also become a mirror for others to find their souls. The only goal a soul has is to satisfy God and become one with the Beloved."

Ram Dass tells the wonderful story of driving too slowly on a freeway and getting pulled over. He had been, "singing to Krishna, a radiant, blue incarnation of God" when he saw blue flashing lights behind him. He effused unconditional love to the state trooper, who it seemed didn't want the conversation to end. They discussed the infraction, the car (a 1938 Buick), and the box of mints on the passenger's seat until finally the officer said, "Be gone with you." Ram Dass writes, "As I got into the car and started to drive away, he was standing by his cruiser. I looked in the mirror and saw that he was waving at me. Tell me, was that a state trooper or was that Krishna?" 

Monday, June 27, 2022

What I'm Reading: Feel-Good Book Five


When I lived in Washington, DC in the eighties, I met the meditation teacher Stephen Levine at a conference and bought his beautiful book, A Gradual Awakening. "Treasure yourself," he inscribed on the first page. I devoured the practical tips on meditation, the clear explanation of the benefits of becoming aware of "monkey mind" -- the mind's incessant chatter -- and found great joy in the guided meditations sprinkled throughout. 

One hot August day in 1988, I took this book and my lunch to the park at DuPont Circle for my lunch break from my job at the Institute for International Environment and Development. This park, surrounded by a large traffic circle and a magnificent fountain at its center, pulsed with life. Bike messengers, chess and checkers players, homeless people, others on break like me, and passersby filled the walkways and patches of grass.

Seated on a bench, I began to read the guided meditation on opening your heart in loving-kindness. I slowly read the words, "May all beings be happy. May all beings be clear-minded. May their hearts open. Slowly and gently let your love spread to all beings, everywhere."

"May all sentient beings, all feeling beings, may they be free from suffering. May they love themselves. May they come to their happiness. May they uncover the joy of their true self. All beings everywhere. Just let yourself sit in the light of this love, in this caring for yourself, for each other. Don't try to do anything. Just be. In love. In the light. May all beings share in this openness. May everyone experience this spaciousness, this openness of heart. may we all come home to our completeness."

As I read, sitting on the park bench in the summer sun, still wearing a sweater from the cold office, I felt the words crack my heart wide open. I ate my food, a delicious, peanut butter sandwich that I chewed slowly, appreciating deeply. I took in the others at DuPont Circle and loved each and every one, open to their sadness and their joy. I took in the whole city of Washington, DC.

My heart opened out to the country, touching my brothers' lives where they were, and my other relatives and friends. My heart opened out to the Americas -- including my parents who lived in Colombia -- and then to the world. As I meditated, tears of utter bliss streamed down my cheeks. Deeply, amazingly at peace with the whole universe. I saw my part in it, feeling the presence of a powerful force whose language is love.

All too soon, it was time to walk back to work. The world around me seemed to vibrate with life, with love. I felt wide open to others, to everything, deeply grateful for this beautiful life. 

But as hard as I tried to maintain that openness, it slipped away. It's okay, though. I know where to find it again; inside the covers of A Gradual Awakening.

PS My book Courage Without Grace takes place in DC, and Josie spends a lot of time in and around DuPont Circle. Here's Josie.

"For the first time since arriving in DC, I had hope. Pedaling past the many pigeons and bicycle messengers at DuPont Circle, I admired the park's fountain with its chalice-like shape, three sculptures, and low pool. On the Taft Bridge, I snapped pictures of my stone lion friends. The expressions on their regal faces looked pleased, as if they knew things were looking up for me and were glad to play their part. 

 Still giddy with new hope, I turned up my street, standing as I pedaled up the hill. Something rumbled nearby, and I checked behind me. I nearly fell over when I saw the black motorcycle. Dear God, will that man never leave me alone?"

Wednesday, June 22, 2022

What I'm Reading: Feel-Good Book Four

 I have no idea where I got The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living but it's been on my bookshelf for years, like a joyful reminder that happiness is possible. The book follows a conversation between His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Howard C. Cutler, MD, beautifully capturing the Dalai Lama's joy and wisdom. Cutler uses examples from his life and his psychiatric practice to give the Dalai Lama's words more meaning.

One of the Tibetan Buddhist monk's most famous quotes is, "My religion is very simple. My religion is kindness." In this book, he expands on kindness. "Once you accept the fact that compassion is not something childish or sentimental, once you realize that compassion is something really worthwhile, realize its deeper value, then you immediately develop an attraction towards it, a willingness to cultivate it. And once you encourage the thought of compassion in your mind, once that thought becomes active, then your attitude towards others changes automatically. If you approach others with the thought of compassion, that will automatically reduce fear and allow an openness with other people. It creates a positive, friendly atmosphere." 

I first read this book about twenty years ago, when my daughters were one and four. It changed my life then, and with this re-reading, it's changing my life now. 

My girls and I attended a Mom's Club event where we had decorated our car trunk for a Halloween party. Prizes went to the favorite "trunk-or-treat" designs, and I did what I do best. I joked with the other moms, telling everyone to vote for the farm we'd created out of Fisher Price Little People. Sure enough, they did, and I won. I was mortified by the attention, and mentally kicked myself for having such a big mouth. But I stopped myself, remembering what I'd read about compassion. Why not have a little compassion for myself? Often I am an outspoken joker. Maybe, just this once, I'd accept myself, show myself a little compassion.

I opened my prize and laughed. "Welcome Home" said the fall-themed door hanger. Yes indeed, Jeannie, welcome home to accepting yourself exactly as you are.

This time around, I've taken from the book a way to create a more positive, friendly atmosphere in my life. As a retail merchandiser for Hallmark, I visit eight stores weekly to keep the greeting card displays organized. I'm often surrounded by people - who can be so annoying! As a result of Happiness, it occurred to me that I could practice compassion in my aisle by looking for ways to be kind. The first day I went to work with the intention, I was actually nervous! I felt vulnerable by taking the risk of making a fool of myself. It turned out really well; From a place of simple kindness, I had genuine interactions with people that made my day. And now I'm off to work again, preparing to share a little compassion with any fellow human who might wander up my aisle. Maybe I'll see you there!