When our children were younger I read a philosophical article about the value of boredom. It resonated with me because I saw the need to counteract the urge of society to feed children with stuff - films, ads, games, entertainment. Boredom might not be the exact word, but the main idea was that times of quiet "nothingness" are the prerequisite for creativity. It is a great thing to wrap up children in love 24/7, but this doesn't mean to paste them up with entertainment all day. It is a good thing to realize, in a modest way, that real ideas, good ideas, come from the inner world. In practical terms we ensured that each of the children had a required half an hour alone, without external stimulus. Time in the garden or quietly in a cozy niche. Think time. Zoë still calls this "Zoë time" today. Only in stillness and yes, boredom at times, can true creativity unfold. And it did. And it always will. Because of the richness of the world of ideas which can't but express itself constantly.
Pockets of stillness for adults are a walk around the block. A study with the sole aim of learning and growing - not to fix something. Half an hour of no interruption from texts, the facebook messenger, tweets. Time to observe and be quiet. For busy parents rushing from A to B a quiet moment in the parkinglot. A ride with the bike without aim. Moments of reflection in an armchair (no smartphone near by). Time with a cup of tea by the window contemplating. Not pushing anything, just being. Sometimes the silence is filled with angel messages, sometimes it is just - silence. Quiet. I can talk about it also, because I put as a professor and now as practitioner of Christian Science healing appointments with myself into my calendar which I played for keeps as I did and do with appointments with others. In these times I reflected, I read the new Christian Science Sentinel or a passage in the Bible. Without agenda. Just quiet listening. I have come to observe this rule to express itself in my experience: True listening is yielding to true unfoldment.
Pockets of stillness are crucial for survival - they distinguish existence from being, they connect us with a positive sense of unity with our divine source. They teach us to listen. They reveal in modest and gentle ways the dignity and worth of being. And they strengthen our resilience to express more individuality, less mass thinking in our life. And this every day. Because, as I wrote before: The way we live our days is the way we live our life.
Mary Baker Eddy, the discoverer of the Science of Being and the most outstanding healer of the modern age, gave this advice to a totally stressed out pupil, infusing the note with her remarkable sense of humour and wisdom:
“You can take my method, bar your doors, and then hold your solitude with moral dignity by meeting the merciless selfishness of callers with a fixed rule and the divine imperative Principle to be alone with God and never break this rule till you have your interval of study and prayer. I am an exception to all peace on earth – but not to “good will.” The mail and the male and the female claim undisputed powers to break my peace and rob me of all individual exemption from labor. But you have no need of thus surrendering your rights for others. I have written this in bed in the still hours while others sleep, - after 3 o.c. in the morning.” (Mary Baker Eddy, cited in Lyman Powell, The life of Mary Baker Eddy, p. 182).
No wonder that she could write about "an indefinable pleasure in stillness, soft, silent as the storm's sudden hush." (Christian Science versus Pantheism, p. 3) With pockets of silence in your day, the pleasure of stillness is yours - every day.
It is the prerogative of the spiritual view to see that everything from God's perspective is very good. When something in the human experience isn't good, it is not the end of it. It never ever happened that eternal Truth yielded to limited belief. God, Truth, has always the last word, because it was the first and only word in the first place.
In the last weeks I noticed a little word, that I have come to appreciate and love even more than before. It is the word "effort". It has to do with attempting something, with struggle, with humility and following - but also with work, exercise, resolution, and achievement. Effort tells us that work matters, not just inspiration or feeling. In the healing practice of Christian Science every case is healed. Often healings are quick and permanent. But sometimes a case is tenacious, the healing takes longer, and then effort kicks in. Especially when the mental muscle to carry on seems to have disappeared. It is all about thinking.
In the healing practice this effort is not something you do; it is something you don't do, and that is: Give up.
When recently a friend shared with my husband and me insights into the nature of the cross and the crown, as beautifully displayed on the textbook cover of Science and Health by Mary Baker Eddy, the interpretation of the cross as symbolizing "a spiritual effort" stood out to me. And when this week's Bible lesson, which Christian Scientists study diligently, included the term "effort", I felt I had found a gold mine. What is effort? What distinguishes effort from human will? How is effort linked to "effortless being"? I know that healing is not a human accomplishment but a divine gift. But then: How are the cross and the crown linked?
