Episode 2: Centering Down with Dr. Lerita Coleman Brown

“When I chose to practice centering prayer morning and evening there was a growing awareness of something broader than me. I found it very healing socially, psychologically, and physically ” - Dr. Lerita Brown

On this episode of Opening Minds, Opening Hearts, we are excited to welcome Dr. Lerita Coleman Brown, a professor of psychology emerita, spiritual director and companion, retreat leader, speaker, and author. She promotes the renowned mystic and theologian, Howard Thurman, contemplative spirituality, and uncovering the peace and joy in one’s heart

What’s in this episode:
  • Many children are drawn to the spirit through nature, including Howard Thurman and Dr. Brown. We discuss how this tendency can help us engage in something bigger than us and open the door to spirituality and meditation.
  • Chatter can pull us away from the peaceful and still part of our mind where we find God. Father Keating said ”God’s language is silence and everything else is a bad translation.” Dr. Brown encourages us to center down and find those silent places in our minds.
  • She shares practical tips and encouragement for those who would like to add a daily practice of centering prayer to their lives and the transforming benefits of doing so.
  • Practical and gentle ways to let go of thoughts during times where they seem to consume us and how to add a “lull in the day” to your routine. This hourly pause can help you reflect on your purpose in life.
  • When it comes to social justice, Dr. Brown refers to the teaching of Thurman - Whatever is going on inward, you will experience outward. Therefore, do not take in evil so that it cannot become something within. Continue to live from the inner space regardless of the evil around us.
  • Having an accurate portrayal of self will allow us to walk in the world without the stereotypes others may put on you. It also strengthens us from the inside to know that these prejudices have nothing to do with who you are.
  • The teachings of Howard Thurman and how the Black church responded. Our opportunity to respond to his teachings today.

“Centering Prayer is not so much an exercise of attention as intention. It may take a while to grasp this distinction. During centering prayer you do not attend to any particular thought content. Rather, you intend to go to your inmost being, where you believe God dwells. ” p. 13/em>

– Thomas Keating, Open Mind Open Heart 27

To connect further with Dr. Lerita Coleman Brown:

Like her on Facebook: Peace for Hearts | Facebook
Follow her on Twitter: @peace4hearts
She appears in the documentaries, Back Against the Wall: The Howard Thurman Story and The Black Church as well as several podcasts.
Dr. Brown is the author of several articles, chapters, essays, and When the Heart Speaks, Listens: Discovering Inner Wisdom.
Her newest book, What Makes you Come Alive: A Spiritual Walk with Howard Thurman will be released by Broadleaf Press in February and is available for pre-order now.
Opening Minds, Opening Hearts EP #2: The Language of Silence with Dr. Lerita Coleman Brown
[cheerful music plays]
Colleen Thomas [00:00:00] Welcome to the first season of Opening Minds, Opening Hearts, a podcast about the transformative practice of Centering Prayer. 
In each episode, we will talk to friends of Contemplative Outreach about their personal practice. Listen in as our guests share insights about the teachings of Father Thomas Keating, how the practice impacts their work in the world, and their thoughts about how Centering Prayer connects to the living traditions of contemplation and meditation. We are your hosts, Colleen Thomas,
Mark Dannenfelser [00:00:36] And Mark Dannenfelser,
Colleen Thomas [00:00:34] Centering Prayer practitioners and contemplative life seekers who love to talk a little too much about how the practice of Contemplative Prayer transforms our inner and outer worlds. Our hope this season is to open the door for you to explore more deeply this powerful practice of Centering Prayer.
Colleen Thomas [00:00:57] Welcome to the Contemplative Outreach Podcast, Opening Minds, Opening Hearts. I'm Colleen.
Mark Dannenfelser [00:01:05] And I'm Mark.
Colleen Thomas [00:01:06] And we're still here talking about Centering Prayer. 
Mark Dannenfelser [00:01:10] It's great. This is a new podcast, but I don't know about you, Colleen, but I'm having fun meeting with all of our guests.
Colleen Thomas [00:01:17] Yes. Learning so much too, as always.
Mark Dannenfelser [00:01:21] Yeah. And so happy that today our guest and friend of Contemplative Outreach is Dr. Lerita Coleman Brown, professor of Psychology Emerita and graduate of the Shalem Institute. She serves as spiritual director, companion, retreat leader and speaker. Welcome, Dr. Brown.
Colleen Thomas [00:01:40] Welcome, Dr. Brown.
