Interview with Reverend Nancy Brink : Agape Love and Voices of Silence

I have written about agape love : all embracing, unconditional and loving. However,  this blog has not covered voices of silence from marginalized communities when it comes to agape love. I am referring to people who receive messages that they are not worthy of being loved by God. Messages are from certain religious, social and cultural institutions  So I decided to interview  Reverend Nancy Brink, who is the Donna Ford and Fahmy Attallah Endowed Director of Church Relations at Chapman University. She is very accomplished with an undergraduate degree in religious studies and Masters of Divinity from the seminary at  Vanderbilt University. She has also served and ministered to different communities.. I met her through a centering prayer group that she facilitates at Chapman University. She is not just accomplished and very knowledgeable, but, has a very loving , kind and nurturing presence. I interviewed her about her service to young people, especially LGBTQ+ communities, who are traditionally shunned by certain religious and cultural organizations.

I set up my computer to videotape her interview, which was fantastic. But alas, the account that I used did not have recording device. Very bummed about this. I expressed my sincere apologies to Nancy. Therefore, I am writing up the post.

AG (Anindita Ganguly) : Welcome Reverend Nancy Brink to the blog for the interview. I have so honored to have you for the interview. How do you see yourself serving other people?.

REV. NB (Reverend Nancy Brink) : I see myself as someone who walks alongside other people who are walking on their own journey.

AG: You are very open about working with people from different religious and spiritual traditions, theistic or nontheistic?

REV. NB: I work with people from different religious and spiritual beliefs and the centering praying is very powerful.

REV.NB: The centering prayer is similar to mindfulness practices. It originated from the Desert Fathers and Mothers of early Christianity and then later picked up by people, like Thomas Merton. It is a practice of contemplation which originated in Christianity. Since God is everywhere, there is a piece of the Divine in all of us. Therefore, the practice includes stillness in body and mind while repeating a word that one chooses. Most people think that how can I do this because my mind is always racing. But the idea is that despite the wandering mind, we come back to the word and listen to what God has to say to us. Prayer traditionally meant I talked to God, but, centering prayer is listening to God and allowing space for God to work in us. Whatever that may be.

AG: This is an absolutely wonderful practice because of my belief that God speaks in silence places and our busy lives create a lot of noise.

REV. NB: This practice is about being and not doing.

AG: Most of us are so caught up in doing.

REV. NB: The centering prayer was very powerful for me to understand, challenge my internalized homophobia  and process my sexuality. As I challenged my internalized homophobia, I realized that God is BIGGER than these homophobic statements. I grappled with the thought  that as a lesbian woman, coming out was a scary process. I was afraid of rejection as I ministered a parish in Omaha, Nebraska. I practiced centering prayer for seven years which helped me to decrease my fear of coming out. After coming out to the congregation in Omaha, Nebraska, I was was embraced and welcomed by the congregation.

AG: The agape love of God which is deep, unconditional, fierce and fearless is for everyone. Yet, certain cultural, religious and institutional messages state that agape love is not for the LGTBQ+ communities. People are given the painful message that there is something deficient, wrong or bad because they are not heterosexual.

REV.NB: Yes, agape love is for all. God does not create trash.

AG: You said in one of your interviews that “you can be gay and  loved by God”. That is incredibly affirming to people struggling with homophobic messages in our world. That is incredible. You embody the powerful  message of agape for all. I think that this is very important because having worked with LGBTQ+ youth, there is a belief in some LGBTQ+ youth that there is something “wrong” or “bad” about their “core being or essence” due to their  sexual orientation. LGBTQ+ youth seem have to have one of the highest risk groups for depression, suicide and homelessness as they are running away from families who reject them because of their sexual orientation.

REV.NB: Absolutely. I run a spirituality group for LGBTQ+ youth to support people in their spirituality. The whole discussion on critical race theory led me to study more about the civil rights movement. As I study the civil rights movement, I realize that African American people attended church and built spiritual community and worshipped and this was a powerful source of strength for the civil rights movement.

AG: Absolutely, even with Gandhi with his nonviolence program and Martin Luther King, influenced by Gandhi. Both Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King  were  very spiritually grounded men with movements firmly based on spiritual principles.

AG. There is also the discrimination of LGBTQ+ communities at institutionalized levels and microaggressions (e.g. name calling) on individual levels. Discrimination deeply wounds the heart and soul. Privilege of heterosexism which we also need to be aware of. For example, when I walk to the movies and hold my husband’s hands, no one looks. But with same sex couple, people may look and or say mean things.

REV.NB: Things are getting better as progressive movements are more embracing of diversity, especially on college campuses. I teach classes on topics, such as, “Reading the Bible through Queer Eyes” where we analyze statements in the Bible which “clobber us”. We study that certain statements in the Bible are mistranslated from original text to English. For example, if you are to read Shakespeare, you read the footnotes, which is essential. But for the Bible, people do not always read the footnotes, which they need to. For many college students, the sexual orientation issue may not be  as polarizing due to their progressive values.

AG: That is true of college campuses. However, in different parts of the world, people are killed  because of their sexual orientation.

REV.NB: That is very true. The cultures of different parts of this country too are so different and unique.

REV.NB: One of the concerns I see in college students is that they do not define themselves as binary (either male or female) but exploring both aspects of gender and have pronouns (they/them).

AG: This reminds me of certain spiritual traditions, such as, Hinduism, where God has both male and female aspects.

REV. NB: Yes, in Christianity, there is a tradition of Sophia which addresses the Divine as Female. In my trips to India, I have also seen the female aspect of Divine. I have also learned that most westerners have the misconception that Hinduism is a polytheistic religion when it is monotheistic. There is one God but different aspects of God are expressed in different forms.

AG: Very true. The female aspect of Divine, Goddesses, are described as sources of strength. The other thing about Hinduism is the belief that one worships God as one wishes to perceive God, (with or without form). I am been influenced by Catholicism, Hinduism and Buddhism.

AG: Is there anything else that you want to add before we close interview?

REV.NB: I also want to add that restriction of voting rights is not just because of racism but the threat of young people voting. Young people tend to more progressive in their beliefs.

AG: Very True. How do you do self-care?

REV. NB: I love to walk, listen to audio books to learn about issues, centering prayer, travel. My wife and I love to travel but that is not happening now. I also hope to entertain and have groups of people together which is very healing.

AG: I miss parties too.

AG: Thank you so much Reverend. This is a wonderful interview. You are not only accomplished but, very generous, loving and kind. I love attending your centering prayer group. I also want to end with a very powerful anecdote which I read about you. The article stated that the   the Chapman University has four pillars at the center of the campus for intellectual, social, emotional and spiritual aspects of development. When you interviewed for the job, you were asked about your thoughts regarding the spiritual pillar being shorter than the others. You answered beautifully which is that the spiritual pillar is lower because humility is key on the spiritual path. 

AG: I love that. You got the job.

REV. NB: That was the Holy Spirit inspiring that answer. That was a sneaky question. It is also interesting that with Chapman University campus closed and less water supply to the pillars, the pillar representing spirituality still pours the most water.

AG: Wonderful. Thank you so much for the interview.

REV. NB: Thank you, Blessings

Ag: Much love and Blessings to you too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Good Leaders and Collective Wellbeing: Steps towards a Kinder and Loving world

I am very excited to inform readers about the coolest conference, that I attended virtually, on topics like good leaders, collective well being, narratives of love, and steps to a loving and kinder world.  The conference is the  5th Spirit of Humanity Summit: Towards a Loving World  during first week in June 2021,which was hosted in Reykjavík, Iceland over three days, but, participants were from around the world. A  dear friend forwarded the link to me and  I was able to virtually see some of the wonderful presentations.  The taped sessions of the summit are on line, in case, readers are interested in viewing them.   The summit began by addressing and acknowledging the suffering in the world impacted by this pandemic, especially, in communities with high risk social determinants of health, like lack of economic opportunities, poverty, instability in housing and inequity in health care and educational systems. The focus of the summit was the importance of   reconnecting with core human values of love and compassion to create effective political, economic and social policy, and practices by global citizens, including  leaders, to reshape a world where our collective well being is key. The argument is that  we need to envision pathways to a more loving, kinder world. I totally agree.

The prime minister of Iceland , Katrin Jakobsdottir, made a critical point which is that a society cannot prosper when citizens are reporting poor well-being or quality of life. She discussed that she developed a commission which interviewed people in Iceland about what does “well being” mean to them.  According to Katrin Jakobsdottir,  the commission researchers found following factors as important in the well being index. The list includes : 1) good health, especially mental health and access to high quality health care, 2)work-life balance and good relationships, 3)affordable secure housing, 4) good education, 5)target of zero carbon commissions by 2030 for ecological health, and 6)better communication systems, including digital communication. Katrina Jakobsdottir emphasized is that in order for effective social change, people have to engage in inner personal transformation. This is so true. When one brings forth loving and compassionate interactions with other people, most people react in kind ways.  Katrina Jakobsdottir discussed that when a person, including a leader, is internally immersed in fear, chaos and anger, he or she cannot be part of effective  social change. I agree with her 100 percent.

