Archive for the 'prayer' Category

Safe spiritual practice

May 18, 2014

I know I can’t teach it, I am not even sure I can describe what I do to achieve my own, but I do know that it’s an important issue for me and one that plenty of teachers of prayer and meditation don’t pay enough attention to, from my point of view.

I am thinking about it this morning because of a comment I read to a NYTimes piece about college campuses grappling with the issue of students having traumatic memories triggered by works they encounter in class and the question of whether instructors should provide warnings.  The comment was by someone who writes as “GrammyofWandA” in Maine.  She wrote about how meditation foisted on her during class by a teacher triggered flashbacks, the difficulties she had with that, and how she handled the problem.

I wrote a reply, because I was grateful that someone had raised the issue.  I’ve encountered a version of it.  If someone insists I follow a guided meditation or meditate with them, I can run into real trouble.  I can even run into trouble with meditation at home, again, especially if I use a guide on a CD or something.  My mind can go much further afield than is intended, I can get flashbacks, I can get all kind of emotional stuff bubbling up from within me (I’m not even sure all of it is mine), and boy, can I get “spam.”

But I do have plenty of ways to engage in prayer and meditation that work for me.  I have no idea whether they would work for others, what else about me factors into why they apparently work for me.

Thinking about how much I don’t want to describe either these factors or how I engage in prayer and meditation reminds me of people who really don’t want to peel off their layers and open themselves up.

But, as I’ve written about before, what I want to avoid often seems to be what would unravel a knot for me, even when I am unaware I have such a knot.  Maybe I’ll give it a try, that is, try to explain what I do and how I got here, but it will probably be piecemeal, in separate posts, if I do.  If I had to take the whole thing on at once, I would probably quail, just like someone faced with the task of trying to actually develop a spiritual practice in one fell swoop — I think it makes more sense to try to take such a project in steps.


Veering off course

May 6, 2014

The decision by the Supreme Court handed down yesterday allowing prayer at the opening of the meeting of a local government body seemed to me to illustrate how one misstep can lead to another.

I think I’ve written how I often pray before I participate in a meeting.  I want openness and space and to have things go as well as they can.  I don’t want my behavior to get in the way of that, and I include willingness and a request to get some help with that when I pray (privately) before I participate in a meeting.

At a meeting that is avowedly focused on things spiritual and that opens with a group prayer, I can often feel the atmosphere change for the better during the prayer, especially if it goes on long enough and catches a current; I notice openness, peacefulness, calm, good will, relaxing of faces and postures.  So I do like group prayer.  (I wish I got more of it — I find it is too often accompanied by other stuff, stuff which I don’t want.)

But prayer is supposed to serve the greater good, and in a public meeting not about things spiritual, insisting on “prayer” when some people find it unwelcome sounds to me at best ineffective and at worst a reflection that it isn’t a prayer that is being invoked.

So now we’ve put the matter of such behavior before the Supreme Court, and have precipitated a judicial imprimatur for prayer of the foisted variety.

In my opinion, we have veered off and lost the trail.  To me, though, it started with the notion of what a prayer is and isn’t — I think that’s where we first misstepped.

Earth and sky

April 7, 2014

Many religions seem to focus on developing our relationship with the divine who is out there and up there, not (also) the divine who is in there and down there.  In a way, we connect more to the sky than to the earth in our spiritual lives, perhaps because we are aiming to transcend our material world and foster a relationship with something else.  But that something else also abides in the earth, and that aspect of it we connect with, I think, by going deep within ourselves.  We are conduit between earth and sky, a mixture of many kinds of energy.

When I connect with the earth, I feel, among other things, her pain.  I feel it as the pain of a mother who has lost some of her children, who has been battered by the impacts from heavenly bodies crashing onto her surface, who has been exploited by some of her children — that is, by us humans.

Some of that pain may be my own, but when we pray, our pain and divine energy mingle, I think, and we experience one another’s pain.  Our own pain may give us a pathway to feeling the other’s.

