"Amazing Grace” is one of the most popular spiritual hymns, offering comfort in times of trouble. The history of its writing is a story of literally being saved from death, which then opens a new story. This tale is one of prayers being answered. What have you got to lose?
The song was written by John Newton and tells his own story of being lost, and then found, saved by grace. Newton was born in London July 24, 1725, the son of a commander of a merchant ship which sailed the Mediterranean. When John was eleven, he went to sea with his father and made six voyages with him before the elder Newton retired. In 1744 John was impressed into service on a man-of-war, the H. M. S. Harwich. Finding conditions on board intolerable, he deserted but was soon recaptured, publicly flogged and demoted from midshipman to common seaman.
Finally, at his own request, he was exchanged into service on a slave ship, traveling to the coast of Sierra Leone. He then became the servant of a slave trader and was brutally abused. In 1748 he was rescued by a sea captain who had known John's father. Newton ultimately became captain of his own ship, which became involved in the slave trade.
He had had some early religious instruction from his mother, who had died when he was a child, but he had long since given up any religious convictions. However, on a voyage homeward, his ship ran into a violent storm.
While he was attempting to steer the ship, he experienced what he came to call his “great deliverance.” He recorded later in his journal that when all seemed lost and the ship would surely sink, he exclaimed, “Lord, have mercy upon us!” Soon after, the ship and Newton were saved. He believed that God had brought him through the storm and that grace had begun to work for him.
For the rest of his life he observed the anniversary of May 10, 1748 as the day of his conversion, a day when he subjected his will to a higher power. He continued in the slave trade for a time after; however, he saw to it that the slaves under his care were treated humanely.
He gave up the seafaring life in 1755 after a serious illness. He had begun to educate himself during his days as a sailor, teaching himself Latin, among other subjects. He worked as surveyor of tides at Liverpool, where he came to know George Whitefield, evangelistic preacher and deacon in the Church of England. Newton became Whitefield’s enthusiastic disciple. During this period Newton also met John Wesley, founder of Methodism.
He decided to become a minister and applied to the Archbishop of York for ordination. The Archbishop refused his request, but Newton persisted in his goal, and he was subsequently ordained and accepted the curacy of Olney, Buckinghamshire. Newton’s church became so crowded during services that it had to be enlarged.
In 1767 the poet William Cowper settled at Olney, and he and Newton became friends. Cowper helped Newton with his religious services and tours. They began a series of weekly prayer meetings, with the goal to write a new hymn for each one. They collaborated on several editions of Olney Hymns, which achieved lasting popularity. The first edition of 1779, contained 68 pieces by Cowper and 280 by Newton.
Composed probably between 1760 and 1770, “Amazing Grace” was possibly one of the hymns written for a weekly service, though it was not originally known by that title. Through the years, additional verses by other writers and possibly verses from other Newton hymns have been added. However, these are the six stanzas that appeared in the first edition in 1779. The origin of the melody is unknown; however, the Bill Moyers special on “Amazing Grace” speculated that it may have originated as the tune of a song the slaves sang.
In 1780 Newton left Olney to become rector of St. Mary Woolnoth in London. Again, he drew large congregations and influenced many, among them William Wilberforce, who would one day become a leader in the campaign for the abolition of slavery. Newton continued to preach until the last year of life, although he was blind by that time. He died in London December 21, 1807.
Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound)
That sav’d a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.
’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears reliev’d;
How precious did that grace appear,
The hour I first believ’d!
Thro’ many dangers, toils and snares,
I have already come;
’Tis grace has brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.
The Lord has promis’d good to me,
His word my hope secures;
He will my shield and portion be,
As long as life endures.
Yes, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease;
I shall possess, within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.
The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,
The sun forbear to shine;
But God, who call’d me here below,
Will be forever mine.
Amazing Grace: The Story of John Newton by Al Rogers, July-August 1996 issue of “Away Here in Texas”.
We often think that the BIG events and actions of our lives are most important, but often it’s the little things, or giving power to the little that has an impact.
In his book, The Tipping Point: How little things can make a big difference, the brilliant author Malcolm Gladwell looks at how small things can become epidemic. How sometimes small factors make a disease or flu or social media post go “viral.” Remember Gahng-nam style! amzn.to/2sMwwxh
One example is a concept from marketing, the “stickiness” factor, or what makes something memorable, like all those advertising jingles that were so common. He talks about the success of Sesame Street. One element was that Jim Henson had an advertising background that he brought to make commercials out of letters and words using ad techniques of repetition and rhyming.
At the time, many child psychologists felt that the fantasy elements (the Muppets) should be separated from the real elements, saying it would be misleading to children, and most children’s TV shows followed that belief. But tests of attention with preschoolers showed that the children only watched when the Muppets were on. The producers had the actors and Muppets talk and walk and interact, and that small thing turned the tide of its amazing popularity.
Another example is the Broken Windows theory by a criminologist named Kelling, which is that crime is the result of disorder. If one window is broken and left unrepaired, people will conclude that no one cares or is in charge. Soon more windows will be broken, then it spreads to a neighboring building and down the street. Crime can be contagious, starting with a broken window and spreading to an entire community.
Graffiti has the same effect. The New York Transit Authority put this theory into practice in a multi-billion dollar rebuilding of a subway system. They were told to focus on the larger question of crime and not worry about graffiti, which seemed like scrubbing the decks of the Titanic as it headed toward the iceberg.
