Category Archives: Jesus Prayer

Mindfulness

Meditation

The ostensible purpose of mindfulness meditation is to stay in the moment.  One does this by watching the breath.  Just watching the breath.  Not thinking about breathing, not planning the week, not obsessing about ice cream.  By watching the breath only, one is in the moment.  Not the past, not the future, just now.

What the Buddhists call the self is that portion of our brain which wants to stay busy.   So, we think.  Thinking about most anything.  Some people have feelings, but I mostly think about feelings.  We are to note the thought of feeling, and return to the breath.  The goal is like cleaning the garage, getting rid of junk and having the other stuff organized so we don’t have to think about it.

Carol and I start our mornings with fifteen minutes of meditation.   We both agree about considering the meditation a success if we are able to watch more than two breaths.  I beat myself up about this.  What the hell am I doing this for if I can’t stay with my breath more than two times.  I must be some sort of failure.  When I complain about this to accomplished meditators, I hear “That is just where you are.”  That is no help, thank you very much.

Can’t they wave their wands and create an enlightenment spell?  Where is Hermione when I need her?  In fact, I am making some progress.  Some mornings I can stay with two or three breaths several times.  During longer meditations I sometimes can sustain for several minutes.  If I can’t stay with the breath, I pray.  I pray for others, I pray for myself, or I just pray with gratitude.

I also use mantras.  I justify them by believing my ADD doesn’t allow me to meditate like normies.  After all, people have used mantras for thousands of years.  I also blame my addictions, as if people haven’t overcome addictions with meditation for thousands of years.

Well, despite my resistance and whining, I am actually getting somewhere with this mindfulness business.  I have tried lots of stuff, trying to get myself somewhat lined out in life, and mindfulness meditation is what works for me.

Now, this mindfulness is not a standalone thing.  It is Buddhist.  That means The Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path.  They explain why we are always thinking, mostly for no good reason, and provide guidelines for going through life without doing harm.  I dodge them by telling myself I can’t find a clear, brief explanation, as if Mr. Google doesn’t exist.  Well, I do a fairly good job of following them.  Most of the time.

At age 74 I feel I am finally on the way.  What more is there?

My Meditation Practice

The Buddha

The Buddha

As I mentioned in the last post, for years I was unable to meditate.  I have Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and as soon as my eyes closed my brain would go into high gear.  The idea of meditation is to let those thoughts go so you can be aware in the moment.  For ADD’s, the moment is often chaos, with thoughts leaping from subject to another, or hyper focus, with the thoughts totally engaged on one topic or task. 

After a diagnosis and treatment, I can meditate.  Now meditation is not spending all one’s time in the moment.  At first and often those thoughts arise and with my addictions, they can be compelling.  So, sit, watch my breath, the thoughts arise, I let them go, and they arise again.  It can be excruciating, dealing with all that meaningless thought.  I find a prayer helps me instead of just focusing on the breath.   

Paradoxically, my prayer is Christian.  At its core, Buddhism is essentially atheistic and in my view a psychology, not a religion,  being 2500 years old from a culture soaked in religion, it adopted all the trappings.  I grew up nominally Christian and became a toung-talking holy roller Christian in my forties.  I don’t do that so much any more, but Jesus is in my life to stay. 

I use the Jesus Prayer, an ancient Eastern Orthodox prayer dating back to the desert fathers.  “Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”  The most famous book about the prayer, “The Way of a Pilgrim“, suggests starting with 3000 repetitions per day.  I recite the prayer a lot, but never 3000 times.  I sit, start praying, and time the words with my breath.   When those thoughts rise, as they always will, I return to the prayer.  Those times of being in the moment come, and I drop into watching my breath.  Thoughts arise and I gently return to the prayer. 

I find the moments of stillness are slowly growing.  I also find the poisonous thoughts are diminishing.  When poisonous thoughts about pretty girls arise, I pray for them.  “May she be happy, may she be free, may she be safe”.  Then back to the Jesus Prayer until more thoughts arise. 