Dr. Lerita Coleman Brown [00:01:42] Thank you. I'm so delighted to be here with you today.
Colleen Thomas [00:01:46] We're so happy to have you. And I became familiar with your voice and your work in the context of my spiritual direction circles, you presented a really rich contemplative retreat day for Still Point, the Los Angeles-based spiritual direction organization I am affiliated with. But before then, I became familiar with your work while exploring the work of Howard Thurman. In some ways, your names have become inseparable, Dr. Brown and Howard Thurman. Did you ever think your name would be so linked to Howard Thurman?
Dr. Lerita Coleman Brown [00:02:27] Absolutely not. I have no words to explain how we became connected, especially since I did not discover him until very late in my own life. So to have our names linked is really just an example of how the spirit works. On occasion, pick someone like me to expose someone like Howard Thurman, who many people are not aware of and aware of his contemplative life, his writings on mysticism, as well as his promotion of contemplative practices for people way back in the 1930s, 40s and 50s. I'm delighted to be a person out there, championing him and his spirituality.
Mark Dannenfelser [00:03:15] That's wonderful. We want to hear more about Howard Thurman. We also wanted to ask you, starting each of our podcasts this way with our guests, to ask about their experience with Centering Prayer. And I know you've talked about being, as a young girl, you’d spend many hours alone in your room and that you had a kind of love for silence and solitude. In fact, I think you said somewhere that silence and stillness were kind of your friends. I imagine when Centering Prayer, whenever that kind of came around for you, it must have been sort of a natural fit — that idea of contemplation and silence and prayer. I wonder if you could tell us a little bit about how you came to be introduced to the practice of Centering Prayer and what that's like for you now and anything else you want to tell us about your experience there in the practice?
Dr. Lerita Coleman Brown [00:04:05] I think I took the long route because as a child I was sort of drawn outside to the wind. I loved wind. Later learned that was in some ways a contemplative experience. But of course as a four- or five-year-old, you have no words to name that. But I enjoyed the peace and tranquility of being outside and continued to enjoy that until I would say college age when I was actually introduced to the concept of meditation by one of my religious studies Professor Jan Willis, who was a Tibet and Buddhist scholar. And she taught my roommate and I how to meditate, which was quite fascinating. She actually sort of opened up a door to spirituality in general that there were books and people and writings for us to explore. I tried a little bit of transcendental meditation, which was very popular for a while, as well as some vipassana meditation.
I was just really out there exploring. But I kept feeling like I was not finding something that fit my nature, that related to my Catholic upbringing. I went to Catholic school and wasn't quite linked to my Christian roots. And so I was probably more in the 80s when I began to read more about sort of Christian meditation or Centering Prayer, Contemplative Prayer. It was certainly not something that I'd connected together until about that time. But once I read Father Keating's book, first book about Centering Prayer, I was just so excited and delighted that meditation in a form that any person could practice was coming out of the monasteries and into a place where everybody could participate.
Mark Dannenfelser [00:05:59] Mm-hmm. 
Dr. Lerita Coleman Brown [00:06:00] I would say that probably was the mid 80s that I actually started participating in Centering Prayer on a regular basis. And I have been engaged with that practice really ever since then. On occasion I may change up the sacred word or I may change up my focus in the practice of it. But I found, particularly when I chose to practice morning and evening, that there was a growing awareness of something broader than me, more expansive than me. I found it very healing both socially, psychologically, and physically. And I went through a number of medical ordeals, which I think it was very helpful for me to have a practice, a regular daily practice, I continue every morning. Unless there's some special event, I do not leave my home. I do not have breakfast without having my Contemplative Prayer time. I actually call it quiet time with God, every day, every morning. I promote it to everyone that I meet. Also utilize some of it in spiritual direction companioning. 
I start my sessions with some time for silence. And actually one of the first questions that I often ask people is, “Tell me something about your prayer life,” as they are entering in spiritual direction companioning. And usually if they're not mentioning something about taking some quiet time, engaging in some kind of Contemplative Prayer, then I suggest it. Usually there's some resistance because people will tell me, “When I try to do that, my mind wanders.” And I say, “Yes. That's what minds do. They wander.”
Colleen Thomas [00:07:41] Mm-hmm.
Dr. Lerita Coleman Brown [00:07:42] So that's not surprising. But I said, I think what you need to do is just start with five minutes and begin to add a minute until you can sit for at least 20 minutes. It will transform your life. I think I would say most of the people that I work with at retreats or in spiritual direction are committed to at least once a day. It's a little harder even for me to get that evening session in because usually we're falling asleep.
