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Embracing Our Essence: Spiritual Conversations with Prominent Women

Embracing Our Essence: Spiritual Conversations with Prominent Women

by Susan Skog, Bur, Joan Borysenko, Betty J. Eadie, Marian Wright Edelman

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Jane Goodall, Betty Ford, Sophy Burnham, Joan Borysenko, Elisabeth Kubler Ross and Naomi Judd are among the 29 prominent women who share their personal philosophies, practices, touchstones and struggles. Their powerful messages invite women to discover their spiritual essence, their intuitiveness, wisdom and compassion. Embracing Our Essence speaks directly to that


Jane Goodall, Betty Ford, Sophy Burnham, Joan Borysenko, Elisabeth Kubler Ross and Naomi Judd are among the 29 prominent women who share their personal philosophies, practices, touchstones and struggles. Their powerful messages invite women to discover their spiritual essence, their intuitiveness, wisdom and compassion. Embracing Our Essence speaks directly to that deep place inside all of us that yearns to love, connect and grow in goodness.

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Health Communications, Incorporated
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Our spirituality is our opening to one another as whole human beings, each different and precious, and our exploring how we can truly learn to love.

—Jean Grasso Fitzpatrick

Women ablaze with spiritual goodness and purpose are transforming and healing our world as never before. Millions of us are embracing—or may be just on the verge of discovering—our spiritual essence—our intuitiveness, wisdom, resilience and compassion. We are awakening from a spirit-less somnolence to see our relationships, society, environment, children, institutions and, most important, ourselves in a startling new spiritual context.

Infused, even exhilarated with our individual and collective abilities to shine, we finally see we can indeed create a new world. We don't have to wait for the ubiquitous "them" to do something. We are "them," and we are already deep into shaping a more loving and humane reality. At the same time, we fully realize the only way we can carve out this courageous new existence is by first nourishing our very souls. A rich new external world must spring from our lush interiors. We must lay a loving foundation in our own hearts and spirits before we can build soulful communities around us. Anything else is an illusion.

We see greater spirituality, then, as our only hope for soul satisfaction—and our society's best hope for evolution. Which is why, after years of seeking solace in worldly distractions, shallow relationships, career kudos and materialistic binges, unprecedented numbers of us are on full-blown inner quests, knowing fully that we will encounter unfamiliar, even terrifying territory.

For our spiritual growth is inevitably linked to intensely personal, often painful awakenings. We begin to awaken as we admire our meticulously decorated homes and whisper, "There has to be something more." One day, as we watch our children sleep, or smell the air after a rainstorm—or get a dreaded prognosis about our health—we sense our souls irreparably shift. We can almost feel our souls gasp as something new is born. And in that soul-shift, we feel an intense connection to something greater than ourselves and a new, raw concern for humanity everywhere. As German mystic Meister Eckhart said, "Whatever God does, the first outburst is always compassion." We feel alternately electrified—and humbled—by the palpable sense that we are exquisitely wrought, lovingly planned and molded for a Divine purpose. We have been sent here with gifts of insight, talents, goodness and light to create a better world.

When did my own spiritual stirrings begin? When did I first sense the world in a different, deeper way? Much of it began growing up in the magical Iowa countryside, in a child's ultimate delight of dense woods, streams running with crayfish and guppies, and bushes heavy with raspberries and gooseberries. In a world where towering oaks, maples, hickories and locusts gave life to my dreams and dance to my imagination. I credit my parents with intuitively knowing how healthy it was to allow my four siblings and me to roam free in the woods, playing hide-and-seek on frozen creekbeds, poking in hollow trees, burying ourselves in autumn leaves or pouncing on the first bluebells of spring.

I think it is indeed possible for a child to first experience a Higher Power through mud, water and tree limbs, and many of us fortunate enough to come of age in such a wild place are evidence of it. The woods were—and still are—the most gloriously crafted sanctuary I can think of, where one can lie down in and gain strength from the life there, not knowing or caring, really, where the body ends and the spirit begins. Not listening to the chatter of the mind but to the whisper of the wind in the changing leaves.

