Monday, September 14, 2009

Breath Prayer -- part one

The five beads in between each of the medium-sized beads are for what I called in Simply Pray "breath prayers." These are two line prayers to be repeated one line on each in-breath, one on on each out-breath. I gave three examples in the book (p. 72):

Breathing in I develop calm and equanimity. /
Breathing out I find peace and joy.

Lord Jesus Christ / have mercy on me.

Great Mystery / I seek to know.

In my own practice I have since settled on the breath prayer: Open my heart, dear Lord / that I may become the man you made me to be.

In his book Open Mind, Open Heart, Fr. Thomas Keating writes about the practice of the "active prayer," a simple, short prayer of five to nine syllables that you repeat so regularly that it becomes part of the background of your life. He writes:

"The active prayer has to be repeated again and again at free moments in order to work it into the subconscious. The old tapes were build up through repeated acts. A new tape can be established in the same way. it may take a year to establish one's active prayer in the subconscious. it will then arise spontaneously. One may wake up saying it or it may accompany one's dreams." (p. 114 of the combined Foundations for Centering Prayer and the Christian Contemplative Life edition of Keating's works.)

I was not familiar with Keating's "active prayer" when I wrote Simply Pray, yet this is certainly what I had in mind when I was writing about the breath prayer. The phrase that you repeat on each in-breath and out-breath with each of the five small beads between the major beads of this practice is intended to work its way into your conscious and unconscious mind, to become something that you "learn by heart," so that it is always with you.

Each of us has "voices" in our head. The "old tapes" Keating writes about are familiar to us all -- they tell us that we're not good enough, or that we're not smart enough, or we're too fat, or too unprepared, or too old, or too something or not enough something else. These "voices" run as background noise, ready to come into the foreground whenever there's a lull or when the stresses and strains of our lives make us particularly susceptible to their influence.

The ancient practice of rote, repetitive prayer -- so out of fashion today -- is really a corrective to this fundamental human condition. Shed of the particularities of the various theological overlays of the traditions the different practices have come from, each of the repetitive prayer practices function to put powerfully positive "tapes" in place, recording over (as it were) the negative tapes we seem to naturally favor for some reason. And because these tapes were "recorded" in the context of prayer, they carry with them the feeling tone of your prayer time -- when one of these phrases really plants itself in your subconscious it brings with it your whole prayer practice.

And so, the next time the old tapes begin to play, this new tape may begin to play as well, or you may make the conscious decision to start playing it. Replace "I'm not good enough," with "Open my heart, dear Lord, that I may become the man you made me to be" or "Great Mystery, I seek to know." It's really amazing what happens.

In Gassho,


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