So when I am reminded of divine suffering, I feel called to draw attention to the suffering within and the suffering of that part of our heritage — the earth.  We pay lip service to being made from dust and returning to dust.  That material contains the divine spark, too, I think, and it also contains suffering.  I think it is helpful to give respectful and loving recognition to that aspect of our connection to the universe, too.


September 14, 2013

I am loving the juxtaposition, in September 16th issue of The New Yorker, of the prayers written by Flannery O’Connor with a piece on Truman delusions.  We’ve got O’Connor yearning to be a mystic and serve and also be a successful writer (“My Dear God”), and a college-age young man who thinks he is starring in a TV reality show as he lives his life (“Unreality Star,” by Andrew Marantz).

Plenty of religious or philosophical systems see our lives as illusory, they just don’t posit electronic hardware as part of the conceptualization.

The other elements discussed are persecution, erotomania, and grandiosity.  The persecuted have Job for an ur-type, and erotomania must have some parallel in the lives of saints who had such passionate relationships with spiritual beings.  I took on the grandiosity issue in a comment I wrote to a piece on NYTimes (“Caring for a Mind in Crisis”) that mentioned the phenomenon of mental health patients who think they are Jesus:  I think these people may conflate doing what Jesus taught and modeled with being Jesus, because of too much cultural emphasis on Jesus’ uniqueness.  If they could get more of their ego out of their way, their identification as Jesus I think would fall away.

O’Connor writes a lot of things that make sense to me, and some that don’t, in these prayers excerpted from her journals.  She has a willingness to serve, she senses her relationship with God is not to be had through too much thinking, and yet she gets caught up in a lot of thinking nonetheless.

In some ways I see both O’Connor and the young man as seekers who haven’t quite gotten the right sound out of their instrument yet.  (Of course, we may see one as having come closer than another to having succeeded at that.)  Or maybe it’s a little like playing Charades, where oftentimes the misses, when players guess incorrectly, sound quite off-base but understandable.

I like the issue of the relationship of spiritual development to mental health.  Maybe the situation is a little like branching out from playing classical music — there’s jazz (as well as plenty of other genres) but there’s also noise.

God, the imagination, and books

September 4, 2013

Some people are open and some people aren’t.  Some people even make an art of not being open.  They always hold something back, behind fear, behind, vanity, behind pride.

Being open allows us to see ourselves from multiple perspectives, not just the way we would like to think we are.  We allow ourselves to see the secondary consequences of our attitudes and behaviors on others and we adjust our attitudes and behavior  accordingly.  If we refuse to look at the negative impacts we have on others, we close ourselves off from not only them but from ourselves.

I suspect meditation helps get around that by being a way to put aside the carapace, albeit only temporarily.  Some people do, in contrast, make their entire life a living prayer — they are always open.

When we are open, we can perceive through other than our monkey minds.  What we perceive includes what some people label “God.”  It is not perceived through our imaginations, which are part of our monkey minds.

Willy was a very open person, whether or not he believed in God.  He was kind and generous.  He also had that quality I associate with men of being ready, willing, and able to defend his turf, however.  But he knew that sometimes the most helpful technique is to allow the other person’s energy to become their own undoing, that deflecting that energy can be key.  To me he demonstrated that a person can be a conduit (for the forces of the universe) without being conscious of it.

A close friend of his shared with me that he considered Willy a mystic.  I liked hearing that.  It gave me a way of understanding his sitting cross-legged at the kitchen table to eat, for example.  Or drinking directly from sink faucets.  He was so fastidious about other manners that these behaviors called out for interpretation.

We can teach intellectual ideas through others.  We can disseminate them in books.  These may provide touchstones for others as they try to gain a sense of themselves and of life, analogous to consulting with a village elder, but they also present a hazard, namely encouraging people to believe that the development of the person is, or can be, had through the intellect.  The intellect is a helpful interface between experience and communication, but the significant things a person needs to go through in order to develop into the person they have the potential to be will not be experienced through reading or through learning in a classroom.

