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Be Like the Tortoise

In Essay, Religion on April 24, 2012 at 12:55 PM

Maryland Tortoise in deep prayer

As luck would have it, I came across a tortoise out walking this morning. It had pulled in its limbs to the extent Lola, my dog, seeing me crouched over, and unaware the tortoise was a living being, flopped down on top of it.

My meditation and prayer room has a beautiful view of  fields. It also shares space with my desk and computer, and as I have a somewhat scattered mind, every time the iMac pings to notify me of a new deposit in my e-mail inbox, I want to jump up to read my mail.

Sea Tortoise, Flying Pig Pottery

My mind is like a tiger on the prowl. Its ears perk at anything new, and it pounces first right and then left, forgetting the path it was taking.

My mind prefers a Webpage with juicy links promising new information — the bliss of eternal distraction never having to follow one thing through — to a cloth and paper book with type running into the future like endless train tracks.

The Bhagavad Gita offers some advice to the spiritual seeker:

Even as the tortoise draws in its limbs, the wise can draw in their senses at will. Aspirants abstain from sense pleasures, but they still crave for them. These carvings all disappear when they see the highest goal. Even of those who tread the path, the stormy senses can sweep off the mind. They live in wisdom who subdue their senses and keep their minds ever absorbed in me [Krishna].

Like a tiger, my mind feels alive and important in action. But like the tortoise, it finds life in prayer.

Master of Meditation

In Religion on April 12, 2012 at 7:16 AM

Dhanurdhara Swami by Luke Hoverman

I meditate and pray each morning —  I look to the practice with both anxiety and desire. I feel anxious because I have not come up with a meditation regime that works consistently and many mornings I quit in despair after 15 minutes. I also feel anticipation when I wake in the morning because I know sometimes I do get it right and the reward is spiritual sweetness: a honeyed hum in my brain that lifts me skyward and a sense of God’s love that envelops my body.

American-born Hindu monk Srila Dhanurdhara Swami (don’t you love the Currier and Ives -style scarf wrapped about his head?) offers Five Qualities of Effective Mantra Meditation.

  1. Be Attentive
  2. Be Introspective
  3. Be Sincere
  4. Be Sweet
  5. Have Longing

His description of each quality is  beautiful — and effective. You don’t have to be a Bhakti Hindu to find the advice useful. Dhanurdhara Swami chants and meditates upon the traditional Hare Krishna mantra. He says,

Pay attention to the mantra itself. I have found it most effective to treat each syllable of the mantra as something important – and focus my attention on hearing that I am correctly enunciating each syllable each time I repeat the mantra.

His wisdom can be applied as well to Christian or Jewish mantra. I recite the Jesus Prayer: Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner. But one might as well chant St. Francis’s Canticle of the Sun:

Most high, all powerful, all good Lord!
All praise is yours, all glory, all honor, and all blessing.

or even the St. Francis Prayer:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.

Where there is hatred, let me sow love.

Where there is injury, pardon.

Where there is doubt, faith.

Where there is despair, hope.

Where there is darkness, light.

Where there is sadness, joy.

Most important, says Dhanurdhara Swami, is to turn your attention to the divine:

I now try to experience the mantra not only as Krishna but also as prayer to Krishna. So, I now turn my ear towards the sound of sincerity within the mantra I am pronouncing…. The sincerity in my chanting leads me to want to serve and please the object of the mantra: Radha-Krishna. Naturally, then, my next step is to shift the focus from my experience of the chant to Krishna’s experience of it.

Many of us Christians are accustomed to prayer as a time to petition God, or lay before him our unhappiness. Dhanurdahara instead, like a true devotional Bhakti, enters prayer with a heart full of gratitude, love and longing. St. Francis did the same.

In the Secular Night

In Poetry, Poets & Preachers I Like, Religion on November 23, 2011 at 5:43 PM

The Sacrament of Lima Beans: Storyteller and plein air artist Starr Kopper likes the physicality and immediacy of Margaret Attwood’s meditation on the unexamined life, In the Secular Night.

  • For me this poem paints a vivid picture of  a woman  remembering her adolescent self so poignantly.  How many of our young selves  felt  exactly this same thing:  That others were all having a lovely time?  Then comes the vivid portrait of her older self on the stairs.  The poem places us there on the stairs with her and  the bowl of baby lima beans. The poem shifts to her meditation; she is talking to herself, wondering  whether Anyone is listening.  She is old and alone and walking up the stairs in the dark.  At least this is how I see her.   It is powerful. It seems to me to be vintage  Margaret Atwood, bringing in the sound of siren, of  ordinary trouble outside in the night.  I have read it over many times and I am still not sure what she means by “only in reverse.”
– Starr Kopper
In the Secular Night
In the secular night you wander around
alone in your house. It’s two-thirty.
Everyone has deserted you,
or this is your story;
you remember it from being sixteen,
when the others were out somewhere, having a good time,
or so you suspected,
and you had to baby-sit.
You took a large scoop of vanilla ice-cream
and filled up the glass with grapejuice
and ginger ale, and put on Glenn Miller
with his big-band sound,
and lit a cigarette and blew the smoke up the chimney,
and cried for a while because you were not dancing,
and then danced, by yourself, your mouth circled with purple.
Now, forty years later, things have changed,
and it’s baby lima beans.
It’s necessary to reserve a secret vice.
This is what comes from forgetting to eat
at the stated mealtimes. You simmer them carefully,
drain, add cream and pepper,
and amble up and down the stairs,
scooping them up with your fingers right out of the bowl,
talking to yourself out loud.
You’d be surprised if you got an answer,
but that part will come later.
There is so much silence between the words,
you say. You say, The sensed absence
of God and the sensed presence
amount to much the same thing,
only in reverse.
You say, I have too much white clothing.
You start to hum.
Several hundred years ago
this could have been mysticism
or heresy. It isn’t now.
Outside there are sirens.
Someone’s been run over.
The century grinds on.

Margaret Atwood, “In the Secular Night” from Morning in the Burned House.

Copyright © 1995 by Margaret Atwood. 

More on Attwood: Atheism as a Religion

                                   Bill Moyer Interviews

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