Mark Dannenfelser [00:08:11] Right. Certain point in life that starts to happen.
Dr. Lerita Coleman Brown [00:08:17] Yes.
Mark Dannenfelser [00:08:18] More and more.
Dr. Lerita Coleman Brown [00:08:19] And I tell people though, that if they are falling asleep in the morning, that means that they need some more rest.
Colleen Thomas [00:08:23] Mm-hmm.
Dr. Lerita Coleman Brown [00:08:24] That's what that means. But it doesn't mean that you shouldn't engage in the practice.

Colleen Thomas[00:08:28] Right. So much there that we’ll certainly want to chat about. But it struck me that you talked about finding Centering Prayer in about the mid 80s. And that's pretty accurate because it was in about 1981 that Father Thomas Keating started offering these introductory workshops and the practice that Father William Manger called Centering Prayer was being offered to guests at St. Joseph's Abbey, which is in Spencer Massachusetts. And Dr. Brown, when I was looking into this, it struck me as very ironic, interesting, intriguing, I don't know which word, that Spencer Massachusetts is only 60 miles east of Boston where Howard Thurman, 20 years prior to the emergence of Centering Prayer, was the dean of Chapel at Boston University. 
And in 1953, Meditations of the Heart was published in Boston. And Thurman uses this language in Meditations of the Heart, How Good it is To Center Down. And another one of his meditations At My Center, I Find Peace. And so both of these men, Father Keating, Howard Thurman, from very different places and in different times came to use this word centering. And I'm wondering what meaning that word centering carried for Howard Thurman but also maybe carries for you in your own spiritual journey in contemplative practice.
Dr. Lerita Coleman Brown [00:10:13] Howard Thurman, like myself, was also drawn to the contemplative life as a child. He spent a lot of time outside walking along the beaches of Daytona Beach, Florida. He often rode along the Halifax River and so spent a lot of time alone, sometimes away from the other children that he might have been playing with. And felt this presence, felt this oneness. He continued to have these transcendent experiences. 
He was finding the presence of God outside as a seven- or eight-year-old. He also had a special tree that he sat underneath an oak tree and he felt like he and the oak tree were companions that he could actually feel the oak tree communicating with him. Of course, he could only talk about these things much later because people would've said he was probably crazy, but he had been engaging in these contemplative practices that he later learned were meditation from the time that he was seven and we're talking about 1907.
Colleen Thomas [00:11:24] Mm-hmm.
Dr. Lerita Coleman Brown [00:11:26] Which were unheard of, but came to understand that there are lots of children who naturally are drawn to contemplative activities, particularly outside. And sometimes parents are encouraging, sometimes they don't want to talk about it. But I think children are often very spiritual. But he felt like just being able to steal our hearts enough that we are able to then connect to something much bigger than ourselves and that can actually stabilize us in many ways so that we can engage in something bigger than ourselves. He Father Meninger, were very much promoting this practice.
I found some evidence that even in seminary he would invite other young men to his room once a week and he would read some spiritual material or read from the Bible some scriptures and then have them sit for a few minutes in silence. This became sort of part of who he was and part of his life, and those beautiful meditations that he wrote, he's often said that he would read them himself to cheer himself up on occasion as he knew that he was not the sole author. It was as if he was hearing these meditations and writing them down, if you understand. And in that first section of Meditations of the Heart, he has many meditations that are about centering down, quiet is the door to God. Meditation's about listening for the voice of God. All of these things that I found to be very inviting. And one of the things that I've noticed about my own practice is that I sometimes get tired of hearing that ego chatter. And so one of the things that I've been working on recently is to listen to that part of my mind that is quiet.
Colleen Thomas [00:13:21] Mm-mm.
Dr. Lerita Coleman Brown [00:13:22] Because I think that is where God is present. And this chattering is just keeping me away from connecting with that. So as part of my practice may intentionally ask myself to quiet the chatter and then just focus on that peaceful still part of my mind and be open to hearing a voice that has no words. We know that Father Keating said God's language is silence and everything else is a bad translation. I sense that there is something there for me and I have engaged in this practice of centering down and away from the noise of the world and all of that stuff that we get during the daytime to just have that intimate and quiet connection with God.
