Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Beginning to Pray

I've recently returned to reading an old favorite of mine -- Beginning to Pray by Anthony Bloom.  He was the Russian Orthodox metropolitan of the Diocese of Sourozh, the Patriarchate of Moscow's diocese for Great Britain and Ireland, and one of the greatest writers on prayer that I've encountered.  (I especially love this and his earlier book Living Prayer which I have so densely highlighted you might think my copy was printed on yellow paper!)

I always wrestle a bit with this idea of returning to a book that I've already read.  There are so many books out there that I haven't; so many authors whose ideas I have yet to encounter.  It can seem wasteful to go back to something I've read before, especially someone I've read as often as my beloved Metropolitan Anthony.

And yet I think that in times past a person might have only had one book or two.  (Of course, for a great deal of human history most people had no books and no skills with which to read them if they'd had them.)  But even for the literate, the kind of access we take for granted today would have been unthinkable.  Some of the great mystical thinkers may have had only one text -- the Bible, perhaps, or the Tao te Ching -- and spent their whole lives in deep perusal of that one tome.  Perhaps it is, instead, wasteful for me to think of reading a book only once and then moving on to the next rather than living with a book for a time as has been more of the literary experience throughout our history.

And I know that whenever I do return to a book I find that I've forgotten far more than I've remembered, and that even what I've remembered I now encounter at some new and deeper level.  I've never read the same book twice in the same way, because I am different -- I bring a different set of life experiences to the reading each time, a different set of references, a different level of awareness.  And so I find that something that was once a radical new idea strikes me now, instead, as an old friend, a confirmation of a long-held belief, while something I hadn't even noticed on previous readings shines out like gold in a ray of sun.

So I've begun reading Beginning to Pray again.  On Friday I'll mention a little about what attracts me to this book and what's jumping out at me this time.  For now I'll just mention a few other books to which I return over and over again:
There are more, but these should keep me busy -- any one of them could keep me busy.  You too, probably.

In Gassho,


Monday, April 26, 2010

The "S" Word

On Saturday I was facilitating a conversation at the Spring Annual Meeting of the Ballou Channning District of the Unitarian Universalist Association.  We were discussing the future of worship, and someone brought up the "s" word.  She said that she'd already heard several people use it, talking about the importance of
"spiritual connection" and "spirituality."  She admitted that she really wasn't certain what these people were talking about.

A few people tried their best to speak to her question, yet I'd have to say that their answers didn't really seem to me to provide any kind of fundamental answer.  They provided some important details, perhaps, gave some nice color and shading, but didn't get to the heart of the matter.

I finally stepped in and asked if I could give it a try.  I noted that when Henry David Thoreau began his famous experiment at Walden Pond he said that he'd gone to "live deliberately" so as not to live "what is not life" and "when the time comes to die discover [he] had not lived."  I said that I took this to mean that he wanted to live something that was life and this, I said, is what spirituality is all about.

All the religions we humans have ever developed to respond to this business of being alive and having to die seem to agree that most of the time most of us life "that is not life."  We're too distracted by worries, or fears, or regrets, or the ups and downs of pop culture, or whatever it is that keeps us from being really present.  Sometimes it's said that we're asleep, or dead, or deluded, or caught in the web of sin, or alienated, or unaware, or distracted, or detached, but I believe that in essence all of these are really saying that we're busy living what is not life instead of what is life.  When all of the cultural particularities, the loaded languge and images are stripped away, that's what spirituality is all about.

And what about those other terms "spiritual practice" and "spiritual discipline"?  Didn't Thoreau say that he wanted to "live deliberately?"  It takes some work to wake up, to change the way we see things to this new perspective.  I don't think there's anything more to it -- at its essence -- than that.

In Gassho,


Friday, April 23, 2010

Mr. Deity and Prayer

For those who were intrigued by my reference to Mr. Deity earlier in the week -- this is a web show that I absolutely love in which God -- aka, "Mr. Deity" -- is portrayed sort of like a slick Hollywood producer.  I am sure that some people would be terribly offended by this, and I do think these folks go a little "beyond" every once in a while, but most often I think they make some really good points.  And almost always I think they make some really funny videos.  So here's Mr. Deity on prayer:

In Gassho,


Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Coming Out

The journey is almost over; the practice is nearly complete.  We began at the Centering Bead and then prepared ourselves through four Entering Beads.  First, then, came Naming, and five breath prayers.  Then there was Knowing, followed by five more breath prayers.  Then Listening, with another five breath prayers.  And we've just completed Loving.  Now we are at the last four beads, which mirror the Entering Beads with which we began.

This is the "cool down" of our spiritual cross-training.  If you called in the four directions as you entered in, now's the time to let them go.  If you recited the four Bodhisattva Vows, repeat them again.

For me, I repeat the prayer I've created:

Open my eyes, the I might see your face in every person I might and seek your fingerprint in every situation I encounter (myself and my family and the things of my life included);

Opening my ears, that I might hear your voice in every form it takes, especially those I would rather not hear;

Open my hands, that I might let go of striving after control and false security;

Open my heart, that I might live and love more fully and deeply in you -- you who created me, you who redeem me, and you who sustain me.

It is fascinating to me how these words change from the beginning of the prayer time to the end -- the experiences along the way cause new resonances, new shadings to be revealed and I hear them often as entirely different the second time I say them than I did the first.

