Spiritual Notes to Myself: Essential Wisdom for the 21st Centuryby Hugh Prather, Suzanne Albertson (Illustrator)
The New York Times calls best-selling author Prather an 'American Kahlil Gibran.' Here Prather helps us to find our spiritual center with this modern-day book of proverbs.
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SPIRITUAL NOTES to MYSELF
Essential Wisdom for the 21st Century
By HUGH PRATHER
Red Wheel/Weiser, LLCCopyright © 1998 Hugh Prather
All rights reserved.
In the late 1960s I wrote a book entitled Notes to Myself, which was published in 1970. I look back on it now as a writing that in some ways transcended its time but in many ways did not. Certainly we have all learned much since those days of self-examination, self-fulfillment, self-expression, and numerous other focuses on the individual or separate self. It was a time when even the word "selfishness" went from a negative to a positive. As a society, we still are cleaning up many loose ends from that period. In the groups my wife Gayle and I run for couples and parents, we continue to see individuals tenaciously holding on to myths such as "You have to give to yourself before you will have anything to give to others" and "You can't make someone else happy; you can only make yourself happy" and maybe the saddest of all: "As parents we have to reclaim our rights; we are not our children's servants." Ironically, it is now two thousand years since Jesus said, "Who is greater, the one at the table or the one who serves? Surely, the one at the table. Yet here I am among you as one who serves."
To some extent, Notes to Myself suffered from this type of preoccupation with the unconnected or unserving self. It was based on the premise that we learn about ourselves by studying our private feelings, patterns, thoughts, "dreams," reactions to others, and so forth. I believed that by becoming more aware I could improve myself, the way I approached other people, and my life in general. My assumption was not so much wrong as it was incomplete. Certainly it's a good thing to look in our hearts and see what we believe. We all have layers of feelings that become more loving and unifying the deeper we go into them. But at the time, I still was thinking that I was made equally of love and fear, driven equally by the desire to heal and the desire to hurt. I saw the distinction, but I identified with both. This makes for a very slow journey. Today I see more clearly the great gulf between the little self or "ego" and the united or "deeper self."
The 1970s marked the emergence of a general preoccupation with ego enhancement. We had sensitivity groups, consciousness-raising groups, encounter groups, and the beginnings of a tide of books and speakers urging us to love ourselves and "honor" our feelings. Although this movement did much good, its prominent feature was the ideal that, above all, we should define our ego's needs and devote ourselves to meeting them. Indeed, our ego's needs should not operate unconsciously, but when meeting them is our primary focus in life, we become preoccupied with all we haven't been getting and must get now. This attitude is quite separating and not at all as "empowering" as it is commonly believed to be.
Within us is a source of power that is far greater than our separate feelings, separate opinions, and separate agendas: our unity with other people. A selfish person is like a single power line attached to nothing. Making the line fatter and longer is impressive but accomplishes nothing. If we devote ourselves to our private differences, we journey down a dead-end road toward loneliness and loss. Far too many people today are ending their lives with a list of petty victories and meaningless gratifications that no one cares about—because they themselves cared about no one. And yet, entreaties to our oneness are distrusted and disbelieved. To much of the world, they are at best a joke; at worst, dangerous rantings.
The thing I lacked most when I wrote Notes to Myself was the experience of what connects us. I gave lip service to the concept of oneness, but it was still mere philosophy, just one idea among many. In another early book I posed the question of whether there is another way to go through life "besides being pulled through it kicking and screaming." When I wrote that I was still in love with the question. Now I am in love with the answer.
But please understand, the answer does not lie in having to embrace Judaism, Buddhism, fundamentalism, Catholicism, or any other ism. Nor does it lie in mere belief in God. Believing is of limited use. Sacred scriptures and inspired writings can point the way, but finally you have to walk where they are pointing. This you can do with the aid of a system or by listening to the stillness within you. Either way is fine, but ultimately you must stop searching and simply do it.
There is a way to have a growing fulfillment, a deepening peace, and an unreasonable happiness free of circumstances and events. It lies in recognizing our oneness with all living things. To me God is what binds us together. This is another way of saying God is Love. We simply are not separate. We do not have little private thoughts that affect no one but ourselves. All of that is an illusion, albeit a powerful one. Yet it will remain the hard fact of life until we feel, experience, and immerse ourselves in the stream that runs through us all.
There is no evidence outside of us that this eternal, unchangeable stream exists. Yet we only seem to turn to this one thing our eyes can't see or judge when we have grown tired of the world's usual patterns and of our own small thoughts. I write this book because I assume that you, like me, now feel a yearning for a simpler life and for relationships that last. There is unquestionably a way for you to have the life you long for. I now know this beyond any doubt.
Clearly an ego is not all we are. Nor is the ego's puny range of experience all we believe in. Most individuals have had at least a moment when they felt joined with something greater than themselves. Perhaps they felt swept up in the strains of extraordinary music, or felt utter stillness before the magnificence of nature. Perhaps they experienced an instant of perfect love for a child or an animal and the joy they felt was beyond human description. Perhaps they sensed the existence of an order or a perfection and suddenly they knew that it included everything and everyone. Maybe there was no outward evidence of this perfection or order, but they had a deep knowing nonetheless. Others have felt the touch of God's peace at the very moment of tragedy or loss. Here the evidence before their eyes refuted what they felt, but somehow they sensed the unshakable grounds for that peace.
