The following article appeared in the April 2005 issue of Science of Mind magazine (www.scienceofmind.com).
How Martin Luther King’s Eldest
Daughter Blazed Her Own Spiritual Path
By Mitch Horowitz
For Yolanda King, the last several years have been a time of awakening. Not politically, socially, or in the sides of her life that the public generally sees. Rather, over the last decade, the eldest child of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. has boldly blended Eastern practices, Christian thought, and the ideas of Science of Mind to create a spiritual path truly her own.
“Science of Mind has helped me tremendously,” King says, looking back on a spiritual search that has been anything but easy. The God of her Southern-Baptist childhood, she recalls, often seemed vengeful and punishing – leaving her with decades of confusion about the meaning of religion.
About six years ago, however, she began attending one of the nation’s largest creative-thought churches, the Agape International Spiritual Center in Los Angeles, where she discovered the ideas of Ernest Holmes and others. “I stumbled into a spiritual community that talked about not only being loved by God, but that I was God’s beloved, in whom God was well pleased,” she told Science of Mind. “And just that little bit of reframing made such a profound difference for me.”
The 49-year-old King’s journey has taken her on a long road from the Baptist church of her childhood. Yet it has also given her a fresh way to integrate her father’s political and spiritual principles with the quest for self-realization that animates life in the 21st century.
Finding a Path
The oldest of four children, Yolanda King was twelve when her father was assassinated in 1968. For her, growing up was composed of tough, early starts: She was born only two weeks before the Montgomery bus boycott that inaugurated the civil rights era, and experienced a bomb attack on her home at the age of four months.
Getting through adolescence without her father, she departed to college in the Northeast just four years after his murder, an experience she found “extremely intimidating.” Many students at Smith College and later at New York University, she says, were all-too-ready to place labels on her, prepared to jump at any suggestion that she wasn’t fulfilling the political or social roles they saw as her legacy.
King recalls her early adulthood as plagued by feelings of inadequacy. “The bottom line of it was that I felt very unworthy: I wasn’t as beautiful as my mother, and I wasn’t as intelligent as my father, and I wasn’t making enough of a contribution – all of this stuff was running in my head constantly. I could act like I was okay so that nobody knew that I was experiencing this inner turmoil … but I realized that something was going to have to change.”
King’s outward appearance concealed pain and anger of which she wouldn’t even become aware until many years later. “I didn’t really mourn my father until I was thirty, at the time of the first national holiday,” King recalls. “I remember being miserable because I missed my father so much. For the first time I allowed the loss to really take hold of me. I also was angry – which was a really new thing for me. Because anger was really kind of suppressed in us as young people. Both of my parents – but my mother even more so – taught us that was an emotion we were not allowed to express.”
In the 1970s, King looked toward therapy and a wide range of spiritual movements. “I tried everything: I’ve been to all kinds of psychologists and attempted a lot of different techniques.” While therapy was of help, she says, her internal anguish remained.
She began exploring spiritual questions on her own terms. “I didn’t read the Bible until I was in my twenties because I thought I sort of ‘knew it’ because we were so exposed to it. But fully sitting down reading the Bible was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life.”
King eventually discovered Transcendental Meditation and – perhaps most significantly – a group of teachings inspired by Ernest Holmes and others in the New Thought tradition. “When I first came into an understanding that I was a spiritual being having a human experience, as opposed to the other way around, it really just turned the lights on for me,” she says.
Ideas that would have seemed from another planet in her childhood suddenly abounded. “I didn’t know anything about meditation ten years ago; not a clue. I heard people talk about it; I thought when you got quiet that meant you were meditating. I didn’t realize it meant you needed to shut-up and listen, that you needed to stop the thinking!” King recalls with a laugh.
Her new path also led her to what she calls affirmative prayer. That is, prayer that celebrates what she has and where she is going, rather than focuses on what she lacks. “I used to pray constantly, but it was always on the run and in response to what was going on around me. But now, I have a daily practice of taking the time to engage in affirmative prayer and meditation. That has made such a difference, because even when I am really tired, there’s this deep sense of well being that exists.”
A Child of War
While today King extols the idea that your thoughts create your reality, she wonders if that notion would have seemed like “foolish optimism” during her uniquely dangerous childhood.
“I often say I was a child of war – in a time when there was a great deal of danger. And even though my parents did an incredibly remarkable job of protecting us from it, and shielding us, and creating the semblance of some normalcy, and a feeling of security and safety, the reality is that it wasn’t safe. There was a lot of danger and constant threats from the beginning of my life.”