Mark Dannenfelser [00:14:11] And I love that and that you're highlighting that too, that as we center down and we get beyond all the chatter, there's something else beyond all of that. And I just love too that there's this common language that Thurman is saying, “I'm writing these meditations, but really, I'm not, they're coming to me that there's this greater thing.” And that was very much Keating as well. And in his book, Open Mind, Open Heart, think you were referring to before when you said you were reading some of that earlier work. because that's where he really lays out the whole thing. He talks about this divine union, which is beyond all of that kind of frenetic way of living. And he talks about our innermost being that's what we're, as we go to the center, that's where we're going.
So in fact, if I may just read a short quote from that, from Open Mind, Open Heart, this is Keating saying “Centering Prayer is not so much an exercise of attention as intention. It may take a while to grasp this distinction. During Centering Prayer you do not attend to any particular thought content chatter rather you intend to go to your inmost being where you believe God dwells.” 
It sounds like what you're saying about Howard Thurman as well who spoke about the inward journey so much and even this, I remember him talking about a term paper that a student of his submitted in which the student described their experience as a deep sea diver. I think it's in, Luminous Darkness in the prolong or something. And that the diver descends to the floor of the ocean and you have to go through these different levels of experience and then you get to the floor of the sea and there's this luminous darkness. It's so beautiful and it just sounds like what you're saying. I wonder if you can even say more about that. What resonates for you with that in terms of your own experience as we either descend down or go within or however we conceive of that. What have you found to be your experience of that in your own practice?
Dr. Lerita Coleman Brown [00:16:10] On a day of grace, I can descend far enough to then feel that I am connected to everything and I begin to lose a sense of my body. And I say on a day of grace, because it doesn't happen very often and I always say thank you for that experience. But I think that I have also tried to include an hourly pause in my day. I have a friend, Kirk Byron Jones, who calls them pause pockets. I am very intentional about setting an alarm 10 minutes before the hour. And I usually snooze it because I'm busy, which then gives me about another nine minutes. And so then I'm really at the top of the hour. I pause for just a minute of silence to remind me about why I'm doing whatever it is that I'm doing.
Mark Dannenfelser [00:17:05] Mm-hmm. 
Dr. Lerita Coleman Brown [00:17:06] That I'm really here to fulfill my purpose, to play my part in the plan, to do God's will and try to bring my ego back from wherever it happens to be at the time. And I just kind of check in to see how am I feeling? Am I feeling peace or am I feeling agitated? What's going on? But that one minute, just one minute of just pausing and even though I can't take a deep dissent, I can take just a moment to remind myself that God is present and that I can contact that at any point in time. On occasion, Thurman has this meditation, I think again in Meditations of the Heart called A lull in Doing. And he feels as if sometime during the day you need to take up some moments from all the doing that you're engaged in. Even if it's five minutes. And I do that on occasion, I will stop for five minutes and just take that pause. And it does make a difference because we get so caught up in the doing that we forget to be.
 Mark Dannenfelser [00:18:17] Mm-hmm.
 Dr. Lerita Coleman Brown [00:18:18] And I think we forget why we're here and what's really important. Thurman was also a person who loved to ask deep questions like who are you and what do you want really? Why are you doing or why are you engaged in this particular activity? And I always tell people that if you're interested in studying Thurman, just be ready to wade in deep waters. Because there's a lot of surface stuff out there. But if you're going to read him and study him, you're going to have to go deep.
 Colleen Thomas [00:18:50] Yeah.
Dr. Lerita Coleman Brown [00:18:51] It's just not at the surface. It's not at the surface.
Colleen Thomas [00:18:54] Yeah. Reading his work is it's own meditation. It just, absolutely, and listening to his voice, which is one of the beautiful gifts that we have, all of these recordings of his sermons and lectures and the doing makes me think about one of the most central thoughts I think of all of our lives, which is our to-do lists. Like in our Centering Prayer practice, the guidelines speak to what to do with our thoughts and we're instructed to when engaged with our thoughts return ever so gently to the sacred word. And these thoughts are also noted to be an umbrella term for all our perceptions, our bodily sensations, sensors, feelings, images, memories, plans, those to-dos.
I'm wondering if you can talk a little bit about how your practice and your experience with thoughts over time and this idea of letting go of thoughts has come to transform your relationship to your own thoughts outside of the prayer time and maybe even, especially outside of the prayer time during your really intense seasons with your medical ordeals that you spoke about. I can only imagine that's the time when our thoughts want to take over. And so how has the practice of letting go of thoughts been transformative in other aspects of your life?
Dr. Lerita Coleman Brown [00:20:28] I think sometimes we can easily get caught up with the act of trying to let go of the thoughts.
Colleen Thomas [00:20:35]Mm-hmm.
