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The Seven Whispers
A Spiritual Practice for Times Like These
By Christina Baldwin
New World LibraryCopyright © 2002 Christina Baldwin
All rights reserved.
Maintain Peace of Mind
There is a really deep well inside me.
And in it dwells God.
Sometimes I am there too.
But more often stones and grit block the well,
and God is buried beneath.
Then He must be dug out again.
— Etty Hillesum, An Interrupted Life
If the doors of perception were cleansed, said Blake, everything would appear to man as it is — infinite. But the doors of perception are hung with cobwebs of thought, prejudice, cowardice, sloth. Eternity is with us, inviting our contemplation perpetually, but we are too arrogant to still our thought and let divine sensation have its way.
— Evelyn Underhill, Practical Mysticism
Peace of mind is the cornerstone of spiritual life. It is the tabula rasa, the clean slate, upon which messages of spiritual guidance may be written. The only way I can receive these messages is to hold myself in a quiet, receptive state I call peace of mind. Here is the image that comes: With outstretched hands, I am holding a shallow bowl. The bowl is filled with clear water. The bottom of the bowl is lined with pebbles and shells that represent all the things that clutter my mind: extraneous thoughts, feelings, tasks, commitments — the stuff of life. I stare through the water, and see the busyness of my life slightly altered by the sheen of stillness. I am separate from my doing, waiting and calm. This peace of mind is where all spiritual direction starts, and to keep finding our way, we need to keep returning to this state of calm mind and open heart.
Unfortunately, our minds are not trained for stillness. Our thoughts are more often occupied by a highly opinionated, contentious committee of interesting and annoying characters. We may stand before the mirror and see one face looking back at us, but inside is the irrepressible child, the overbearing critic, the whiny victim, the encourager, the doubter, the judge, and so on. It takes years to sort through enough of these voices to have even a chance to serve as moderator of our inner committees, to stop feeling like a servant, constantly at beck and call to the lords and ladies of conflicting impulses.
In the decade of my thirties, I spent significant time and money in psychotherapy learning to assert my autonomy, to become my own self, and to master my fate. This did not bring me peace of mind, though it did install an internal set of Robert's Rules of Order. Henry Martyn Robert was an American army engineer who wrote these rules in 1876 to prevent overt violence in the raw terrain of pioneer society-making. Robert's Rules of Order were a profound success and have become a cornerstone of social conduct. They have had similar success within me, as I rarely draw blood while doing battle with my mind. No amount of therapeutic intervention, however, provided me with peace of mind.
Therapy is one of the popular paths of our time, but people have always done this mental sorting through various spiritual traditions, seeking to understand the mystical invitation the universe offers the human mind. In the opening quote, English mystic Evelyn Underhill, writing in 1915, quotes William Blake, who wrote in 1790. Peace of mind is a spiritual state waiting for us to find it. It has always been a possibility understood by monks and mystics, but in times like these the world needs you and me, ordinary people, to undertake this journey, to learn to step outside the ego self and find our spiritual self. To experience peace of mind, we need to expand beyond psychological clarity and learn how to comfortably experience a wider range of consciousness. This is not as difficult or mysterious as it may sound; we have been doing it spontaneously all our lives.
As a child of about six, I remember climbing a sycamore tree across the street from our house in Indianapolis. I scampered high enough in the branches to feel the tree moving in the wind, wrapped my sturdy legs around the smooth bark of the trunk, and hung on. The wind and tree held me and I became one with the sway. Enthralled. Enraptured. Ecstatic. We try to put this communion with the world into words, but during the actual experience, the mind is wiped clear of explanation and we exist in a pure state of relationship. We may call this wider range of consciousness daydreaming or lost moments, prayer or meditation. Our brains are wired for these beyond- word experiences. We just need help remembering how to let them into our awareness. Help remembering how to let them occur and surprise us in the midst of the everyday.
Decades ago when I was beginning to sort my psychological kitbag, I took a roll of masking tape and laid out sixteen-inch squares on the kitchen floor of my apartment. I labeled the squares: happy child, frightened child, angry child, punishing parent, loving parent, observer self, total confusion. As I worked with the stories and emotions rising up in me, I would stand in one square after another, hopscotching around in my self-parts. This experiment taught me to experience internal boundaries, and to shift from one state of mind to another.