During those tumultuous years, King recalls her father’s message of nonviolence, community, and self-sacrifice. As an adult, she is working on melding those values with her current spiritual practice. She views Science of Mind as often focused on the individual, while her father emphasized what he called “other-centeredness.”
In her favorite sermon her father outlined the “three-dimensions of a complete life:” self-love, love of others, and love of God. “It is a blending of those three that develops the complete life, as my father did,” she says. “How to balance loving thy neighbor as thyself is something that I am sometimes not sure is spoken to fully in Science of Mind. That is one of the areas that I am grappling with.”
A Path In Progress
Of this much King is certain: Her spiritual life is a path in progress. She speaks repeatedly of questions, rarely of hardened answers. Her evolution makes it difficult to place a precise finger on where she is or what affiliation to claim. “It is tough and it has become tougher because I continue to grow,” King says. “Where I am today is very different from where I was five years ago. But right at this moment, my beliefs are what I call Christian metaphysics. Christ is still the primary teacher in my life who is the master that I look to, but I certainly respect many of the other masters. I have learned about our oneness and the fact that there really is just One Power. That’s something that is very much from Science of Mind and the metaphysical traditions, and that is something I very much honor.”
Today, King’s search takes on several dimensions:
- Meditation. King practices her own form of TM-inspired meditation, along with breathing practices, and other contemplative exercises.
- Affirmations. King says that she makes particular use of the Daily Guides to Richer Living in Science of Mind. “One of my guides that I use in the morning is that I go to the magazine and read the daily inspirational messages.”
- Church Attendance. “I regularly attend Agape in Los Angeles. In addition to the fact that agape means the beloved community that my father talked about, it is trans-denominational, so that everybody is welcome. It so very much feels like the kind of place where we need to go, where the world needs to go, where we need to end up. The theology has attracted me and nurtured me; I am very much in transition, and I experience growth by leaps and bounds as a result of my involvement there and the impact that the ideas and principles are having on my life.”
- Inspirational Reading. King speaks with unique fondness for Florence Scovel Shinn’s affirmative-thinking classic, The Game of Life. “I really was just totally blown away, I read that book in an hour.” She is likewise moved by the work of Joel Goldsmith and, in particular, his book Practicing the Presence. “He is such an absolutist that sometimes I must admit it’s a lot to swallow, but I love his writing and where he is trying to move people to.” King also praises the work of Marianne Williamson and her recent bookEveryday Grace.
- Traditional Worship. For all her new practices, King maintains ties to the Baptist church of her childhood. “I still have one foot in some of the more traditional Christianity, and I think part of it is the worship experience. I really enjoy the worship experience. I love the music, and I think it’s also just the whole energy of it. You can’t always find it in the traditional Religious Science churches.”
Social Work, Spiritual Work
When King talks of an ecumenical “One Power,” she understands only too well that this concept is anathema at most evangelical and Southern Baptist churches, of the type where she grew up. This is a chasm King hopes one day to bridge.
“I think it’s my responsibility as someone who does have the opportunity to communicate with masses of people …And that’s one of the things that I’m hoping at some point that I can speak to in an intelligent way that can move people and open them to another way of looking at that truth. But right now, I haven’t been able to. I’m still trying to understand it myself.”
Science of Mind has brought King an intriguing idea about Christian fundamentalism and the existence of a force for evil – or, what some might call the devil. “I’m convinced that why there is the presence of so much evil and the appearance of another power is because there is such a belief in it. I mean, it is so strong. I believe that it” – this focus on an evil force – “perpetuates it.”
Today, King works as a motivational speaker and an actress, and she is developing a spiritual project of her own. Through her website, www.yolanda-king.com, she and her colleagues teach a free distance-learning class in creative-mind principles called the Peace Circles program. Each participant is assigned a mentor or life coach, and takes a monthly “teleclass,” which is supported by web postings, readings, and assignments in ideas inspired by mental science.
In terms of her spiritual life, King may be coming full circle. She recalls a childhood home in which the figure of Gandhi – whose teachings of nonviolence underscored much of Martin Luther King’s philosophy – “was like a part of our family.” His pictures and words abounded in the King household.
And, yet, it was Gandhi’s social analysis – not his yogic ideas – that held sway. It would not be until well into adulthood that Yolanda King experienced – through meditation, affirmative thought, and other practices – some of the spiritual leanings of a man who she previously understood through a political lens. In time, this burgeoning understanding may represent Yolanda King’s true legacy: a marriage of mysticism and social thought that honors both the larger community and the individual’s need for inner growth. “I understand that people would look to me to pick up the torch and run with it,” King says. “And to some extent I have done that, but in my own way.”
Email Mitch at: firstname.lastname@example.org