Willy had that sense, too, I think.  He was continually frustrated by new hires who thought of life as a problem set and he had little patience for academia.  He fled college (with his degree) in three years and went into the Peace Corps.  He finished his dissertation while working full time, in large part because he much preferred working and solving real problems;  even with the added demands of working, working at a job gave him more energy for his dissertation than remaining a full-time graduate student would have.  In primary school he had experimented with focusing on the niceties necessary to gain complete approval in academia, and he reported to me that he had found the rewards hollow.

I think this blog is my compromise.  I’ve got people in my life who want me to write, and I what I really want to do is to walk.  I think writing is in some way inherently misleading, but the snippets that are blog posts perhaps come closest to those momentary understandings we become privy to through interfacing with the universe through prayer and meditation.

The world must be a certain way for there to be “God”

August 7, 2013

I was reading opinion pieces and comments on prayer on the NYTimes website the other day, and there was the usual dismissal with certainty of what many people with faith believe and do.  It occurred to me some time after that that it’s not just about rejecting the straw man or red herring of God conceptualized as a cranky parent, it’s got something, I think, to do with reacting to a notion that God’s existence should mean that the world is perfect or on balance pleasant.

But I don’t think that thinking about the “existence of God” as an all or nothing proposition is all that helpful.  Lots of believers experience God as a force who strengthens and comforts and imparts flexibility and resilience for life’s difficulties.  God doesn’t even have to be a “who,” God can be much more impersonal than that and still be the source of the kind of energy that guides us and gets us through.  It’s a matter of accessing that guidance and help, the strength, flexibility, and resiliency — it is such a matter for believers, and I don’t see why “non-believers” wouldn’t be able to seek things like strength, flexibility, and resilience through a process of their own.  I don’t think it’s necessary to “go through” “God” to access those things, in the sense of believing in a particular concept of a divinity.  I think the idea of asking God helps some people focus and open themselves up to accessing these resources (strength, flexibility —  which I mean in the sense of not being brittle and breaking —  etc.) — but I think they are accessible without traditional belief in a traditional God.

I think theism vs. atheism is one of our dualistic pieces of human nonsense.  There’s no reason for us to form up into two such teams.  Once the world is allowed to be as it is, and a more perfect world is not the objective of belief in God — the controversy stops being about whether there is a happily-ever-after — and then maybe more people can entertain that there is more to the world than what is visible and material.

This is a version of what I had written this afternoon, and I’m too tired now to do much more with it tonight, but I wanted to try to post something on it before I head south to New Jersey tomorrow and probably become even further removed from my original thoughts on the topic.

[God is part of creation, we are in a sense inside the belly of God — God is not outside of creation. — This is a note leftover from before, I’ll leave it here as an afterthought.]

“Monkey mind”

April 21, 2013

I’ve never really liked the term myself, but I think it’s the one people generally use in connection with identifying the part of the mind which is not involved in spiritual experiences and understanding of the divine.  Why people who write about religion write as if they’ve never heard of the distinction between the monkey mind and other parts of our mental apparatus beats me.  Of course if we confine ourselves to discussion of apprehending God through this part of the mind (the monkey mind) we wind up with talk about “imagining” God.  But that’s like discussing rendering a song with the human voice on the assumption that human beings can only speak and not sing.

Of course, I’m reacting to something I just read:  “The Benefits of Church,” by T.M. Luhrmann, in the NYTimes.


January 7, 2013

One of the ingredients for processing difficult emotions, like hurt, is a diluting solution (solution, as in, liquid).

I can dilute mine through prayer and meditation, through asking for an exchange (of energy) and using a visualization (such as exchanging my old laundry for clean) to facilitate it, and through walking.  It’s like the molecules of the difficult stuff get spaced out more widely through these means, they diminish in importance and impact with the addition of more positive material.

It’s not that I can make all my difficult emotions disappear, but I can reduce them to manageable proportions in my system, by using tools or techniques.  If my body gets dirty, I take a shower.  If my mind is filled up with yuck, I need to cleanse it as well.  Sometimes I do actually visualize a sort of shower going down through my spiritual fontanel, but for some reason I find other visualizations more effective, so I don’t usually use the shower image.

