A Method of Meditative Prayer

Open hands

Prayer is a discipline (the other central discipline for following Christ is Scripturally-connected study, as noted in my previous blog post). Prayer doesn’t tend to work very well if you do it only when you feel like it or when you’re desperately in need. Regular prayer is an investment in your own spiritual maturity. It is the spiritual equivalent of physical exercise. Just as you need to make regular trips to the gym to build your physical strength and endurance, you need to make a habit of reorienting yourself toward God to strengthen yourself to endure times of spiritual trouble. If the most important task in following Christ is to establish a loving connection to God, that’s impossible to do without spending time. That’s as true for your relationship with God as it is with any loving relationship you have with others.

I use the word “regular” and not “daily” because we often get too hung up on the question of how often we should pray. If you’re like me, my resolutions to do things daily often fall apart. I promise myself that I’ll exercise or work on my blog every day, and then inevitably a horrible day derails my plans. Once I’ve violated the “daily” part of my commitment, it’s all too easy for me to throw the whole thing out. “Regular” is a much more realistic timing. If it’s been several days since you reconnected to God, then you need to do that. Yes, ideally it should be daily, but don’t let the ideal interfere with the practical.

My comparisons to bodily discipline aren’t coincidental because prayer for me has a lot to do with the body. My method of praying has changed significantly from the praying that has been modeled for me in Christian churches. Praying in church is concerned with words. My prayers are increasingly about silence and attention to the body. I have borrowed much from Eastern forms of meditation (we sometimes forget that Christianity too is an “Eastern” religion). As I noted in a previous blog entry, I think we have much to learn by sampling other religious practices to renew our own spiritual lives.

The traditions of Christian prayer in which I was raised continue this neglect of the body, and I have grown to realize that prayer can help us reconnect to our own bodies. Neglecting the flesh actually gives it unruly power. Prayer can unite the whole person – mind, spirit, and flesh.

In the rest of this blog, I lay out my own personal “how-to” guide to meditative prayer. Advice on how to pray is everywhere, and I don’t pretend that mine is better. It’s simply mine. I have cobbled together my own prayer routine out of various contemplative prayer routines (and singing instruction), and I suggest you do the same. Steal bits from me if you like, and leave my advice behind if it doesn’t connect to you. Find what works for you.

If you’re pretty satisfied with your own prayer discipline, then I suggest you skip the rest of this blog entry. If you’re looking to find an alternative to the all-words-all-the-time tradition of Christian prayer, then my how-to guide is as good a place to start as any. As you’ll see, I give a lot of details about how to get your body and mind into a position where you can receive God’s insight; I spend very little time talking about what words to say. This is the opposite of how I was taught to pray in church.

My form of prayer involves meditation, but it’s not about physical or mental relaxation (although calmness is a goal). The key words in my form of meditation are balance, breathing, and focus.

  • If you are able to get into the lotus position, that’s great. If not, sit on a chair with minimal padding (no sofas) with your feet flat on the floor at shoulder’s width and with your legs at a 90-degree angle. If you can, sit forward without your back touching the back of the chair, but if you need the back support, go ahead.
  • Sit tall. Sometimes it’s useful to picture a string coming out of the top of your head, pulling your spine straight.
  • As a beginning way to learn about breathing, put one hand on your chest and the other hand on your stomach. Now breathe. Does your chest go up and your stomach go in? That’s the way most people breathe, but meditation requires a different form of breathing.
    • Inhale a bit, and stop the expansion of your ribs partway. Hold it.
    • Now breathe in by pushing your stomach outward and breathe out by pulling your ab muscles in, pressing the air out. This may take some getting used to. When you get comfortable with this form of breathing, you may remove your hands from your chest and stomach.
  • Focus on a spot two inches below your navel as you breathe in and breathe out. You obviously can’t really breathe into a spot below your navel, but it’s useful to picture the breath going to that spot and then pushing the air out by starting at that spot.
  • Place your hands lightly on your knees.
  • Look straight ahead, raising your chin until it’s perpendicular to the ground. Keeping your chin in that position, look downward and focus your eyes on a fairly nondescript spot (on the floor, on a table, whatever is in front of you). This spot can be a slight irregularity in the grain of the floor, but you shouldn’t be looking at an object that would normally draw your attention. I try to keep the area directly in front of me free of visual clutter. It’s very tempting for your downward cast eyes to draw your chin downward, and then the rest of your body begins to slump. From time to time you’ll probably need to correct your posture (sitting tall, chin straight).
  • Now you’re ready to focus on your breathing: steady regular breathing in to the spot below your navel, then push the air out using the muscles of your diaphragm.
  • As you breathe, begin to become aware of your body and how its position is unbalanced in one plane or another. Are you putting more weight on one hip than the other? Are you leaning forward or leaning back a slight bit? Is your upper torso twisting a little clockwise or counterclockwise? Is your head twisted or tilted a little at the neck? Is your chin pointing upward or downward instead of straight ahead? Are your feet both pointing straight ahead? If so, correct those imbalances and try to find a position that’s perfectly balanced. Sometimes it’s helpful to overcorrect the imbalance so that I can better sense where the center point is. The goal is for your body to be a conduit for spiritual energy. Keeping your body open, balanced, and expanded helps this process. If there are kinks and twists and slouches in your body, the energy provided by proper breathing and balance will not flow through your body.
  • This can take awhile. Keep breathing properly (slowly and regularly), and think about balance. Think about how much of your life you spend out of balance (physically, emotionally, spiritually). Think about how difficult it is to get into balance and how easy it is to slip out of that. Think about the fact that you do this simple act of breathing all the time unconsciously, but now you’re restricting your thoughts to focus on this one small action, and doing that action consciously can take a significant amount of concentration. During your first few sessions you may not even get to the point of praying. You can spend all of your time just figuring out how to breathe properly and to orient your body into balance. You will get better at it with practice, but the breathing and balancing aspects are themselves a spiritual practice with a spiritual message to be learned in your body.
  • One more tiny tip to add about body position, but it’s an important one: touch the tip of your tongue to the roof of your mouth. It doesn’t seem like this would matter, but it does. When you are breathing properly and your body is balanced, you can sometimes feel the energy move from the spot two inches below your navel; then up the front of your body where it hits your tongue and then curls back down your body toward the energy spot below your navel.