In terms of health and well being index in the United States, mental health needs are noted as critical in the United States, as in Iceland. According to a recent Centers for Disease Control survey, 40% of US adults reported struggling with mental health or substance abuse issues. The survey was conducted in June 24-30 2020 time period.   Research from Society From Human  Resource Management) SHRM  released findings in 5/2020 that 41 % of employees in the U.S. reported burnout and 23% reported feeling depressed and hopeless. The report indicates over 1 out of 5 employees experience a tangible loss related to COVID in their jobs, such as, lack of opportunities, benefit of job etc. Interestingly, over 1 out 3 employees reported not having coping tools to deal with feelings of burnout and only 7% have reached out to mental health professionals. The study also found that people more heavily impacted by pandemic stress were: women, younger workers, people living with health care provider, essential worker, elderly family and people with immunosuppression health conditions.

However, this post is not about resolving the complex issue of mental health needs in the world.  This post is a reflection of some of the ideas discussed about effective leadership, in alignment with core values of love and compassion, at the Spirit of Humanity Summit. The discussion is on redefining leadership as selfless, service oriented and motivated on collective well being of communities, which are steps to creation of a kinder and loving world.

 

Leaders who promote collective well-being.

When I think of leadership, I think of political leaders or CEOs of major organizations. However, this summit presented the radical notion that we are all leaders in some aspects of our lives: as parents, teachers, school administrators, university professors, government officials, health care or business professionals. The idea that a leader’s love and compassion, in developing well-being for the people and communities he or she serves,  is a key factor in effective leadership. Effective leadership is not fueled by what can I get out of this, but, how can I empower and serve communities and create wellbeing. There is an element of selfless service with love and compassion to others, which characterizes great leaders. Good leaders are service oriented and thus allow “others in the team or community” to shine when they do good work. A spiritual component is that the leader is not serving his or her ego, but, the “larger than self” community .The ultimate example of leadership through agape love through service is Christ’s leadership of his disciplines where He washes the disciples’ feet before the Last Supper.

The website, www.teamgnatt.com, discusses a style of leadership called servant leader.  This style of leader prioritizes people’s and team’s successes over establishing his or her power. The success and growth of the employees and governance   are critical, whereas, ambition of the leader takes a back seat. The art of effective listening and empathy demonstrated by servant leaders is critical.

The article, The Real Summit Picture is When Everyone is Back Down , highlighted for me what good leadership looks like. The article talked about  a group of people setting out to climb to the top of Mount Everest. The best leader of the group is not the person who climbs first to the mountain top and “wins”. The best leader is determined by when the whole group returns to base camp after reaching the summit of Mountain Everest, and then, the leader ensures that everyone in the group is safely back in base camp. This analogy spoke volumes to me about good leadership looking out for collective wellbeing. As parents or teachers leading a group on such a trip, that is what one does. One is not worried about making it to the top of the mountain first, but, ensuring that the whole team  is successful in reaching the top and safely returning to base camp. This model of leadership makes sense to me. I believe that effective leaders are not concerned about who wins or loses, but, the collective well being of the community. Effective leaders ensure the protection and well-being of not just majority, but, also minority groups. Effective leaders need to be able to work with people having different perspectives.

Leading with empowering and inspiring the governance for collaboration

What does effective leadership look like? I found this fascinating article about effective leadership in wolf packs. Wolf pack leadership includes the alpha male and female. Wolf packs are effective in survival because leaders make decisions in the best interest of the group and the leader empowers different wolves based on their unique strengths. I also found it fascinating that the leader of wolf pack is not the strongest or loudest, but, has capacity of inspiring other wolves for group collaboration and cooperationGroup collaboration includes different wolves sharing responsibilities about taking care of the young and sick or elderly wolves. Some wolves have “healer” roles in taking care of the sick. The elderly wolves are respected for their knowledge  about survival. The mentality fostered in wolf packs is that group functioning is more powerful for survival than individual wolf. The hunt of prey includes wolves acting in harmony and following strategy.

The goal of the pack is to take care of each other. An interesting note is that “bad behavior” of an individual wolf, who threatens the cohesion of the group, is  corrected by others.  Another aspect of wolf packs is resiliency. This means that the group leader assesses the group performance, and likelihood for successfully catching the prey and may decide to terminate the mission if the conditions are not favorable to the group. The leader shows assessment skills and re-strategizing based on novel situations. The leader’s role is challenged if he or she presents with negative attitude. It is not about leader’s ability to dominate others.

As a side note and stepping away from wolves, I have seen human leaders, as parents, coaches and teachers, who inspire others in the teams to put forth their best effort. Inspirational leaders see the best in people, identify people’s strengths and set up tasks where people succeed. Inspirational leaders seem to have a growth mindset where, failures are opportunities to learn from, develop better strategies and increase chances of success. Inspirational leaders separate shame and guilt feelings from failures, and , reframe failures as part of the human condition and possible  growth opportunities. Another aspect of inspirational coaches, teachers and parents are that they embody the belief that one day the student or child will develop greater expertise and outshine them and they welcome this. Impactful teachers and coaches are not threatened by talented students. Great teachers and coaches see our potential when we may not be in a space to envision our strength. They lift us up. I am so grateful for the wonderful teachers and supervisors who have shaped me.

I believe that good leaders have the humility to step back and give credit to the team because he or she realizes that success is a team effort.  My experience in social service organizations is that social issues and problems are complex and one person cannot solve all the problems. It takes partnerships, interagency collaboration and good working relationships to succeed in developing innovative and effective delivery of social services. An effective leader builds collaborative work environment for accomplishing goals, instead of division and distrust in the team. I also believe that effective leaders are not threatened by talented members of the team. Just as wolf pack leaders, effective leaders empowers the team member to work on tasks which tap into his or her strengths. A leaders who is easily threatened tends to shut down development of talented key members.  Effective leaders are also quick to correct a toxic member of a team, who jeopardize harmony and collaboration of the team. This is very important in creating a supportive community.

 

Conclusion

We are all leaders in some aspects of our lives. We need to be good, effective and inspirational leaders to create collective well being in the communities we serve. The Spirit of Humanity Summit redefines effective leadership, as characterized by loving and compassionate values, where leaders are service focused in creating political, economic and social policy and practices for the collective well being in their communities. I am all for a kinder, compassionate and loving world.

I will end with Howard Washington Thurman. He was a grandson of former slaves. He became a brilliant scholar, professor, theologian, possibly the greatest preacher of the twentieth century (according to Life Magazine), and a prolific writer. Thurman  was a mentor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and met Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore of India in one of his travels. He is known as unsung hero of the civil rights movement. Thurman is said to have inspired Dr. Martin Luther King to merge the nonviolent movement of Gandhi to the civil rights movement. Thurman was the first pastor to cofound a multifaith and multiracial church in the United States. Incidentally, Katarina Jakobsdottir,  Prime Minister of Iceland, ended her speech at the Spirit of Humanity Summit with a quote from Thurman’s philosophy of great leadership.

I am so impressed with Thurman’s educational philosophy that a student must understand self as a “human being” and accept oneself which is key to character development.  Thurman discussed the relationship of character and leadership and that a visionary leaders must seek the truth. Thurman talked about the “inward journey”, the relationship between “personal transformation” and and yearning for social justice. He argued that integrity, honesty and taking responsibility for his or her own actions are key to successful leadership. I will end with Thurman’s quote. 

Kipton E. Jensen (2020) (2020) writes that what “Thurman wrote in 1960 is doubly true today”. Thurman wrote :

We are living in a time of revolutions, technological and social. Our reaction to these revolutions may be one of fear, panic, and despair. We may in our reaction be stripped of all hope and all confidence not only about the meaning of our own lives but about the significance of the future of mankind. Or we may in our reaction be inspired to deeper commitment to higher purposes and more meaningful resolves to the end that in us the dreams of mankind that are cherished will be worked at with fresh vigor and new hope. How we react is our responsibility – and from this there is no escape.

 

Is the Gecko right? “Things are Better Together”.

 love the green gecko in the Geico advertisement  who states in a British accent that some things are “better together.” The gecko is trying to sell insurance with a “bundling strategy”, ensuring that when different insurances, car or home, work together effectively and at cheaper rates, life is easier. The gecko with the big brown eyes is not just selling insurance. The gecko is onto something big. The profound spiritual idea of interconnections or interweaving of our lives together on this planet. By the way I am not endorsing Geico over any other company. I am a fan of the advertisement concept.

Different religious and spiritual traditions focus on interconnections or interbeing. In Christianity, The Trinity is described as the fellowship of God:  The Father, The Son and The Holy Ghost. The disciples of Christ are seen as interwoven into a  formal community (church) or informal community of believers. It is said that Jesus is married to the Church or community of believers. However, in Christianity, each person is granted free will, a sign of individual agency or selfhood to make his or choices.