As the old hymn says, "My God is real ... 'cause I can feel ... Him in my soul." That experience is undeniable. It is more powerful and intimate than anything in the world. Just one instant of the knowledge of God destroys even the laws of physics. It brushes aside time and space. It brushes aside death. For within the peace of God we can feel the presence of a loved one who may be continents away, or that someone who has died and no longer "exists" in the world in any meaningful sense is now with us, a living presence we cannot lose.
However, you don't need an overwhelming spiritual experience to begin. Signs and wonders are nice but not required. In order to start, you don't even need to have your questions answered. All you need is the intent to start. In a sense, this book is the field notes of how one person began his journey. These are the things I have said to myself and to others when I was not qualifying my sentences or trying to sugarcoat the truth. They are the things that Gayle and I have been thinking and increasingly living for many years. Believe me, they are pretested! You can take them to the bank.
As I did in Notes to Myself, I have tried in this volume to select and arrange passages to form a whole. Study this little book and you will have at least one route to "the place of eternal beauty." Apply the ideas daily, and you will stay there. This promise would be arrogant except that "the way" is so simple that even little children instinctively know it. The secret they feel—the one that is always happily bubbling up within them—is that, actually, we never left that place. We just forgot where we are.
My use of "you"
Having boys who love team sports, Gayle and I frequently have seen them talk to themselves in the course of a game: "You're not watching the ball." "Get your head in the game." "Swing [the bat, club, racket] from your hips, not your arms." In the following notes, I frequently use the second person in a similar way—to get my own attention.
Although occasionally I do address "you" the reader, most often I am not being blunt with you, but with myself. A firm reminder can cut through my mental dawdling: "Forget what just happened [Hugh], and get back to what's important." In this sense, many of the notes in this book are more like ones I might tape to the bathroom mirror or refrigerator door, rather than the more tentative notes I would enter in a diary.
The mind can and should be self-correcting, and sometimes a healthy dose of mental firmness is an effective part of this process. However, in my opinion self-censure and guilt must never be an aspect of self-encouragement, because all forms of attack split the mind rather than unite and focus it.
Sometimes I get the feeling God has pets and I'm not one of them.
I have this notion that there's a plan or rhythm of the universe or divine guidance, and if I could just follow it, everything would turn out okay. The problem is it seems to be revealed in hidden signs and coded indicators—which, somehow, I'm supposed to read. No one hears, "Turn left at the next corner and there under a discarded burger wrapper will be the winning lottery ticket." So what do we really have here, a God who stands behind a room divider and mutters?
God is the only sane thing there is, and we are all a part of God. However, if I believe there's some divine law manifesting itself as parking places and fat bank accounts in the West, while allowing children in the East to step on land minds, I have got an insane God on my mind.
Jesus' life didn't go well. He didn't reach his earning potential. He didn't have the respect of his colleagues. His friends weren't loyal. His life wasn't long. He didn't meet his soul mate. And he wasn't understood by his mother. Yet I think I deserve all those things because I'm so spiritual.
We are walking in a ticker tape parade. That's all that's going on. Some pieces of confetti read "great calves," some "chronic sinus," some "no noticeable hair loss," some "multiple sclerosis," and some "third finger amputation." Don't judge your neighbor by what pieces of paper fall on his or her shoulders. Don't think you are cursed or "blessed" by what pieces fall on yours.
The fact is, nothing will go right today. And if it does, it will only scare you.
Are there miracles? Of course! But notice the effect of a miracle. It doesn't make us feel more separate and special, but more at one with all things. It's a mistake to think that God reveals the cure for my child's illness but not for yours, or even that God whispers the directions home into the ears of some lost pets but leaves others to perish.
A miracle isn't a detached event that I can talk about at the potluck. It doesn't smooth my way alone. It brings me a step closer to the place of stillness and beauty within me—and that smooths everyone's way.
If I had Bushwhacker Hot Sauce for dinner, no matter how I try to change the dream I'm having six hours later, it's just going to go bad again. It's the hot sauce. A disturbed dream is the product of a disturbed dreamer. And everyone who isn't fully awake is more or less disturbed. That's why the answer to all my questions is, "Wake up."
When I look back on some incident and ask, "Why did this happen? What does this mean?" I'm almost always thinking of something I have already classified as negative. I don't analyze the times I forgive or turn to God, or even analyze a favorable turn of events.
People who are unfaithful, "play hardball" in business deals with friends, win at any cost when competing in sports, or consistently leave inadequate tips are seldom tempted to ask "What does this mean?"
We say "It was meant to be" about the loss of a championship or about an untimely death. But we apply this explanation arbirtraily. We don't say this when athletes lose because a fan attacks them or when an infant dies in explosion.