 Dr. Lerita Coleman Brown [00:20:36] Right. And so I often try to ignore the thoughts and continue to focus on that part of my mind where it is quiet, it is peaceful, it is still, and at least in the middle of the practice. I also try, by the way, not to beat myself up, which I think we sometimes will do or not paying attention or whatever. And so I have eliminated that because I think that word gently return to the sacred word. So important. We sometimes tend to berate ourselves. We're not doing it right. But as it translates to my life outside of those moments, I am now much more aware of the things that disrupt my peace and mute my joy. I happen to be a recovering perfectionist and a person who has dealt with what they call time urgent perfectionism for years.
So constantly watching the clock and as a matter of fact driven more by time or fears about time than about being led by the spirit. I'm trying to make that shift, that transition from looking at my watch and saying, oh wow, I'm going to be late for this, that or the other. And when I experience that, when I feel with the help of a lovely spiritual director, I have one myself, she has told me, you should take that in your hand, grasp it and then let it go. 
So wherever I feel that kind of panic coming on, I often will say, “I'm not going to pay attention to that because there is nothing for me to be afraid of in this moment.” And then go back to doing what it is that I know I need to do and I move on. Being aware of the fact that you're in the panic is something that I think I've come to as a result of Centering Prayer.
Mark Dannenfelser [00:22:40]Mm-hmm.
Dr. Lerita Coleman Brown [00:22:41] Because I think what Centering Prayer does is that it continues to open us up and continues to help us see those places. And this may be a shalom zone, these areas of unfreedom, these places where you're not free because you have internalized some societal expectation that you must be following the international clock system. And more recently I've thought about writing about stepping out of the illusion of time and I can sort of give so many examples. 
You're racing down the highway to get to a doctor's appointment and you get there on time and then they don't take you for an hour. And so-.
Mark Dannenfelser [00:23:20] That's every time with my doctor.
Dr. Lerita Coleman Brown [00:23:23] Why was I racing down the highway to make this appointment on time? What was that about?
Mark Dannenfelser [00:23:30] Mm-hmm. 
Dr. Lerita Coleman Brown [00:23:31] Number one. And then number two, what do you do with that? So I've also been practicing patience. 
This happened to me a couple times recently when they called me in, they said, “Oh, we're so sorry.” I said, “It's okay, you don't have to apologize. I'm practicing patience. It's my spiritual practice right now.” And it just changes the entire energy. I changed the entire energy of the office because I was not trying to tell people off because they weren't on time. So it was an opportunity to step out of the illusion of time. I think that with so many things, whether it be that you're a perfectionist and you're now much more aware of that.
Colleen Thomas [00:23:56] Mm-hmm. 
 Dr. Lerita Coleman Brown [00:23:57] Or that you have some issues with somebody in your family, when you're practicing Centering Prayer, it's an opportunity to be aware of those things and how they are kidnapping you. They are stealing your peace and your joy.
Colleen Thomas [00:24:30] Right.
Dr. Lerita Coleman Brown [00:24:31] And then you can make a different choice as to how you're going to respond or how you're even going to think about it.
[solemn music plays]
Mark Dannenfelser [00:24:43] In the Christian tradition, Contemplative Prayer is the opening of your mind and heart to God who is beyond thoughts, words, and emotions. Centering Prayer is a method designed to facilitate contemplation. The method suggests four guidelines. 
One, choose a sacred word as the symbol of your intention to consent to God's presence and action within you. 
Two, sit comfortably and relatively still close your eyes or leave them slightly open and silently introduce your sacred word. 
Three, when you notice you have become engaged with a thought, simply return ever so gently to your sacred word. 
And four, at the end of the 20-minute prayer period, let go of the sacred word and remain in silence for a couple of minutes. The additional time invites you to bring the atmosphere of silence into everyday life.
[solemn music ends]
Mark Dannenfelser [00:25:52] I love that, to be able to make a choice. And also just that whole idea of the dynamic between say contemplative practice or contemplative life and then the rest of the world that's on a certain clock. And yet we live in that world and we engage in that world. And so how have you found that balance of say in the formal practice, not engaging with our thoughts, but then there's a time to engage. This was very, I think, key in Howard Thurman's work about-.
Dr. Lerita Coleman Brown [00:26:25] Right.
Mark Dannenfelser [00:26:26] How does what he's saying about contemplation and looking within and asking the hard questions, how does that then get expressed? because he was very much about social action and of course he was behind a lot of that in the civil rights movement. It's such an interesting dynamic to me, that ebb and flow of taking that time to go within to release and also then engaging but in a different way maybe.