Additionally, Buddhism focuses heavily on interbeing. Thich Nhat Hanh, peace activist, Buddhist scholar and writer ,   discusses the critical idea of interbeing in the book, “The Heart of Understanding”. Thich Nhat Hanh discusses the idea of “emptiness” or “interbeing” referring to things as “empty of separate, independent existence” because all things have to “inter-be”. The argument of emptiness is that a sheet of paper does not exist by itself and is “empty”. The sheet of paper is “empty” because  it pervades in inter-being with sunshine, water and minerals and soil which nurtured the plant, from which the sheet of paper was made. So the sheet of paper is “empty” in terms of its own separate independent existence. It exists in relationship to other things. 

The ancient African philosophy of Ubuntu states, “I am because we are”. The meaning in Ubuntu is that my dignity as a human being means that I honor your dignity as a fellow human being . The honoring of humanity between two people is a two way process. A powerful philosophy of interbeing. Honoring humanity in each other also aligns with honoring the sacred Divine Spark in each of us.

The concept of ubuntu was powerfully used in post apartheid South Africa to create safe spaces to discuss the common humanity among polarized racial groups in South Africa. 

The pandemic  adds further evidence to the  interbeing principle. An invisible  virus originating from one remote corner of the world traveled across the world and led to a shut down of the entire world. As much as we Americans value our individualism, the pandemic forces the idea of interbeing in front of our faces. This post is a reflection of the spiritual  concept  of inter-being and ubuntu, very important in building healthy communities, protecting the planet in decelerating climate change  and eradicating the corona virus. The gecko is onto something big: “things work better together”. Healthy communities work better to build a healthy planet.  

Interbeing in the Material World

The paradigm of Interbeing seems to be demonstrated in many different fields of study. In classical physics, Isaac Newton’s discovery of universal law of gravitation in celestial and earthly bodies describes the interconnection of matter based on exertion of  gravitational forces that two bodies of matter exert on each other. Johannes Kepler described the  laws of planetary motion. Kepler discussed that the planets orbit around the sun in elliptical orbits due to gravitational forces between the planets and the sun in the solar system.  Quantum physics, a modern branch of physics, has a concept of entanglement which means that two related particles with separate identities in separate locations are impacted because as one particle is impacted, so is the other particle.

Just like the celestial bodies, on the micro-level, the human body is a system of interconnected biological systems.  Environmental science teaches us that ecosystems have permeable boundaries and are interconnected.  Family systems theory explores a person’s behavior as influenced by dynamics of family members.  Grief and loss are such deeply hurtful experiences because we exist in interbeing with other people. Multicultural and community psychology also studies human behavior in broader socio-cultural contexts. Economists discuss the global economy and now companies have are focusing on developing products and marketing to a global audience. 

The Global Village and the Pandemic

Million Belay and the The UK Youth Coalition Climate (2019) quotes  Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s  definition of ubuntu in the Ecologist article. Archbishop Desmond Tutu  stated that  ubuntu refers to “a person is a person through other persons.” This highlights the interconnected nature of human lives and that human beings live in communities and in relationships with others. This is so true. I am a result of so many people who have touched my life in such profound ways. Dr. Maya Angelou writes in her famous poem, “Still I Rise”:

I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.

She talks about the hard work, endurance and courage that her ancestors showed for her to be “the dream and the hope” of her ancestors in slavery. She talks about carrying these gifts with her. This is ubuntu.

Ubuntu and interbeing bring into awareness that our connections with each other and the past are profound. It is very relevant in the pandemic. For the global world village, it is not enough that one part of the world does better. All parts have to do better. Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus of the World Health Organization made a recent statement that we are still not out of danger zone for COVID-19. He talked about importance of not just USA reporting lower rates of infection, but other parts of the world, now experiencing surges in COVID-19 also need to decrease infection rates. He discusses that humanity is in this pandemic together and we all need to get out together. One part alone cannot overcome the pandemic.

Climate Change

Interbeing is also seen in climate science. There appears to be consensus among different scientific organizations that science of climate change has accrued to a critical mass. The earth has a system of reflecting a portion of the heat into the atmosphere so that planet maintains a steady temperature to support life.  The green house effect includes  rising levels of gases, such as, carbon dioxide, methane, caused by human activities, such as, burning fossil fuels. The accumulation of these gases prevent some of the heat on the earth’s surface from being reflected into the atmosphere. As heat is trapped in the atmosphere, there is rise in global temperature. Again rising heat impacts rising ocean temperatures, retreating of glacier systems, and changes in biological and hydrological eco-systems. The change in water temperature, which is the basic molecule for life is a unnerving thought. Issues of climate change present an immense danger. For example, Climate Change and California report (2003) by California Energy Commission indicates the public health concerns due to climate change:  extreme heat waves, increase in conditions for certain pathogens such as West Nile Virus and Hanta Virus.

 The surge of youth passion and activism for climate health around the world is impressive is getting us adults to increase awareness of activities to maintain climate health. It is fascinating that these kids, unlike us adults, get that the planet is a definitive exhaustible resource. This bluntly means that once it is destroyed it is gone. Needless to say, it is in our best interest to keep the planet healthy.

Concluding Thoughts

Clearly, interconnections and honoring humanity in self and each other is critical in creating healthy communities. Regardless of diversity features, such as gender, political beliefs and affiliations,  nationality, religious or spiritual beliefs, we are bound by humanity as residents of this planet . We need to work together as a planet in eradicating the COVID-19 and taking protective action to protect the planet.

I will end with a beautiful poem ERTH DAY 2019 by Jim Yerman.  I love Jim Yerman’s analogy of how the bee procures the “sweetness” of the flower with no harm done to the flower. We need to do the same: enjoy, cultivate the planet, with no harm done but also take actions to protect the planet. 

In conclusion, it seems the gecko is onto something big.

Agape Love : Essential and Radical

Before I begin the post about agape love, Happy Mothers Day to everyone. A wonderful event of serendipity ( see The Curious Case of Serendipity post )  happened to me the other day. As I was internet surfing, I stumbled on  Stanford University’s free online course called Love as a Force for Social Justice . The class is taught by  Anne Firth Murray. She has done amazing work, such as, creating the  Global Fund for Women, which supports local organizations around the world doing work for the well being of women. In 2005, she was one of 1000 women nominated for the Nobel Prize. She is a fantastic professor, very knowledgeable, yet, humble despite her vast experience in social justice work. She designed the course in a brilliant manner with the core theme of agape love as a foundation for personal transformation, transformation of relationships with the world and others, positive social action,  change and community building. She explores agape love through different religious and spiritual traditions, relational dynamics between people (early stages of romantic love versus affiliative companionate love later in the relationship), neuroscience of love and ethical systems of thought, such as. nonviolence as a form of social transformation. Anne Firth Murray discusses application of agape love in different areas, such as business world, health care, and educational institutions.   She interviews different scholars on these topics so that as a student you hear multiple perspectives on topics. She also discusses phenomenon, opposite of agape love: violence, hatred and apathy. We are seeing plenty of this in our  current times. That is why her class is so relevant.

I emailed Anne (she prefers being called Anne)  to ask her for permission to write posts about some of the topics she discusses. She graciously gave me permission  and I will add all bibliographical references to her class. I am also hoping to interview her next month about the application of agape love in social justice. This post is on agape love, the unconditional love that God shows for the world articulated in numerous religious and spiritual traditions, that couples may have for each other, parents have for their children, and teacher may demonstrate in their passion for teaching new ideas to transform hearts and minds. Agape love may be witnessed in healers practicing  their art and science  of alleviating suffering in human beings or creative artists, actors, writers, musicians who relentlessly  develop their passion projects. I am a believer in agape love. Are we called to learn about and practice agape love as human beings? Yes. Is it easy? Absolutely not. It is easier to show agape love more for some people than others. On certain days, it is easier to practice agape love more than on other stressful days. Great spiritual masters seem to have perfected this practice of agape love towards all, with nonreactivity and yogic mind set. On the other hand, I struggle with it. I am a regular person and not a highly spiritually evolved person. The essential and radical act of agape love is tough and it requires great strength, humility, equanimity, self-reflection and courage.

AGAPE LOVE

Great spiritual saints, like Peace Pilgrim stated ( see Message of Peace Pilgrim) that  love is a spiritual law of the universe: intentions, actions marinated in  selfless love and service multiply, resonate, amplify exponentially.  According to Peace Pilgrim, movements, intentions and actions filled with hatred , evil and fear will wither and die out because it is not in alignment with the fundamental spiritual law of love. Some state it is an universal spiritual law, like laws of gravity, electricity and magnetism which govern the material world. .Anne picked Dr. Frances Andrews book (1992), The Art and Practice of Loving, as the textbook for the class. Dr. Andrews (1992) makes a key point that agape love can be demonstrated in seemingly ordinary actions, such as cooking a meal,  gardening, or meditating, as well as, extraordinary actions, like nonviolence movement led by Gandhi in India and Dr. Martin Luther King in the civil rights movement. I also agree with Dr. Andrews’s key question that if loving, referred to as heart wisdom,  is a critical aspect of the human condition, why do we not have manuals or more literature on the fundamental ways of how to love deeply and profoundly, especially when faced with obstacles, such as, experiences of betrayal.  It is astonishing that we seem to have detailed manuals with diagrams and step by step directions in everything else on the planet. Manuals for constructing furniture, repairing plumbing systems, coloring hair, applying nail polish, installing all  kinds of gadgets, such as, i-phones, hair dryers, ovens and manuals to keep our computers safe and running. We seem to be more worried about matters of the digital world than the human heart, a sacred space (in my opinion).