As a teenager, I spent countless nights searching the night sky, wondering what was really "out there." A hunger to connect with something greater than myself was largely fed through time in the woods and by keeping a journal in thick sky-blue ink of my own and others' thoughts, from Thoreau to Greek philosophers. In 1969, when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin first walked on the moon, millions of us vicariously felt as if we too were glimpsing our first real gateway to infinity. The Apollo 11 mission made such an impression on me that for years I lined the bottoms of my dresser drawers with newspaper clippings and pictures of that first incredible closeup of the lunar landscape.

My spiritual evolution lurched forward, roughly and painfully, almost four years ago. Like many women featured in my book, a physical degeneration was the abrupt catalyst for spiritual regeneration. Almost overnight, I began having searing pain from my fingertips to my shoulders. An MRI showed several ruptured discs in my neck, the result of normal degeneration over the years.

One gray January morning I awoke from surgery to feel myself encased in a head-to-shoulder brace after the removal of the discs and a spinal fusion. Unable to walk much, drive, or talk more than a whisper for weeks because of damaged vocal cords, I retreated from the outside world—and ultimately went deep within. During long winter days, I turned to writings of the heart, from those of Thoreau to Rainer Maria Rilke, Anne Morrow Lindbergh to Alexandra Stoddard. For two years after, I continued to wander through Hebrew teachings, Buddhist tracts, Christian mysticism, metaphysical philosophies, Native American prayers and Islamic poems.

Last winter, my explorations seized center stage. No glorious, shining debut. It was akin to waking up, looking around, finding oneself barreling ahead on an unplanned journey—and panic!—"I never said goodbye to the old life! What do I take along? Where do I get off?"

As much as I tried to return to the status quo, I couldn't shake the sense of aching for something else and of constantly hearing an incessant, unyielding inner voice telling me to wake up. Stop doing, quit whirling, listen quietly and be ready for what was to come next. As much as I tried to maintain the normal flow of our days, I felt restless, raw, even anguished, not fully understanding the rapid inner transformation causing me to chafe at my outer life.

My reading became a feverish, almost obsessive thing. The words of timeless "souljourners," from Hildegard of Bingen to Buddah, from Jesus to Gandhi, from Teresa of Avila to Lao Tzu, and from Socrates to Albert Einstein, brought immense relief. "Ah, now I see. . . ." At the same time, I was increasingly saddened by our neglect of children, unethical ways of doing business, gross abuse of the environment, materialistic appetite and intolerance of differences.

I began to spend more hours alone, in nature, trying to stay receptive to any Divine assistance and inspiration available. I spent time just sitting at the computer, simply waiting for my next "assignment." When I finally quieted life down, made no plans and just stayed open, I began to experience electrifying moments I can only conclude were of a spiritual nature. I began to wake at 5 a.m. to meditate, think, pray or to merely savor the solitude before my family woke. One morning while meditating, I experienced the classic sensation—described in multitudes of cultures for millions of years—of being enveloped, enfolded and energized by a pure white light. No longer able to feel my physical body in any form, I saw that I had come from and was forever part of the light. It is no minor coincidence that all religious traditions uniformly speak of our origin in the light.

And I finally saw that my months of seeking were not aimless, that they indeed had purpose and worth. I sensed that I could always depend on and be uplifted by this intense source of love and light. I felt anguished, thinking, "But I don't want to leave you." And I distinctly heard the message, "You never have to."

St. Augustine once wrote, "I entered and beheld with the eye of my soul . . . above my mind, light unchangeable. . . . He that knows the truth, knows what that light is; and he that knows it, knows eternity." I was beginning to have some sense of what the light was. And I knew there was no turning back to my old way of seeing. The journey was unfolding.

I began to better understand the rich history—and quiet confidence—of those who relied more on the Divine, often mysterious strength available to us all. They showed we have unfathomable, inexhaustible power to do good in the world, and that we are constantly supported and surrounded by Divine assistance in choosing to live more humanely. Whatever you wish to call the source of all creation—God, Yahweh, the Absolute, Allah, the Divine Mother, the Source, the One, the "Love that loved us into existence," as St. Augustine described the Divine—our Higher Power knows our most intimate desires and guides our lives in ways far grander than our wildest imaginations.