My hopping about was often accompanied by long journal entries, through which I learned to identify who was being "me" at any given moment. And if I lost track of myself, I could stand on a stool and consider the options. Over time, I learned that shifting my sense of my "self" at any particular moment would also shift my emotional state, my thought processes, and my assumptions about the present moment. If I got stuck on a particular square, I could notice whether or not I was communicating clearly with myself and others, and decide which square was likely to be more effective. Eventually I spent more and more time in the observer self, negotiating among my psychological parts, and so established my moderator role with "the internal committee" or ego. I also noticed there was more to myself than represented in any one of these squares, and so began my spiritual odyssey.
If I were to do this exercise again today, the squares would be occupied by the cast of characters who emerged from psychological healing — integrated child, integrated self-parent, observer mind, and so forth — as well as characters who are surfacing during my spiritual journey. When I step outside the confines of personality, I find myself entering an expansive chamber of the mind where I cohabit with spirit. In this experience of cohabitation are sources of guidance that are not small self, but may be higher Self or soul: she who listens, she who asks, she who prays, she who volunteers for service, she who challenges.
One of my great teachers about all this is a woman named Etty Hillesum, whose diaries record her spiritual journey in the Netherlands as World War II began and the Germans invaded. Etty, a bright young Jewish woman moving about the intellectual café society of Amsterdam, began recording her insights and struggles as the world closed in around her. In 1941, she already understood what I was discovering on the kitchen floor. "[Y]ou can't think your way out of emotional difficulties," she wrote, "that takes something altogether different. You have to make yourself passive then, and just listen. Re-establish contact with a slice of eternity."
When we can be aware of the fullness of our self/Self, and live at least part of the time aware of this state of spiritual cohabitation, God is no longer far away in heaven. God is right here in the chambers of our hearts having tea, and reminding us, whisper by whisper, that we are not alone. When Brother Wayne Teasdale was researching his book The Mystic Heart, he found that when he asked people in the West, "Where is God?" they tended to point to heaven. When he asked people in the East the same question, they pointed to their chests. I suspect both are true: the Divine is above-below- behind-before, and the Divine is within. The purpose of any spiritual practice is to keep us engaged and in dialogue with the Divine, wherever we perceive it, and however we have learned to speak and listen.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, Evelyn Underhill wrote, "this state is not so much a rare and unimaginable operation, as something [we are] doing in a vague, imperfect fashion at every moment of conscious life, and doing with intensity and thoroughness in the more valid moments of that life." She calls this receptivity to dialogue letting "divine sensation have its way."
For me to let divine sensation have its way, I need a daily practice that fosters peace of mind. While I take responsibility for the peace I bring to the moment, I don't always feel very peaceful. When my mind is stirred up, and the water in my little bowl of tranquility is frothing with miniature whitecaps, I restore calm by practicing the most basic centering exercise there is: conscious breathing. I slow down and breathe in a way that rolls past the committee's busy voices and aerates the quiet corners of the mind. I take long, round breaths that expand into my belly. And often I follow the simple teaching of Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh: I take one breath to let go, one breath to be here, one breath to ask now what?
The thing about breathing is we can do it in public and nobody thinks we're weird. Breathing doesn't require accessories, special training, or equipment. Just breathing. We're doing it anyway; we might as well do it in a way that brings us closer to peace of mind.
I step out on the balcony of my house. I like to go outside, whatever the weather. The morning waits, or the afternoon, or the evening. I am standing among tree limbs with my yard and garden below. I take a few deep breaths. In our bodies, oxygen feeds the heart and brain first. To pause and breathe deeply literally sends more energy to the parts of our bodies we most need to access for peace of mind. Inhalation leads to inspiration.
One breath to let go.
Let go of the list making, the squabbling, the disorientation of too many selves, the confusion of priorities, the constrictions of the heart. Let go of my fears, the niggling of inadequacy, anger at this or that interaction, the rush that comes from taking things personally. Send in the oxygen, instead of the adrenaline.
One breath to be here.
Be here in the moment and notice what is: the sensual reality of wherever I am standing. Peace is all around me; my job is to bring my mind to peace. To be here is to step out of the center of the world, and to simply join it. What do I see, hear, taste, touch, smell — even through a plate glass window in a hotel lobby — how am I, here in the world?
One breath to ask now what?
Now what is trying to happen in my life? Now what do I want this period of my life to mean? Now what might spirit say, if I say nothing more and just for a moment ... listen.
I breathe. I whisper my request, "Please help me maintain peace of mind." The words echo in my skull. At its best, in this instance, my body feels like a hollow tube, flowing with gentle energy. My mind is receptive. I breathe, wait a few seconds, enjoy the stillness I am creating within myself.
Nobody taught me to do this, or else everything in my whole life has taught me to do this. I am simply practicing being she who asks, to see if that which answers has a message in this moment.