The thoughts aren’t just about pretty girls, I find myself planning, plotting, reviewing past mistakes, feeling guilt or shame; being angry, sad, sick, hurting, happy, horny, old, tired, loving, lonely, excited, the entire range of feeling and thought.  All that stuff comes from my past or is about the future.  Thus, they are all meaningless.  The past is gone, and the future is unknown.   

All there really is is the moment.  My brain tends to disagree.  I experience all those thoughts and feelings as real because they are wired neural connections.  The task of meditation is to rewrite those connections so I can spend more time in the moment. 

Now, lots of those connections are important.  I need food, shelter, my long baths, some rags on my back, all the stuff of daily living.  I don’t need Donald Trump or the Kardashians.  I mention those because I was in the  doctor’s office yesterday reading those stupid magazines.  Why didn’t I have my book or just pray? 

I find myself wanting to meditate more.  The toxic thinking is diminishing, although lots of people continue to be prayed for.  I have purged the computers, my library, don’t watch the wrong television or movies, and am able to spend more time in the moment (still not much time, alas). 

Next is some retreats.  Retreats last from one day up.  I have done them in a Christian context and found them useful.  I am looking at attending a four day retreat in the mountains.  There are lots of retreats available, mostly led by Dharma teachers who are therapists or in other helping professions.  Retreats allow intensive meditation with little interruption from the outside world.  I need that.

 

Insight Meditation

Meditation

Meditation

I recently wrote about my struggle with addictions.  Yes, multiple addictions.  It is just now coming out that the root cause of addiction is abuse at some time in the addict’s life.  It is true for me.  I turned to addictive behavior to get a feel good in a life that incorporated pain or suffering stemming from the abuse.  

The mental pain or suffering arises, and I seek to eliminate or blunt the pain with the feel good.  It can be alcohol, food, exercise, sex, tobacco, work, drugs, shopping, gambling, music, or other obsessive behaviors.  I tried most of them, and they worked-briefly.  The pain returns.  Another round starts, but it takes a bit more to drive the pain away as the guilt and shame grow.  The wheel turns. 

The result? I have had a lifetime of suffering with futile attempts to escape.  The addictions have not been all-consuming.  I have a good marriage, a comfortable retirement, many interests to keep me occupied and engaged, and a family I am close with.  I have had years of therapy that helped in some areas, but the addictions remained.  The addictions have consumed a tremendous amount of time and energy.  All this stems from events in my childhood continuing to haunt me. 

Well, that was then, and it is now.  So, why addictive behavior when the abuse happened so long ago?  We store the feelings from abuse in our minds.  Those feelings and sensations stay with us and arise later as suffering.  They exist as neural connections in our brains.  Those connections and stored memories and feelings are not permanent or hard wired.  The brain is plastic and those old demons can be dealt with, the connections altered or eliminated.  

There are a number of techniques, including 12 step programs, cognitive therapy, psychoanalysis, immersion in a religious organization, and other therapies.  Some work, some don’t or are just mental band-aids.

Recent neuroscience research indicates that insight meditation is an effective means of altering or eliminating those old neural pathways.  In many cases, ten or fifteen minutes per day seem to be effective.  In deeply entrenched addictions, fifteen minutes is not enough.  I try to do a forty minute meditation along with the morning fifteen minute session every day.  I also attend two formal insight meditation meetings per week. 

Insight meditation is fairly simple.  Find a comfortable position where you are not likely to fall asleep.  Observe your breath.  It may be your nostrils or your abdomen or chest rising and falling. Just focus on the breath.  Thoughts will arise.  Just note and name them.  Hungry, hungry.  You will find the thought changes or fades, leaving you a moment without thoughts arising.  When they do, note them name them, and observe them changing.     

You will find yourself drifting away, planning, worrying, most anything.  When you notice this, gently return to the breath.  I find it useful to say a short prayer several times until I am able to return to the breath.  At times, it seems like all I am doing is praying, with no stillness.  Other times I can return to the breath right away. 

The process is frustrating at first, because it seems like there is almost no time just watching the breath.  No big. Deal, just keep it up.  You will find those thoughts arising with less frequency and intensity.  You are reprogramming your brain. 

