Wednesday, April 14, 2010


The third of the medium-sized beads brings us to Listening prayer, what in the east is called "meditation" and in the west is called "contemplative prayer."

It seems to me at least interesting (and possibly more) that these two terms -- meditation and contemplation -- are used in opposite ways in eastern and western traditions. In eastern religions, "meditation" refers to those practices in which one empties and focuses the mind, while to "contemplate" refers to thinking deeply about a subject. In the western religious traditions, it is just the opposite -- "contemplation" refers to those practices in which one empties and focuses the mind, and one is said to "meditate" upon a subject that one thinks about in a deep and intense way. (This is why the meditative style of prayer made popular within the Christian tradition by Fr. Thomas Keating called "Centering Prayer" is usually referred to as a form of "contemplative prayer" even though it is extraordinarily similar to practices found within teachings on Buddhist meditation.)

Terminology aside, though, what are we actually doing during listening prayer? Listening. That might not sound so difficult, but let's break it down. When you first start, you'll notice a whole lot of chatter going on inside your head -- the day's To Do lists, regrets from yesterday, hopes for tomorrow, the stray movie quote, things you should have said during that argument last night (or last month or last year), things you should buy at the store, things you always liked about your roommate in college, the lyrics to "My Favorite Things," . . . The list could go on and on. Most of the time, whether we're aware of it or not, our heads are filled with this kind of static and it's absolutely amazing that we can think straight at all. And, of course, most of the time we really can't, which is why we're in the state we're in most of the time.

So the first thing we do when we listen is we discover just what a cacophony we live in most of the time. As we continue with our listening practice we come to see that part of the source of this static is that whenever a thought or feeling appears in our heads we tend to react to it, creating more thoughts and feelings, to which we then react, creating again more thoughts and feelings. It's like a Zen teacher once said -- you drop a pebble in a pond and create ripples, and then react to the ripples by hitting them, creating more ripples. But the practice is to listen, remember? Just to listen. And so we train ourselves to notice the thoughts and feelings as they come and not to react to them -- at first, perhaps, not quite so much and then, at least at times, not at all. And so the pebble drops into the water, the ripples go out, and the water eventually becomes smooth and calm again.

Is there a point to this? If you've ever experienced the pleasure, the relief, the healing that can come from turning off the noise of the external environment and taking some time in that relative peace and quiet, imagine now the same thing at an interior level. It's truly remarkable. It's also been noted that this is a transferable skill -- that when you know how to quiet the inner cacophony during your time of listening prayer you can do it during times of highly charged emotion or tremendous stress when it might be quite useful to be able to clear your head and focus.

Yet there is something more to it than this, I believe. All of the great mystic traditions agree that when we learn to listen deeply we can hear what is otherwise inaudible to us -- call it "the voice of God," or our own "inner Buddha-nature," or "the rhythm of life." I can't tell you what it is that you'll hear -- because hearing it for yourself is part of what it's all about; the process, the experience of the hearing it -- but I can say that this is what's at the heart of listening prayer in all of its various forms.

In Gassho,

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