Dr. Lerita Coleman Brown [00:26:50] Yeah.
Mark Dannenfelser [00:26:51]Would you say?
Dr. Lerita Coleman Brown [00:26:52] Yes. In his book, Deep is the Hunger, at the end he has some meditations, I think he calls it For the Quiet time. And one of them is In Quietness and Confidence. And basically, he says that whatever is going on inward, you are going to see or experience outward. And so he makes this connection between the two. But he says, “Take something like evil, I am not going to take in. I do not want the evil outside of me to become part of who I am.”
Colleen Thomas [00:27:19] Mm-hmm.
Dr. Lerita Coleman Brown [00:27:20] And so I am going to, it's not that I'm not going to say that it's evil or that evil isn't evil, but that I am going to continue to live from this inner space, this inner place regardless of the evil around me.
Colleen Thomas [00:27:40] Mm-hmm. 
Dr. Lerita Coleman Brown [00:27:41] So for him, and he talks about this in various places, but for him the action is really in the interior. It's in the inner life. And if you read his most classic book, Jesus is in the Disinherited, he talks a lot about how he felt Jesus was speaking to the inward center of his audience and how important it is to know that you have an inner sanctuary or inward center and to be in control of it. Because he basically says that as long as someone knows what to say to you to throw you off your equilibrium, they will always have control of you. They will always be subject over you. He's trying to help us to find that inner freedom that comes from a life rooted in God as opposed to the world.
Colleen Thomas [00:28:37] Yeah.
Dr. Lerita Coleman Brown [00:28:38] So that you can walk in the world and not be overcome by it.
Colleen Thomas [00:28:41] Which, it fascinates me how well he did that in his time when all of the movement was towards social justice and social action. And yet, he remained rooted in his role. And I want to talk a little bit about your book because I love the title, What Makes You Come Alive. This is now one of his most seminal quotes. And so much of when I read his writings and listen to him talk, we're going to this place in our center, our inward sea, where we find out who we are. And I've heard you talk about importance of knowing who we are before we go out and try to do something. Can you tell us a little bit about how you're framing Howard Thurman in your book with all of the work that he's done, but what can we expect to learn about him and through what lens are you going to be letting us into his life?
Dr. Lerita Coleman Brown [00:29:44] Well, I think there are two really important components. One has to do with knowing that you're a holy child of God. 
And the other component has to do with what he describes as inner authority. He was told by his grandmother who had been a slave, his grandmother, Nancy Ambrose, over and over again the same story that when she was told by the slave preacher after he would come once a year to speak to them, that she was a holy child of God, it's what saved her in slavery. It's what kept her from some of the horrible aspects of the experience. Because she kept remembering, I'm a holy child of God. 
So as she saw Howard Thurman, along with his older and younger sister, begin to kind of lose their self-confidence as they were beginning to become more aware of the Jim Crow South, right, And all the restrictions, she did not want them to internalize this idea that they were worth less than other people because of this.
So she kept telling him, “Remember, you're a holy child of God. You're a holy child of God.” 
And so this is what led Thurman to think about having an accurate portrayal of self, that yourself should be rooted in God. And because you're created by God, then being a holy child of God allows you to walk in the world and not be subject to all these other kinds of labels and stereotypes that people are going to lay on you. It also gives you the strength and the courage at some point to be able to begin to resist that. And to know from the inside that these are just humanly imposed barriers. They have nothing to do with who you are. And so it's now important to begin to resist and engage in social actions that are going to help to remove these barriers. And I have a whole chapter on being a holy child of God and what it has to do with identity and self-concept.
Because as far as Thurman was concerned, they were core. It was the thing that stabilized the egos of so many children and they were able to then realize their full potential because they understood that. And then the second part had to do with inner authority. And he talks about that in that particular meditation that you mentioned, the Inward Sea, that we have the authority to not internalize what other people say about it. It's kind of like protecting your inner sanctuary or protecting this part of yourself that people may comment on or belittle, et cetera. And that then leads us to this area of inner life. That it's important for us to know who controls your inner life. 
I've had people come to spiritual direction. I had a woman once say this was during the pandemic, she was just so upset about something that had happened. She was ready to throw her television through the window. And so I said to her, I said, “Well, so who's in control of your inner life? In fact, something that somebody else said on the television has disrupted your peace so much that you're ready to destroy the television in violence, then you've lost control of your inner life.” Basically, if you look at Thurman's life carefully, he made decisions based on what he believed he needed to do for himself. He understood that he was not Martin Luther King Jr.