Insight meditation is used in schools, some workplaces, in prisons, and in psychotherapy.  It sometime seems it is the next big thing.  Well, no.  It is a Buddhist practice in use for twenty five hundred years.  It is not really a religious practice.  It is a practice used to get rid of all the mental clutter so one can lead a life free of the suffering all that clutter causes. 

Next time I will illustrate the process with my own experience.  Stay tuned.

 

 

 

 

Addiction

addictI have an addictive personality.  My first addiction was to chocolate.  In grade school, Teddy and I found a box of Hershey chocolate bars lying in the street.  Not realizing this was a true case of finders keepers, we hid in some bushes and ate the whole thing.  No, I didn’t get sick. 

I remember sitting in a twelve step meeting when one of the guys said he had to have his “feel good”.  He nailed it for me as well.  I am not sure I have more unrest and pain than others, but I have always sought the “feel good”.  

For the most part I can overcome the addictions.  I quit a three pack a day cigarette habit after five years.  I have quit drinking several times and started again, convincing myself I can control it.  Later I realize I have gradually ramped up into excessive drinking and quit.  I have probably done this seven or eight times, starting in high school.  This time I have been sober for a year.  I’m pretty sure I am done with booze forever.   

I have smoked a haystack of pot.  At one point In the late 1970’s I was buying a quarter pound at a time.  I would go to work, go out on my rounds and light up.  Parties were lots of booze and weed for a lot of years.  One day at work I realized I couldn’t remember things I had done the day before.  I have had about two tokes since.   

Food is another matter.  I am something of a binge eater.  My main weakness is ice cream, chocolate, of course.  My pattern is much the same as with alcohol.  I will eat too much, scare myself, lose some weight, than ramp up again.  I weigh about 215 pounds now.  At one point I was up to 260.  The problem is that I can’t give up eating altogether.  So, I struggle.  And then there is caffeine.  AA meetings always have coffee. 

I think you can see the pattern.  I probably won’t kill myself with my addictions, but they have consumed vast amounts of time and energy I could have used productively.  The addictions are accompanied by a lot of obsessing and compulsive behavior.  I have repetitive thoughts and rituals around the behaviors, from rolling the joint, lighting a cigarette at every change, such as standing up, or sneaking ice cream out of the downstairs freezer.   

I am currently engaged in the spiritual practice of letting go.  This means letting go of everything keeping me from staying in touch with my true self.  This is not an easy process, and I am sure I will be engaged in it for the rest of my life.  “Trapped on the wheel of desire.”  The problem with desire is that it cannot be satisfied.  The new BMW, the Bud Lite, the new clothing style, cool Adidas sneakers, whatever.  The proper number of bicycles to own?  N+1; N being the number of bicycles you currently have.  

Addictions are just the most pathological of this phenomenon.  Our consumer society is driven by desire.  Chasing money, chasing stuff, chasing the latest hit, it all pulls us away from our true selves.  I want to get in touch with my true self, which means letting go.

Meditation

Meditation

Meditation

Humans have been meditating ever since our brains got big.  There are seekers who look around the world for answers to what is essentially unknowable, but we still wonder.  There are always people who will tell you they have the answer, and most people are willing to accept what they say.  I am one of the exceptions.  I am one of the seekers, always have been.   

I looked for the answers with the organizations that say they know.  I was never quite satisfied.  I was raised a nominal Methodist, but it never resonated with me.  For many years I was a rabid agnostic, challenging every belief.  It worked, too, except with those persons grounded in their faith.  I looked into lots of beliefs.  I investigated various flavors of Christianity, existential philosophy (the ultimate refuge of the sceptic), the power ideologies, Zen, radical politics, straight humanism, and scientific atheism.  Nothing worked, and I plunged into some of them fairly deeply. 

I attended college during the turbulent late 1960’s.  Parallel with politics were the drugs. I smoked lots of dope, and it helped me to get more in touch with my feelings.  Paradoxically, marijuana is useful if you just want to numb out while feeling good.  I did that a lot.  Then there was LSD.  Lots of people used acid to have fun and maybe explore a changed way of perceiving reality.  Others, myself included, attempted to use acid in the Quest.   