In his second letter, Peter writes:
"In view of all this, make every effort to respond to God's promises." (2 Pet. 1: 5. NLT)
To make an effort is all about honesty, about the desire to put the ego out of business, about the willingness to learn. Effort needs understanding, f.e. that homework is for you, not for the teacher (that is why cheating doesn't really help). Effort needs love. Effort is different from human will - it is trying, really trying, and resisting the temptation to giving up too early. Honest spiritual effort is the opposite of skepticism, hopelessness, negativity, and cynicism. It is moving forward and willing to let go of past views and learn something new about the goodness of God. It is also not pushing failure into God's camp. The basis of a true effort is a deep and unflinching love for God and man - and a resilience to let this love shape every aspect of our experience. Buddha is reported of giving this advice to the spiritual seeker: "There are only two mistakes one can make along the road of truth; not going all the way, and not starting."
Many Christian Scientists will tell you, that the healing of a tenacious physical problem, a torn relationship, a disastrous financial situation, messy circumstances at work or at school came shortly after they felt they had reached the end of the rope. But willing to go, with Buddha's words, all the way. I remember finding a location late a night, alone in unfamiliar territory in a different country, precisely the moment when I felt I was totally lost. Often the healing comes when we continue to to cherish gratitude, humility, and good just one minute longer, not giving up. Meekness steps aside, expecting to see Love, and only Love at work, and the spiritual laws of Truth and Life carry the day.
We are not alone - there is a mighty power supporting each one of us. There is hope and a sure reward to goodness. Here are two pieces of advice by Mary Baker Eddy - out of many in her published writings:
"Success in life depends upon persistent effort, upon
the improvement of moments more than upon any other
one thing." (Miscellaneous Writings, p. 230)
"Let us rid ourselves of the belief that man is separated
from God, and obey only the divine Principle, Life and
Love." (Science and Health, p. 91)
The illustrations to this blog are from the famous Rutland Psalter, a sumptuously illumined manuscript produced ca. 1260. They remind me in the unique and for me very moving medieval way that spiritual life is about effort - and about joy at the same time. Because we know how it all ends.
You probably make the same experience: Some articles you read, stay with you. They have something that resonates with you - and they feed you and help you to grow. I have a collection of those articles, and the one, I am about to share with you, is one of them. The article "The trick of Life" by Akhil Sharma was suggested to us by Christian Science Monitor journalist Josh Kenworthy, and Sharma's text is part of our inner landscape ever since. The author shares something from his own experience and allows his insight to multiply and grow in our lives, too. The trick of life is more than a personal suggestion to his readers - the trick of life is a law in the human experience. And this law is Love. I read the headline to be "The trick of Life", although I am not sure whether he would agree. The article is about healing, redemption, about being true to a standard even if no one looks. This is called integrity - and Love is feeding it. I plan to read "Family Life" by Akhil Sharma over Christmas, his novel that he mentions in his text. When our daughter Anna-Zoë reread this text to the family a few days ago we all had again - as always - tears in our eyes.
Reconsidering Sharma's thoughts I went back to Mary Baker Eddy's wonderful insight into the nature of prayer - a definition that many people would subscribe to, without knowing that loving and including all mankind in one love is prayer. A universal definition from a fresh perspective. No formula, only practice. Sharma is living it.
Mary Baker Eddy writes in her beautiful book "No and Yes":
"True prayer is not asking God for love; it is learning to
love, and to include all mankind in one affection. Prayer
is the utilization of the love wherewith He loves us. Prayer
begets an awakened desire to be and do good." (p. 39)
Here is the article, originally published in the New York Times in April 2014.
The Trick of Life
by Akhil Sharma
SEVEN years into writing a novel, I started to lose my mind. My thirty-seventh birthday had just come and gone, the end of 2008 was approaching, and I was constantly aware of how little I had managed to accomplish.
I would sit at my desk at 2 in the morning, unable to sleep, and drink pot after pot of tea and try to write. The panic attacks came then. I would be staring at the screen, examining a paragraph that I had already rewritten 170 times. Suddenly the screen would start to ripple, as if I were peering through water, and I would feel a pain like a punch in the chest. Months passed this way. My chest felt constantly bruised.
One December morning, the crisis finally came. I had lain down on my living room sofa and found I could not get up. The idea of another year ending with the book not done overwhelmed me.
A day went by and then two. My wife would stand beside me with her face full of fear. Finally desperate, she phoned a good friend of mine. He drove in from out of town, three hours away, and took me for a ride in his car. I was like a sobbing infant on the ride, but my friend was like a father who drives till his child falls asleep, soothed.