Dr. Fran Grace

Dr. Fran Grace, professor of religious studies and founder of the meditation program at University of Redlands, beautifully defines love in her book, The Power of Love: A Transformed Heart Changes the World.  Dr. Grace (2018, 2019) writes the following about love in her book:

“Love is self-respecting and self-giving. Love is humble and open-hearted. Love is unconditional and nonselective. Love endures all things. Love moves from an inner strength and walks by way of an inner light. Love knows that whatever is done to another is done to oneself: whatever is given and returns to the giver. Love is determined: it finds the opportunity in each obstacle. Love augments the positive: it believes the best. Love is swayed neither by praise nor blame; it treats them as one and the same. Love transcends time… Love lives in the land of “win/win” and “both/and”. Love sees eyes of the heart: it knows the whole and values each part.” (p.xxx).

Swami Vivekanda

Dr. Grace (2018, 2019) writes in her book’s introduction about  Swami Vivekanada , a great Indian spiritual master, Hindu monk, chief discipline of the great Indian mystic saint, Sri RamaKrishna.  In Swami Vivekanda’s  famous speech to the Parliament of the World’s Religions held in Chicago in 1893,  he addressed the crowds “Sisters and Brothers of America” and outlined the spiritual law of love that governs the Universe. Dr. Grace summarizes one of Swami Vivekananda’s main points which is  supremacy of self-less love (Agape love) and that this highest form of love seeks no personal reward. Dr. Grace summarizes Swami Vivekananda’s words , “love unselfishly for love’s sake”.  Swami Vivekananda  introduced Hindu philosophy of  vedanta, yoga and interfaith awareness to the western world.

His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet

His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet, one of my favorite spiritual teachers makes  critical points about the human condition: we are born for love regardless of our national origin, gender, political, cultural and theistic or nontheistic spiritual belief systems,  2. we learn how to love in childhood, 3, we all want happiness. He is so right on all three points.  The Class “Love as a  Force of Social Justice” has a segment where Dr. Paul Harrison, a Buddhist scholar talks about the paradoxical nature of Buddhism, which is concerned about pervasive nature of suffering, but, also search for happiness in the human condition.  It is interesting to note that His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s point about learning to love in early life is supported by psychological and neuroscience research, which delineates the  idea that we learn to love in childhood, especially in our relationship with our primary care-giver. Attachment theory researchers, John Bowlby, Mary Ainsworth, reported findings that a secure attachment with primary caregiver is a template for healthy relationships that a person may develop through out the life span. Having a secure attachment likely enhances the infant to learn to trust rather than mistrust, according to Erik Erikson’s psychosocial stages. If one learns to trust oneself and selective others, his or her life has amazing possibilities.

Dr. Dan Siegel, developed the paradigm of interpersonal neurobiology, which suggests that the external environment and relationships in the child’s world impact the child’s neural wiring and brain structure and function. However, being the optimist, I am a believer that love can be learned at any age through encounters of loving experience with others. This is also supported by brain plasticity which is the idea that brain is capable of rewiring and learning through out the lifespan.

THE MIGHTY CALL OF AGAPE LOVE

I agree with Dr. Andrews that loving is a practice: using love to transform the raw experience of life. Although, there is evidence that infant temperaments are predisposed to be biologically determined at birth, I believe that practitioner of love  learns to love, find things to love, and transforms the world they live in with love towards self and others. Like the rippling effect of happiness, I believe love has a rippling effect, starts with one person and pervades his or her surroundings. Research shows practices of love, meditating on a loving God (religious act)  or act of peaceful and loving breathing (secular act), change the body and the mind (see Practices of Love on the Brain)   In contrast to love, long term hateful and angry mindsets are not good for the mind, body or spirit. Research findings by Staicu and Cutov, (2010) indicate relationship between anger, hatred and hostility and poor cardiovascular health, hypertension, diabetes, bulimic behaviors, driving mishaps and alcohol use in teenagers. An angry response is related to changes in cardiac, immune and respiratory systems. The carrier of anger is hurt by the toxic effects of the anger more than the person he or she is angry about. The Buddha stated that “Holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die”. Additionally, this class on Love as a Force of Social Justice makes the point that when we engage in violent behaviors towards others, it not just hurts others, but it also is an act of violence against self. 

Many different religious and spiritual traditions discuss God’s agape love (Unconditional Love) and Divine Grace (His free Gifts of Love which are undeserved). Agape Love is mind-boggling. God equally loves you and your worst enemy the same way. Jesus Christ, the God-man, washed the feet of both Judas Ischariot and John. Judas  identified Christ with a kiss to betray him to His enemies for thirty shillings. John is described as the one whom Christ loved. Yet Christ gave His life for both Judas and John. Incomprehensible.

According to Dr. Bloom’s article,   there is discussion of “Buddhas to be” (Bodhisattvas) who are on the path of enlightenment, but, along their spiritual paths, they develop deep compassion for people and instead of pursuing their own enlightenment, they devote their energy in helping and guiding other people gravitate towards enlightenment . That is the most selfless thing ever. In the class, Love as a  Force for Social Justice, Dr. Paul Harrison discussed the concept of interbeing in Buddhism where spiritual advancement means realizing that there is no difference between self and others. Dr. Harrison explains that a bodhisattva’s practice of compassion towards others is not separate  from himself or herself. The bodhisattva does not see the difference between self and others. His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet argues that love and compassion is not just based on the heart but grounded also in reason so that  regardless of someone else’s behaviors, one must demonstrate loving kindness.

In Hinduism, the four paths of yoga or union with the Divine include bhakti yoga, karma yoga, jnana yoga and raga yoga. Bhakti yoga is the path of loving devotion and service to the Divine. Karma yoga is selfless action which surrenders results to the Divine One with no personal benefit. Jnana yoga is intellectual pursuit of the Divine Source, soul and union with Divine. Raja yoga is based on meditation, self control and developing the yogic mind. Interestingly, a very wise aunt of mine told me her view that bhakti yoga has to be the basis for all other yogas because only when one loves a practice, one can pursue it. 

Acts of Agape Love in Life.

Now the fascinating question that Anne poses in her class is to have students do an intentional act of agape in their lives each week and write a reflective discussion of this for class assignment. I find that it is easy to do acts of agape love for people you like and love. It is challenging to do agape love for the enemy, “the other” who has hurt me. There, I stumble and struggle. I find it very difficult to break bread with the enemy. I am also reminded of Pastor Rick Warren’s statement that “hurt people hurt others” and  hurt people need agape love the most. In the class, there is a section where His Holiness the Dalai Lama states in his precise and brilliant comment on human nature that it is “foolish compassion” to show loving kindness just for loved ones and not the enemy. In contrast to foolish compassion, His Holiness the Dalai Lama states that the wise compassion is for the friend and foe. When I read this, I laughed internally rather foolishly as I recognize myself as a practitioner of foolish compassion. I guess in all honesty, I am a practitioner of foolish compassion. But one thing that helped me take one tiny step away from foolish compassion to wise compassion in this class is the  conclusion that compassion for the enemy does not mean breaking bread with the enemy.  I can wish for my enemy’s  happiness, and pray that God Bless bless him or her abundantly. I wish  for good things to come into the life of my enemy.  I hope that they are so ecstatic and delirious with joy in life that they do not bother me ever again or cross paths with me.;). Again, please note that I am a regular person writing about agape love, not a spiritual master.

This also ties into the forgiveness cycle discussed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu where he talks about steps of forgiveness: 1. tell the story, 2. work out your feelings, 3.make the conscious decision to let go of the anger, frustration towards the person who hurt you and 4. release the relationship or resume it. Please see  Truth and Reconciliation Commission   as model of social change in South Africa led by Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

Concluding Thoughts

As I celebrate mother’s day, I am reminded of the profound line ,”I have loved you at your darkest”, in the Bible, Romans 5: 8.. As a faith based person, I interpret this as God’s unconditional love where He has loved me in my joyous moments, feasts of celebration and dances of victory, but, also in the darkest and deepest valleys of my life. As my dear friend states, God does not need sleep, food or rest.  He is always in action and He hears our cries even in the night, when no one else is awake. That is God’s unconditional love for me and the world. Even though I am imperfect in so many ways, the King of Kings loves me. That is wondrous and brings me much joy. That is agape love.

I wonder if the ultimate test in relationships and the world is whether we can love each other (agape love) at our darkest, especially those people we see as the “other”. The pandemic is about as dark as it gets: death, destruction, acts of hatred and violence, and deep division.  It is  easy to love when all is good and feasts abound. It is hard when in seasons of famine, drought, darkness, scarcity,  sickness, turmoil and suffering. Perhaps a step in agape love for the “others” is to recognize our humanity, see something of our selves in others and  to wish the “other” as much happiness and love as we want for ourselves. As the champion of wise compassion, His Holiness the Dalai Lama of Tibet states that we all need love and wish for happiness.