My friends would take one hit of acid, I tended to take three.  By lying down at night and looking straight up I saw the matrix of universal existence, how the entire universe is interconnected.  The problem is that I always came down, and a lot of what I had seen retreated.  I finally gave acid  and pot up. 

I continued to seek, but I also despaired of finding any answers for the Question.  I did the regular stuff, got married, had a career, and engaged in lots of activities.  I explored the wilderness, bred and showed dogs, hunted, drank quite a bit, and had most of it fall apart. 

I was divorced, lonely, depressed, and starting a new career that was technical rather than person-oriented.  I was in the dark night of the soul.  I fell into Pentecostal Christianity, which puts a lot of emphasis on experiential activities.  In other words, I was a Tongue-Talking Holy Roller.  I experienced the divine.  I literally felt the love of Christ.  I plunged in all the way for a couple of years, but the fundamentalism and the underlying Calvinism did me in. 

I went from the Pentecostals to Charismatic Episcopalian churches.  The evangelicalism pushed me out again.  I ended up a mainstream Episcopalian.  I love the liturgy, the ceremony, the openness to religious exploration.  I had trouble with the Church.  The only time the Church contacted me directly  was to ask for money, and I had been steadily giving.  I had to write the Bishop to get accommodations to my shift worker schedule in order to take the course leading to confirmation. 

I left.  I still think of myself as an Episcopalian, but my churchgoing has lapsed.  During my time as an Episcopalian, I began doing Christian Contemplative prayer.  For most of my life, meditation was almost impossible because my ADD-addled brain would never quiet down. I was finally able to meditate.  

I stayed with the contemplatives for quite a while, going to a weekly group, going on retreat, and reading widely.  The Christian mystical tradition is as ancient as Christianity.  In the west, it survived mostly in a monastic setting.  The Carmelites, the Trappists, and a number of other orders have kept the tradition alive.  Today it is moving out of the cloister into the lay community.  It is still mostly Roman Catholic.  The Roman church has always tolerated the Mystics, as they are vital to the Christian tradition, but they have never very good at following all the rules.  That divine spark within all of us have grows in a mystic.  The presence of God within, and following His will is not always compatible with the Church’s teachings. 

My dissatisfaction with the institutional church eventually drove me away.  I am still a Christian, but not able to belong to anything but the Body of Christ.  I need a spiritual community, however, so I began a search into Buddhism.  Why Buddhism?  Buddhism is grounded in meditation and the search for enlightenment.  It is also essentially atheistic.  All those Buddha statues you see in Buddhist places of gathering and meditation are of a man, not some deity.  The Buddha was simply a man who entered into extensive study and meditation and began to teach.  His teachings were extensive and are expanded into a huge literature.   

The Buddha, one hand touching the earth - staying grounded

The Buddha, one hand touching the earth – staying grounded

There are many strains of Buddhism, not just Zen and Tibetan, although those are biggest here in the U.S.  They all share the same goal, which is identifying suffering and seeking the end of suffering.   There are many practices and beliefs, but they all share the goal of ending suffering. 

My first attempt to find a teacher and sangha was in Zen.  Must of what I had read was in that tradition so to The Denver Zen Temple I went.  There is a strong tradition in Zen to continue almost all the practices followed in Japan.  That means robes, chants, a hierarchy of spiritual attainment and ordination into the hierarchy.  There are also lots of rules, as Japan is also full of rules.  The place where people sit zazen (meditate) is called the zendo.  I could not walk into the zendo without getting into trouble.  I just could not remember all the things I was supposed to do.   

I loved sitting zazen.  It is an excellent form of meditation.  The literature here in the west skips over all the other stuff.  The practices are intended to instill discipline which is fine but they come directly from a monastic tradition where monks devote their lives to Zen.  In addition, the liturgy is in Japanese, Chinese, Sanskrit, Pali, and English.  It was all too much for me and I didn’t especially like the teacher. 

