There are moments when a sudden shift in circumstances, perhaps precipitated by an external event, sweeps away our familiar certainties; and from that day froward everything is different.
When the chance to take a different path presents itself—whether it feels like a gentle rain or a thunderbolt–we may also sense that everything inside us is shifting too.
I’ve been taking a class on “Prayer” and gradually discovering that, while sometimes things change suddenly, at other times they only evolve slowly, degree by degree.
If, ten years ago, someone had told me that they were taking a course on prayer, I’d have thought to myself: you can’t learn to pray any more than you can get a degree in being a taller person. But now, half way through this course, I’m glad to find myself open to the possibility that prayer is a skill which I can learn and that I have just never looked for that kind of openness to already be present inside me.
Perhaps prayer doesn’t have to be a cry wrenched out of me because I lie broken on the wheel of circumstance. Perhaps it can be a practice I work on in quiet times, as I might prepare for an earthquake while the ground is steady beneath my feet; when no traumatic events are coming over the horizon, no rocky shoals banging against my life ship’s hull.
Since a relationship with the sacred is a foundation for prayer, I am now reciting ancient prayers in ancient languages, while reassuring my western mind that this has produced positive results for people whom I respect and admire. It’s an act of faith, but one that is not entirely blind. During retreats, chanting “Om, Ah, Hum” before meals, I have felt those syllables, over the passing days, reverberating deeply inside me.
Reciting phrases that evoke few associations for my rational mind, it can seem that I am repeating sounds mechanically with no understanding. But I remind myself that most of the things I do every day are also done with scant awareness, and that patience is needed when learning something new. And now, I am working on loosening habits and attitudes that I have had for a long time, which have served to cloak deep longings within me.
The film “Titanic” illustrates this process. First, we must become aware of how distraction in the wheel house of our daily lives and misguided motivations (such as sacrificing authentic intention for public recognition), have set us on our current disastrous course. Then, as we scramble in a belated attempt to escape the consequences, we can only watch helplessly as we realize that little is left to us but to pray. Our new intentions may slowly begin to influence what is happening, but by now it may be too late to escape the hidden, underwater mass of the iceberg whose visible portion is coming ineluctably closer through the moonlit night. And when the disaster we didn’t see coming is full upon us, we may finally understand that everything is precious, because nothing ever lasts.
Even disasters that tear our lives asunder can serve a purpose. They can turn us toward awareness of the sacred. As long as ignorance prevents us from seeing the truth—that nothing we care about lasts in this world—we cannot understand that the sacred is not one of those impermanent things. We are always sailing along on the boundless sea of eternity, and when oblivion finally loosens its grips on our minds, and we can only watch helplessly as the ocean fills one compartment after another, while plates and glasses are crashing onto the galley floor, and when finally, like a sounding whale, our ship dives down into the cold, dark water, then we may finally be able to relax our struggle to keep our illusions intact. Then we may realize that we have always been free to celebrate these few precious moments up here in the sun,
When the deck chairs start sliding toward the bow and its time to put away our violins and cellos, we will quietly bow to one another and say, “It’s been an honor.”