All of this describes an approach to meditation without any necessarily Christian aspect to it.  Let’s move toward adding some contemplative Christian prayer to that practice.

  • Sometimes it’s difficult to keep your thoughts focused just on your breathing. Other thoughts from your day come intruding in. This is where a “mantra” (a non-sense word or sound) is useful in many meditative practices. I’m not a mantra person. I use fairly standard, repeated, short Christian phrases, matching them to my breathing in and out. One that I use a lot is “(breathing in) I am a child of God; (breathing out) thanks be to God.” If you come from a fairly ritualized Christian background, something that’s been used by generations of Christians can be useful: “Lord, have mercy; Christ, have mercy” or “Kyrie eleison; Christe eleison.” Scripture can work: “Be still and know; that I am God.” I have grown to quite like: “Remember I am dust; Yet Christ died for me.” Any short pair of phrases that resonates with your understanding of Christianity can work. Such phrases help clear my mind of extraneous thoughts; they reinforce the rhythms of my breathing; and they focus my meditation toward prayer.
  • Once you reach a state of calm, you can begin to pray more freely. I think that Christians typically talk too much during prayer and don’t listen enough. The meditative breathing helps counterbalance that. The best two word advice I can give about meditative prayer is: “SHUT UP!” You don’t have to say something with every breath. You can listen while still concentrating on your breathing and your balance.
    • I will frequently start with short prayers of thanksgiving, beginning by thanking God for very concrete things (hot showers, craft beer) and moving to more spiritual thanks. Everything is in rhythm to the breathing, which can create spaces between the short utterances.
    • I will pray for individuals and groups. I’ve grown very fond of the Quaker phrase “I hold so-and-so in the light,” which provides me a nice visual picture (I’m either embracing the person or underneath them, supporting them, lifting them up). Again the breathing usually keeps me from rattling on and on.
    • You can then talk with God about difficult matters (remember that it may take awhile before you develop the discipline to reach this point. Meditative prayer is a practice). The calm of meditative prayer allows me to sit and contemplate my own sinfulness, to think about why certain sins are so attractive to me and about how I might change that. The calm part of myself can sit and observe the part of myself who tends to engage in patterns of repeated toxic behavior, and the calm part of myself that I have created through meditation says, “Isn’t it interesting that I do this? Why do I do this?” This is not a judgmental space (nor is it a “get thee behind me, Satan” moment). I seek to understand my own sinful behavior in the quiet of meditative prayer.
    • This is also a time to take difficult problems to God and then sit quietly. Only when you quiet everything (and meditation is a great way to do this) can you hear the “still small voice” of God. Try to develop confidence/faith that the answer you arrive at by considering and weighing the quiet voices in contemplative prayer is the right, God-breathed answer.
    • I find it useful to make a mental connection between this session of meditative, contemplative prayer and the previous one. The image I use is to think of time as being like a river, and my meditative times are islands I create, still points in that stream. I mentally connect this island in time with the previous one to acknowledge God’s continuing presence in my life, to acknowledge that God meets me here in these still times, and I thank God for that continuing intervention.
  • When I am particularly aware of God’s presence, I will sometimes turn my hands upwards (still resting on my knees) in a gesture that indicates (to me) openness and reception of God’s spirit. You can experiment with gestures that work for you if that feels too “charismatic,” but you can explore finding ways for your body to express your spirituality.

