Learning to Pray

What is prayer?  Does it come easily or naturally to you?  For me it seems enormously difficult and conflicted.

How do we commune with God?  Or suppose you’re an atheist – is prayer then meaningless for you?

I think prayer is an expression of our longing to be connected with God, with Nature, and the Cosmos.  The connection is feeling a part of, a participant in our experience of reality.  We want to feel like our lives matter, that those we care about matter.

My first recollections of prayer were a kind of litany against fear: “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep.  And if I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.”  Or, “All night, all day, angels are watching over me my Lord.  All night, all day, angels are watching over me.”

Then as I got older they became a list of requests, generally in terms of wanting something for myself or another, whether health, prosperity, wisdom, etc.

But imagine talking to a friend this way, everyday presenting them with a list of petitions.  Such a relationship probably wouldn’t last long, and generally neither do such prayers, at least not for me.

But still I have this longing to be in relationship with God, with nature, with my friends and family, and acquaintance.  The older I get the more I realize that I am always in God’s presence.  I am part of nature and in nature.

I can hold my friends and family before God in my mind’s eye, and appreciate them, bless them from my heart, and imagine them finding their place and purpose in the world, imagine them blessing the world in their own special way.  I can imagine us connected and full of God’s presence, full of God’s grace, and blessing others and one another, blessing God in our own way.

Fighting Despair

I am a “four” on the enneagram.    Fours tend to focus on what’s missing in their life, whether that is meaningful relationships, meaningful work, or simply meaning itself.  As a result we often feel defeated, and frequently battle despair.

Fours can be a dreary lot to hang out with.

When this fit takes me, it can be difficult to find my way back to hope.  But I have found some things that help.

Probably most helpful is to stop and open my eyes; to give thanks for the things that aren’t missing.  When I do this I am always astounded at just how remarkably blessed I am.  Savor those blessings, linger over them, and meditate on them; especially if you too are a four.  There is nothing like genuine gratitude to chase away despair.

Another thing I do is to try to keep moving, like Dory in “Finding Nemo,” just keep on swimming.  I’ll do simple things, like washing the dishes or vacuuming the floor.  They remind me that I can get something done.

Make a list of the things you have accomplished, no matter how small.

Or bring to remembrance those times you’ve been a blessing to someone.  I remember a line from The Brothers Karamazov, “I threw an onion.”  I try to be a blessing in some mundane way.  Maybe I’ll go to a rest home and just listen to an old person’s story.  Just listening to someone can be a great blessing, especially to those in whom the world no longer has any interest.

Spirit: the Third Circle

I’ve written about building a practice group, beginning with the first circle of talk dancing and the conversational space, and answering the second circle question of why you have come to the group.

I start with the premise that everyone lives in the “domains” of spirit, mind, body, emotion, community, household, vocation, and finance.  And while we may not have the same amount of focus or interest in any one of them, none of us can avoid living in any of them.

I believe the domain of spirit seeks to answer three questions:

  1. Who am I?
  2. How am I connected with other human beings, with life, and the cosmos itself?
  3. How can I create a meaningful life for myself, and bless those I care about?

I think it’s important to answer these questions as best you can before moving on to the other domains, because it is easy to get lost in those other domains only to “wake up” one day and realize you don’t know who you are, or how you are connected with the cosmos, or whether your life has any meaning.  Having no answer to these questions is almost the very definition of an existential crisis.

Notice that while I’ve said nothing about a person’s “faith,” it is faith that attempts to answer these questions.  Our faith consists of the assumptions our life is predicated of; of our self-awareness; of our experience of connectedness or isolation, whether with God, or nature, or with other human beings; of whether our lives have any meaning.

The practice group can help us draw out answers to these questions from ourselves and from one another.  We don’t need to be of the same faith, but we do need to respect one another’s faith.  We don’t need to have the same answers but we need to try to understand each other’s answers, and challenge each other to formulate the best answers we can.

Why is it Important for you to be here Today?

OK, so we are a group of seekers who have come together whose intention is to practice wisdom.  We are familiar with talk dancing, and the marginal cost of bandwidth on our conversation.

Now what?

I believe the title of this post is one of Peter Block’s six questions or conversations he developed in “A Small Group.”  I am familiar with Peter and “A Small Group” only by second hand.  But I read a post that refers to this question, “Why is it important for you to be here today?” and its follow-up, “What cross-roads are you at?”

I’ve grown tired of lectures from experts on how to live.  But I am energized by self-revealing conversations with other people who talk about their passions and struggles.  I want to learn from their practice.  I want to be inspired by their persistence.  I want to discover what keeps them on the path, with the hope that together we can all stay on the path.

I want to learn from other learners how they push through to the other side of transformation and transcendence.

Maybe these questions can get us started on the path together.  We learn to listen to each other’s story, about what matters to each person, and the decisions they face.

I say path, but there could be many.  Yet they will have threads in common; seen in different perspectives, maybe painted in different colors.  But wisdom is justified of all her children (Lu 7.35).

Building the First Circle of Wisdom

I take as my model for a “community of wisdom” Benjamin Franklin’s “Junto”, a club of about 12 men who got together weekly for their mutual improvement.  They would take turn about in leading a discussion on morals, politics, or science, and committed to produce and read to the group an essay of his own writing once every three months.

Our debates were to be under the direction of a president, and to be conducted in the sincere spirit of inquiry after truth, without fondness for dispute or desire of victory; and to prevent warmth, all expressions of positiveness in opinions, or direct contradiction, were after some time made contraband, and prohibited under small pecuniary penalties.

The first step is drawing up a list of likely candidates to form such a group.  Alternatively, you might use a resource such as meetup.com to find a group of individuals so inclined.  Or you might resort to joining a formally organized group such as Rotary or Toastmasters.

Franklin also drew up a list of questions (see questions under the link above) that I believe are indicative of what is a matter of concern to an “elder” or “wise one.”

In order for the group to be well run, for its members all to take part in the discussion, and for the group to eventually become viral, I believe the first meetings should address the ideas of channels of communication, of talk dancing, hand signals, and self-organization and self-replication of groups.

Why viral you may ask?  The group should have the goal of going viral so that the wisdom of the group can be shared with the world.  As the group grows and divides the elders become mentors to others seeking meaning and significance in their life.  This later became a goal of Franklin’s group as well, which eventually evolved into the American Philosophical Society.

Building a Community of Wisdom

What are we working for?  What is the end of practice?

Some writers, like Buford or Rohr for instance, talk about two halves of life: the first half that seeks success, and the second half that seeks meaning or significance.

I was in middle school when Kung Fu came out.  The fighting got my attention, but it was the mastery and wisdom of the old men that filled my heart with longing.

It is mastery and wisdom I seek now.  I want to seek it in community with other seekers, not alone; much like the monastery in Kung Fu, only one that is in the world and not shut off from it.

Is there a community of “wise ones,” where one can go to be trained in the ways of mastery and wisdom?  Why am I even putting these two words “mastery” and “wisdom” together?

I suspect that the two somehow go together.  That wisdom somehow grows out of the discipline and focus required to pass the trials inevitably required for one to become a master of anything sufficiently difficult.

Does that mean that our community of wise ones should consist of practitioners of the same art?  It could, but I think it could also consist of masters of different arts; that one art could inform another of its own particular species of wisdom; or even masters of science with masters of religion, with masters of the arts.

What if you don’t know any masters to hang out with?  Is it enough to hang out with seekers of wisdom, or seekers of mastery?  How do we build a community of elders, of wisdom?

Could we build such a community ourselves?