Saturday, May 8, 2010
Thursday, May 6, 2010
“In prayer it is better to have a heart without words than words without a heart.” ~ Mahatma Ghandi
Today, May 6th, 2010, is this year's National Day of Prayer. This beautiful idea of collective harmony, thoughtful introspection and united intent has become a hot button political issue. The current administration feels strongly in the separation of Church and State and will not condone public prayer at the White House. The far right Evangelic movement believes this separation is detrimental to our very salvation. But for the multitudes of us whose beliefs lie in the middle area, it's a day of confusion. If we're not practicing this on a national level, does it still 'count'? If we're not praying within a the confines of a mega-church, or by the rule book of one particular brand of faith, are we not 'invited' to pray also? If I take part in the National Day of Prayer (or choose not to participate), am I buying into one particular political belief system?
Webster's Dictionary defines prayer as: "An address to the Divine in word or thought". An alternate definition is given as "an earnest wish or request." Personally, I'm completely in agreement with the first definition. Regardless of one's religious leanings, time spent quietly in contemplation and conversation with God is a form of prayer. We do not need to speak. We do not need to recite formulaic systems to 'get prayer done right', although those very same formulas may be exceedingly helpful in bringing our hearts and minds to the "right place"...as a jumping off point for personal prayer to commence. As an Episcopalian, I find enormous comfort in the Book of Common Prayer. I find the Daily Office to be helpful, restorative and calming of my emotions. It's a powerful feeling to know that I can walk into any Anglican church, anywhere in the world, and find the service to be the same...with the same litany, the same ideas and the same cadence. Yet, I've found prayers that speak to my heart from a variety of traditions; Buddhist, Native American, Jewish and those of some Catholic saints. Are these prayers, written in a tradition different than my own but still magnificent, less efficacious?
My enormous discomfort comes when people try to push their prayer beliefs onto my own personal faith. On one hand, there are those who think I'm a fool for wasting my time and energy in prayer. They believe I can better use my talents and gifts to better the world around me using my own sense of empowerment. These people feel that prayer is, at best, a red herring and, at worst, sheer stupidity and counter to intellectual prowess. On the other hand, there are people who believe that my teaching Yoga means I am not 'really' a Christian. Additionally, these folks believe that even the hint of another tradition, no matter how exquisitely written or composed, is inherently evil...that no beauty can come from a wisdom that is not their own. The concept of personal prayer is so frayed at both edges that the entire concept unravels in an ugly, discordant manner.
As easy as it would be simply give up on prayer, acknowledging that no matter what I do, I'll be wrong, I find myself drawn even more to having a heart for a strong prayer life. At the end of the day, it doesn't matter what the news programs have to say about both extremes. It is not important who tells me I'm absolutely wrong. Being affirmed as being 'in the right' is just as meaningless. The fact is, no amount of corporate opinion carries weight. Prayer is personal. It is, as Webster's defines, "An address to the Divine in word or thought". Prayer is my own quiet connection to God. It's not a marketing list or a wish list for Santa Claus. It's not a time to make deals (as in "God, if you let me pass this test, I will always be a good person..."). It's not a catalogue of set words that must be said in a specific order, or it's "wrong". Prayer is really nobody's business but your own. It's a time of solemnity, entreaty, supplication, gratitude, compassion, kindness and communion. It's a connection between our own meager, fallible selves and an infinitely loving and patient God. Prayer can give us strength, temper our misunderstandings, fill us with renewed energy for our tasks and remind us to be humble when we fill with pride. Prayer is distinctive and direct for each person. Prayer is what the individual believes she needs most...and what she needs most to give.
So, if prayer is so private, why a National Day of Prayer? What's so important about it? In my own heart, this holiday shouldn't be about political agendas, but a simple reminder that we share a planet, that we want, as a group, what's best for everyone and that we hope for the unparalleled point of unity to come into each of our lives. It's a chance to have a moment to trust in a unified consciousness that's greater than each of us individually. It's a moment to join together in thankfulness, respect and hope.
What is my own prayer for today? That I will be a better listener...that my own prayers will not include a list of grievances, wrongs, wish list items or rambling diatribes about myself. Rather, I hope to find that small, quiet place in my heart and mind not to speak but to hear and pay attention more closely.