Yet as sure as I am of these spiritual truths, I continue to wrestle with so many other questions. I'm not as compassionate, patient and nonjudgmental as I want to be. I certainly don't freely welcome pain and conflict as succor for my spiritual growth. And as much as I try, it is so hard to see the sacred in cleaning up entrails of my children's spaghetti from the floor.

And what are we all actually longing for, experiencing, going toward? Why is the spiritual pull so strong? Caught up in the stuff of life, what daily practices can we weave into our days to further jump-start our spiritual growth? Don't we all wonder how we can live more peacefully and purposefully in a troubled world?

I came to believe millions of us, women and men alike, are increasingly asking these questions. One December night sitting by a fire, I wondered out loud to my husband what it would be like to tap the wisdom of more experienced female spiritual seekers and gain some frame of reference for my own wonderings. "Wouldn't it be great if I could talk with Joan Borysenko about her experiences with meditation, mind-body issues and other spiritual stuff?" To me, Borysenko is truly a modern-day mystic, and for years I'd found her books incredibly insightful and intuitive. The next evening, I turned on a television program on PBS and started laughing when I saw Joan Borysenko talking about the power of prayer. The narrator said Borysenko had recently moved from the East Coast to the mountains outside of Boulder, Colorado—one hour from my home! And in yet another instant of divinely inspired clarity—not chance or coincidence—I knew that my book's journey would be launched in the coming year.

And so it was, and so I share it with all of you as we move forward together in cultivating our lush interior. I have been overwhelmingly grateful for and forever inspired by the compassion, empathy, humor, strength and wisdom of those I've interviewed. They are superb spiritual role models for all of us, women and men, as we embrace new, more fulfilling ways of living. They can help us cope with the dark nights of the soul that invariably lie ahead. They can help us see clearly the spiritual truths that will bring more personal meaning to our days and illuminate our world.

Here are 10 of these truths that echoed over and over again, like a spiritual symphony, from the women I interviewed:

We are literally, concretely, vitally connected to one another and with a Higher Power. This is not metaphorical, poetic or philosophical. This is a timeless idea that pervades all the major traditions. Because of this connectedness, what is done to one of us is done to us all. Any loving acts send out loving reverberations in the world, just as our hateful words, thoughts and acts spread a mean-spirited malignancy. Knowing of this connectedness, then, behooves us to love and care for one another better—humans and nonhumans alike.

Just as we are, we are intensely, innately spiritual. We are living sparks of divinity with the power to light the world. Our true natures are sacred, good and ever so wise. God permeates our every atom, cell and thought. We don't have to do anything, be anything or go anywhere because we are all naturally part of a universal rhythm, flow, balance, dance. We just have to remember we are part of the One, a feather on the breath of God, as Hildegard of Bingen wrote.

Respecting and caring for ourselves is the first critical step toward connecting with the Absolute. Feeding our own souls should become as practical and natural as brushing our teeth, washing our faces and toning our bodies. Because we are all seamlessly connected, going within to find more harmony is never selfish or self-centered—it delivers much-needed peace to the world. Only by changing ourselves, person by person, will we change the world. Taking responsibility for our lives— knowing our limits, communicating our boundaries, saying "no" to too many demands—cherishes our sacred selves and restores us to our fullness. Strengthening our spiritual sinews provides the strength to go about the outer work needed in the world. Thus, we have the right to avoid situations, people and events that destroy our peace of mind, body and soul. Only when we replenish our own spirits, regularly and without guilt, can we be resilient enough to love the terminally ill, the children, the homeless or the environment.