Beneath this phrase resides a whole paragraph of request: Please, God, keep me in the soul's council. Give me a split second to hear what You would say, to act as You would have me, to glimpse the larger purpose. Don't let me get swept up in the push-pull struggles of egotism — mine or anyone else's. Please think with me, and through me, so that I may maintain peace of mind in all that I do today.
Etty Hillesum, writing under far more strenuous conditions than my comfortable American life, spoke her covenant with God this way:
God, take me by Your hand. I shall follow You dutifully, and not resist too much. I shall evade none of the tempests life has in store for me, I shall try to face it all as best I can.... I shall never again assume, in my innocence, that any peace that comes my way will be eternal. I shall accept all the inevitable tumult and struggle. I delight in warmth and security, but I shall not rebel if I have to suffer cold, should You so decree. I shall follow wherever Your hand leads me and shall try not to be afraid. I shall try to spread some of my warmth, of my genuine love for others, wherever I go.
Etty Hillesum died in Auschwitz, November 30, 1943. She was twenty- nine years old. I read her diaries over and over, in awe of her insights as I send my little requests into the morning air, asking for accompaniment as I answer the phone, respond to email, interact with family, friends, colleagues, neighbors, and strangers.
How many decisions flow through our lives in the course of a day? Now, as it has always been, the constant little acts of yes and no, of welcome and refusal, shape who we are and determine where we're going. I want to make these choices within a spiritual context, and that is what I pray for with these words.
Some days I am not peaceful at all! My mind is seething with anxiety over how my life is going — whatever concern fills the moment: money, relationship, health, work, the latest bad news. So every day, here is my choice: to escalate the mantra of anxiety, or to take a few deep breaths and say firmly to myself: this seems like as good a time as any to maintain peace of mind!
And then I turn back to my desk and the imperfection of being myself. But at least I have taken a few moments to engage the mystery of the day. I have prayed first: before interacting with the rest of the family, before making breakfast, before getting to work. And such a prayer connects me to every other life, to all the ordinary people holding out our hands in faith that the great invisible Divine will reach back so that we may go into the day escorting each other.
The specifics of a morning ritual may be creatively designed to fit many different circumstances. Some of my friends do devotional reading, some meditate, some jog or take quiet early morning walks, some have coffee and heartfelt council in bed with their partner. I go out on the balcony, or if I'm not at home, find any little spot outside — the deck at my brother's house, a potted tree by the hotel entrance, a geranium blooming in a strange neighborhood. The commitment is to take a few minutes to bow down with the day and make myself available.
It's not so important what any of us do in the morning to invite peace of mind, it's only important that peace of mind is invited. That's the thing — to extend the invitation for divine sensation to present itself; to remember to prepare ourselves to walk the day in a spiritual manner. And then to listen, and to the best of our abilities do as we are told.CHAPTER 2
Move at the Pace of Guidance
If a person feels a longing to be at one with the universe,
it is as if the universe feels the same longing
to be at one with the person.
If I sense a great aching in my heart to be in love with God,
it seems that God must in some mysterious way
share that aching for me.
— Gerald May, Will and Spirit
In a world of speed and distraction, pace of guidance invites us to combine the practices of measured movement and listening. Speed is some guy running through the airport shouting into a cell phone. Pace is going around the block with a three-year-old and noticing everything the child is noticing. When we move at pace, we have time to question and time to listen for answers before moving on. When we move at the pace of guidance, it occurs to us to wonder what plans the Divine might have for us, in the midst of the plans we have for ourselves.
Speed tends to cancel out guidance. When we move in speed, we are out of touch with spirit, and when we are out of touch with spirit, the ego steps into control. "After all," I hear that old familiar voice say in my mind, "somebody has to be driving!" And drive it does. Personal will runs rampant, like a headstrong horse.
I long ago discovered that the only way to stop a runaway horse is by first calming myself and then calming the animal. No amount of screaming helps. No amount of pleading. No amount of waiting for instructions from the roadside. The horse will run until it has run itself out, or I will find a way to slow the momentum and come back into relationship with what I am riding: becoming two beings moving with one gait.
Excerpted from The Seven Whispers by Christina Baldwin. Copyright © 2002 Christina Baldwin. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsIntroduction: A Spiritual Practice for Times Like These,
The Seven Whispers,
1 Maintain Peace of Mind,
2 Move at the Pace of Guidance,
3 Practice Certainty of Purpose,
4 Surrender to Surprise,
5 Ask for What You Need and Offer What You Can,
6 Love the Folks in Front of You,
7 Return to the World,