Despite the darkness of the pandemic, the power of agape love is not to be underestimated either. Agape love is healing, resilient, gentle yet strong, gets into the wounds and binds them with grace and lights up human souls. Agape love creates fertile ground for difficult conversations between opposing camps and peace agreements to form. It makes the impossible possible, such as “Davids” of the world are victorious against the “Goliaths”. Dr. Grace describes agape love as powerful as it springs from the heart and soul and creates change as it resonates with people. She distinguishes agape love as powerful, but not forceful. The power of agape love is that it is in alignment with universal law. So Agape love  abounds and is self-generative. There does not seem to have a need for external pressure or force to propel it .

Thank You Readers

Dear Readers:

A Big Thank You for your responses. Since there were a number of questions from readers about this particular blog design, I am referring readers to Dr. Al Ortiz, who designed this blog.  Please feel free to contact Dr. Ortiz at: alortiz@sbnai.com.

Dr. Ortiz is very knowledgeable, very helpful and generous in sharing his expertise in blog design. I am very grateful to Dr. Ortiz for all his work in designing and maintaining this blog. Thank you Dr. Ortiz.

Anindita

Mother Theresa : The Saint Who Mothered the World with Light, Love and yet Experienced Darkness

This post is about Mother Theresa, Saint of Light, Love and Darkness. But I will begin by talking about my mother. I have been missing my mother, Anuradha Ganguly. Her nick name was “Benu”. My mother was not a saint, but, real human being. She showed me love in a powerful way. So I use these lenses and experiences of being mothered by own mother to grasp a glimpse of what made Mother Theresa did for the world:  The Saint Who Mothered the world.

Anuradha Ganguly, my mother, passed away 9 years ago. She celebrated with me in my victories and hugged me tenderly in my defeats. There was a deep bond of love between us, despite, the peaks and valleys in our relationship. In difficult times, I miss my mother’s encouraging words, delicious chutney, and conversations where I was understood and loved by her. Our conversations  lasted hours over hot tea. Growing up in a Bengali home, we always had the kettle on with hot water for chai, Indian black tea and milk. Fights happened between my mother and me, with sharp words flung at each other. This followed mutual words of endearments as we became friends and allies. Her faith was strong. Her prayers were powerful especially for her children, me and my two brothers, as she targeted her prayers with strength, supplication, and ferocious vehemence  to enter Heaven’s gates and propagate to God’s ears. I remember the smell of sandle-wood incense from her puja or prayers. She was from Bankura, a small town in West Bengal.  She was very passionate about making sweets, like “rosogolas”, “sandesh”, and “chumchum”. West Bengal, by the way, is famous for its sweets or “misti”. I happen to have a sweet tooth and she saved the best sweets for me. Her mantra for me in my younger days was “Eat the sweets and worry about your weight later”. Interestingly, she was diabetic and I think one of the most powerful ways she showed her love was giving sweets to us. Giving to others what she was not allowed to eat. She showed much joy in people enjoying her sweets. Anuradha had her eccentricities and challenges, like other human beings. But, Anuradha was a loving, generous and forgiving woman. She made sacrifices for her family.  I found this aspect of her as we both aged and matured.  We grew from mother daughter dynamics into friends over the years. Friendship with my mother in adulthood gave me a compassionate and kind perspective about who she was as a human being. This is when I realized she is a human being, ordinary person who did extraordinary things. She stepped up to the deep calling of “mothering”.  Mothering is beautiful, rewarding and yet can be super-hard.  Mothering is a 24/7  job and once a mother, always a mother. I am nowhere near my mother in terms of loving and forgiving others.

As I was missing my mother, I thought of another mother from Calcutta, West Bengal, Mother Theresa. Saint of Light who dispensed God’s love to the most destitute, dying, sick, and forsaken by the world. She wrote that the greatest pain and suffering in humanity is feeling unwanted and unloved. I agree. As a psychotherapist, the most painful and gut wrenching stories I hear are people’s  experiences of feeling unloved and unwanted. Having meaningful and loving connections with others is good for the mind, body and spirit.

Mother Theresa was deeply in love with Christ. She described hearing “call in a call” from Christ to serve the poorest of the poor. She served, loved and demonstrated God’s love to people, who were destitute, poor, dying, sick and forsaken by the world. Yet, she suffered greatly. She had feelings that God and Christ abandoned her. She felt darkness, loneliness and thirst for Christ which  she did not feel Christ reciprocated for fifty years after Christ called her to serve the poorest of the poor..  Her struggles in her faith journey became public knowledge after she died and her spiritual mentors wrote about her personal pain. This post is a discussion of Mother Theresa, Saint of Light, Saint of Darkness. I also include thoughts on dark nights of the soul, associated with St. John of the Cross,  a great Christian mystic and Mother Theresa. I wonder if many people have experienced dark night of the soul, especially in the pandemic. I have more questions than answers about dark night of the soul. Is dark night of the soul a part of the human condition? What is the difference between dark night of the soul and depression? No idea. So I went back to practical spirituality:  reflections of a faith based person facing trouble. I have added the powerful words of faith warriors: Dr. Maya Angelou and Dr. Wayne Dyer. 

 

 Mother Theresa : Saint of Light and Darkness

I will begin with saying that I am great fan of Mother Theresa. My husband and I had the great Blessing of seeing Mother Theresa in person and getting her Blessings after our marriage in 1995. We are both from the Calcutta area, where Mother Theresa established her ministry. When I caught a glimpse of her, I saw lines of people from all over the world who traveled far and wide to visit her in Calcutta. I remember her frail figure in a white sari with blue borders. What struck me was Mother Theresa’s  eyes :  deep, piercing, unfathomable, kind and compassionate  eyes .  There was a power and depth in her gaze like she saw me completely. She blessed me and my husband and said something to the effect that “Family that prays together stays together”. I do not remember the exact words as I was overwhelmed by the experience of encountering Divine Grace and Love in human form. I will never forget meeting her. The encounter with Mother Theresa was brief with multitude of people clamoring for her. However, it is etched in my mind. Meeting Mother Theresa, even for a few minutes,  was a powerful memory of God’s unconditional, fierce and fearless love for humanity.

Mother Theresa was born as Anjeze Gonxhe Bojaxhiu in 1910 in Skopje, Macadonia.   Prior to starting her own ministry, she joined  Sisters of Loretto in 1928 in Ireland. She traveled to India in 1929 and taught in Loretto Convent in Calcutta. Loretto convents are excellent catholic schools which educate women in many parts of India. Interestingly, I attended  Loretto Convent in Asansol for four years. The nuns taught with rigor and compassion.  I found that attending the only girls catholic Loretto Convent nurtured my curiosity for knowledge.

While traveling on a train to Darjeeling in 1946, Mother Theresa received her calling from Christ to serve the poorest of the poor. She left the academic world of Loretto Convent in Calcutta and established Missionaries of Charity to serve the poor in the slums of Calcutta. Her work spread in helping people who were  destitute, dying on the streets, people with leprosy, AIDS and cancer. She served people who were abandoned at their most vulnerable points in their lives.  She started her missionary work with the faith that God will provide for her. Indeed God did provide abundantly. Her organization grew around the world and she received the Noble Peace Prize. She was an acclaimed and international figure of faith who personified God’s Unconditional Love for all of humanity. She worked with people who were abandoned by the world: the forgotten, discarded, sick, homeless, and dying.  But not forsaken by Mother Theresa and the God she represented. I see Mother Theresa as mother to people who were abandoned. She showed softness, compassion, grace and unconditional love to people who were at their weakest points. I think of Mother Theresa as a mother to people in their greatest hour of despair, like my own mother was to me. Words of comfort and encouragement in the middle of painful experiences are like healing ointments for the heart and soul. One never forgets such people or their words of comfort, kindness and grace.  One of my colleagues called these people who show up in your hour of need as “God with Skin” people. They are earth angels.

Then I came across  this article of Mother Theresa’s faith journey.  The experience of reading about her faith journey after her death  shocked the living daylights out of me. Her spiritual mentors released information from her  letters  after her death where she wrote about her experiences of  darkness, deep abyss of loneliness,  lack of faith, feeling unloved by God and Christ, for Whom she dedicated her life. It is noted that despite her yearning for Christ, she did not feel His Presence in her soul. She talks about the empty hole in her soul. It is stated that she felt forsaken by God for almost fifty years.  She experienced feeling unloved and unwanted by the Love of her Life, Christ.  There are articles written that Mother Theresa served the people who felt most unwanted and unloved because she was familiar with that experience. She stated that the greatest suffering in humanity is not poverty or disease but feelings of being unwanted and unloved. Her deepest pain seems to have played a major role in her ministry. This was shocking to me when I first discovered this information. Some theologians suggest that Mother Theresa’s love for Christ was so deep that Christ shared his deepest state of feeling unloved and unforsaken by His Father before the crucifixion. This showed the humanity of Christ. Christ was Divine, but he knew the deepest pain of feeling unloved before his greatest trial. Despite feeling forsaken, Christ surrendered to God’s Will. So did Mother Theresa. This is the Divine stuff I cannot understand with my mind. Yet, my heart is stunned and tearful about Mother Theresa and Christ’s love for God.

