This excerpt is adapted from Dr. Craig Pearson’s popular collection The Supreme Awakening: Experiences of Enlightenment Throughout Time—And How You Can Cultivate Them.
Howard Thurman (1899–1981) was a minister, author, philosopher, theologian, educator, civil rights leader, and one of the most important figures in African-American history. Thurman was born in Florida and grew up in a world of segregation.
He went on to Morehouse College, where he was a classmate and friend of Martin Luther King, Sr., and graduated first in his class. He next went to divinity school, and at 26, was ordained a Baptist minister. He became the Dean of Chapel and a faculty member in the School of Divinity at Howard University in Washington, D.C.
Civil Rights Leader and Mentor
Traveling to India, Thurman was able to meet two people he revered, Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore. He helped establish the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples in San Francisco, the first racially and culturally integrated church in the United States.
He then went to Boston University, where he taught in the School of Theology and served as Dean of Chapel, the first African American to hold a deanship at a predominantly white university. He mentored Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who was doing his doctoral studies there, and introduced King to Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolent resistance.
“The Great Silence”
Thurman wrote 20 books, all beautifully composed, deeply felt reflections on life and living. One theme that runs through his books is the experience of deep, inner peace and silence. Here is an example:
There is no clear distinction between mind and spirit; but there is a quality of mind that is more than thought and the process of thought. This quality involves feelings and the wholeness in which the life of man has its being.…
What is being considered is what a man means totally when he says, “I am.” This “self” shares profoundly in the rhythm that holds and releases but never lets go. There is the rest of detachment and withdrawal when the spirit moves into the depths of the region of the Great Silence, where world weariness is washed away and blurred vision is once again prepared for the focus of the long view, where seeking and finding are so united that failure and frustration, real though they are, are no longer felt to be ultimately real.
Here the Presence of God is sensed as an all-pervasive aliveness which materializes into concreteness of communion: the reality of prayer. Here God speaks without words, and the self listens without ears. Here, at last, glimpses of the meaning of all things and the meaning of one’s own life are seen with all their strivings. To accept this is one meaning of the good line, “Rest in the Lord—O, rest in the Lord.” — from “The Need for Periodic Rest,” The Inward Journey1
This is a remarkable passage. Thurman describes experiencing a region deep within himself that he calls “the Great Silence.” Settling inward, beyond sense perception, he feels withdrawn from everything. This process brings deep rest that refreshes the body and clears the mind. In this silence he experiences “the wholeness in which the life of man has its being.” Here, “seeking and finding” become united in the experience of the divine and the meaning of all things.
“There is the rest of detachment and withdrawal when the spirit moves into the depths of the region of the Great Silence… where seeking and finding are so united that failure and frustration, real though they are, are no longer felt to be ultimately real.” —Dr. Howard Thurman
The “Wholeness at the Core” of Life
In other writings, Thurman refers to this as “the Time of Quiet,” in which he experiences the “Light, the Truth, that is within,” in “the stillness of our own spirits.”2 At these times he feels “invaded by the Eternal.”3
In this next example, Thurman turns to poetry to try to capture the experience:
There is a sense of wholeness at the core of man
That must abound in all he does;
That marks with reverence his ev’ry step;
That has its sway when all else fails;
That wearies out all evil things;
That warms the depth of frozen fears
Making friend of foe,
Making love of hate,
And lasts beyond the living and the dead,
Beyond the goals of peace, the ends of war!
This man seeks through all his years:
To be complete and of one piece, within, without.
— from “Knowledge . . . Shall Vanish Away,” The Inward Journey4
When we experience the “wholeness at the core” of life, Thurman tells us, we find evil transformed to goodness, enemies to friends, hate to love. This experience, he says, transcends time and offers the ultimate goal of human seeking.
We find descriptions of this experience all over the world and throughout history. The experience is universal, yet also appears to be exceedingly rare in history.
People who practice the Transcendental Meditation technique may feel a special resonance with Thurman’s words. Transcendental Meditation enables us to have this experience of inner peace and quietness every day, twice daily, and not to leave it to chance.
The practice of TM simply allows us to dive within—to go beyond, or transcend, perception and thought, effortlessly arriving at the experience of consciousness in its simplest, most silent state, pure and unbounded. This is the “Great Silence” Thurman talked about, the wholeness at our core.
Stress, fatigue, and anxiety are dissolved away. Brain functioning becomes increasingly integrated. Intelligence, creativity, and learning ability increase. Overall health and wellness improve. One’s personality develops in a balanced manner.
“Moving in Perfect Harmony Within, Without”
What all of these findings add up to is a picture of full human potential being unfolded—steadily, rapidly, week by week, year by year.
What does the world look like as more people begin to have this experience? Turning to poetry, here is what Thurman envisioned:
“Thou art made for wholeness,
Body, mind, spirit: one creative synthesis,
Moving in perfect harmony within, without,
With fellow man and nature all around
To make Heaven where Hell is found.”
— “All Mysteries and All Knowledge,” The Inward Journey5
Thurman pictures a world in which people live in wholeness, in harmony with themselves, with natural law, and with each other. His words also point toward Cosmic Consciousness, where the mind is established in the transcendent and one’s thoughts and actions are in harmony with natural law, nourishing everything.
With regular experience of Transcendental Consciousness, the mind and body become accustomed to this style of functioning. One maintains unbounded awareness, the fully expanded state of mind, at all times, along with waking, dreaming, and sleeping. The physiology is now free of stress, and brain functioning remains integrated throughout the day. With consciousness fully expanded and open to the unified field, one lives in accord with natural law—one’s actions are spontaneously life-nourishing, and one fulfills desires without strain.
Achieving this wholeness, Thurman maintains, will create heaven on earth. This is exactly what Maharishi Mahesh Yogi envisioned, and it was to create such a world that he came out of the Himalayas to bring the Transcendental Meditation technique to our world family.
Thurman pictures a world in which people live in wholeness, in harmony with themselves, with natural law, and with each other.
- Howard Thurman, The Inward Journey (Richmond, Indiana: Friends United Press, 1961), 112.
- Inward Journey, 123–124.
- Inward Journey, 130.
- Inward Journey, 96.
- Inward Journey, 90.
Craig Pearson, Ph.D., is the author of The Supreme Awakening: Experiences of Enlightenment Throughout Time—And How You Can Cultivate Them, and Vice President of Academic Affairs at Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, Iowa.
The image in the banner above is from a stained glass window featuring Howard Thurman at Howard University’s Andrew Rankin Memorial Chapel.