But Kelling was hired as a consultant and insisted the graffiti was the symbolic tipping point. The director vigorously attacked the problem and set up a cleaning station at the end of each line to clean or paint over the graffiti, line by line, train by train. The clean-up took some time, but the message became clear. Riders never saw graffiti in the trains and stations¸ which influenced the entire crime rate to decrease dramatically.
I was thinking about this with the Spring Equinox coming up and the days getting longer and the nights shorter. The whole reason for the seasons, something so intrinsic and powerful in human life, is simply this: The Earth is not straight up and down on its axis but is tipped or tilted. This is really the power of the tipping point because the tilt is only 23.5 degrees - only 1/18th or 6% of the circle of orbit.
Consequently, as the Earth goes around its orbit in the yearly revolution around the sun, each hemisphere is oriented more toward or more away from the sun. We experience summer in North America when when the Northern Hemisphere is pointing towards the sun. The sun appears to stay in the sky longer each day, but really, we are just pointed toward the Sun for longer each day, and its rays strike the ground more directly, so it’s warmer. In winter in the Northern Hemisphere, the Sun is pointed away from the sun, and its rays strike the ground more obliquely, so it’s colder and darker.
The fact of seasons on Earth is so much a part of our rituals, biorhythms, times of planting and reaping, our cycle of life – and so much of our conversation. What would some people talk about without weather? This diversity of seasons, of light and dark and weather change, is an intrinsic part of our whole planetary experience – all due to that tiny tilt. Imagine what it would be like to have the same temperature, the same light all year around. We might be a much more boring species – or would we be able to be much more focused and less distracted?
Nature often shows us the power of the small, as a tiny shoot bursting up through the ground, or a flower just starting to open. A Zen verse proclaims:
In spring, hundreds of flowers; in summer, a refreshing breeze;
In autumn, a harvest moon, in winter snows accompanies you.
If useless things do not hang in your mind, any season is a good season for you….”
Ernest Holmes talks about that with the Law of Mind, there’s no large or small. He says, “This Law is neither big nor little. It knows nothing about time, space or limitation. It merely knows to do. It cannot argue. Therefore, It must accept our conclusion about It as Its conclusion about us.”
Like the story of the man who asked God: “How long is a million years to you?” God answers: “One second.” The man asks: “How much is a million dollars to you?” God says: A penny.” The man asks, “Well…could I have a penny?” God answers: “Yes, in just a second”
It’s not God that thinks in big or small, that’s in our thinking. We can perhaps have the consciousness of abundance in some things, like health or love or parking spaces. But when it comes to money or creativity, or a relationship, it seems too big, that it would take a miracle to change.
What needs to change is our miracle consciousness – for a miracle is a shift in perception and miracles are our birthright. It’s all about consciousness. Rather than seeing the desired thing as big, see it as small – easy, accessible, done. It’s our consciousness that we want to change. The word I’m using more and more is assume: I assume that I am always loved and supported and blessed. As Emma Curtis Hopkins said: "There is good for me, and I ought to have it! "
This subject also made me think of an interesting film called Thirteen Conversations about One Thing, shot in 13 episodes that start to integrate with each other. But the important thing is an interview I read with the director, Jill Sprecher, who talked about her inspiration for the film. She was at a very low point in her career and personal life after sustaining head injuries. Riding on the subway one day, she started thinking about how she would commit suicide when she got home. As she was staring out, she noticed a man sitting across from her, who smiled at her in a very warm, compassionate way. That one simple act of human connection and kindness changed her mind. We don’t really know the powerful effect of the smallest of acts.
Here’s another example called the Weight of a Snowflake.
"Tell me the weight of a snowflake," a mouse asked a wild dove.
"Nothing more than nothing," the dove answered.
"In that case I must tell you a story," the mouse said. "I sat on a fir branch when it began to snow. Not heavily, buy just like in a dream, without any violence at all. Since I didn't have anything to do, I counted the snowflakes settling on the twigs and needles of my branch. Their number was exactly 3,471,952. When the next snowflake dropped onto the branch – as you say, nothing more than nothing – the branch broke off."
Having said that, the mouse ran away. The dove, since Noah's time an authority on peace, thought about the story for a while. Finally, she said to herself, "Perhaps there is only one person's voice lacking for peace to come to the world."
We never know how one word, one expression, one smile might be the tipping point for the whole world to be at peace, to be enlightened. We never know how cleaning up the broken windows and graffiti in our minds could increase our peace and happiness and for everyone else around us.
What broken window do you need to fix that might be the tipping point to greater happiness or harmony? Some broken thought of unforgiveness? Think of what small bit of graffiti you could clean up in your life that can make a large change. What negative words are scribbled in your mind that by cleaning them up can open you to a greater, happier, and more fulfilled life?
What is one thing you could do or say today that would be the tipping point to bring peace in the world?
Some of you might remember a classic TV program called This is Your Life. The host Ralph Edwards would surprise a guest, and then bring on various people to tell anecdotes and stories about their lives. The idea for this came to Edwards while he was working on the radio show Truth or Consequences. He had been asked by the U.S. Army to "do something" for paraplegic soldiers at a hospital in a Van Nuys Army rehabilitation hospital.