 St. John of the Cross and the Dark Night of the Soul

Mirabai Starr (2002)discussed the concept of dark night of the soul in her book, “Dark Night of the Soul: St. John of the Cross”. Starr writes that St. John of the Cross and St. Theresa of Avila immediately connected because they both felt that the Catholic Church had lost its “holy inspiration” and they both wanted church reforms to go back to the simplicity of service and deep contemplation. St. Theresa of Avila started a movement known as Discalced Carmelite Order, also referred to as “Barefoot Carmelites”. This movement included monks and nuns taking off their shoes and wearing “rough sandals” to symbolize the call to return to simplicity of service. Starr writes that even though King Phillip of Spain approved of reforms, officials in Rome were not approving of reform. In 1577, St. John of the Cross was captured by friars due his involvement in reforming the church. Starr writes that St. John was tortured, flogged, interrogated. When St. John refused to deny the reforms, he was condemned to a tiny space, which was previously a toilet. He was described as starved and brought to the dinning commons to be flogged while other monks ate their meals. Starr states that St. John,  starved, endured a brutal winter and then summer which led to his clothes to rot.  During this period of intense suffering, St. John connected to his relationship with God to survive. Starr stated that as St. John’s suffering continued, he felt fading of Divine Presence. This led him to formulate passionate love poems to his Beloved, God in his poems. Eventually, a Carmelite brother provided pen and paper so that St. John wrote his poems expressing his pain of separation from God. After nine months, St. John escaped miraculously and found reunification with the living God in his heart. He fell into profound ecstasy that he came out of total darkness and found his Beloved, God. He wrote “Songs of the Soul: One Dark Night” describing the ecstatic reunion with his Beloved, God, an pouring of his heart for love of God after the excruciating pain of darkness.

Concluding Thoughts

It may be that the God man, Christ, in his humanity, immediately before the cruxifixtion,  Mother Theresa and St. John of the Cross all perceived feeling abandoned by God, which lead to their experiences of darkness,  loneliness and deep suffering, known as dark night of the soul. If Christ, the God man, and spiritual giants, Mother Theresa and St. John of the Cross reportedly experienced such feelings of being unloved and unwanted at certain points in their lives, I would argue that perhaps this is a more common experience in humanity than previously thought.  These feelings of being unloved, unwanted, and existential aloneness  may exist in some points in life, especially in times of vulnerability.  Maybe more so in this pandemic.

Is dark night of the soul part of the human condition? What are differences between dark night of the soul and depression?

Are people’s perceptions of experiences of feeling unloved, unwanted and loneliness part of certain points in time in the human condition? Starr (2002) writes that St. John’s experiences are part of the human condition. She argues that events, such as, divorce, job loss, career change, trauma may lead to dark night of the soul experiences. What are differences between dark night of the soul and mental health issues, such as depression? Starr (2002) states that dark night of the soul is different from depression.  She differentiates dark night of the soul as St. John experiencing painful emotions as he seeks union with the Divine and he is not concerned about health. According to Starr, St. John may not be seeking to eliminate painful emotions as he may see them as stages to develop into higher spiritual states. Bottom line, I have no answers about the demarcation of the psychological and spiritual arenas  in the dark night of the soul experiences? I do not know the difference between dark night of the soul versus mental health struggles, like depression. This is an area that needs to be explored more in spirituality and psychology.

Practical Spirituality

So I will go back to my practical side as a faith based person dealing with trouble? Practical spirituality include faith based and psychological strategies too. Loving God in dark times is super-hard, a Herculean task. I wonder if this dark night of the soul is a spiritual test of whether we love God for Who He is and not just for the wonderful Blessings He pours on us. Spiritual tests are the most rigorous. By the way, I have always hated academic tests in school. 

Many people, including me, feel anger and frustration at God in tough times. Sticking with God through pain and suffering is probably the greatest spiritual challenge. I have no definitive answers. Just some preliminary thoughts. Again some strategies for dealing with painful situations are differentiating between what you can control versus what you have no control over. Focus on what you can control. Practice possible acceptance strategies on what you cannot control. As a faith based person, practice possible surrender of uncontrollable factors to the Divine Source even if you are questioning why certain things are happening. Surrendering to Divine Will is a tough task. Ask and receive help as needed from professional health care people  or safe family or friends. Remember to notice the positive. One example is to remember how God got you through difficult times in the past and He Will again.  I love Dr. Maya Angelou’s statement that if God got you through this far, He will get you through this too. Another positive strategy is counting Blessings or gratitude practice. Be kind, compassionate and nurturing to yourself.  Develop healthy coping strategies for handling negative feelings.

Faith warriors: Dr. Maya Angelou and Dr. Wayne Dyer

In our times of suffering, God’s will seems incomprehensible. The only solace is that God walks with us in these dark times and good times. A wise person reminded me “God always Blesses” . A reminder that indeed, this difficult time too shall pass.  Interestingly, Dr. Maya Angelou, a woman of strong faith encouraged herself and others to say “Thank You” to God for trouble because she said at the end of the storm comes the beautiful rainbow (Dr. Angelou’s interview with Oprah Winfrey, www.Oprah.com, July 13, 1993). Dr. Angelou’s faith was spectacular, majestic and breathtaking that she is able to say “Thank You” in the face of trouble. This was stunning to me when I first heard it. Dr. Angelou also described her belief that she can do anything set before her because she knows she is a “Child of God”. This suggests her strength and self-efficacy that comes from her relationship with God.

Dr. Angelou also talked about the most important virtue to cultivate is courage. She said that without courage one cannot practice other virtues. So right, Dr. Angelou is. The best definition of courage is to confront the challenge and move forward in the face of fear and adversity. Tough stuff.

 I will end with a powerful quote of Dr. Wayne Dyer: 

“If you knew who walked beside you at all times, on the path that you have chosen, you could never experience fear or doubt again.”

The challenge is to remember this when we are walking through darkness and experiencing feelings of unloved and loneliness. This is where faith comes in.  In the Bible, Hebrew 11:1 defines “Faith … is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” . I am a big believer that God honors faith.

 

Oodles of Gratitude To Readers

Hello Dear Readers:

I will begin with oodles of gratitude to readers. I am wonderfully surprised, and grateful for the overwhelming number of feedback comments from all of you reading the blog. It is awesome that some of the posts have resonated with readers. Dr. Wayne Dyer’s quote, “We are Divine enough to ask and we are important enough to receive”  impacted me powerfully. My interpretation is that as human beings, we have the Divine Spark in us, that connects us to the Divine Source, God, Universe. Different people have different names for this Divine Source.  I feel that much of what I write is based on questions I have asked as a person on my walk with God and the Divine Guidance I have received. I feel that Divine Guidance has come through so many different pathways: pastors, priests, family and friends,  wise teachers,  colleagues, students, people I have worked with, excellent books and research articles I have read on different topics in psychology and different spiritual and religious traditions, experiences of motherhood and being a wife.  I believe that Divine Guidance and Grace has shaped my life and define who I am. For that I am immensely grateful, which words cannot fully capture.. I am a firm believer that God is infinite, vast, and majestic and  beyond human comprehension. Therefore, my experiences and perspectives in my writings are limited by my human condition.

I believe that each person’s  walk on this planet is personal and unique, which I respect and honor.  I am super happy that readers have found some of the posts integrating spirituality, psychology and philosophy from the East and West  helpful and informative. Please read what is helpful and discard what is not helpful.

BIG THANK YOU TO READERS. HAVE A WONDERFUL DAY. :))

Anindita

 

Loved, Known, Seen and Understood: The Curious Case of Serendipity in the Pandemic.

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Serendipity

 

Have you ever received money that you did not expect or got a call from a loved one that you were thinking about the day before?. Interestingly. Abraham Lincoln, one of my favorite historical figures, reportedly had precursory dreams of a funeral in the white house while he was president before his assassination. He also reportedly had a dream  which involved imagery of him sailing swiftly in deep waters in a  ship to unknown lands the day before his assassination. This is referred to as the ” Cabinet room dream” as Lincoln had apparently talked about the dream in the Cabinet meeting before his death. These types of events are called coincidences or serendipity.

Many people have written about coincidences.   Dr. Carl Jung wrote about synchronicity or meaningful co-occurring events which appear as random events at first glance, but, actually may be very meaningful to the observer. Quantum theory also talks about this fascinating concept of entanglement, which suggests that isolated particles in different areas are connected so that if an event impacted one particle, the other related particle, even if in a distant location, will be impacted also. This is rather mind boggling stuff and has been presented as possible explanation of coincidences.    Dr Bernard Beitman studies the science of coincidence and serendipity. Incidents of serendipity include “happy accidents”. There are also people who interpret coincidences or synchronicity as  “Divine providence”, exemplified by the sentence, “Coincidences are God’s Ways of Being Anonymous”.  Sometimes the differences between coincidences or serendipity can be confusing. Therefore, this post includes reflections on serendipity, or “happy accidents” in the pandemic. I am focusing on the “happy” versus the “unhappy” as we have seen so much pain and suffering  in the pandemic. We have to work harder for a positivity bias as research suggests that the human brain is wired to pick up negativity material more readily in the world. Negativity bias makes total sense for survival. Remember that when our ancestors saw a rainbow and a tiger, the focus was on the tiger and how to survive. Otherwise there is no one to enjoy the rainbow.

Serendipity of co-regulation.

The idea of co-regulation originates from Dr. Porges polyvagal theory . This includes the experience of having a socially engaged interaction between two people,  such as, a deep conversation, hug with a loved one where we are heard, known and seen for who we are, including the  good, ” hero or she-roe” parts,  and the shadow  (qualities of ourselves we are not proud of). These conversations and connections are soothing for our nervous system because it makes us feel safe, loved, known, seen and understood.  Sometimes serendipity of co-regulation may include hearing a song or sermon on the radio at the right time that captures our feelings and thoughts and gives us a sense of “everything will be ok”. It calms the nervous system. Sometimes, it involves coming across a verse in the scripture or book,  sign on a billboard or back of a car that leaps into the mind, body and soul and it feels like the words apply to our situation and points us in a specific direction of change in perspective or action. These are like love bubbles hitting us when we least expect it. They give us hope to endure through difficult circumstances, such as the pandemic. They lift dark moods, ease the fearful mind. There is a sense that things will be Ok and everything will end well. They sooth us as we feel heard, seen and understood by the songwriter who wrote the song or pastor who gave the sermon. They make me feel that I am  not the only person on the planet who had this experience. I am not alone. They may lift us into Ventral Vagal Complex states of safety, love and compassion in the dance of the vagus nerve.

I have always been grateful for these “love bubbles” or happy accidents, such as, a call from a dear friend, hearing a comforting sermon or song,  or finding a book in an unexpected place when I have been looking for it for days. However, in the era of the pandemic where good news seems rare,  I am especially grateful for these “happy accidents”.  Incidents of serendipity help me keep the faith that the world will get through the pandemic with a better, perhaps, different future.

 

Serendipity and Stories of Extraordinarily Successful People

Dr. Beitman cites the  famous example of serendipity where Alexander Fleming accidentally discovers the petri dish with the enzyme which led to the development of the antibiotic, penicillin which revolutionized the medical field. I cannot imagine a world without antibiotics. In  Malcolm Gladwell’s book, “Outliers: Stories of Success”,  Gladwell interviews Bill Gates as an example of a major unusual success story. Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard University to pursue his interest in computer science. Gladwell argues that Bill Gates’ access to computers at the right time, his brilliance, genius  and hard  work led to  Gates success. Very true. However, the idea that Gates mother had access to IBM Board of Directors is also intriguing and fascinating . It leans into the discussion of serendipity. Did his mother’s access to knowledge and resources also led to Gates’s success?  Mary Maxwell Gates, Bill Gates’ mother, a very successful business woman also knew John Opel, then chairman of IBM through her involvement in nonprofit work. Collaboration of IBM and Microsoft played a huge role in Gates success. This connection that Gates’s mother had with the chairman of IBM demonstrates the interconnections between people’s lives which led to serendipity and success.   It also beautifully demonstrates the concept of right place, right time and right person. This is so important in serendipity. 

Serendipity and the Divine Source

I recognize there are many different explanations of serendipity, including quantum physics theory of entanglement. As a faith based person, I interpret them as what my student in my positive psychology class referred to it as “God shot”. Some people refer to it as “God send”. My understanding of the “God shots”  or “God sent” are  God’s Grace which pierces through the veil of our reality for assurance, confirmation, or signs of “peace” and Divine Love, in good times and especially in difficult situations (“when the shit is about to hit the fan”). They feel like the Universe’s hugs to keep calm and carry on. Anne Lamott, a brilliant and humorous writer on faith and life, talks about God’s Grace being the last, but, best batter in her TED Talk (12 truths  I learned from life and writing).   Anne Lamott also describes our prayers of help to God in desperate situations is what distinguishes  God as  the “Gift of Desperation”, because His help comes at times in life when we are most “teachable”.

.My experience is that “God shots” happen unexpectedly, but, at the right time, right place and for the right person. For me, it shows an orchestration of events by  Divine Guidance. Serendipity can appear ordinary from the outside, such as, getting call from a dear friend. It can also be major incidents which change  the trajectory of someone’s life. Whatever  serendipity looks like on the outside, it means a lot to the person who derives meaning from the event.

As a faith based person, I believe that my relationship with the Divine Source is a key component of my faith.  A dear friend  noted that God calls us to be in relationship with Him and others. My friend came up with the coolest and most profound  insight. He said that God is the Greatest Co-Regulator of people. Very true. Divine Intervention can bring a level of peace, understanding and discernment in the most turbulent storms of life.

A great example of serendipity is Divine Protection and Providence . In one of his brilliant sermons, Bishop T. D. Jakes discusses  experiences of rejection can be signs of Divine Protection. Divine Protection may mean God has bigger plans for us than we dream of for ourselves.   Oprah Winfrey, the mega successful entrepreneur, media personality, owner of popular magazines and television channel also discusses the idea that failure is Universe’s way of redirecting us to find our actual purpose and paths. In one of her powerful speeches, she discusses the  abundance of Divine Grace and her faith that led her from her childhood in a small town in the south to her  current position.

Closing Thoughts

At the end of the day, each reader needs to decide what incidents of serendipity mean for himself or herself. Is serendipity  a random event or blip in the cosmic radar? Is it explained by entanglement theory in quantum physics? Is it  Divine Providence and Grace?  As a faith based person, I believe that Divine Providence is very powerful, sometimes presents as serendipity and can be a game changer in life. Perhaps, the fascinating concept of entanglement in quantum physics  is also part of Divine Design. Whatever your thoughts are about coincidences or serendipity, they certainly demonstrate interconnection between people or events that  are incredibly powerful. They confirm that even in the isolation of the pandemic, we are seen, known, understood and loved by people, events, and the Divine Source. My prayer is that people continue to receive these “love bubbles” or “God shots of Divine Grace” for spiritual, and psychological strength in the pandemic. As for me, they renew my faith in the Divine Source as I view them as sacred experiences which light up my soul and  make my heart sing. For that, I am deeply grateful.

 

 

The Dance of The Vagus Nerve: Feeling Safe, Love, Compassion, versus Fear

Dr. Stephen Porges’s work in polyvagal theory led to a deeper understanding of the autonomic nervous system and particularly the vagus nerve.  I refer to it as the “dance of the vagus nerve” with rhythms of feeling safe, love, compassion and fear,  which I will discuss later in the post. Porges’s polyvagal theory is a game changer in the biology of autonomic nervous system.  For those of you interested in a more detailed discussion of polyvagal theory, I added a link to  Dana Lewis’s  (2018)  discussion. The traditional view of the autonomic nervous system included: sympathetic nervous system which generated body’s fight or flight responses when person faced danger versus the parasympathetic nervous system, which led to resting and calming of the nervous system.

Polyvagal theory suggests a more nuanced and complicated autonomic nervous system. Polyvagal theory suggests that the parasympathetic nervous system is enervated by the vagus nerve (also known as “wanderer”) as the nerve truly seems nomadic popping up in different part of the body). The vagus nerve is the tenth cranial nerve which joins the brain, heart, lungs,  digestive system and organs associated with digestive processes. The vagus nerve carries information back and forth between the brain and other body organs. So the  vagal nerve is the connector between the brain and gut, a pathway of mind-body connection and integrative health. The vagus nerve is involved in mood states, immune responses, stress response, heart, lung and digestive systems (e.g. linking inflammation of the body systems to exposure to ongoing high stress levels). When I read about the rhythm of the vagus nerve in regulating the nervous system, the image of the “dancing vagus nerve”  came to mind. Growing up in India in the first ten years of my life, I saw many ethereal and elegant dance forms. Some of the dance forms are considered temple dances or dances of worshiping the Divine. I have no formal training in any dance forms, but I have family members who are very talented dancers. As an audience member, watching some of these dances is mesmerizing as one observes  the dancer’s complex hands, legs movements, facial gestures and body postures  transform flawlessly in alignment with rhythm of the tabla (Indian drum) and melody of the songs.  My image of the dancing vagus nerve reminded me of the Hindu statue,  Nataraj (statue of Lord Shiva in a Dance Form, symbolic of the Divine Consciousness as a Cosmic Dancer dancing in Bliss).  In Hinduism, the Blissful Dancing Lord Shiva creates the cosmic  rhythm of creation, sustenance and destruction.  Why blissful? Because Lord Shiva represents Divine Consciousness which is beyond the  duality of human existence. Duality in the human realm represents  happiness versus suffering, regulation versus dysregulation of the nervous system, passion versus dispassionate, birth versus death. 