I find Tibetan Buddhism appealing, and the Dalai Lama is a world treasure.  I have trouble with Tibetan Buddhism’s involvement with the spirit world.  The spirit world is all around us, but my belief is that we’re in the physical world to accomplish tasks here, not with spirits.  I have seen the price paid by those who follow that path, whether with benign or malevolent spirits.  The spirits are just that, spirits, non-corporeal. In order to manifest they need energy from us, and losing that energy takes its toll, physically and often mentally.  

Now I belong to the Denver Insight Meditation community.  It is part of the Theravada Buddhist tradition, and is found in Sri Lanka, Thailand, and some other places in Asia.  Theravada is one of the two main traditions in Buddhism, Mahayana being the other. There are differences, the main one is that the Mahayana tradition uses Sanskrit, while Theravada uses Pali, a language contemporary with Sanskrit.   It has a large following here in the U.S. with a good and growing literature.   

The primary teacher in our sangha is Lloyd Burton, a wonderful teacher with a wide knowledge of Theravada Buddhism.  We meet weekly for two hours, spending forty minutes in meditation, a break, then a Dharma talk by Lloyd or another teacher.  The Dharma is the body of Buddhist teachings used as a guide to end suffering.   

Carol and I recently attended a small meditation group close to where we live.  It lasts one hour, thirty minutes of meditation and a thirty minute dharma talk every Monday evening. I think we will be regulars.  Every morning we do a ten minute brain brushing (quick meditation) with our tea.  It is also insight meditation and is a good way to start the day.   

I have found that the more meditating I do the more I want to do.  All the teachers say that a regular meditation practice is the key, just as in prayer.  I fact, my meditation is prayer.  Most of the Buddhist meditations are silent, with the focus on breath.  When other thoughts arise, as the will, one gently returns to focusing on the breath.  With my ADD, emptying my mind is mostly impossible.  I close my eyes and my mind goes into high gear.   

Eastern Orthodox Icon of Jesus

Eastern Orthodox Icon of Jesus

I use a mantra to repeat throughout my session.  This is another ancient practice.  I use the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.”  This is an ancient Eastern Orthodox prayer, going back to the desert monks in the early days of Christianity.  I match the words to my breathing, and when I drift away, I gently return to the prayer. 

What? A Christian prayer in Buddhist meditation?  Well, yes.  Buddhism is essentially atheistic, and the whole karma/reincarnation thing I just view as a mystery.  Whatever works.  I recommend a strong spiritual practice.  I don’t think it is necessary to follow one specific path.  All the world faiths contain the same basic truths.  One should choose the path that feels right.   

Don’t follow any one person or group who say their path is the only way, give yourself to us.  Anyone who says that is a liar and a fraud, interested mostly in control.  I don’t care if it is one leader with just a few followers or a huge organization with millions of followers, if they say their way is the only way, they lie or are deluded.  The paradox is that many in those faiths do find the way.  It is their individual practice and relationship with the universe that matters, not the framework.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My Spiritual Journey

Francis Bacon

Francis Bacon

“If a man will begin with certainties,  he shall end in doubts.  But if he will be content with doubts, he shall end in certainties,”.   Francis Bacon, Advancement in Learning, 1605.

Prior to the seventeenth century the Church, the Bible, and the rule of the Nobles were the certainties all Europe relied on.  The social structure was rigid, warfare was nearly constant, and the Black Death had killed much of the population.  Then, things began to change.  Religious inquiry began, governments became more centralized, cities and trade began to flourish, and people started asking questions.

Francis Bacon’s quote reflects the shift in thinking that led to what many now take for granted: critical thinking.  The shift will never be complete, for millions continue to rely on what they take as revealed truth.  Critical thinking requires another condition that we also take for granted: liberty.

The freedom to choose, to say yes or no, to do as one wishes, is a rare thing.  I am lucky my family and my country encouraged independent thinking because I am a seeker.  If anyone tried to fit me into a fixed system they faced rebellion.

I was raised a drop him off at Sunday School Methodist.  It just didn’t take.  Basic Christianity got planted, but the dry services never resonated with me.  The only part of the services I liked was the Doxology.  Those felt Jesus’ and Josephs in Sunday School with the cute little sheep and donkeys on a felt board just seemed silly.