Edwards chose "a particularly despondent young soldier and hit on the idea of presenting his life on the air to integrate the wreckage of the present with his happier past and the promise of a hopeful future." Edwards received such positive feedback from the capsule narrative of the soldier on Truth or Consequences that he developed This Is Your Life as a new radio program. The program was later adapted for television with great popularity. Edwards would have a big red book and narrate the biography of his guest, while bringing on family members, friends, and others who had had an impact on his or her life, or how the guest had an impact on them.
We can use the This is Your Life format to tell the story of our lives by interpreting it in the best possible light. Some may say “that’s just rose-colored glasses!” Well, yes, it is. Since our lives are just how we view them, why not rose colored rather than muddy brown?
We want to look through affirmative lenses at positive accomplishments and relationships. Imagine your guests – real or imagined – who tell about your victories, challenges overcome, healing, or the positive impact you had. Sort of “It’s a Wonderful Life” kind of view. I doubt the program would have been very popular if it only showed someone’s mistakes, failures, and broken relationships. Like “This is your horrible life.” We can usually do that on our own.
Right now, think of someone who would champion you. Think of someone whose life was touched by you, your actions or words. This is your true life.
We are continually writing the story of our lives by our thoughts and words, and by our responses to whatever life brings us. Metaphysical beliefs teach that what we see “out there” comes from what’s going “in here” – that thoughts, beliefs, and interpretations are creating the experience of our lives. Our lives – past, present, and future – are exactly how we interpret them. Since it’s a story we’re writing, so why not make it a good one?
For the world is not just “happening to us.” Our minds are the projection room of our beliefs, creating the world as we project them outwards. It’s like we have two projectors in our minds, one capable of projecting negative thoughts; the other can project positive thoughts. We can switch the picture being projected at any moment. It’s your choice.
St. Paul’s letter to the Romans tells us: “Be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Not “Be ye made a little different or a little bit better.” No, we’re talking Extreme Makeover! A new kind of thinking can totally transform your life. As the saying goes, “change your thinking, change your life.”
And we always have the capacity to change, for change and the possibility of change is going on all the time. Even on the physical level, we literally are not the same person we were a week ago. Most of the cells of our bodies replace and reproduce themselves every 7 years, and some have replaced many times over in that time. And even science is proving that our bodies, our DNA, is controlled by signals outside the cells, messages emitted from positive and negative thoughts. Our thoughts do have power.
Of course, the key is keeping it changed. That’s where our spiritual practice is so important, of prayer, meditation, affirmations. We keep thinking of and projecting a positive movie, the movie we want to live.
Because THIS IS YOUR LIFE, right here and now. Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is the fulfillment of your soul’s purpose on this earth.
And that is quite a story.
I was inspired and moved by this book, From Beginning to End: All the Rituals of our Lives by Robert Fulgum. He is more widely known for another book: Everything I Know I learned in Kindergarten. The book started as thoughts on the ceremonies and rituals he facilitated, but it grew into a larger theme.
We often think of a ritual as something a bit formal, such as an inauguration or a wedding. At the other end, we call our daily actions a schedule or routine. But in his book, Robert talks of approaching all parts of our life - the things we do daily, weekly, yearly, and in life’s bigger moments - with a sense of ritual, with awareness and meaning and reverence.
What’s the difference between ritual and routine? The word routine is connected to the word route – always following the same path. It’s like the story of two workers in the office lunchroom, opening their sack lunches. As one man unwrapped his sandwich, he made a face and exclaimed: “Ham! Always the same thing every day!” The other guy inquired why he didn’t ask whoever he made his sandwich for something different. “Well,” said the man, “I make my own lunch.”
We do make our own lunch. We get to decide if we want a same-old hamster wheel routine, or whether we want to consciously direct our experience of life and find meaning in what we do. For our species is not just sapiens – wise or knowing, but we are sapiens sapiens – we know that we know. Life is an open book that we inscribe daily with that knowing.
Rituals are like a gridwork that we lay over life – not to imprison us, but as a structure to connect with ourselves, with each other, with a creator, making our life a richer pattern of meaningful acts. Robert says: Rituals are one way in which attention is paid. Rituals transform the ordinary into the holy. To pay attention is to sanctify existence.
How can we live with that sense of meaning and reverence? I mean, we’re busy people with many things to do and not enough time to do them in – we can’t be expected to pay attention all the time! A sense of ritual awareness is not something to add to our to-do list, but to make our lives richer and living life to the fullest.
The main obstacle to living with meaning is busy-ness – haste – rushing. A sense of ritual is like a sacred speed bump, to become more aware of what you’re doing. Just slowing down and breathing deeply is itself a ritual that creates more awareness and being present. It’s being more mindful rather than mindless.
Robert talks of life as full of moments that are liminal. The word LIMIN is the centerline of a doorway, and liminality is the word for crossing over that threshold. Crossing over can be a transition of a personal change or rites of passage like birth, adolescence, college, weddings, and funerals.
There is a time to be born…which is often a time to cry – loudly, as this momentous threshold is crossed into human life. And it’s a time to welcome the newcomer to our planet.
It doesn’t have to be a big formal thing, just giving the community a chance to acknowledge this child. Robert gives an example of a simple but authentic baby welcoming ritual: a Sunday afternoon meal, with guests asked to bring a small token of welcome to be put away until his 21st birthday. Gathering in a circle around the parents and infant, a few drops of water - as the universal symbol of life - are poured on his head, a candle is lit with words of welcome to this world and human family: We, your neighbors and friends and family, bless this child, his parents and his home.
