I’ve had a busy couple of weeks in terms of prayer and spiritual growth. Busy in a good way. Lots of realizations just in the past week. Here’s a few quick observations from my recent contemplative practices.
Metta Bhavana and United Purpose
So this is a meditation I’ve been doing on and off for awhile now. The idea is you pick a set of 3-4 affirmative phrases such as “may I be well” and repeat them first for yourself, then someone you care about, a neutral person, and someone you have negative feelings toward, and then again for all of the above. It helps you develop compassion. My phrases are “May (I) be safe. May (I) be well. May (I) be happy. May (I) make progress on (my) path.”
This is fairly helpful in developing a better attitude towards people that make me angry. It’s also a good way to ask for healing and help for myself since I worry a lot but I don’t just want to be selfishly praying for my own safety and wellness all the time. And I can’t say that it’s made me feel totally positive towards that last person or that it always fills me with the warm fuzzies, but usually for at least awhile in that time, I feel a connection between me and these other people. I feel as if I am tapping into the spiritual Oneness and that my prayers actually reach them, because they’re not really so separate from me.
But yesterday I had a weird thought during the “all” step. It wasn’t so much that I felt a connection to everyone or that I felt that we were completely united, but rather I felt like we were on a team. A superhero team. 😀 I’ve been talking and thinking about comics a lot lately, even for me. When I said “May we make progress on our path,” it seemed as if there really was a single path, and we could work together for something even if we don’t always agree.
It seems like a weird halfway point. Like a step down from the concept of everyone really being One. But it was also useful. It takes the focus off me and what I want and makes it about what’s good for all of us, here and now with our separate lives and very different opinions and beliefs and ideas. It makes it more practical, something I don’t have to hit a certain level of meditation to experience. The realization that even as separate beings, we share a world and our well-being is tied up in that of everyone else. We can’t save the world if we only focus on ourselves and what we want. We have to see the real humanity of everyone else and understand their perspectives, too. No rushing into civil wars here.
This one’s a bit different and might not make a ton of sense to most people. That’s okay. I have kind of a thing about germs. Contamination, really. Not a fan of cleaning chemicals and such either. I’m not sure where it came from but it’s been with me for about as long as I can remember. Back in middle school, I washed my hands so much they bled all the time and dried up to the point that they’re still sort of wrinkled and dry on my best days now. Total strangers used to tell me that I should use lotion (it feels so gross and greasy and smelly) and not wash so much because it wasn’t healthy. Like I’d never heard those things before. It was especially frustrating because I do know all that and did even then but I was struggling with my brain.
Now that’s mostly improved. I don’t wash nearly as much, unless there’s something going on in my life that’s making me very anxious. I thought it was just that when I’m anxious I think everything’s dirty, but I realized very recently that’s not the whole story. It occurred to me that I get very caught up in my head and zone out a lot. This of course gets worse when I’m anxious. And it’s especially strong when I’m doing something that doesn’t require a lot of focus, enabling my mind to wander. It happens with meditation too, but I’ll get to that in a minute.
Awhile back I saw a sign about hand washing for at least 20 seconds and used that as a handy tool for knowing I’m good to go. Washing for 20 seconds means clean. That worked really well for awhile. But oftentimes I keep going until I feel clean, and when I get very anxious that can mean that I wash for 5 or 6 of those 20-second cycles. Yikes. Again, I just figured I must really feel dirty…except a few days ago I hadn’t even touched anything dirty. I was just washing up to make dinner.
And I realized that the reason I don’t feel clean is because I’m not noticing the washing. The reason counting to 20 worked at first was because it was new and I was paying attention. Then I got used to it and it became automatic – I start counting whenever I use a sink. So now my mind wanders, I don’t pay attention to what I’m doing, and at the end of each cycle I don’t feel like I achieved anything.
So I changed it up. Now when I notice my mind wandering, I look down at my hands. I think about the process of cleaning, think how grateful I am that it’s possible. When I think of it, I make it a prayer and actually express that gratitude. I notice the counting. I think about the bacteria and whatever else washing away. And then I reach 20 and I’m done. It works, most of the time. It’s always faster and more satisfying than when I didn’t pay attention.
Contemplative hand-washing. Who knew?
Meditation and Multi-tasking
I love prayer beads. I’ve actually made a few of my own with my own patterns, but I also like the popular existing ones. The Catholic one caught my interest way back in college, but one thing about it always seemed strange to me. While you pray each set of 10 beads, you’re supposed to think about a Mystery (there’s three sets of Mysteries I believe, each set has 5 so you meditate on a different one for each decade, or set of 10 beads). HOW!?! I was never able to wrap my head around that.
I think it’s similar to the hand-washing. When something’s new, even something fairly simple, it requires a lot of focus. Every time I started using prayer beads before, I didn’t keep up the practice and so I never got past the learning stage. I got to a point where I didn’t need to follow along with a sheet anymore, maybe, but never to the point where it was automatic. I always had to focus my mind on which words and which prayers came next. No room for other thoughts.
Lately that’s changed. I’ve gotten to a point where I actually remember the prayers I use a lot without thinking, to the point that my mind could wander or I could even start to fall asleep while still repeating all the words. So weird! So now I have the challenge of keeping myself awake and focused while I pray on beads.
Aha! That’s where those other meditations come in. Once you know the prayers and your mind is no longer occupied trying to remember, it looks for something else to do while you’re doing that boring repetitive thing. So you focus on a Mystery. Or some aspect of God or something you think you need to change in your life or whatever. And suddenly your whole self is focused on God and prayer. The body (moving the beads through your fingers), that background part of your brain that would probably otherwise be keeping track of chores and other anxieties and distracting you from prayer, and your active mind. That’s pretty cool.