My Evolving “Prayer” Practice

(Article is by guest writer Edward Kelly Jr.  See bio below.)

I was once a Pentecostal preacher. Then, prayer was a kind of spiritual warfare for me. It was hard work, I liken it to a sweaty gym workout. I mean as a Pentecostal, I wrestled not only against the devil but sometimes it felt like I was wrestling with God.

Pentecostal prayer was loud; if you have ever been to a Pentecostal prayer service you know what I mean.  It was emotional and to be honest, it was frightening. It was meant to not only scare the hell out of demons, but also scare the hell out of people. There was shouting, glossolalia (praying in unknown tongues), foot-stomping, jumping – when the service was over, I was exhausted.

When I lost the sense of there being an angry God on high and a scary devil roaming the earth, my prayer life became non-existent. I just stopped praying. Who would I pray to and for what?

Czeslaw Milosz, the polish poet who won the 1980 Nobel prize for literature, eloquently wrote:

You ask me how to pray to someone who is not.
All I know is that prayer constructs a velvet bridge
And walking it we are aloft, as on a springboard,
Above landscapes the color of ripe gold
Transformed by a magic stopping of the sun.
That bridge leads to the shore of Reversal

I had stopped praying in the traditional sense of praying to “someone who is not,” but it left an emptiness, a void when I stopped praying. It is difficult to stop a tradition, especially one you have been practicing for 25 plus years of your life.  Also, I sensed that I needed something to help me deal with stress.

I work as a nurse and I am a Certified Mental Health Peer Support Specialist. A few years ago, by chance, I was reading about a medical technique to help individuals relax. The technique is called the Relaxation Response and was developed at Harvard Medical School by a Dr Herbert Benson. It is based on the studies of what is called the fight or flight response.

First described by Dr. Walter Cannon at Harvard Medical School in the 1920s, the fight-or-flight response evolved as a survival mechanism. When, ages ago, our ancestors encountered a life-threatening situation, a hungry tiger on the prowl, say, a surge of stress hormones prepared them to fight or to run. As a result, their heart rate increased, blood pressure increased, they developed tunnel vision, they began to perspire, their muscles tense, and they were suddenly on high alert.

Unfortunately, many people, like myself tend to activate the fight-or-flight response multiple times during a typical day, usually because of situations that are annoying and stressful, but not life threatening. These include traffic jams, long lines in the grocery store, work problems.  But all those surging stress hormones can take a toll on the body. Over time, such low-grade chronic stress can lead to high blood pressure, muscle tension and a host of medical problems

The Harvard Medical School developed a simple technique to shut off the fight/flight mechanism. It requires only these three things.

  1. A quiet environment
  2. A chair or comfortable seat
  3. A passive attitude

So, I started using the technique for five minutes, three times a day.

Here is what I would do: I would go into my office, shut the door and put up a sign which read do not disturb-in meditation. I would turn off the light and sit in a comfortable chair and put my hands on my lap, take a deep breath, hold it for about four  seconds and exhale slowly. I would do this for the five minutes.  After the first couple times, I noticed I was in a more relaxed state.

And what was even more exciting, after I increased my time from five to ten minutes, I discovered my blood pressure dropped sometimes as much as 15-20 points, and I had better mental clarity. Research on the relaxation response supports its benefits.

Now, some might say “that doesn’t sound like prayer to me!” No, it’s not the traditional way of praying, certainly not like the idea of prayer most of us grew up with. But I would like to suggest we keep an open mind about what the word “prayer” can mean.

About two years ago, I began reading about Zen Buddhism and I began a more discipline approach to my meditative prayer life. Now there is much about the Zen practice that could be discussed, but what I was looking for in particular was a more disciplined way to control my breathing and relax.

Zen is a very disciplined approach. As with many things you wish to learn, whether it be a musical instrument, a sport, or something like mathematics, it takes regular practice.

And practice is what I did and still do. I practice meditation through deep breathing. Breathing is, perhaps, the most basic act we do. It connects us to life in an immediate way. The simple awareness of breathing makes us mindful of our life, its precious and precarious nature.

Zen refers to breathing as the cleansing of the heart and mind. Breathing is the great purifier and has the ability to cleanse our senses and thoughts from movement to moment.

So, from Zen I learned to focus on my breath and when my mind wandered off as it sometimes does during meditative prayer, I gently bring my attention back to my breath.

There is a third step in my evolution of a new meditation prayer life and it is mindfulness. Mindfulness is both an attitude and a practice. Elizabeth Lesser in her 1999 book entitled The New American Spirituality describes mindfulness as fostering an exquisite attitude toward the whole of life…she writes:

Meditation is a matter of experience. It is not a set of moral values. It is not a definition of the sacred. It is a way – a way to be fully present, a way to be genuinely who you are, a way to look deeply at the nature of things…It does not aim to get rid of anything bad, nor create anything good. It is an attitude of openness – the term for this attitude is mindfulness.    

As a humanist, I find my most spiritually fulfilling moments are those when I have escaped from rational reflection in either sitting and deep breathing, walking in nature, spending time with my wife, or listening to good music.

In the end, what I am saying about prayer is that it is: giving attention, being present, listening, observing, being mindful.

I will end with a story from the Buddhist tradition that says something about how this mindful praying brings clarity and peace:

Once Buddha was walking from one town to another with a few of his disciples. While they were travelling, they happened to pass a lake. As Buddha was thirsty, he told one of his disciples to get some water from the lake.The disciple gladly obliged and walked up to the lake. When he reached it, he noticed that a few people were washing their clothes in the lake and right at that moment, a bullock cart was crossing through the lake. As a result, the water had become muddy and foul. The disciple couldn’t possibly take the dirty water to Buddha. So he returned to Buddha and told him the water was dirty and not fit to drink.

A half hour later, Buddha again told the disciple to get water from the same lake. The disciple, though perplexed, obediently agreed and walked up to the lake. This time, however, the disciple noticed that the water was crystal clean. The mud had settled down and the water was fit to drink. So he collected some water in a pot and took it to Buddha. Buddha looked at the pot of water and smiled.

He said, “See what you did to make the water clean? You did nothing. You just let it be. The mud settled on its own and you got pure water. Your mind is exactly like that. When it is disturbed, just let it be. Give it some time. It will settle down on its own. You don’t have to put any effort to calm your mind. It will happen. It’s effortless.”


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Guest writer Edward Kelly Jr. lives in Red Oak, Iowa, with his wife Rose. He was a Fundamentalist Pentecostal preacher for 20 years and in 1995 began a journey out of fundamentalism through the influence of such writers as Paul Tillich and James Barr. He has a Masters in Theology from Franciscan University (Steubenville, Ohio) and is now a Humanist Chaplain and Celebrant.

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