And we are reborn in the first hour of waking from the womb of sleep, and with the rotation of the earth we get a new “turn” of life. A sense of ritual uses symbol and metaphor to make poetry of our experience, and each day is like a lifetime of beginning and ending. How we approach the morning sets the tone – taking time to greet the day, breathing into it, and giving thanks for this gift. We have private practices that mark this time from that first look in the mirror. Why not welcome yourself – I’m still here! Aware of the toothbrush – the water – the soap - the food. For much of the world, these would be extraordinary miracles.
And there is a time to come together. We are a social species and our rites of union reflect this, greeting each other with hello’s and goodbye’s. More so now, with so many avenues for social networking, e-mail, Facebook, texting and tweeting, we like to keep in touch.
Connection can come from shared memories: “Remember when we… Went to the beach…. Remember your party when your parents came home early…and the stories often told over and over. Remembering is part of our personal myth-ology that connects us with each other and to the universal themes of humanity.
Many of our community rituals are related to the earth’s passage around the sun, with anniversaries of birthdays, marriages, losses, Christmas, the first day of spring and other yearly dates that mark our days together.
One of our oldest rituals of community is in sharing food. Perhaps it started when an ancient ancestor didn’t eat what he found but took it back to the cave to share. When elevated to the idea of breaking bread together, it becomes a communion.
Saying grace before meals is a small but powerful ritual - gratitude for this food and for its sustenance. It could just be a simple thank you with that first bite.
In fact, a sense of gratitude is one of the ways to deepen in ritual connection as you move through your day - grateful for your home, car, children, good weather, your job, your health – and all the immense blessings of our lives. Some of the oldest ideas of religion are rooted in communion - whether literally with food or not – honoring ourselves and something greater.
One of our prominent community rites of passage is a wedding – a public celebration of personal intentions. But our image of a wedding is based on the marriage of Queen Victoria’s daughter in 1858. The Queen chose “The Wedding March” for the music, a ceremonial bridal dress and for the groom, coat, tails and starched shirt, which was modified into the tuxedo. Many American weddings are watered down versions of an old tradition that has little meaning for their real lives.
In his book, Robert gives an example of a couple who chose to have a more authentic ritual of union. The couple focused on drawing a large circle to include everyone. Guests were asked to dress up or down as it pleased them. The event started with a mini-reception to allow for latecomers and for the guests to get to know each other and practice a response. Many family members took part in the ceremony - parents, step-parents grandparents, sisters and brothers.
Along with the rings, the couple also exchanged personal tokens of covenant. As the vows were said, the whole congregation gave their blessing. In these kinds of events, emotions are mixed: a time to laugh, a time to weep, a time to dance!
As there are times for union, there are also times for dis-union and then perhaps reunion. There are wonderful stories of reconnection after years of separation by world events, by wars, or adoption, or even a falling out over some argument or misunderstanding, such as when siblings don’t talk for decades.
Reunion is told eloquently in the story of the Prodigal Son – who leaves his home angrily, engages in “riotous living” and becomes destitute. He swallows his pride and returns home, but his father sees him coming and rushes out to meet him with open arms. The words of reunion: I’m sorry. I forgive you. I love you still.
Sometimes the reunion with family never happens, as in Robert’s own life, which calls for an internal reconciliation and peace, which becomes itself a reunion ritual.
How do we meet the ending of the day? It is such a lovely time of transition, a liminal threshold - late afternoon changing to twilight, a sense of winding down, of peace, the sun setting with changing shades of gold, pink, and lavender.
We have the rituals of evening meal, relaxing, preparing for sleep. It doesn’t have to be formal, just thinking over the day – the joys – the challenges met and finding things to be grateful for. Perhaps thinking of all those you know preparing for sleep, the earth turning in space, and being part of it all.
And how do we prepare for the endings of our days?
Robert made arrangements for his death and bought a plot in a cemetery for his ashes. He often goes there to sit and think and look out. He notes that on either side of him are headstones marking the places of Mr. Grimm and Mr. Pleasant – and he thinks his place is reasonably between those two. Robert says that making preparations for death is like wearing an existential seat belt, as it anchors us to live more securely in the gift of the present, accepting the parameters of our earthly life.
Though it is a time to mourn, a death is a profound honoring and sharing in the life of a loved one, and for them, a rite of passage from this life into the next stage of the soul’s journey. It is also a ritual time of personal reflection on our own purpose human span on this earth.
Robert gives an example of a memorial service, planned by a teacher, Martha. She was on dialysis, and as she felt herself weakening, she put her legal and financial affairs in order and planned for her memorial service, which was later carried out by Robert. First, she wanted it to be a celebration of life, with no one wearing black, but all colors. She hired a jazz band that played where she went to dance, selecting the songs herself. The speakers were her grandson, who told of her life history; a former student who was influenced by her to become a teacher, and another student who became her daughter in law, speaking of the family’s love for her.
Martha left instructions with the minister (who was Robert) for notes, gifts, and flowers to be mailed to family members in the year after her death. A note was read with her last words to her friends and family:
All in all, I’ve had a wonderful life. Thank you for your part in it. When death appeared at my door, I was expecting him. I put on my dancing shoes and went. You do the same. Goodbye, with love, Martha.
A time to mourn, a time to weep and still a time to dance.
Actually, we don’t end here, for much of life is involved in the rituals of renewal: little deaths and rebirths that occur on every level as we move from one life to another and cross new thresholds. In graduating and leaving home, changing jobs, moving to a new city, or divorce, one world died and a new one arrived. All exits become entrances to new life.
