Tuesday, December 30, 2003

On Prayer, Part Four
Contemplative Prayer

The following is based on a presentation made by Jim J—, MD
Jim began his presentation with some history. First, some personal history of how he first learned of this prayer form. As a true child of the 60's, Jim first encountered the concept of contemplative prayer through the Beatles:
Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream
It is not dying, it is not dying

Lay down all thoughts, surrender to the void
It is shining, it is shining

Yet you may see the meaning of within
It is being, it is being
“Tomorrow Never Knows,” John Lennon, Revolver, 1966
Note that Lennon later claimed this text was inspired by the Tibetan Book of the Dead. The Beatle better known as "the religious one", George Harrison, later wrote:
Try to realize it's all within yourself
no one else can make you change
And to see you're really only very small
and life flows on within you and without you.
“Within You, Without You,” George Harrison, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band, 1967
Both these texts were inspired by Eastern mysticism, and introduced Jim to the idea that God was all-present (imminent).

The major world religions all have some form of monastic tradition — even the Jewish religion had a monastic tradition until about the 12th century. These traditions have encountered an experience of the divine which was beyond words (alogos); that is, not speakable. At the same time, these traditions have affirmed the truth that the divine is imminent; that is to say, currently around us and capable of being experienced and perceived. Contemplation is the attempt to experience that which is beyond words by being fully present to the moment.

One begins by seeking a master. The path of contemplation is a risky path to walk without a guide. If you currently a member of a community of faith, it would be wise to seek someone who is mature in his or her faith to support you as you begin this discipline. It would be best if this person also practices contemplative prayer, but if no such person is available, it may suffice to find a person who is at least receptive to this prayer form.

Now, it must be affirmed that we humans find it very difficult to keep our minds empty for more than a very few seconds at a time. So, one begins with what Jim calls the "subtractive" method. That is, one strives to screen out most stimula by focusing on only one. For this step, it is good to have some self-awareness as to which of the five senses is strongest for you. The master may facilitate the process of discerning this; a very close friend or spouse may also have insight as to whether you are primarily visual, auditory, etc. Whichever of the five senses you favor is the one to focus on. Jim is primarily auditory, so he focuses on a very simple tune — in fact, a chant from the Episcopal tradition which is based on the breath. I am primarily a verbal or visual person — so I focus on a repeated phrase (as I have previously described) or a simple mental image (e.g., the Celestial Rose burning near the "third eye").

If you find it difficult to focus on one thing (sound, visual, etc), try a common relaxation/self-hypnosis technique: very slowly instruct each muscle of your body to relax, beginning with your toes, then your feet, and so on up your body. When successful, this technique will lead to a very deep state of relaxation, where the Eternal Now may be encountered.

As you become aware of thoughts intruding during this time, take note of them. Early in your practice, you may want to write them down. Typically, people are replaying past events or are planning future events. The former may indicate any number of emotions (sadness, guilt, joy); the latter may reflect worries. In either case, defining the types of thoughts likely to distract you ironically gives you power over those thoughts.

Finally, the physical location you choose is important. A house of worship would be an obvious choice. There are also what the Celts called the "soft places", that is, those liminal physical locations where the veil between this world and next world is very thin. Examples would include the Isle of Iona, off the coast of Scotland, the circle at Stonehenge, and the "songlines" of the Australians. One need not travel far to find such a place — I have heard, on good authority, that Quartz Mountain in Oklahoma is a "soft place." Indeed, any place considered sacred by indigenous people is likely to be a "soft place", where one may be especially receptive to the Eternal Now.

It is possible to create a sacred space in your home. What is important is that this space be set aside in some fashion. That is, this will be a physical area you don't normally enter except to pray. This space won't "feel" sacred at first. But, given a regular discipline of praying in this space and keeping it "set apart", you will begin to be aware of Holiness while you are in this space.

Some wonderful and scary things can happen when you become open to the divine in this fashion. One may lose control of his or her body — for example, I tend to unconsciously rock when I am deep in prayer. One may feel his or heart burn, as Luke describes the encounter on the road to Ephasus. One may encounter truly frightening things. For example, Jim experienced horror, pain, and loss when he prayed on the site of the Wounded Knee Massacre. This is the reason it is very important to have an elder to guide you in the process. This person will remind you that one does not pray to receive signs such as rocking or a burning heart; one prays to encounter the divine.
This concludes my series on methods of prayer. I hope to have the reading list for this series posted by tomorrow morning (Dec. 31, 2003).

No comments: