Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Empty Mind

Have you ever tried to sit in the lotus position? It's not easy. In fact, it hurts. I would think that even for people who are in shape, prolonged exposure to this pose would become uncomfortable. I suppose it would be bearable if you were enjoying a Bell's Two-Hearted Ale or a Penguins hockey game, at least for awhile. But zazen is usually practiced in front of a wall. That's right. With head slightly bowed, eyes barely open, and slow, measured breathing, the dedicated Zen Buddhist is able to confront himself, to see himself and be aware of himself in the most pure form available. I never imagined that true enlightenment could be obtained by staring at a wall. Yet, the practitioners of Zen Buddhism tell us that this daily practice is absolutely essential to one's spiritual well-being.

Do you pray? And if you do, how do you do it? And to whom do you pray? I don't think I'm speaking out of turn when I say that the Zen Buddhists don't really consider zazen to be "praying". It's more of a natural daily exercise that allows you to face yourself without any inhibitions or illusions. But "prayer"...that act of closing your eyes and speaking to a being that is above or beyond you...has always fascinated me. And I'm equally fascinated about the fact that I know so very little about it.

I was raised as a Roman Catholic. I spent 8 years in a Catholic grade school, 4 years in a Catholic high school, and three years in a Catholic seminary. I was surrounded by the idea and the act of prayer. I was taught prayers from a very early age and I figured that I had a reasonably good handle on what praying was supposed to be. Then, in seventh grade, I met Sister Dorothy. She was a bit of a rogue. She liked to twirl her rosary beads around when she lectured in front of the class. Sometimes after class she would talk about sports, as well as about her former boyfriends. Luckily, she spared us the intimate details. She also liked to talk about prayer. One day she asked, "Matthew, what do you pray for?" I had never been asked that before, and I felt a bit uneasy talking about prayer and other spiritual matters outside of the confessional box. I mentioned that I prayed for my family and that I asked God to make sure that nothing harmed them. I neglected to mention to her that I sometimes prayed for the Cleveland Indians, especially when they played the Yankees, although it never seemed to help. Then she said, "Prayer is conversation with God. One doesn't just have to ask for things in prayer. Tell God how your day turned out. Express your satisfaction to him when something goes well for you. And if you're angry with him, tell him that you're angry with him." Tell God I'm angry? Are you nuts? But, realistically, I had never really looked at prayer as "conversation". Prayer was "supplication by rote", and I was pretty good at it, or so I thought. Heck, I could even mimic the priest's prayers at Mass during the Eucharistic Prayer.

It wasn't until I went to the seminary that I really began to be exposed to other methods and techniques regarding prayer. It was the time that I first encountered people who were interested in the practices of the Byzantine Church. And it was also the time when I was first introduced to Zen and the practice of zazen. We were required to have what is known as a "spiritual director", a priest, nun, or brother whom we would meet with on a regular basis to discuss...prayer. This is also the time when I realized how truly infantile my approach to prayer was, and still is. I remember being quite embarrassed during those first few sessions with my spiritual director, Fr. Joseph Hendricks. Father Joe was a priest who practiced what we liked to call "rugged individualism". He disciplined himself to get up every morning to run 5 miles. He would only allow himself to have a half-cup of coffee. And he favored long periods of prayer and reflection. He was a fan of the "Ignatian Method", the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola and those practiced by many Jesuits. He would ask me if I had read the various suggested readings that he would supply regarding the "Method". But the Ignatian exercises bored me. I told him of my interest in mysticism and Zen koans, but he would have none of it. I suppose he figured I wasn't a good candidate for "rugged individualism".

Years after the seminary, I'm still perplexed at the embryonic state of my prayer life. Since those days in Columbus, I've dabbled in a variety of spiritual exercises, but I always come back to those words from Sister Dorothy about "conversing with God". I try, but logic wins out and I convince myself that this supreme being has better things to do with His or Her time than to hear about my day. Then, I force myself to try zazen, but sometimes I find the act of being with myself in front of a blank wall for thirty minutes absolutely frightening. So, unfortunately, I end up simply reading about prayer and meditation, when I should be practicing it. I then usually revert to my old ways and do a good deal more "asking". I ask Him to protect me, to help us sell our house, to gain more clients for the business, and to help in the decision-making process. Then, after the supplications are over, I feel embarrassed for not having a more complex and educated method regarding my conversation with the Divine. Depression generally ensues.

So between my petitions, I'm back to staring at the wall. After multiple failures, I'm still intrigued about this seemingly simple task of spending 30 minutes with myself doing nothing, thinking nothing. And even if it isn't technically "prayer", it's better to try to do it than to merely read about doing it. And after about 15 minutes, your knees are so numb that you actually don't feel the pain. Now that's rugged individualism!


* Why not grab your favorite beverage, cop a squat, and groove to some DEMOS at

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