Renewal can come through an emotional rebirth, a cleansing of the perceived failures and mistakes of the past to cross a threshold into new life. We don’t have to carry around the dead weight of regret and blame from what we should have done or not done. In fact, it is crucial to face, embrace, forgive and release anything that would diminish the full light of this moment. To die daily to the old, “to be transformed by the renewing of our minds.” Rituals of renewal take place in the silence of the heart, when you look back on the rivers you have crossed and the gates you have walked through – and give thanks and walk over a threshold into new life – available at any moment.
Our lives are either endless routine or eternal ritual. The patterns that give meaningful shape to the day, the year and the life are sacred to us all. Patterns repeated by the human race again and again, those patterns that we ourselves repeat, anchoring us to a center, to each other and the full span of human life.
I leave you with a blessing: May you be rich in ritual and joyful in all the days and ways of your life.
Today I'm going to draw upon my e-book, The Little Book of Great Love for some readings on this day of love. amzn.to/2sue0JR
How can I make room for love today? Where can I see and hear love? The voice of love is right now whispering a sweet word to you.
The door to love is always available to us, always ready to open. The word itself is an energy, a high vibration. Just to think and say and feel the word LOVE is like a password to open the heart, to move to a higher energy state.
To start the flow of love, we love ourselves, feeling that we are unconditionally and infinitely loved, just as we are. Let this feeling extend to others, and love them just as they are, with their human flaws and blemishes.
Through voice recognition, the lock to the heart is released, and we enter. Enter into a sense of well-being and vitality. Enter into a greater pleasure and joy. Enter into greater connection and union with others, with life itself.
Knock knock. Who’s there? Love. Love Who? Love you. Love me. Love everyone and everything.
Today I simply think on the word Love for a few minutes throughout this day. As I do, I feel my heart opening in affection and joy.
Right now, stop. Listen to the sound of love.
What’s the sweet word love is whispering in your ear?
Feel love in you, surrounding you, filling you.
Feel love like the soft sun melting any lock on your heart, and you enter into the land of love.
Write an affirmation of love opening your heart today.
Tokens of Love
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. — Elizabeth Barrett Browning
On Valentine’s Day, it has become customary to express love to each other with tokens such as cards, flowers, and candy. And then it is over. But one day a year is not enough to show and express love.
Why not declare a Valentine’s Day or a Love Day once a week, or more often? On that day, perhaps every Wednesday, give something or tell someone what they mean to you. Call a friend just to say “I’m thinking of you." Even better, write a card or note, with a ‘love you’ with your signature.
This love can extend outward in small tokens. It doesn’t have to be that big – holding the door open for someone, giving a warm smile, buying a cup of coffee for a friend, or leaving a flower or coin for someone to find – all are expressions of love and kindness. This makes our human life a heaven on earth. Heavenly!
Today I show my love in ways big and small, being and seeing a presence of love wherever I am. Today I am love in action.
What tokens of love could you express today?
To a friend, a family member, your co-workers, or even the mailman?
A note of thanks in the mailbox? People often bring sweets to share at work. How about flowers?
Right now send an e-mail or write a note to express your love and appreciation. Or send an e-card, with flowers or a lovely scene.
Or send a card to yourself! You might say, "I love you so much! You are so wonderful."
What day will be your Love Day?
Write an affirmation of today as a Love Day.
As a Man Thinketh is one of the classic books of inspirational literature. Written by James Allen in 1903, the book is still popular, 115 years later. The title is based on a Bible verse from the Book of Proverbs, chapter 23, verse 7: "As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he.” This little book of 45 pages is packed with inspiring ideas and can be read again and again.
The idea that we are what we think seems evident today, but it was new at the time, and the book became a prominent influence in the field of self-development. This idea is one of the principles of New Thought spiritual movements like Centers for Spiritual Living (Religious Science) and Unity. One of the tenets of Religious Science is “change your thinking, change your life,” which is an affirmation of the power of thought on our lives. The principle of the Law of Attraction is also related, as it assumes that the quality and kinds of thoughts tend to attract experiences and things that are similar.
James Allen was born in 1864 in Leicester, England. His father William worked as a factory knitter and went seeking better opportunities in America, where he was mysteriously killed. Consequently, at 15 years old Allen was forced to leave school to support the family. He worked for a while as a knitter but then found work as a secretary, and later as a journalist. All the time he kept voraciously reading spiritual books. He had prayed whether to give up material work to focus entirely on his spiritual writing and had a vision which seemed to affirm that this was his path. At age 38, James became a full-time writer and philosopher, pouring out his thoughts in a steady stream of books, the most renowned being As a Man Thinketh.
This book became read around the world and brought Allen posthumous fame as one of the pioneering figures of modern inspirational thought. Continuing to publish the spiritual magazine The Light of Reason, Allen wrote for nine more years, producing 19 works until his death in 1912. His wife Lily continued publishing the magazine under the name The Epoch.
The book begins: “The aphorism, ‘as a man thinketh in his heart, so is he,’ not only embraces the whole of a man’s being but is so comprehensive as to reach out to every condition and circumstance of his life. A man is literally what he thinks…” We might consider the idea that our thoughts create our lives as a given, like the importance of sleep. But at the time, it was a somewhat revolutionary idea.