Small Government Is Good for Some Things, Bad for Others. Big Government Is Good for Some Things, Bad for Others.

LittleBIG

Ok, I will admit that this is a somewhat underwhelming place to start to find common ground for the political left and right, but I suspect that even this limited assertion may need justification in some quarters. At times the rhetoric of either side can admittedly sound like they’re emphasizing either big or small government as the ultimate good.  (Though, to be fair, even Reagan’s famous anti-government sound bite is more limited when put into its original context:  “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” Emphasis added.) I’d like to restore a bit of Reagan’s subtlety (and boy, I never thought I’d say that!) to the discussion and move things away from the Grover Norquist I’d-like-to-be-able-to-drown-the-government-in-a-bathtub excesses. There are obvious situations where a smaller government works better than a larger government, and vice versa.

The clear advantage of a more localized government is that it’s more responsive to the specific needs of the community. For example, almost every tiny incorporated town has its own law enforcement and firefighting units. Although this is costly to duplicate these services across multiple townships, the idea is that speedy response is so crucial for these services that even small communities will pay for the added expense.

The obvious related point is that relying on many localized smaller government units is often more expensive than a larger, more centralized government. Although we rarely discuss this, this is self-apparent. The federal Internal Revenue Service is more efficient at collecting taxes than if we dispersed this function. Every large corporation understands this basic principle, that there are economies of scale. Once you build a mechanism for, say, tax collection, it doesn’t cost that much more to run it a lot. There’s simply no way that 50 different state departments of revenue can be as efficient as a single more centralized unit. We could potentially consider cutting down expenditures by expanding the federal government a bit and eliminating the jobs that are duplicated across 50 different tax revenue services (particularly in this electronic era when so much of the individual variation in tax schemes is taken care of by programmable state tax forms). I’m not necessarily advocating such a tax overhaul; I’m just using this as an example of the overall logic. One could think of an emphasis on more localized, smaller governmental units as a jobs program. After all, multiple small government units means broader employment. But we rarely talk about “small government” in this way: as a jobs program that is expensive but worth it (because it is more responsive to the subtleties of local environments).

And so once again I find myself talking about the way we talk about government/politics. The “big vs. small” government question is, like so many political topics, deeply imbedded in code words. “Big government” is typically a code word for the federal government, and “small government” is a code word for state/county/city/town authority. But this slippage allows us to expand government overall (and its expenditures) while we are shrinking “big” (read “federal”) government. The classic example of this is welfare reform under Clinton. By shrinking federal welfare programs, this pushed the burden onto the states. One response was to shift the emphasis onto disability programs (the number of people qualifying for disability has risen dramatically since the Clinton welfare reform), and so we have traded expenditures that are limited in time (welfare) for expenditures that extend for a lifetime. Again, my point here is not particularly about disability; my point is that we should view government as an ecosystem. Any upward or downward pressure on a single part (federal, state, local) can have an effect on the other portions of the system. You can biggen the government overall by reducing “big” government.

There’s another bit of sleight-of-hand involved in the dictum that small/localized government is more responsive to the community. Of course, that depends on who gets to count as the “community.” Having just made a fairly economic argument above, I’ll reiterate what I said in my previous blog post. I don’t think that the big/small government argument is primarily about money. I think it’s about a preference for localized authority or national authority. I believe that there’s often a simple test question that can predict whether you tend to favor small/localized government: would you have been well served by local government 60 years ago? Would you tend to trust that 1950s local government to have your best interest at heart? If so, you are probably more likely to want to return to that form of government.

This is another way to say that race matters. For black people, the local government in the 1950s was a point in recent times when oppression was viscerally felt (though federal redlining programs certainly made their palpable contributions to discrimination). The local government was the one you couldn’t trust to have your back.  It was governors and sheriffs who blocked the path; the federal government stepped in in very powerful and visible ways. The situation is similar for Hispanic Americans, too; the face of discrimination tends to be local (though the federal government is certainly doing more than its share lately). And so part of the racial underpinnings of left and right in America is a question of trust. Although “big government” can’t entirely be trusted either, it’s more trustworthy than the excesses of “small government.” (There’s a similar racial divide in attitudes toward whether the police can be trusted or whether they are suspect. Law enforcement, as noted above, leans local.) This isn’t ancient history; it’s fairly recent, and there has been little in recent history to boost the trust of people of color in localized authority.

Progress in the legal status of races is an obvious example of how the federal government can quickly implement change for the good. (One could certainly argue that the top-down implementation of Brown v. Board wasn’t exactly quick – in fact, it’s still ongoing – but implementing change from the ground up in every school system in America would be unimaginable) It’s hardly the only example, though (for those on the right who are tired of the left constantly returning to the civil rights era). One of the things that a strong federal government is good at doing is enacting minimum standards for living: the minimum wage law, for instance. Although the raw economics of supply and demand would insist that no minimum is needed, such federal laws protect against the excesses of employment and labor. Therefore a town whose politics is dominated by a single employer cannot reduce the cost of labor as much as the industry might like. The federal government limits the possible mistreatment that local authority is capable of, particularly when dealing with those who are not seen as a valued part of the “community.”

One of the biggest achievements for the Republicans in recent decades comes from their understanding that so much of politics is indeed localized. Concerted efforts to put Republicans on school boards, city councils, and other relatively boring governing bodies have been enormously successful, while too many Democrats have focused their hopes on a string of top-down rulings from the Supreme Court to protect their rights and privileges. And this battle continues today. Only a few years ago, I had dinner with a friend who was considering running for the local school board. My friend was approached by someone who encouraged the potential candidate, saying that “we have to make sure to keep the blacks off the board.” My friend said nothing, and to my shame, neither did I (my only excuse was shock). I was astonished at the brazen openness of acknowledging that certain members of the community should not be represented and the assumption that we were all united in this. Pardon me for feeding the fears of black people, but it’s not paranoia. This shit is still going on, and nice liberal white people like me are complicit.

I’ve been talking about the comparative advantages of “big” and “small” government, but there are also comparable disadvantages. An emphasis on local government opens up many more opportunities for corruption; a larger centralized government maximizes the damage possible by any single instance of corruption. Having many local government units multiplies the number of places where graft, favoritism, and nepotism can enter. As someone who grew up in a small town, I can testify that “who you know” is an incredibly powerful advantage in a community. Having many local police officers opens up multiple opportunities to exert illegal influence on how laws are enforced. People may bemoan the strictures of dealing with the federal government, but having to adhere to federal policies and procedures limits the reliance on “who you know.” Standardized bidding for government contracts opens up possibilities for those who aren’t so cozily on the inside (again, it seems to me that how well you would have been treated by local government 60 years ago is a good litmus test. If you would have benefited from a system of “who you know,” you not so surprisingly think we should emphasize local government. If you would have been excluded from the closed circle of local influence, you are less likely to think of small government as benevolent). The system is hardly flawless, and yet the American federal government is remarkably low in graft and corruption compared to many other nations.

A large federal program, however, does magnify the impact of corruption and ineptitude far past the local level. A strong centralized government can do considerable damage. Everyone’s favorite example of this is the Soviet Union’s unitary, top-down implementation of horribly misguided agricultural policy, which nearly ravaged the food supply in the entire USSR. Regardless of how bad nepotism, incompetence, and corruption is at the local level, there’s a limit to how far its influence can extend. I can see the sense in opposing a large, strong, federal government under a “first, do no harm” mentality. But once again I think it’s useful to think of governance as an ecosystem. If we shrink federal governmental influence, this spreads the opportunity for local governments to favor some people over others. The question is: in what situations are we best served by “big” or “small” government?

My own preference tends toward a trust in the larger federal government, and I do think “trust” is an essential factor in the “big” vs. “small” government argument. One factor that I think has swung in favor of supporting a strong federal government is the recent decline in journalism as a profession. As fewer and fewer journalists are employed and local news organizations shrink or evaporate, the difficult and boring job of keeping tabs on local government becomes harder. With fewer journalists devoted to the arduous work of monitoring city councils, county courthouses, and boards of education, it’s very hard to maintain the necessary oversight that keeps local government honest. One of the advantages of national programs is that they are centralized; a team of journalists can investigate a bureau and know that its influence will be widespread. A national program creates the opportunity for a big splashy news expose; smaller governmental units make for much smaller news stories. Given the state of the infrastructure of journalism at this moment, I think this is a particularly dangerous time for us to move toward more powerful local governments. To do so would be a move to shift power to where there is little likelihood that corruption will be exposed.

I think there is an important argument to be had about the tradeoffs of “big” and “small” government: an argument about money, about efficiency, about whose interests are represented, and about how oversight occurs. The starting point for that argument, it seems to me, is the simple, intuitive, yet seemingly rare admission that “big” and “small” government both have advantages and disadvantages.

(For those of you who have been wondering where the “Christianity” portions of this blog are, my next post will address the question “Why do religion at all?”)