Processing is one of the reasons I walk a lot.  Gita once looked at me and cocked her head and said, “I believe walking is a part of your spiritual practice,” and she’s probably right.  I know I tell people that it helps me air out my brain.

I’m going to head out now.

The secret handshake

December 19, 2012

I apparently didn’t learn it.

I was at a talk last night, and beforehand, someone came up to me and said, “Do I know you?  You look familiar.”  I gave it a shot, trying to guess if she seemed familiar to me from other talks on similar topics, and asking if we had met at one of those, but no.

She turned out to be the rabbi giving the introductory prayer before the talk.  Made me wonder in retrospect whether she had really been asking me if I am Jewish.  (To be perfectly honest, my first –hopeful — thought had been to wonder if she had known somehow I loved prayer, but then a more prosaic and likely explanation occurred to me.)

I had to leave before the end of the program, so I didn’t have a chance to tell her how much I enjoyed the prayer she sang.

As a footnote, let me add that I decided at the last minute to wear a pair of red clogs, because otherwise I was dressed pretty much in black and gray.  I also grabbed a red paisley shawl for color and a light purple jacket (instead of the black one I had been using earlier in the day).  So I was amused when I noticed that the main speaker was dressed in gray and wearing red scuffs or mules (sort of soft-soled red clogs, I’m not sure about the heel height).  The rabbi, by the way, was wearing, in the style of a stole, a beautiful solid red scarf, maybe silk.

Who reaches out

December 17, 2012

I was going to write a post about “Fear, pain, and damage” and what seems to me to be going on when people perceive “evil.” I would have talked about how it’s all perfectly fine energy, it’s just that some of it is difficult to process if a person has not sanded down enough of their “flaws,” enough of their humanness.  I would have tried to show how we can get rid of the dualism of “good” and “evil” by realizing that evil is in the eye of the beholder and by subsuming both under “energy.”  I might have talked about destruction being part of the cycle of creation, and that we are better off seeing destruction as just that, and shy away from distinctions like accident, tort, and crime.  I was going to talk about including everybody in our community, and finding a way to mourn for Nancy Lanza and Adam Lanza, too.  (I think, almost paradoxically, that until we maintain a compassionate connection to everybody, we will not resolve the problem of our safety.)  I was going to talk about attachments getting in the way of our clearer perception, about my reaction to watching President Obama reflect his strong attachment to his children in his remarks in Newtown last night.  I was thinking of making the case for celibacy in leadership positions.

And then, as I was crossing the street, I was reminded (because I suspect I’ve had this understanding before) that we need to reach out to God affirmatively because that is the posture in which we are open to receiving God.  Without our having that posture, nothing terribly helpful will happen even if God reaches out to us.  And I thought, trying to communicate that message is probably a more constructive thing to do, rather than trying to get people to see what I see.

Because part of what I see is that we’re not going to reduce the problem of gun massacres by the “mentally ill” by demonizing them, their caretakers, the people who love them (who are able to love them because they connect with something not diseased within them).  We’re not going to resolve the problem by doubling down on our attachment to our children.  I think we need, rather, to spread out more evenly our love and caring to all.  Gun control is fine with me, but I think if we improve our mental hygiene, people’s desire for guns may decrease, so I would include coaching people in general to improved mental hygiene (through teaching coping skills and how to become more self-aware, for example), so I would include that in a broad effort to reduce the presence of guns in our society.

I think I see myself a little like a bleating sheep, or maybe like that cow in the Richard Shindell song “Stray Cow Blues”  — I keep repeating what I perceive and hope it helps.  If people don’t want to hear, I accept that, even if I’m disappointed or frustrated.  I can see my reaction as a form of impatience, maybe even with a little fear mixed in (fear that not enough people will ever perceive clearly), and those are things I can work on.  I think I’ve developed enough detachment to keep doing what I do regardless of its reception.