Tag Archives: meditation

Don’t Pray for Me

Usually in these columns, I build up to some conclusion, but this time I’m starting at the end. Prayer is what you want it to be. Perhaps prayer is a connection, like my cat sitting next to me. (Thanks, Ralphie.)Ralphie Even atheists can find their spirit resonating with music, or maybe nature, in a way that is not just pleasurable, I think, but lifts us out of ourselves and our everyday existence. That is how I would define spiritual. When by intention or experience, we step outside of our daily worries to connect with the universe, I think we can call that a prayer.

Some people define prayer as the petitions they present to an all-powerful and interested God. I would liken that approach to wishing on a star – not that there’s anything wrong with that. When I was in the process of becoming Roman Catholic (I am now Episcopalian), I had some difficulty sorting out culture Jiminy Cricketfrom dogma from theology. One of the things the nuns talked about that I knew was strictly cultural was that when you go into a chapel for the first time you can make a wish. I saw it as a Jiminy Cricket sort of thing. At the time I was working two full-time jobs, and it follows that I had no social life. It was about December 17th and in spite of the fact that I would be working until at least 7:00 p.m. and the previously stated realities, I wished for a New Year’s Eve date. Admittedly a self-serving fantasy, I viewed it as a throw-away request. Surely God had better things to do. I didn’t even take my own wish seriously. I told no one, and forgot about it.

At about 6:45 p.m. New Year’s Eve, I had sent all my staff home and was tending to final work that I could handle alone when a man I had previously only spoken to casually asked me to accept an extra ticket to Penn and Teller because he had a friend who cancelled. This is the story that I tell my nieces under the theme of ‘God has a sense of humor.’ I had a lovely New Year’s Eve and one or two other dates, then found out he was gay. Well, at least now I knew God’s idea of a perfect date for me.

About those petitions…Though I don’t really believe in a personal god, in times of duress, I think we all wish we had a super-power from whom we could request intervention or relief. In that I am no different from anyone else. And in spite of the fact that I don’t think things work that way, when I am in the middle of a struggle, I do in fact yearn for not only relief but an acceptable resolution, and maybe even a rescuer. Who doesn’t? What I think is crucial to human contentment and spiritual insight, is what we expect during the ‘dark night of the soul’ and after. What I’m suggesting is to consider how we view prayer and what we expect as a result of prayer. Why? Because I’ve had too many people tell me they would pray for me instead of actually helping me. Also, I want to reconcile for myself what may seem like the hypocrisy of wishful prayers that are an understandable response to loss, sadness, fear, worry, and despair.

In this capitalistic society, when someone exploits your need to be employed to fulfill their ego’s hunger to exercise power, it is oppression. There are a lot of people longing for relief from oppression, whether it is external like workplace bullies, or internal like clinical depression. As for me, I have had a lot of very bad bosses who have made my work day miserable, and some eventually put me out of work. (I know I am not alone with these problems.) One day on the train commute to such a job when I was feeling overwhelmed by the dread of the coming workday, I looked out the window to see the most spectacular sunrise I had ever seen in my life. The clouds had formed in a way that created rays of brilliant colors that I am unable to fully describe. In that moment, surrounded by other apparently oblivious commuters, I felt that the vibrant and fleeting sunrise view was a gift just for me. It produced in me such a sense of joy that I carried it with me the rest of the day, and in fact I still remember it clearly even though it was about seven years ago. If my yearning for a better situation was a prayer, then that sunrise was an answer. And in that moment, the bliss I felt was more powerful than the relief from getting a new job, which I continued to pursue and did eventually land.

It would be an oversight to discuss prayer without addressing suffering. I have ended the old year and DalaiLamastarted the new year reading The Art of Happiness (His Holiness The Dalai Lama and Howard C. Cutler, MD) which weaves lengthy conversations with the Dalai Lama into prose. Reading so much from His Holiness on suffering and pain has expanded my understanding of Buddhism. I have always had difficulty with what was my perception of Buddhism’s casual acceptance of the bad stuff in life in the old ‘life is suffering’ phrase. I heard it as a trite aphorism. Now I see that by accepting that there is loss and pain for everyone, my suffering is neither unique nor unfair. That is not to justify oppression which is unfair and unethical behavior, but suffering itself is a common human condition. This subtle shift in perspective helps me connect with humanity, rather than feeling apart, which served to increase my suffering.

If I can get myself to see suffering as a universal human condition, then it also changes my view on prayer. My prayer becomes a desire to connect with the universe in a way that reduces suffering, not just for myself, but for others as well. My prayer becomes a meditation on working to heal my soul in a way that makes compassion possible – toward myself and others.

I weave prayer and meditation together as complementary practices. I pray to release my suffering and affirm my wishes, then I meditate to quiet my ever-noisy head, to touch my bruised heart, and to restore my weary soul. These practices are very personal and I would never impose my approach on others. I write about it here as a means of reconciling my frustration with those who pray from an apparent desire to remain un-involved or from the arrogance of their own theology. I also write to work through my own hypocrisies.