I was confirmed as a Methodist in high school, but just because the cool girls were Methodists.  I didn’t know what to believe, but I kept looking.  I looked into Mormonism, but there is where I ran up against a closed system.  I just could not conform to a rigid system, even if one of the prettiest girls in school was a Mormon.

I needed solid, rational, verifiable truth from the scientific method or a powerful experience of truth. I was finding neither.  Blind faith or the statements of some spiritual minister or guru did not work for me.

I read, talked, searched.  I looked into Zen, but couldn’t meditate.  I got pretty serious about existentialism because I was also depressed after my mother’s death. Camus is depressing.  I looked into right-wing politics and ran into another closed system.  So, I became an annoying agnostic.  I challenged everything.

Then came the late 1960’s and drugs.  Marijuana taught me how to feel.  LSD stripped my ego away so I could see and feel the vast, wondrous, interconnected universe.  The problem with the drugs is that you come down.  I got a glimpse and some of the feeling of the One, but not enough.  Drugs opened the door, but were not the answer.

Jesus

Jesus

Then, in the early 1980’s,I was having a dark night of the soul from a divorce and fell into the clutches of a Pentecostal deacon.  I prayed the prayer, asking Jesus into my life and it happened.  I felt like I was wrapped in love.  It was a tangible, physical and emotional feeling.  I was a Christian instantly in a basement apartment in LaSalle, Colorado.  Two weeks later I was a speaking in tongues Pentecostal.  What a time.  I had experience after physical experience of joy, love, and deep peace.  I felt delivered from many of my old hang ups and was a new person in Jesus Christ.

I put my rational skepticism on hold.  I had found spiritual experience.  After a year I started having problems with the fundamentalism.  Pentecostals are a bit better, but they are still fundamentalists, and took the evangelical ideology and the Bible literally.  The currently popular fascination with the end times and the book of Revelation just did not ring true, and I studied it carefully.  The dire prophesies in Revelation are about Rome, not today.  The Romans destroyed the temple in Jerusalem in 79 AD and the Jewish diaspora began in earnest.  No wonder John of Patmos wrote an apocalyptic book about the oppressors.

The profound spiritual experiences began to fade, although I still pray in tongues.  I also moved to Colorado Springs, fell in love (More physical and emotional experiences, and just as meaningful.)  I ended up at a Charismatic Episcopal church that combined the wonderful ancient liturgy with the gifts of the Spirit.  The Episcopal Charismatics are part of the evangelical wing of the church and I ran into the same problem.  I ended up an Episcopalian in a mainstream liberal parish.

Buddha

Buddha

About this time I also found I can meditate, probably a gift of the Spirit.  I looked into Zen Buddhism.  Sitting Zazen, meditating, was wonderful.  All the rules coming from a rigid Japanese culture did not work.  I could not walk into the Zendo, the meditation room, without doing something wrong and getting caught.   Now I use Insight Meditation, part of the  Theravadan tradition of Buddhism, but here it does not carry all the cultural baggage the Zen folks continue.  My mantra, however, is the Jesus Prayer, an ancient orthodox prayer.  “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God,  have mercy on me, a sinner.”  Try about 3000 repetitions daily.  Read The Way of a Pilgrim, written by a Russian Orthodox mendicant.

I also explored Christian Contemplative prayer.  It is an ancient tradition, starting with the Desert Fathers in Egypt in about the third century.  Today, Thomas Keating,  a Trappist from the monastery in Snowmass CO, and Thomas Merton are the best known from their writings.  There is a large network of contemplatives, mostly Roman Catholic, but from many other denominations as well.

Today, I guess you can call me a Buddhapalian.  I don’t often attend services, but I meditate daily, pray, and do longer meditations almost weekly.  This fits my pattern.  I have big spiritual events, sometimes lasting years, and quiet times lasting years.  I am happy with that.

I have two bits of advice.  Don’t trust anyone who says they know the answers except Jesus and the Buddha.  When you pray, don’t ask for specifics, ask for what is best for the situation.  As for what it all means, it’s a mystery.  I remain a skeptic.