Tuesday, March 15, 2011

How do you pray?

I have recently offered, one day each week, to share a “morning time of quiet and reflection” with Anderson Hall residents. (None have yet accepted this 7:00 - 7:30 offer, which I believe provides more insight regarding diurnal vs. nocturnal rhythms of student life, than student spirituality). However for me, prayer is mostly a personal and private matter.

On the other hand, there have been two occasions, one recently and one several years ago, in the context of discussing meditation and spirituality, when friends have posed a question in almost the same words: “how do you pray?” In response to the more recent questioning, I have had a leading to share a few elements of my daily practice. This morning, I am choosing to follow that leading.

My practice began as a serious, albeit scattered, imperfect commitment (which it remains) when I read my friend Elizabeth Neeld’s small book, A Spiritual Primer: A Guide to Quiet Time and Prayer. Among other readings that have helped along the way are George Fox’s Journal, the Gospels in the New Testament of the Christian Bible, the Psalms in the Old Testament; my colleague Akbar Ahmad’s, Discovering Islam; The Dhammapada or Way of Enlightenment (an early teaching of the Lord Buddha); the Analects by Confucius, the The Tao Chi Ching by Lao Tse; Louis Fisher’s The Essential Ghandi and Richard Bach’s Johnathan Livingston Seagull. Most recently, my reading has emphasized teachings of the Dalai Llama, including How to Practice: Guide to a Meaningful Life and, presently, Essence of the Heart Sutra: The Dalai Llama’s Heart of Wisdom Teachings.

Though this sounds like what professors often do when students pose a question: they respond with a course syllabus - my practice has not been primarily about reading, it has been about practice. It has evolved over a period of five years or so and continues to evolve. I neither offer it as a model, exemplifying some virtue, nor apologize for its shortcomings, about which I am conscious every day. It has made a difference in my life. My purpose here is simply to describe, as I did in responding to my two friends, for whatever value that description may provide.

Practice begins with a recitation of a Mantra from the Heart Sutra, an early teaching of the Lord Buddha, which is an exhortation to seek “enlightenment” in a disciplined way. Recitation of the Mantra is a regular part of Tibetan Buddhist practice and I recite it in the language used by Tibetan Buddhist monks. This is followed by an exercise in which I focus on my breathing (“breathing in” and “breathing out.”) When the Lord Buddha sat under the Bodhi tree, seeking enlightenment, it is said that focus on breathing was an important part of his practice. Next comes a meditation on the eight stages of dying - again a practice of the Dalai Lama - which he repeats eight times each day. Even though my schedule is far less demanding that his, I only manage twice each day - early morning and before going to bed. Next comes another Dalai Lama teaching, a prayer about “seeking enlightenment for the sake of all beings” through “the collection of merit from my giving, morality, patience, effort, concentration and wisdom.” This is repeated three times. Occasionally, I remember to clap three times at the end of these recitations. Mostly I forget, unfortunately, at least so far.

Next comes what is known as “the St. Francis Prayer” which may be known to many Christians and is addressed to the Christian God. It begins, “Oh Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace, where is hatred, let me sow love, where there is injury, pardon....” and concludes “let me seek not so much to be understood as to understand, to be consoled as to console, to be loved as to love; for it is in giving we receive, pardoning that we are pardoned, in the death of self that we are born to eternal life." Next comes a recitation of what Christians know as The Lords Prayer, taught by the Lord Jesus as part of what is known as the “Sermon on the Mount.” the Lord Jesus teaches us not to pray in public, but to “go into our closet” when we pray. (I has occurred to me that some will view this posting as a violation of that teaching. I did consider this before acceding to the strong leading, coming to me over many days, that I should write it.)

Finally I pray for specific people. I began to include this in my practice after becoming conscious of the fact that sometimes, when a religious person was enduring a trial, I would say as a comfort “I will pray for you,” however I rarely did so. The "prayers" part of my practice sought to remedy this. In praying for specific people, I don’t ask for anything in particular, rather I simply try to visualize them and “hold them in the light” (a idea from Quaker practice). At the moment I am praying for some cancer sufferers that I know personally, for some specific members of the American University community and for soe community members with whom I work in Singapore. I pray for my grandchildren, my stepchild and children as well as those close to them, my wife and former wife, my siblings, including those presently or formerly close to them. I pray for my parents and grandparents; for members of my extended family; to show compassion to evil doers in the world; for all human beings and for all sentient beings.

My evening practice incorporates some of the above, but I am still too undisciplined and usually too tired for more than a very few recitations and prayers. Perhaps, in time, I will do better.

I hope this public response to my two friends’ queries may be of value to someone; or at least that it will do no harm.

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