A popular analogy compares thoughts to seeds, and he uses it here. “A man’s mind may be likened to a garden, which may be intelligently cultivated or allowed to run; it must and will bring forth. If no useful seeds are put into it, then useless weed seeds will fall therein and will continue to produce their kind.” In this way, he says, one becomes the master garden of his soul.
Allen makes the connection with the Law of Attraction, as he says, “The soul attracts that which it secretly harbors, that which it loves and that which it fears. He also connects thoughts to the law of cause and effect, in that “man is continually revolting against an effect without, while all the time he is nourishing and preserving its cause in his heart.” The cause is the kind of thoughts one entertains, so the effect, or what shows up, is a natural outcome.
Trying to change the effect is like using a photocopier, which can only make the image on the copy plate. We might look at the image produced and ask, why do I keep getting the same old thing? Because the same image is put on the plate. The resulting image is the effect, and we must change the cause, the original image or thought. This is really the basics of the law of attraction, that what is in our mind, what we tend to think about, draws to it things of like nature.
He stresses the importance of linking thought with a purpose and making that purpose the centralizing point of thoughts. This action not only moves one to accomplish goals but also develops strength of character. “As the physically weak man can make himself strong by patient training, so the man of weak thoughts can make them strong by exercising himself in right thinking.”
Allen urges the need for a great vision. “Dream lofty dreams, and as you dream, so shall you become. The Vision that you glorify in your mind, the Ideal that you enthrone in your heart – this you will build your life by, and this you will become.”
As a Man Thinketh is now in public domain and available free online, even from Amazon as an e-book.
Now the key is how to remember to keep the quality and kinds of our thoughts focused on the kind of person we want to be and what we want to experience. Reading inspirational literature, such as mentioned in this blog, is vital. Creating some affirmations to focus on throughout the day can be a significant benefit. It could be the same every day or a new one daily. For example, “I have faith in the goodness of life.” “My life is blessed with love, health, and happiness.” “My creativity does good work in the world and fulfills and rewards me abundantly.”
Emile Coué was a French pharmacist who developed the idea of autosuggestion when he found his patients benefitted by positive statements he put in with the prescription. His most famous autosuggestion: “Every day in every way I am getting better and better.”
Mindfulness is a practice to keep centered and aware of those thoughts flitting across the mind, like fireflies on a summer day. Many books abound on this subject, most notably by Thich Nhat Hanh and Eckhart Tolle, among many others.
The point is to move from theory to practice. I came across a book called 10 Minute Mindfulness: 71 simple habits for living in the present moment by S.J. Scott and Barrie Davenport. The premise is that we can transform our daily habits habit into moments of mindfulness.
The authors recommend starting with only a few changes and practicing them for weeks or months; for example, making a cup of tea. Stop to really experience each part of the action, bringing all your senses to it. Knowing that forgetting to be mindful is so easy, they suggest making very tiny goals to keep on track, such as focusing on the first few moments of the changed behavior.
Connecting to some trigger is helpful for mindfulness. For mindful driving, set the trigger when you get in the car. Sit for a moment, then be aware of all the actions, the motions, noticing around you, the road, the trees, people.
I chose eating as a habit to change, as I tend to rush through eating while I read or watch TV. Eating is a good thing to start with, as we all do it. They suggest being aware while you prepare the food – even if it’s microwaving or just ordering. Then before you eat – notice the food – aware of the colors, the smells.
Before eating, saying grace can be a trigger to mindful practice, just a simple thank you, or “I give thanks for this food and all the ways and means it has come to me.” Think of all the people involved in growing, reaping, packaging, delivering. Give thanks for all this work, so you could sit like a king or queen with this gift of food.
As you eat – notice the flavors, textures, chewing – to bring yourself to an awareness of this present moment. This mindful practice has been rather transformative for me. I feel so much more connected, more in tune with my life, more relaxed, and have better digestion!
You might have a time trigger, for example, 10 am and 3 pm. At those times, you stop and check in with your body and tune into your thoughts. Notice your body language. Slow down. Stretch. And especially, breathe. Pay attention to your breath and breathe deeply. There are so many practices you could do.
One final note: The Bible quote is “As a man thinketh in his heart.” That is also a key to being mindful. Move from intellectual thoughts, or brain activity, and move to a more full-bodied experience, to feeling, to drop down to the center of love and compassion. You can never go wrong with more love. As you fill your mind and heart with thoughts of love, love comes to envelop you in a warm embrace.
But of course. In homage to its round of daily repeats, I continue with the theme, by looking at the origins of Groundhog Day.
Ancient cultures depended on creating a story around the yearly cycles and patterns. Like so many dates pertaining to the time of year, February 2nd has its roots in ancient Celtic culture and religion. The day was called Imbolc and was one of the eight festivals in the Wheel of the Year, the cycle of the Earth’s seasons.
Looking at the year as a wheel, four of the eight are the summer and winter solstices, and the autumn and spring equinoxes. In between those, the other four were called cross-quarter days, which were associated with divination. As transition times, it was thought that the veil between the inner and outer worlds was at its thinnest and the balance of energies very significant. The type of divination is connected to the festival’s purpose. Samhain (Sowin), or Halloween, is between autumn equinox and the dark of Winter Solstice, so the divination is about communing with or honoring the dead.
February 2nd was called Imbolc (lambs’ milk) because the lambing season began. It was also called Brigantia for the Celtic female deity of light, calling attention to the Sun’s being halfway on its advance from winter to spring. Imbolc is six weeks after winter solstice and six weeks before the spring equinox. When it was still very much winter in the cold, dark Northern lands, this was naturally a time to turn to divining the weather to anticipate the return of warmth and growth.