Monday, May 3, 2010
Accept everything about yourself - I mean everything, You are you and that is the beginning and the end - no apologies, no regrets. -- Henry Kissinger
It's very common to read magazine articles, watch television programs, discover inspirational books and listen to self-improvement gurus discuss the concept of living with 'no apologies and no regrets'. We're implored to accept ourselves for whom we are and to avoid making any offering of remorse for our lives. We hear the virtues of being 'true to ourselves' and not compromising anything in which we believe. We're asked to not self-censor or to be self-critical in any way. We are to love ourselves, just where are at this very moment, and unapologetically find delight in living authentically. I agree with some of this...up to a point. I do believe that it's important to find the path in which our "own selves can be true" (with my apologies to both Polonius and the Bard for my twist of words.). However, I believe that living fully without apologies or regrets can ultimately be harmful to us and to those about whom we care.
As a yoga instructor, part of my job is helping my students to unlock their hidden potential. For many, the lives they've led up until now have been for other people. The demands that parents, spouses, teachers, employers and even children, have placed upon these students have left their emotional well dry. They feel downtrodden and don't really know how to pick themselves up. They have long since suppressed their own dreams and desires, in favor of living for others. They have fit in with what they were expected to do, rather than where their passions lie. Watching these students blossom is one of the most extraordinary experiences I've had in my life. Fostering another human being to grow in confidence and in awareness is a humbling experience for me. I feel honored to be in a position to assist, in a meager way, the knitting together of a student's idea of self. Being in a position to aid in this has been a true blessing in my life. I've seen women, with a lifetime of negative body image, begin to feel comfortable in their skin for the first time in their lives. I've seen men who had never taken time away from sports and their work to slow down. I've seen teens, still gangly and awkward, find a measure of contentment and peacefulness. It's been, without question, a job for which I feel great appreciation.
And yet, living a life completely free of both regret and apology can be 'too much of a good thing'. One reason I feel terribly uncomfortable with the policy of 'no apologies, no regrets' is that this sentiment can lead us too far in the opposite direction; towards that of selfishness, apathy and indifference. If we live our lives so completely focused on our own centeredness and in our own personal manner, where does that leave other people? Can we live a life without acknowledgement and atonement, and still remain kind and just? Is it possible to be fully aware of our own innate value, while refraining from trampling on the values of others? This quandary isn't new. St. Clement of Alexandria wrote, "It seems the greatest of all disciplines is to know oneself; for when a man knows himself he knows God" in the first century A.D. But can we know ourselves, and tap into the divine, if we're exclusively focused on our own desires?
Despite how chic the buzz terms of inner discovery and remaining firm in one's own beliefs may be, I can't help but wonder whom we must override to do just that. If we live a life without apology, are we likely to hurt someone else in the process? I don't see that it's possible to avoid bruising relationships, even with the best of intentions. If we go further down this path of authenticity, we're certain to be in a position of confrontation. Does this mean we need to subdue our inner light to avoid ire in others? No. We should not suppress our true selves. However, a truly developed to enlightened soul will not seek out to subjugate another person, nor will she intentionally bring harm. We can rest in our self-confidence, and still accept responsibility for our actions. We can refrain from putting down the views of others and learn tact. We can treat those with whom we disagree with respect. We can be patient with those who are impatient. Most of all, when we have wronged another person, intentionally or not, we have the further responsibility to apologize. Apologizing is actually far more difficult than excusing oneself. It takes a voluminous amount of humility to accept one's own error and to say "Mea culpa" to someone. The fear of rejection, the embarrassment of error and the admission of guilt are terrifying. It's actually much easier to say "I don't apologize for my actions" than it is to admit them as wrong. This doesn't mean we should compromise a precious belief. But, it does mean that we need to integrate a part of prodigious humility into our lives. "Knowing ourselves" doesn't just mean being aware. It is more than that. It means striving for improvement of mind, body and spirit. It's very difficult to do this if we can't admit when we happen to be wrong.
Additionally, living our lives without any regrets is foolhardy. Regrets are healthy. Regrets are needed. If we didn't regret our mistakes we would never grow beyond them. Regretting one's actions can actually be a pivotal turning point for many. If we live our lives, blindly forgetting everything we've ever done, then we have no ability to take a step back, examine what we've done well, what we've done poorly, and moving forward in the proper direction. I have women friends who have regretted the marriage they've made. They mourn the loss of their youth and the time wasted. I know men who regret leaving a job they loved for a more lucrative (but less fulfilling) career. I think we have to be careful to live our lives in an examined manner; to see where we've made mistakes with our choices, and then to create a new, empowered beginning for ourselves. Should we forget our mistakes? Not at all! If we dismiss places in which we've gone astray, we are doomed to return to those places again and again. Regretting our lives to the banishment of future possibilities is unhealthy. But choosing to think about these regrets as lessons can actually be both liberating and powerful.
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