Colleen Thomas [00:33:17] Mm-hmm. 
Dr. Lerita Coleman Brown [00:33:18] That was not his role. His role was to hold the spiritual space to be the spiritual advisor or the spiritual director of the Civil Rights Movement. And he was engaged in lots of activities even before Martin Luther King Jr. was in college.
Colleen Thomas [00:33:36] Right.
Dr. Lerita Coleman Brown [00:33:37] He was writing about these issues and he visited Gandhi and had a conversation with him in 1936. And Gandhi basically said, Hey, I think you need to begin with some small acts and work yourself up. But I think it's going to be through American Negros that the message of nonviolence and Ahimsa or the love is going to be introduced to the world. We have a lot of history that gets, I won't say misconstrued, but oftentimes we don't know the full history. Thurman started engaging in writing about Jesus as a non-violent leader or a leader of a non-violent religion, as well as non-violent direct action in the late 20s and early 30s. There was a lot of activity that went on before there was even a larger civil rights movement. And he was what I would describe as the spiritual architect of that later movement.
Colleen Thomas [00:34:33] Yeah. It's interesting to be reminded of Thurman's visit with Gandhi and just the kind of ahead of his timeness in that regard brings up so many curiosities. I wonder if he sat in meditation with Gandhi, is there any evidence of that? And would Thurman have been at home in some of the meditation mindfulness groups that are emerging now. And some of this too, is connected to just this sense I always have of him that his style, he wasn't a traditional Black preacher and his prayer life and his practice and his discipline was very different from what we might think of as the Black church. And I did want to ask you one thing too, and is how do you find Thurman being received by the Black church? And also what's your experience with Centering Prayer and Contemplative Prayer within Black church community? And that's a question that's being asked of me these days. Is Centering Prayer, is it an organic expression of prayer for the Black community? And I know there's a lot in there, but any thoughts and reflections that you might have?
Dr. Lerita Coleman Brown [00:35:47] So lemme start at the beginning.
Colleen Thomas [00:35:49] Yes.
Dr. Lerita Coleman Brown [00:35:47] Thurman, after that three-hour meeting with Gandhi as they were leaving, and Sue Bailey Thurman was there, as well as another minister, Edward Carroll, they sang a couple of spirituals to Gandhi because he wanted to hear some spirituals. So they sang, Were You There When They Crucified My Lord, to sort of highlight the suffering and Climbing Jacob's Ladder to symbolize the hope. And there's a whole book actually written on the visit, Visions of a New World, Howard Thurman's pilgrimage to India. It's an entire book. How it happened, the conversation. Somebody took great notes, but they had a benediction of silence is how they describe it. And then he sort of uttered these famous words about maybe it's going to be through the American Negro, that the message will be heard through the world. 
Now I have to say that Thurman didn't realize that he had mystical inclinations until he read a book by Rufus Jones, who was a noted quake mystic.
And on it was called Finding the Trail of Life. And this particular book described Rufus Jones experiences as a young boy with having mystical or religious experiences outside. Thurman read the book one night. Just, he got bored or something at a meeting and just read the whole thing. So he found Rufus Jones and asked him if he could study with him. And so he studied with him for a semester at Haverford College. And so he actually was introduced to the concept of mysticism and the mystics, Meister Eckhard and St. John Lacrosse. And he was introduced to them after he had been practicing for years.
Colleen Thomas [00:37:24] Right.
Dr. Lerita Coleman Brown [00:37:25] Or having this experience for years. Yeah. And the same thing happened to  Rufus Jones. So it's a kind of the Quaker quiet meditation corporate group meditation that he painted in. And I have this wonderful quote in the book about his going to what is considered to be an unscripted meeting where there's no talking. And he talks about how he was sitting on one side of the room with his noise, just Howard Thurman and my noise, he says, “And then all of a sudden,” and he said, “I can't tell you when it happened, but I joined the rest of the others and we were one.” So he had one of those extraordinary experiences of becoming one with all the other people in the room. And I don't know if you've ever done any group Contemplative Prayer, but I've had that experience.
Colleen Thomas [00:38:12] Yeah.
Dr. Lerita Coleman Brown [00:38:13] And he really championed that kind of contemplative practice in his churches and found that once he added meditation time before the worship service, which he always had some quiet time doing the worship service, that request for pastoral care went down.
Colleen Thomas [00:38:33] Interesting.