There's this peculiar thought today that we "attract" negative experiences and relationships. And yet, no agreed-upon list of who or what is wholly negative exists. Even the darkest tragedies sometimes can lead to new understandings and strengths.
We can't control even the smallest event. However, we do choose what we experience. We decide to be awake to the stillness and peace of Love or to know merely the chaos of constant analysis and continual reinterpretation.
How the world strikes me is not precisely how it strikes anyone else. Even my own interpretations are unstable. Many past "defeats" I see now as past improvements, and many "victories" I see as spiritual failures. There are few if any aspects of my life that I am wise enough to change "for the better."
Although our take on other people and worldly circumstances differs, our experience of God, which is beyond the fumbling grasp of words, is universally the same.
God speaks to us in a thousand voices, each with the same clear message: "I love you. Please trust me on this one."
If your child is having a nightmare, you don't try to perfect the nightmare. If in her sleep she mutters, "Mommy, I'm a baby bird and the cat's about to get me," you don't say, "try hiding under a bush." That would just keep her dreaming. You kiss her on top of the head, sing her a song of comfort, and gently rock her awake. God is no less loving a parent than you.
Here I am moving from point A to point B to point C—in a fog. I turn to God and say, "How do I get to point D?" But God gently replies, "Take my hand and I will lead you out of the fog." Then I get stubborn and say, "You didn't answer my question!"
We ask God which apple we should buy, and think divine Love leaves the one with the rotten core for someone else. We may even think God saves one or two from the crash and leaves all the others to burn to death. We actually believe that what favors our body is a sign of God's grace.
God doesn't tell us where to get the shoes on sale or give us stock market tips. Don't even ask for that brand of advice. If you're getting a buy signal, you're hearing Edgar, The Higher Ego, not God.
Do I really think God doesn't know my question?
The answer is in my heart before I ask.
When my grandmother used to see me hopping up and down on one foot, she would say, "Hugh, just follow your little pee pee into the bathroom." And my grandmother was always right. Just follow your pee pee—your "peaceful preference," your deeper inclination toward simplicity. Forget what you want—bathe your mind in stillness—then notice that you have a peaceful preference, a gentle leaning in some direction. That's your answer.
Guidance isn't being told which action to take or not to take. Guidance is God's gift of peace—from which we proceed. The peace dissolves the question, and we simply do what we do in peace.
I always have a peaceful preference. But I have to be still enough to know it.
Following my peaceful preference doesn't assure me an outcome that my ego, or "little mind," will like. But it does join me with the source of peace, which is independent of assessments and interpretations.
My little mind is conflicted about what to do. And even after I have decided in peace, my little mind now is conflicted about the outcome.
Whether I grant someone's request because I'm fighting my ego or refuse to grant it because I'm giving in to my ego, I still am not connected to my real mind, my real feelings, my real identity.
The little mind always speaks first. For example, Gayle asks me to do something and immediately I feel resistance. I don't mind doing things, but I don't like to be asked. Now, don't fight that reaction. Wait an instant to let the deeper feelings come into focus. The impulses of the deeper self rise in stillness.
The ego is a fussy ol' geezer. It holds no peace. I know when my ego is speaking because I feel urgency or righteousness or excitement. "Do it before it's too late," says the ego. "It's better to be right than happy," says the ego.
The little mind thinks the choice is between two courses of action—eat the chocolate, don't eat the chocolate; tell the white lie, don't tell the white lie. But the only spiritually meaningful choice is between acting from peace or acting from conflict.
Our ego is the echo of the voices from our past. It's made up primarily of the influences and experiences we had during our formative years. These "lessons" combine to give us a sense of identity that is unrepresentative of our real, or peaceful, identity. Because the voices from our formative years disagree, our ego is deeply conflicted.
Within stillness I experience my peaceful mind, my united self. Obviously, stillness can't be attained by warring against a conflicted ego. That's why judging myself is as great a mistake as judging my neighbor.
The identity you think you are does not exist.
Our ego, or imaginary identity, functions very much like a child's imaginary playmate. Set up by the mind as separate and autonomous, it will defend itself. "Don't talk to the new kid on the block," the imaginary playmate says—because it knows that real friendship will dissolve it. Likewise, the ego counsels, "Don't consult your true feelings," because it knows that truth will dissolve it. But note that consulting what is true is not denouncing the ego. When children fight an imaginary friend, it takes stronger hold of their mind. But when they become interested in actual companionship, they lose interest naturally in imaginary companionship. Awakening is merely the arousing of our interest in our real self.
Excerpted from SPIRITUAL NOTES to MYSELF by HUGH PRATHER. Copyright © 1998 Hugh Prather. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
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Prather has mastered the art of prose poetry and should be awknowledged for such. An excellant writer.
The book combines wisdom and humor
I absolutely love books like this... essential words of wisdom that you can chew on for quite some time. Written with small paragraphs on each page so you're able to read a line, walk away and let it sink in.
This book is great to read a quote at a time. Take one tidbit of wisdom and apply it to each day. Your perspective on life will brighten with each day. Amazing tool to make a small but meaningful difference in your life.