Much to the dismay of my family, all of whom are pretty well sick of Dad talking about “mindfulness,” I’m intrigued by Buddhism and probably read far too much about it for a guy who still has some hair and isn’t likely to wear orange robes any time soon. That said, one of the reasons Buddhism attracts my attention is that I find it often sheds an interesting light on aspects of Christianity that I find difficult to understand.
As an example, one of the commandments given by the Lord is to “pray always.” Sometimes this is expressed by the counsel to “always carry a prayer in your heart,” which never has helped me much (particularly as I suspect that someone just substituted “prayer” for “song”). Given that I have a real difficulty doing any two things at once–with the exception of watching TV and eating ice cream–I’ve been at a loss to understand what is expected of me. Am I supposed to always have a prayer running through the back of my head or, even worse, walk around mumbling a quiet prayer like some schizophrenic guy living under a bridge? (No offense intended to people with mental disorders. Most of my friends are crazy).
Part of the problem is how we think and talk about prayer. As a missionary, I taught the “steps” of prayer to those investigating the Church. Each of the four steps (addressing our Father in Heaven, thanking Him for our blessings, asking for what we need, and closing in the name of Jesus Christ) address only one side of what is supposed to be a communicative process between us and God. It suggests that at “Amen,” we hop up from our knees and go to work, or bed, or continue on with whatever other activity is next.
Unfortunately, this exclusive focus on prayer as a petition (and the good manners of saying “thank you” before hitting your list of needs in earnest) reduces prayer to something akin to a letter to Santa: We offer up our wish list, and then wait to see what shows up under the tree. True prayer has to include listening, both prior to making our petitions (so we see more clearly what is in our best interest to seek) and following our petitions (so that we open ourselves to whatever inspiration or promptings come our way). On balance, if one of those aspects of prayer is more important than the other, it has to be the listening.
I’m currently reading a book with the engaging title, “How to Train a Wild Elephant and Other Adventures in Mindfulness,” by Jan Chozen Bays, M.D. She deals directly with this question of what it means to live a life of “continuous prayer,” and she compares it to the practice of mindfulness (meditation) in Buddhism. She observes:
True prayer is not petitioning, it is listening. Deep listening. When we listen deeply, we find that even the “sound” of our own thoughts is disruptive, even annoying. Letting go of thoughts, we enter a more profound inner stillness and receptivity. If this open silence can be held at our core, as our core, then we are no longer confused by trying to sort out and choose among our myriad competing inner voices. Our attention is no longer caught up in the emotional tangle within. It is directed outward. We are looking for the Divine in all appearances, listening to the Divine in all sounds, brushed by the Divine in all touches. . . . This is a life lived in faith, faith in the One Mind, a life of continuous prayer.
Don’t get overwhelmed by the incense: I think there is some truth here. If we think of the contemplative, listening aspect of prayer, then the notion of always having a prayer in our hearts makes considerably more sense and is much less likely to have people avoiding sitting next to us on the bus. It would mean that we are living our lives in such a way that we are listening for God’s message for us in all aspects of our lives, rather than describing (or complaining about) our lives to Him and telling Him what we think is important and what He needs to do about it. Focusing on the listening part of prayer is a way of helping us to see things as He does, which so happens to be things as they really are.
Joseph Smith said that all truth belongs to Mormonism, and I take that observation seriously. There is much that people of other faiths can teach us, not for the purpose of adopting what they believe, but so that we can have a different and perhaps deeper perspective of our own faith. When it comes to praying “always,” I think that we could do worse than having a little Zen insight. So put on your sandals, find yourself a lotus flower, and open your eyes to the Divine. The Light of Christ lights all things, so we should be able to see that light everywhere.