Dr. Lerita Coleman Brown [00:38:34] And so his sense was that somewhere in all of that quiet and connection that some of the issues that people had were, as he describes, illuminated. Right?
Colleen Thomas [00:38:45] Right.
Dr. Lerita Coleman Brown [00:38:46] So there was no need for them to connect with him. Now with respect to the Black church, there are people that loved him and people that thought he was crazy, he was criticized for not marching more. He was criticized for talking about mysticism or writing about it. They were like, look, we need something liberating. And they didn't understand how liberating mysticism could be because he felt like when you went down into God, you came up in community or what he would describe as oneness. And so he was really about demystifying mysticism. He began writing about it and writing about different kinds of mysticism, different kinds of mystics, writing about mysticism and social change and how the experience of this-. And he said he didn't even like to use the word mystic or mysticism because it has such a negative connotations and it still does in the Black church.
So he preferred creative encounter or religious experience. And so he felt like every time you had one of these experiences with God, I had a direct experience of God that it was changing you from the inside out. He felt like it also stirred something in you because this was the Quaker approach to mysticism, which is that it should stir something in you to move you towards restoring the oneness. So it should stir you to social action. It should stir you to trying to do something about these humanly imposed barriers that we had. And of course, at the time there was segregation in churches and in transportation and in all these places. And so he felt that the key to again, develop even more courage and strength and vitality, which is something that Gandhi suggested. You need vitality for these things. that you gain that every time you have— 
Colleen Thomas [00:40:34] Mm-hmm. 
Dr. Lerita Coleman Brown [00:40:35] A contemplative experience where you had that deep connection to God. He utilized his inner authority to make decisions that he thought were true to how he was being called. And if other people didn't like that, it was unfortunate, but he was going to follow, as he calls it, ‘follow the grain of my own wood’.
Colleen Thomas [00:40:53] Mm-hmm. 
Dr. Lerita Coleman Brown [00:40:54] And he had lots of those. Listen for the genuine in yourself. I mean, he had lots of lines about listen for your call. What is your call? Follow that. And if other people criticize you, that's on them. You need to know what you are being called to do. And you know that by engaging in these contemplative practices. 
The other thing that I think is really important about Thurman is that he felt like spirituality could not be taught, but it could be caught. So he'd like to engage people in things like liturgical dance in the 30s or live Madonnas where he would get a woman holding a real baby in different costumes from different countries, or he might read some other kind of literature, but he was always trying to spark this sense of presence in other people. He felt like a contagion. It could be caught. 
And lots of people who attended his church services or sermons would come out saying, “Wow, I felt like Jesus was just right here.” Or “I felt like I could feel the presence of God in here.” He sort of expands this notion of what contemplative is, right? because we often think silence, stillness, solitude, but in some ways something that's contemplative is anything that is going to stir that presence of God, that awareness of the presence of God in you.
Mark Dannenfelser [00:42:14] I wish we could talk all day or all week, maybe, but I'm so grateful for you being here and sharing your vast knowledge, but wisdom really, and experience and just bringing who you are to this conversation. I'm so grateful for it. Thank you for being here.
Colleen Thomas [00:42:31] Yeah. It's really beautiful, listening to you in this conversation. I had a moment where it's like, I can hear the influence of Howard Thurman on your life — that the way I want to lean into what you are saying and I hear the pauses in your responses, and this is what we learn in our contemplative practice too, is just the pause, the speaking and hearing at the same time. And I just really value your work as a teacher and as a spiritual director. 
Thank you for joining us on our podcast. Hopefully, we can have you back again too. I hope many people listen. I hope many people pre-order your book, which I will mention again, it's on pre-order in February. There it is, What Makes you Come alive, A Spiritual Walk with Howard Thurman. And thanks for letting us go on a spiritual walk with you today, Dr. Brown. It's been a pleasure.
Dr. Lerita Coleman Brown [00:43:32] Thank you so much. It's been such an honor to be with you both, and I'm just so grateful to have an opportunity to encourage people to engage in whatever contemplative activities are going to bring them to that place of feeling that loving presence of God, and that will encourage them to find or discover their own sacred call so that they can be more often in that place of peace and joy as opposed to fear or anxiety. So I'm just so grateful that you all invited me, so thank you.
Colleen Thomas [00:44:10] Thanks for joining us on this episode of Opening Minds, Opening Hearts. 
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This episode of Opening Minds, Opening Hearts is produced by Crys & Tiana.
[solemn music ends]