Eventually, my practices include listening. I listen for what I would call the whisper of the universe. My Buddhist friends may consider it getting in touch with Buddha-nature. Some Christians might say it’s the Holy Spirit. I would not make any of those presumptions. I just know that I want the greater good for all of us, and that includes me, though I don’t know exactly how that will happen or even what comes next. How you pray or if you don’t, is just not my business. If you insist on praying for me, then I thank you for your good wishes, because sometimes wishes do come true. Please don’t expect reciprocity, because that is not my practice. Just know that my practice is intended for compassion. For you. For me. For friends and enemies. As the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh said, “I vow to live fully in each moment and to look at all beings with eyes of compassion.” Well, I’m not making any vows, but I’m trying to head that direction. –J. B.

Death Becomes Us

For about three years I volunteered at a cancer center doing hospice and bereavement work.  Most people think that sounds depressing, but to the contrary, it was inspiring.  I was present during a holy time, no matter what I was doing.  Sometimes I just sat with a patient while watching TV.  (I think she did this so she could do something that felt normal and had nothing to do with cancer.)  One thing I noticed was that it was hard to be shallow in the face of imminent death.  Naturally, there were some who succeeded, but there were more people who stepped up to support the dying person and struggled to process their own pain.

I miss Jack Kevorkian.  Where is he?  He was a hero.  Those who condemned him have not looked a lingering, painful death square in the eye.  There is dignity for an individual who recognizes it is time to move on and has the opportunity to say good-bye.  Only out of respect and love can those around the dying person start to accept the pain of imminent loss, and also let go.

Loss is defined by the one who experiences it.  I have lost humans I love, but every day I miss my animal family members who have died, and often with much greater intensity.  If you are a person who does not understand human-animal bonds, you may take offense at my willingness to compare losing animal family members to losing humans.  You have my pity for what you are missing.

I had my cat, Milo, euthanized two days ago.  He was 14 years old, so certainly a senior citizen; yet his cancer, for me, was sudden and was aggressive.  Having to decide to take measures that would end Milo’s life was as painful for me as it was inevitable.  Though I have had to do this before, it does not ever get easier.  As I was agonizing over what was to come, I took time to consider how I would want to be treated.  Let the record show, I never want heroic, extreme measures to save my physical life at the expense of living it.  Though he just didn’t look as sick as he was, Milo couldn’t eat or drink water.  I am now certain the blow to his dignity from being reduced to complete incapacity, would never have been worth the few additional days I would have been able to have with him.

Milo taught me how to love someone I didn’t really like.  At best, he was a curmudgeon, and I’m not entirely sure he actually liked me.  He purred only grudgingly and was never a lap cat.  He is the only cat I had that I could not convince to stop clawing things up, which was quite unfortunate since my spouse has a lovely old house with antique woodwork that Milo favored.  This was the source of serious domestic disputes between the three of us.  Still, I will grieve for Milo for some time to come.  I will adopt other animal family members, but not right away and not as replacements.

Where is God in all of this?  If you have read my column before, then you will not be surprised that I can find a religious perspective on almost any aspect of the human experience.  I do distinguish between religion, God, and spirituality.  Most often when I refer to religion, it is related to organized religion and theological thought.  When I refer to the spiritual, it is usually a reference to experiences and feelings that are outside the temporal or physical.  The god-concept is always personal, in my view.  It might be impossible to talk or write about God while truly understanding someone else’s perception.  We can only really know what God does or doesn’t mean for each of us, ourselves.  For today, as a favor to me, I ask you to stand outside of your religious familiarity, set aside your god-concept, and just consider connections.  Consider connections to humans and to animals, to the living and the dead.

I learned a lot about meditation from my friend, Denny, who introduced me to Thich Nhat Hanh, among others.  We were able to attend a talk and group meditation with him in the early nineties that I have never forgotten.  My meditation is frequently a result of what I learned from Thich Nhat Hanh.  However, sometimes, in meditation I connect to people and animals who have died.  I recognize this can all be in my imagination, and consider that irrelevant.  I have experienced insights I don’t believe I would have otherwise.  I am ok with those who think I’m just nuts.  I am already accustomed to the relatives who think I’m hell-bound.  Those judgments don’t block me from experiencing the holy in my own way, and benefitting from it.

I had a Jewish friend that used to say, “Dead is dead.”  (It is possible to be a Jewish atheist, but that’s a column for another day.)  My response to that thought is that I do not want to live this life believing there is nothing else, even if it’s true.  Faith is believing that for which we have no physical evidence.  I have faith that there is more than “dead is dead.”  This is affirmed for me when I connect to other species, including Milo.  Experiencing unconditional love, though I can’t say I got that from Milo, I did from those animal family members who have passed before him.  To see love and devotion in the eyes of another species with whom I can’t verbally communicate is the best link to a loving God I have ever experienced.  This is a holy connection to me.  Just as death takes us to the brink of eternity, love gives us a reason to keep connecting.

When Milo was on the vet’s table, moments from certain death, I wrapped my arms around him, not even sure he wanted that.  I wanted to shield him from the lights which seemed so harsh and find a way to say a final good-bye.  The old curmudgeon, ready to die, started purring.  By my definition, this was not only a holy connection, but also a miracle.  I took it as his approval and good-bye.  So, Milo, I will miss you.  This house is so big and so empty.  But I will connect with you in my meditations and dreams.  You taught me to love the hard to love and I am better for it.  Scratch away, Milo.