We have devalued, underestimated and failed to call on the immense spiritual support available to and within all of us. We don't have to tough it out alone in this life. We don't have to feel frightened and vulnerable all the time. We can learn to live more in the present moment, not regretting the past, not fearing the future. We can actively visualize God's love surrounding us and others in need. We can close our eyes and imagine Divine light and love healing our violent cities, cleansing our polluted selves, skies and streams, surrounding and protecting our children, all over the world. We can ask for help and receive it. From the moment we arrive on earth, we are enfolded, literally bathed in the support of a Higher Power, angels, spiritual guides and more love and light than we could ever imagine. All we have to do is ask. All we need to do is let the light and wisdom from within break our bonds of flesh and reach outward. We are not powerless. Far from it. We are filled with an immense power for beauty and goodness.

We won't hear our spirit's call if we constantly drown it out with incessant activity. We need moments of absolute stillness to quiet our mind's chatter and let our souls stretch and speak to us. We won't hear the voice inside us and allow it to guide our lives if we insist on blasting through our days nonstop. Without solitude, wrote author Anne Morrow Lindbergh, we spill our time, energy and creativity without letting the pitcher fill to the brim. Without quiet, says Marian Wright Edelman, we can't hear the sound of "the genuine" within each of us.

The spiritual is not found in the grandiose, the magnificent, the ostentatious display. It is found in the ordinary moments, in the preparation and sharing of a meal, in the unfolding of a lilac bush outside your window, in a child's sigh, in a conflict with a coworker, in the passing of a parent. Miracles happen daily if we have the eyes to see them. Anything that makes us more aware of our connections with one another and all of creation and helps us love deeply is spiritual.

Spiritual serenity is not the exclusive domain of any one tradition, religion or practice. We each find God in our own way because God is within and all around us. No book, no worship service, no intellectual doctrine can substitute for our own experience of the Divine. Religious rituals, hymn singing, group meditations or candle lighting can powerfully connect us with a Higher Power, but they are only conduits, not divinity itself.

Suffering and the timeless dark nights of the soul are a necessary, maybe unavoidable, prelude to the ultimate odyssey—our journey within. For it is in suffering that our souls open to something new, and our reverence and appreciation for all things is deepened. Through suffering and loss, we can often find the jewel in the lotus of the heart, as Buddhists describe it. Our vulnerability in suffering teaches us how to love like few lessons really can.

Becoming more spiritual doesn't miraculously shield us from future suffering. Nothing safeguards or buffers us totally from crisis. But a faith in a Higher Power can help us absorb the blows of life and find some inner peace. If we didn't suffer, how would we feel deeper compassion for others' pain?

With spiritual growth comes a sense of humility and surrender to our creator, the loving force that knows our most intimate dreams and desires and guides our lives in ways far greater than our grandest fantasies. Literally sensing and trusting that force, even when it seems totally illogical, will take our lives to heights we've scarcely imagined, if at all. Meditating to quiet our internal talk and instead amplify God's voice and energy can transform our body, mind and spirits as never before. Depending on a Higher Power—and praying out loud, regularly, on our knees, in our cars, as we bathe our children—may be the wisest, most pragmatic thing we will ever do. "Thy will be done" is not an old-fashioned notion—it is as profound and as comforting as it gets.

Finally, the women featured in this book warmly affirm what we have always known inside: that from the moment we arrived on earth, we were meant to live more lovingly, purposefully and simply. That we must be catalysts for change. That we have a responsibility to transform our world. That we do indeed have a gloriously larger destiny that extends far beyond the boundaries of our towns, countries and this physical plane. These women show us that life is meant to be literally flooded with simple wonders and quiet joys. We are meant to celebrate and protect nature—and each other.

I hope their messages give us all the inner courage and outer resolve to heed their collective wisdom and move forward on the most engrossing and captivating journey of our lives.

¬1995. All rights reserved. Reprinted from Embracing Our Essence by Susan Skog. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, without the written permission of the publisher. Publisher: Health Communications, Inc., 3201 SW 15th Street, Deerfield Beach, FL 33442.

Meet the Author

Susan Skog is a nationally known writer and presenter who shines a light on humanitarian issues. She's a manager at Engineers Without Borders-USA, a leading organization working in the developing world. Trained as a journalist, Skog's written five other nonfiction books and for Family Circle, AARP, The NY Times, and others. She's interviewed many acclaimed humanitarians and peacemakers.

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