Continue reading the main storyWhen I returned to my apartment, I lay down once more on the couch. Again I felt the weight of my stalled novel. But something had changed. My friend’s kindness kept drawing my attention, the way a piece of glass at the bottom of a stream can keep blinking in sunlight and pull your eye. Each time I thought of him, I was soothed.
A day or two after his visit, I got up from the sofa and walked down to the Hudson River, which I live not far from. I sat on a bench by the river and rested. I stared across it to the tall apartment buildings in New Jersey. Thinking of how people were living out their lives in those buildings comforted me somehow. I looked at the gray rushing water and its movement, the fact that it was coming from someplace and going someplace else also consoled me. It was then that I realized that I needed somehow to always be outside myself. My mind had become uninhabitable.
When I was 10 and he was 14, my older brother, Anup, dived into a swimming pool, struck his head on its bottom and remained underwater for three minutes. When he was pulled out, he could no longer walk or talk, could no longer feed himself, could no longer even roll over in his sleep. Only a few months before, he was heading to the Bronx High School of Science.
My parents are deeply pious Hindus. We had been in America for two years when the accident occurred, in 1981. And of course when tragedy occurs, even nonimmigrants and nonpious people find themselves turning to their most atavistic selves. My parents took Anup out of the hospital and brought him to our house. For the next 28 years, until he died, they tried to fix him through faith healing. Strange men — not priests or gurus, but engineers, accountants, candy shop owners — would come to the house and perform bizarre rituals, claiming that God had visited them in a dream and told them of a magical cure that would fix Anup.
Having grown up like this, among so many crackpot rituals, I find nothing alien in exploring oddball ideas. So, sitting on the bench by the river that day, I remembered having read in Reader’s Digest — a periodical my family has undue reverence for — that when you are feeling bad, one way to make yourself feel better is to pray for others.
I BEGAN to pray for the people who were passing by. I prayed for the nanny pushing a stroller. I prayed for the young woman jogging by in spandex. I prayed for the little boy pedaling his bicycle. I prayed that each of them got the same things that I wanted for myself: that they have good health, peace of mind, financial security. By focusing on others and their needs, my own problems seemed less unique and, somehow, less pressing.
After this, when I would sit at my desk, trying to write, and despair welled up, I knew what to do. I prayed. Not for myself, or for the ability to write, but for others, whether dead or alive, known to me or not: William Faulkner as much as the crazy old lady in the grocery store.
During my breakdown, many things, tiny things I had not even registered before, had begun to torment me with guilt. I used to steal Splenda from Starbucks. I would go into a Starbucks whenever I needed the sweetener and would take a fistful of packets, even when I didn’t buy a coffee. This had never struck me as especially wrong. Now, whenever I did this, my chest would tighten as if I was about to have a panic attack. I was also not an especially diligent recycler. But now, if I mixed plastic with metals, I had nightmares so severe that I would sweat all night. Waking from these, I found my fingertips so wrinkled that it was as if I had taken a bath, or swum in a pool.
The answer to these problems turned out to be very simple, so simple I had missed it all this time. I stopped wishing away the guilt and started acting in ways I didn’t need to feel guilty about, even a little. No more stealing Splenda. No more mixing recyclables.
All this praying and punctilious honesty might seem absurd, but it did let me finish my novel. The style of it is very different from my first. The nouns in my sentences used to fall in just a few places. Now they seem to bop around, nudging themselves into places I would never have thought to place them. Before, each paragraph had pushed the reader directly into the next. Now there is space between my paragraphs, and I have trust in my reader’s patience and generosity to stay with me, without shepherding him.
Just as my parents were always looking for ways, however ludicrous, to wake my brother, I find that I am constantly on the lookout for ways to keep my mind quiet, so that I might live and work in peace. Recently, I read an interview of an actor who said that when he needs to change his behavior toward someone, he merely thinks, “I love you, I love you,” as he is talking to the person.
I called my parents a few weeks ago on the second anniversary of my brother’s death. My father began telling me that he felt abandoned by my brother, that my brother’s dying feels like him leaving us. As he spoke, I started thinking: I love you. I love you. My usual response at this point would have been to tell my father that he needed to focus on the future, that what was past was past. Instead I told my father that he was wonderful, that he should think of how brave he had been to take care of his poor sick son for all those years, that his devotion had been heroic.
However odd my reasons may seem, I am glad that I said this.
Who is writing?
In my work as Christian Science practitioner and as a writer I draw on listening to God and listening to people.
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