Much of this day is based in estimating how soon spring-like weather will come and when to plant the crops. Our Groundhog Day is a remote survivor of that belief. From their observances, they thought it was not a good omen if the day was bright and sunny, for that betokened snow and frost to continue. If it was cloudy and dark, the warmth and rain would thaw out the fields and have them ready for planting.
There is a strong association between Imbolc and Brigid, the Celtic Goddess of birth, poetry, and healing. On the eve of February 2nd, Brigid was honored with sacred bonfires, honoring and calling forth the heat of the life force, passion and purpose. Fires also symbolize purification and cleansing, to prepare to invite the spring to come.
When the pagan holidays were transformed into Catholic equivalents, two holidays emerged from Imbolc. In Ireland, many goddess festivals were transferred to days honoring the Virgin Mary. Brigid, now made a saint, was celebrated on February 1st. Imbolc became Candlemas Day, or the feast of the purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Churches were filled with candles and a candle procession, still carrying the symbol of fire festivals and purification.
And it still carried the sense of weather forecasting: An old English song reads: “If Candlemas be fair and bright, Winter, have another flight; If Candlemas brings clouds and rain, Go Winter, and come not again.”
As Roman legions conquered the northern countries, this practice of divining the weather on this day spread to Germany. To eradicate the Celtic influence, the Romans transferred the divining power to an animal, the hedgehog, thought to be a most intelligent and practical animal. They decided that if the sun did appear on February 2nd, so wise an animal would see its shadow and hurry back underground for another six weeks of winter. If he came out and it was cloudy, there might be an early spring. Many early European settlers in North America were German, especially in Pennsylvania, and they kept the tradition alive, but substituted the native version – the groundhog. The Punxsutawney Spirit is credited with printing news of the first observance in 1886, and so it has carried on to today.
Groundhog Day is our only holiday that focuses on weather at a time when weather is on our minds. We've already completed the most difficult portion of winter's darkest days so that we can look ahead to the promise of the spring. Groundhog Day is the "looking-ahead" holiday, not so much celebrating the day at hand but on coming days. And whether it arrives early, late or on-time, one prediction will prove true: good weather will arrive, one way or another, in springtime.
What does this mean for us today?
Sometimes those on a spiritual path can be so focused on higher consciousness that they can be cut off from their earthiness. We need to come down to earth, to notice and interact with our physical surroundings.
A deep awareness of the earth and honoring the cycle of seasons was crucial for survival for our early ancestors. As well, they deeply connected the cycle of the year with the human cycle of life and death and drew on it for inspiration and guidance. They were always Divine-ing the weather - making the weather a Divine part of life. At a time when we’d like to just move past this weather, we can instead enter the cycle of life. We can feel the dying of the year, and perhaps dying to old habits and beliefs, to make even more vivid the emergence of spring and new life.
This was true for Phil in the movie. He was obsessed with fame and gain, so being trapped in one day brought him down to earth, to living in present and caring about his fellow earthlings. Being forced to focus on one day, he became more alive and fulfilled.
To truly be spiritual beings means being fully embodied as Divine on this earth, this plane of existence. We make this life Divine, a heaven on earth, bringing consciousness and a beneficial presence to physical life and fellow beings.
Today is that auspicious date, Groundhog Day. According to tradition, if a groundhog comes out of its burrow on this day and sees its shadow, it gets scared and runs back inside, predicting six more weeks of winter weather; no shadow means an early spring. It’s also the title of a profound spiritual film. You might think I’m kidding, but I’m not. Seemingly trivial, both the film and the date have many layers of significance. And not just because it’s my birthday.
In the film Groundhog Day, writer Danny Rubin and co-writer and director Harold created a powerful spiritual parable, wrapped in a subtle comedy. Hundreds of spiritual leaders from many faiths have used it to illustrate talks, classes, talks, workshops, and panels. The theme is like A Christmas Carol, a tale of redemption and transformation when a selfish man learns to open to his heart and other people. Here, it’s also very funny, which helps transmit the message to enjoy on many levels.
In the movie, Bill Murray plays Phil Connors, an arrogant Pittsburgh weather forecaster, absorbed in his own discomforts and oblivious to other people. With his producer Rita and cameraman Larry, he goes on assignment to cover the annual Groundhog Day festival in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. Here, "Punxsutawney Phil" — a real groundhog — comes out of his hole to reveal how much longer winter will last. Connors believes he's too good for the assignment, and for Punxsutawney or Pittsburgh; he’s on his way to bigger things.
He wakes up in his bed-and-breakfast the next morning to the announcer exclaiming, “It’s Groundhog Day!” and Sonny and Cher singing “I got you, Babe.” He covers the story at the festival on Gobbler’s Knob, and, in true Bill Murray style, deadpans, “This is one time where television really fails to capture the true excitement of a large squirrel predicting the weather”. He leaves after the story to head home as soon as possible, but unfortunately, a blizzard stops him at the outskirts of town. A state trooper explains that the highway is closed, asking "Don't you watch the weather?”