And that's one of the purposes of prayer -- of any religious practice, really.  Transformation.

May it be so for you.

In Gassho,


Monday, April 19, 2010


The last part of the "journey" is the bead for Loving prayer.  This is more traditionally called "petitionary prayer" or "intercessionary prayer" -- it's the prayer we pray for other people.  As I put it originally in Simply Pray (p. 35):  "Prayer practice that focuses only on the self is ultimately hollow, as is a life that is too self-centered.  At some point, the quest for personal peace enlarges into a concern for peace in the world; the search for self satisfaction broadens to include a desire that the needs of others be satisfied." 

This is my answer when I hear the critique that spending time on things like personal spiritual practices is self-indulgent when there are so many real concerns that need tending too:  if one engages deeply with a personal spiritual practice it always leads to concern for the other.  This is, in fact, one of the things one "hears" while listening, that we are part of something larger than ourselves, interconnected with all that is.  Ralph Waldo Emerson said that we are, "part and parcel of life."  The Ven. Tich Nhat Hanh says, "we inter-are."

I have two ways that I generally engage the Loving prayer bead.  I'm sure that there are others.  In the first I work my way through a litany -- starting with my immediate family, going on through every member of my extended family, I call each person to mind.  If I know of something in particular they are wrestling with at the moment I think about that, otherwise I just wish them the best.  Then I think about my friends, the people I work with, the people in the congregations I've served, people in the news, world leaders -- sending "positive energy" to them, each and all.  I always make sure to include myself on this list.  Remember, in the Christian tradition it is said that we should love others as we love ourselves.  People often seem to forget that part.

The second way I work this bead is to simply try to relax -- usually fairly easy to do after just praying the Listening bead -- and see who floats into my head.  I stay with them for a while, see if any particular issue or concern comes to mind for me to pray about for them, and then I move on to whomever comes next.  I continue on this way until no one else seems to be emerging, and then I pray for my family and for myself.

Just what do I think I'm doing during this time?  In the first installment of this series I noted that a friend had asked why I prayed if I didn't believe in a God who would come swooping in to magically save me.  This was the kind of prayer he had in mind -- "Oh please, God, find Timmy Robinson's puppy!"  (This is a reference to a Mr. episode about prayer.  Very funny stuff.)

I have to say that I don't believe in an "activist God" who comes in and makes this person's cancer go into remission and that person's not because of the quality of their respective prayer lives.  I find that offensive.  Yet I do know that there have been a number of studies that show some sort of efficacy to prayer -- that people who are prayed for often have better outcomes, whether they knew they were being prayed for or not.  And there is an overwhelming amount of evidence that the person who is doing the praying benefits tremendously -- physiological and psychological benefits from the prayer itself, and benefits from spending time in compassionate contemplation of the needs and concerns of others.

And even though as I've stated before I don't believe in "God" as a person in any way we normally understand the term, yet through my own lived prayer experiences I have definitely felt myself to be engaged in something relational.  It is extremely difficult to put it into words, as so many of the words I would use have been corrupted by misuse and misunderstanding through the millenia, yet all I can say is that I truly do not experience myself as praying alone.  And so I cannot tell you what happens after I pray the Loving prayer, but I know that on most days I feel heard.

In Gassho,


Friday, April 16, 2010

Breath Prayers -- part three

Once again we return to our Breath Prayer. Some people have an aversion to set prayers they "have" to say -- even if they were the ones who came up with the words in the first place. The idea of repeating the same words over and over, of praying by rote, is anathema.

This may be, largely, from experiences with "empty ritual" in their past -- religious practices that they were expected to engage in simply because they were told too. In some cases the meaning and purpose of these practices were never adequately explained, in some cases they had actually been lost to the tradition, but in all such cases the actions felt empty and hollow and false -- and the idea of doing something for the sake of doing it seems, if you will, blasphemous.

Another reason for the resistence to repetitive prayer is the idea that prayer is about "talking to God." If that's true, why should I let someone else put words in my mouth? And why should I have to say the same words over and over again regardless of how I'm feeling or what's going on in and around me? These would be valid critiques if that were the only way to think about what prayer is.

Yet hopefully by this time we've seen that prayer can be understood in so many richer and deeper ways than simply "talking to God" (whatever that might mean). It's also worth remembering that there are different types of prayer, different forms, just as their are different food groups (protein, carbohydretes, fats), or different types of exercise (aerobic, anaerobic), or music (jazz, classical, indi-folk). Each has its own function and purpose. This prayer bead practice is intended to bring together the major prayer forms into one practice -- a spiritual cross training experience, if you will.

And so the breath prayer is the form of prayer that, as noted in the last post about it, is intended to work its way into your subconscious. Just as a runner doesn't wake up and ask herself if she feels like running today, so too it really doesn't matter what kind of mood you're in -- say your breath prayer. It doesn't matter what's on your mind, what you need to "say to the Lord" -- during the time for breath prayer, repeat your breath prayer.

Each of the various parts of the prayer bead practice is intended to work together with the others; this is part of what makes this practice unique. Often, perhaps even usually, these various styles and forms of spiritual practice are separated from one another. Here they are brought together. That's part of the practice itself, in fact, their harmonization. And yours.

in Gassho,


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,