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Sunday, April 1, 2012

Practice

One of the greatest losses in the Christian world is the loss of a spiritual practice. To be quite honest, the Reformed Church never had a practice because it chose to throw out everything that happened prior to 1500 or so. That meant that the contemplative tradition of the Church went out with the bath water. Protestantism tried to develop alternatives to contemplation and the daily offices with something called "devotions," a mostly self-serving and/or highly manipulative practice that usually involves reading a short scripture passage - most often selected by someone other than the person doing their devotions - saying a prayer or two, saying some intercessory prayers, and in a space of time more or less around five minutes you are done. That's not really a practice, it's more like something tucked in that doesn't really involve substantial commitment or meaning.

I believe the single most important gleaning from Buddhism in my spiritual journey is mantra practice. Since I am a prayer bead guy, I like to say my mantra with a set of mala beads, but the absence of the beads doesn't stop me from praying. Mantra practice IS meditation, and I especially appreciate my mala on long car rides, like the one we have made to Minneapolis and back twice in the last three weekends. On the way up last Thursday I was able to spend several hours with my mantra and it was simply delightful.

Christianity needs to recover a practice, and I would suggest they recover contemplative prayer via mantra practice. Christianity needs to transcend its image as something you plug into on Sunday morning and then disengage from until the following Sunday, and it also needs a spiritual practice one can engage in without the Christian community present. Human beings need to tap into their spirituality regularly, and my life stands as witness that mala practice can be transformative.

Centuries ago, the Catholic Church recognized that lay people needed a practice. At the time, monks in monasteries recited all one hundred fifty psalms each day. Since lay people were largely illiterate, and books were still extremely expensive because the printing press had not yet been invented, reciting the psalms was out of the question. For this reason, the rosary was born. The laity could pray one hundred fifty Hail Mary's and recall fifteen "mysteries" of the life of Christ in the process. The rosary had the dual function of being a doorway to contemplation and a tool for teaching the Gospel. As someone who prayed the rosary for years, I can attest that it is indeed a doorway to contemplation. For me, the "mysteries" and the interspersed "Our Father's" were a distraction to the rhythm of the prayer. Just when it seemed I was getting into the groove, I had to stop and knock out another mystery and an Our Father.

Mantra practice, on the other hand, is just the mantra - and you can choose your own or ask a spiritual friend or guide to chose one for you. I often recommend "Thank You" as a beginning mantra, because gratitude brings us to the present moment as well as being a spiritual quality worth developing. If you are inclined, you can direct your "thank you" toward a deity, but it isn't necessary. What is necessary is to do the practice. I'm a bit unorthodox in that I recommend buying or making yourself a small set of prayer beads and saying you mantra in the car, on a walk, while watching television, whenever you can find a moment, for at least the first thirty days. (Quite honestly, I take my mala wherever I go.) In that way, you build a habit and the mantra becomes a part of you. Of course, it would be ideal to also be able to find a period of ten to thirty minutes to sit quietly and intentionally to say your mantra in addition to praying it on the go.

Mantras aren't panaceas, and they aren't magic. The repetition of a mantra does lead endorphines to be released in our brains, which means it feels good. More importantly, though, a mantra brings us to the present moment over and over again. I have seen my personality transformed over the last twelve years of dedicated mantra practice. It wasn't like someone flipped a light switch, it was more like I had been soaked in a vat of calmness, compassion, clear vision, and peacefulness. Much to my surprise, one day I looked back and realized that transformation had occurred - and it keeps on happening. To me, this is a spirituality that works. It takes time, and dedication, but it isn't really all that difficult - and the rewards are unbelievable!

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