Reluctantly returning to Punxsutawney, Connors spends another night in the bed-and-breakfast run by the sort of un-hip folks he considers hicks. The next morning, the clock radio in his room goes off and he hears again the voices of Sonny and Cher. At first, he thinks it's a mistake by the hick radio station. But slowly he discovers it really is the same day all over again. Everything that happened to him the previous day -- the man talking to him on the stairs, the high school acquaintance stopping him on the street, the ritual of the groundhog -- it all happens again. And, once again, due to the weather, he is forced to spend the night. When he wakes up the next morning, it is the same day again, with the same groundhog festival and oncoming snowstorm.
And on it goes, day after day, like a broken record as Phil finds himself trapped in what seems to be a time loop. But he finds if he changes his behavior, people will respond to his new actions. This perception opens all kinds of possibilities for playing with the unfolding of events. With each "new" day, he alone remembers what happened in previous editions of the same day. At first Murray's character responds with bewilderment. Then he begins to indulge his adolescent self. He shoves cigarettes and pastries into his face with no fear of love-handles or lung cancer. He goes on a drunk-driving spree. He uses his ability to glean intelligence about the locals to seduce women.
As the days pass endlessly into the same day, Phil develops somewhat of a purpose in life: learning everything he can about Rita, so he can pretend to be her ideal man and seduce her. When that fails, and his efforts net him slap after slap, day after day, his despair deepens, and it’s no longer fulfilling to answer the Jeopardy questions before Alex Trebek can ask them. He begins to try to kill himself. He takes a plugged-in toaster into the bath, jumps off a building, and drives off a cliff with a kidnapped Punxsutawney Phil at the wheel. But not even death can free him: he continues to wake up in the morning to Sonny and Cher.
In desperation, he reveals his plight to Rita, and she stays with him. They sleep together – literally fall asleep together. Once again, he wakes up alone in the same day. But, enriched by this experience of intimacy, and because someone does seem to actually like him for who he is, he finally figures out a constructive response. As groundhog Phil sees his shadow, the man Phil was forced to confront his shadow self, all his negative aspects, and choose a different path. Slowly, he goes through a transformation.
Phil begins to live his life in the day allotted to him. He takes control of circumstances. He takes piano lessons. He reads poetry, at first to impress Rita, but then enjoys it. He learns how to be an ice sculptor, the perfect art form since everything will have melted away when he wakes up. He also discovers that there are some things he cannot change. The homeless man whom Connors scorns at the beginning of the film becomes an obsession as the old man dies every day. He calls him “pop,” buys him a meal every day, and tries to save him, but never can. His heart has been opened, and his compassion for the old man transfers to the living.
Now, he begins to use his knowledge of how the day will unfold to help people. Knowing that a child will always fall from a tree at a certain time, he is always there to catch him. Knowing that a man will choke on his meal, he is always at a nearby table in the restaurant to save him. He daily changes a tire for three elderly ladies. Once isolated from society, Phil becomes a beloved local hero. He sees the glass as half full and the day as a form of freedom.
As he expresses in a TV speech for the umpteenth ceremony of the coming out of the groundhog: "When Chekhov saw the long winter, he saw a winter bleak and dark and bereft of hope. Yet we know that winter is just another step in the cycle of life. Standing here among the people of Punxsutawney and basking in the warmth of their hearths and hearts, I couldn't imagine a better fate than a long and lustrous winter."
By the end of the film, Connors is no longer obsessed with getting Rita. He's in love with her, without reservation or hope of his affection being requited. Finally, Rita falls in love with the good person he has become, and again they literally fall asleep together. With her love, and when he blesses the day he has just lived, the day is taken from him. When he finally wakes on February 3rd, the great wheel of life is no longer stuck on Groundhog Day.
We might not experience the same day over and over – or do we? Do our days sometime have a repetition of sameness, of same old themes and thoughts? While many of us go semi-automatically through most of our (very similar) days, he is forced to stop and treat each day like a world onto itself and decide how to use it. He comes to see that we’re here to do something more than just get through each day. He wakes up, the beginning of all true spirituality.
This view of Punxsutawney is purgatory, from which Phil is released by shedding his selfishness and committing to acts of love. But he doesn’t find redemption or liberation by turning away from the world. He does the opposite, as he opens outward to community, to fellowship, to love the hicks and their values. In the end, he undergoes a breakthrough to a more authentic self in which intimacy, creativity and compassion come naturally - a self that was trapped inside him. What Phil slowly realizes is that what makes life worth living is not what you get from it, but what you put into it.
The film has been taken up by Jews, Catholics, Evangelicals, Hindus, Buddhists, Wiccans, and more. Countless professors use it to teach ethics and a host of philosophical approaches including deep existentialist themes. The New York’s Museum of Modern Art’s film series on "The Hidden God: Film and Faith" opened with Groundhog Day.
Many Buddhists champion the film as illustrating breaking free of samsara, the circle of birth and rebirth, when he surrenders his ego and begins to practice service to others. Phil exemplifies the bodhisattva, or awakened being, devoted to saving all sentient beings. Naturally this goal is impossible, yet it is also impossible for the bodhisattva, or Phil, to refuse the challenge.
Phil’s real success lies in breaking free, with freedom from his restricted personality and from his restricted day. As his wisdom deepens, Phil realizes that not all restrictions are oppressive. Some, like those of compassion and care, are the place of freedom itself. What is so powerful about Groundhog Day is that it lets us experience what it would be like to make a breakthrough like this in our own lives. When we move beyond resentment over our life conditions, engage with what we love, and connect with compassion to others, our lives become a more meaningful and rich experience.
I have a passion for stories and inspirational literature.