Meditation and prayer

June 8th, 2009

Reposted from an email conversation with a Christian friend.

There’s a analogy for thinking about the goal of meditation: imagine that you have a pool of water, and you’re always throwing pebbles in it, or splashing in it, or stirring it, so that the surface is choppy and you can’t see your reflection. The water represents your mind, and the splashing and stirring and pebble-throwing represents all your worrying, wanting, planning, comparing, thinking. To get the pool clear, you need to let it sit for a while, then your reflection becomes clear. I like this analogy because it’s not like stilling the mind is some secret special way to stir it or an exotic type of pebble; and it’s not that your mind isn’t already made of pure, clear water. It’s just that it takes some stillness and silence to get it to settle down. (And, if you’re wondering, sleep doesn’t do the trick. The mind isn’t still in sleep–REM sleep is the time for the mind to try out all kinds of thoughts that hadn’t come up in waking life.)

Another way to think of meditation is as objectless prayer. Katagiri Roshi, one of the first Zen teachers to come to the US, said that zazen is prayer without the expectations that some people might put on the subject and object of prayer. It takes away the parts of prayer that people get hung up on. Now, I know that not all Christians pray for stuff, or pray for specific outcomes, but you can see how it’s a possibility that someone would get hung up on it. The concept of “answers to prayers” suggests a subject and an object, a separation from the divine, a speaker and a listener, I’ll give you this if you give me that. So in that sense, meditation is a kind of unconditional prayer. Praying to listen, not to talk.

The other thing that interests me in this definition is the idea of a consistent meditation practice. The changes in the way I deal with my thoughts didn’t happen overnight. Through setting time aside on a daily basis for silent meditation/prayer, I let the changes happen at their own pace. I know some religious people who pray or meditate only when they feel like they need it, only when they’re troubled–no atheists in foxholes, etc. And in terms of meditation, I say that it doesn’t work well as emergency medicine. If you only meditate when you’re dangerously overwhelmed with emotion, it’s not going to give you instant serenity.  Like all good habits, it works on you over time.

2 Responses to “Meditation and prayer”

  1. vijeno says:

    There are some very interesting points in your posting! I especially liked that “I let the changes happen at their own pace” bit. This somehow just clicks right.

    The thing is… I can easily see how that fits for my practice. And I can also see how many christians I know would reject it. As my mother says, “christianity is about dialogue, about a You”. If you give that up, you instantly arrive at the question “is this still christian practice, or is it something else”. From my semi-buddhist perspective, that question is utterly irrelevant, but I can easily see how it IS relevant if “being a christian” (aka “having a RELATIONSHIP with god”) means something to a person.

  2. admin says:

    Yeah, and that’s a tricky balance, because in some very significant ways, different religions have different bases. Once you find common ground, then you might start to see deeper incompatibilities. And I guess it depends on the mind of the listener–if a listener wants to share in the common ground, it takes you a long way, but if a Christian listener insists on looking for ways to prove that Buddhism can’t be right, then they’ll find them.

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