Unlike Divine Consciousness, most of us human beings dance with the vagus nerve and autonomic nervous system, with movement across states of regulation and dysregulation in the pandemic. Regulated states leans towards feeling peaceful, calm and content. Slightly dysregulated states may mean having a “bad day”.  Highly distressful states of dysregulation are based on experiencing dangerous situations, as discussed below. This post reviews the basic autonomic nervous system, polyvagal theory and suggests healthy strategies of regulation of the nervous system . Each individual’s regulation and dysregulation patterns of the nervous system is very much  mediated by his or her risk and resiliency or protective factors. Each person has triggers which led to states of vulnerability and protective factors which regulates the nervous system.

 

OVERVIEW OF AUTONOMIC NERVOUS SYSTEM

Autonomic Nervous System (adapted from Dr. Porges’ training at PESI).

Sympathetic Nervous System                                          Parasympathetic Nervous System (VAGUS NERVE)

“Fight or Flight”” (Life threatening)                               Ventral Vagal Complex  versus Dorsal Vagal Complex

 

 

Fight
Sympathetic Nervous System
Fight Response

 

Flight
Sympathetic Nervous System
Flight Response

 

Peace Love
Ventral Vagal Complex
Safety, Peace, Love and Compassion and Social Engagement System

Freeze

Dorsal Ventral Complex
Freeze Response

Before we dive into the world of the dancing vagus nerve and autonomic nervous system, I am going to introduce the concept of neuroception and basic parts of the autonomic nervous system. Neuroception is the subconscious process that neural circuits in the brain use to detect any possible danger. The brain circuits survey both internal body states (what we are experiencing inside our bodies) versus external states (events in the world around us) .  Brain circuits monitor what is safe and unsafe. For the sake of survival, we move towards safety and stay away from unsafe situations. Feeling safe is a key ingredient for activities, such as learning in school, social interactions and basic sleep.

According to polyvagal theory, the three parts of the autonomic nervous system are: Ventral Vagal Complex (VVC), Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) and Dorsal Vagal Complex (DVC).  The VVC is associated with feelings of calmness, peace, love and compassion when a person feels safe. VVC associated with our social engagement system where we connect with others through interpersonal relationships.  The SNS is activated when the person experiences life threatening situations and the body gets ready for fight or flight responses (mobilization responses) for survival. The DVC state is triggered when the person senses danger and becomes  immobilized ( freeze response). The three systems co-mingle, such as, activation of VVC and SNS leads to movement with feelings of safety (dancing, playing sports, writing) which can be very positive experiences.

 

HEALTHY PRACTICES TO FACILITATE VENTRAL VAGAL COMPLEX (FEELINGS OF SAFETY, CALMNESS, LOVE AND COMPASSION)

Given the stressful nature of the pandemic, many folks may be in other states, besides the VVC state. The central question is how do we develop and implement strategies to enter the VVC states. The field of mind body medicine provides some very helpful and fascinating strategies of how to facilitate VVC states:

1. Meditation and mindfulness practices with  breathing techniques, focused attention on something Loving (secular or faith based)  has a calming effect on the mind and body after  stressful experiences. Calming effects most likely leads to feelings of safety. Please see Love on the Brain practices post Being a faith based person, I love this wonderful article, “5 Pictures of God’s Love to Encourage you this Valentine’s day”, by Lisa Samra. Samra writes that despite one’s relationship status in the realm of human beings, she experiences great joy, especially in Valentine’s Day,  in her knowledge that she is deeply loved and known by God. She describes five images of God’s great, deep and fierce love for His Children (great VVC triggering images) in the Biblical scriptures. The images she writes about God’s love are very powerful : God as “Safe Shelter”, “Eternal Spring”, “Faithful Spouse”, “Caring Mother” and “Overwhelming Flood”. I love her description that unlike some people who are hesitant or reluctant in their love of us, God’s Love is “beyond dimensions”, “surpasses human understanding” and “floods the soul”. Unlike certain people ‘s restricted love,  God’s Unconditional or Agape love is Boundless. I totally agree with Samra on this point.

2. The practice of yoga is powerful in facilitating VVC states.  Marlysa B. Sullivan and her colleagues (2018) discussed that any body awareness practices with the mindfulness qualities of nonjudgment, loving-kind attention, and acceptance lead to a calming effect on mind and body.  Sullivan and her colleagues discuss the similarities between polyvagal theory and ancient yoga practices. They discuss possible pathways as to why yoga is so effective in calming states of dysregulation or stress in the mind and body.  They discuss the ancient wisdom regarding yoga practices.  In ancient views of yoga, there is a distinction between   “Purusha” which refers to spirit, “the indweller”, and observer of experiences and “Prakiti”, material world where experiences arises. Sullivan and her colleagues discuss that in the ancient text,  The Bhagavad Gita, prakiti is composed of three qualities or “gunas”: 1. “sattva” (“lightness, clarity, harmony”, lucidity, joy, and necessary for cultivating wisdom and “clear seeing”), 2.”rajas” (capacity for mobilization, but predominance of rajas is associated with pain, anger, agitation and greed) and 3. “tamas” (capacity of restrain or limit, but, heavy tamas is linked with delusion, dullness, ignorance and negligence). Intermingling of different gunas led to different states in material world.  Sullivan and her colleagues also draw possible parallel between polyvagal theory and the three gunas. They link Ventral Vagal Complex (VVC), associated with feelings of safety, calmness, love and compassion  with sattva guna, activation of Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS)  states (fight or flight responses) with ragas guna and activation of Dorsal Ventral Complex (DVC) associated with freeze response, with tamas gunas. I find this view intriguing and fascinating. Sullivan and her colleagues (2018)  suggest that the basic practice of yoga is to observe (through Purusha or spirit) the changing states of the gunas in the prakiti (material mind and body) without entanglement. This leads to the eventual realization that “I am not my thoughts, pain, anxiety, depression or whatever else that is  happening in my mind and body”. There is a change in the relationship between the person and stressful experiences in mind and body. The researchers argue that yoga practices are associated with positive feeling states. According to the researchers, this grounding of self in spirit is basis of the yogic mind, which is not  influenced by the changes in emotions, thoughts or body states. Yogic mind in some sense has transcended the duality of the human experience, unmoved by changes in the body, mind or world around. This is a difficult state to achieve. (By the way, I am nowhere near). However, yoga therapy has been linked with better treatment outcomes of mental and physical health issues.

2. Connecting with “ventral vagal superstars” (supportive people with whom you have peaceful, loving and warm interactions in your life) is a healing strategy. These are the relationships which ground us, where we feel listened to and loved. I also agree with Dr. Porges discussion that healthy relationships between two people can have ruptures and the capacity of repairing the ruptures leads to deeper connections. Healthy boundaries with ” anti-VVC people” (difficult people) may be something to think about. I love Eckhart Tolle’s statements about being present and not triggered into unconscious states when interacting with unconscious people. I interpreted Tolle’s unconscious people as people driven by SNS or DVC states where they are driven by raw emotion and reactive. Interacting with such people makes us also very reactive. I also recognize that during certain situations in my life, I am been a difficult person for others. My family will attest to this. Hence, my desire to learn more strategies to enter VVC states.

3. Movements which are soothing: dancing, writing, walking, swimming, chanting, prayer rituals (e.g. beads and rosary), mantras practice for the day, such as, (“Be Kind” or “”This too shall pass”,) for the day can be helpful. Engaging in experiences  of “flow” can be very powerful experiences where people feel so immersed in the activity that they transcend a sense of time.

4. Activities which promote joy or positive emotion, as discussed in the positive psychology in the pandemic post, may be powerful in accessing VVC states.  Gratitude practices, present focused activities, beautiful music, random acts of kindness towards self and others, use of humor,  walks in nature, radical acceptance of reality and make the best of the situation mindsets can be powerful mood boosters.

5. Monitor your own states of vulnerability such as days of not enough sleep, or high stress at work. Those are the days to practice strategies for VVC activation. Awareness of red flags of your SNS and DVC states help us learn when to use more calming strategies. Awareness of loved ones in DVC or SNS states can help navigate our relationships.

6. Practicing radical acceptance strategies of nonjudgment that the nervous system may dance into states of dysregulation in a pandemic at times and we need to develop wise and healthy strategies to dance back into regulation states of feeling safe and calm. 

7. Awareness of unhealthy regulation practices of nervous system (e.g. digital addiction, use of substances)  that are hurtful to you and others and seek professional help.

 

CLOSING THOUGHTS

The pandemic may mean many people having days where states of the nervous system are anything, but  VVC based. Strategies for VVC activation are likely to lead to feelings of safety, love, compassion, kindness and peace for self and others. These are just some strategies for VVC activation in this blog. Please use the strategies for feelings of calmness and safety, discussed in the post,  if they are helpful. If the strategies are not helpful, please do not use them. Readers might have other healthy strategies for VVC activation which work for them. I welcome readers to share their VVC activation strategies.

 

 

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