Prayer as meditation

31
Mar
2008

I go twice weekly to drop-in meditation at the Centro Budismo here in Mexico City. Today for some reason there was a significantly larger number of people in attendance, many of them new. At one end of the room there is a small altar with a statue, small plants, candles and incense pot. Someone will usually light incense and make a small incantation of some sort before the meditation begins, but this is never really a group thing. I have never really cared much for these alter things, they smack too much of iconography, idol worship, what have you. For me the perfect meditation space is one that is completely empty and quiet. But to each their own.

In any event, just before the meditation was to begin with everyone in their places, one of the new participants (a woman in her late 40s I would imagine) wanted to ask the group leader a question.

Motioning to the alter, she asked if we were going to learn to pray. The leader was a little confused and asked if she meant “meditate” instead. She said no, she wanted to learn to pray in the correct way, in the Buddhist way, here in the center. The leader said that while there were certainly structured ways to show respect at the alter (pray, in her parlance) that this was a session devoted to meditation, and we would be practicing that instead. She nodded, and we proceeded with the meditation.

When I left, I began having flashbacks to all sorts of experiences I had while in India . They say there are many paths to yoga, a word which means nothing other than union. A union of mind, body and spirit, a connection to the divine or an understanding of the nature of existence and being at peace with it. For some, the path involves intense study and philosophy. For others the path to that experience is more physical and more visceral, using the physical forms that we are familiar with in the west, such as asanas and meditation, to achieve this union. For others the path of service and helping others is what brings them in touch with the universe. And for some, it is in devotion and prayer.

I have never been a prayer person, and I doubt that I will ever be. The very idea of focusing on some sort of idol or image and praying to it takes me far away indeed from any trancending experience. It is too physical, there is too much earthy baggage. I tend to do better connecting to an abstract, formless universe where everything everywhere is of equal weight, at least spiritually. I don’t believe in a diety of any sort. All existence is equally holy, and there is little use for me personally in the idea of god.

That said, I can totally understand how for other people the idea of prayer and connecting with a diety might be their way to peace. And in some ways prayer can be very much like meditation in practice, though the focus is different. I was fascinated by this woman in the meditation though, who felt she was there for that kind of experience. That for her, with whatever background or upbringing she had, prayer was the path, and the thing she was most interested in.

Interestingly, the more time I have spent in Mexico, the more similarities I have come to see between the Catholic imagery and iconography in the churches and cathedrals here and the iconography and worship of Hindu deities in India. Both religions have large sets of figures to worship. Both have rather vibrant physical representations of these figures. And both have imbued each of these dieties (or saints) with specific powers or areas of influence. Both religions encourage praying to specific figures for specific purposes. The more I look at Catholicism, (especially as practiced in this part of the world) the less I see it having anything to do with monotheism. Everything is an aspect of the divine I suppose, just like so many of the Hindu gods are ultimately traceable to a single spiritual force known as Brahman.

Shema

29
Dec
2007

I accepted my friend Sian’s invitation to attend Friday night services with her at her synagogue, B’nai Jeshurun, on the Upper West Side.  I have to admit to feeling a sense of uneasy intimidation leading up to me going, the kind you feel when you have a homework assignment to finish or some bill to pay. Something you don’t want to do, but have to anyway. I felt I had made a promise to my friend to go and that I should do so, so what was the big deal?

There was a lot of big deal, actually.  I was somehow transported back to my childhood where I was forced by any manner of adult to do these things that held so little meaning for me: go to shul, pray, be a good and observant Jew, fit in to this or that community.  For various reasons for most of my life, these things held very little attraction for me.  It was as if someone was trying to graft onto me an identity that only partially fit.  This could have been the case for many reasons.  It could have been that as a young person struggling with being gay, none of this felt particularly welcoming.  It could have been that, having moved around in several neighborhoods growing up, I never felt particularly tied to these sub communities. It could have been the natural tendency of my family in questioning everything to reject belief in God.

Whatever the reasons, it was with trepidation that I walked up to 88th and Broadway to meet my freind.  In the abstract, going to services with Sian was no different that the many other ceremonies and rituals in which I have participated over the past year, whether these be Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, Muslim, Christian or other. Objectively, this was just another culture to witness.  This was just another ceremony to observe, trying to understand its purpose and mystery, trying to appreciate the meaning it holds for the participants.

But this was different, specifically because I was raised in this tradition.  This was different, because I felt by turns an uneasy and a comforting recognition in the prayers and music.  One thing you have to hand to this congregation, they sing beautifully and with integrity and feeling.  Looking around the room during the service, I saw in the faces of people the warm embrace of community and religious bliss.  It was really something.  And when the time came to sing the Shema, I felt a shiver and connection to these people that was really lovely.

The other nice thing about this congregation is their clear commitment to social justice and bridging gaps of understanding between communities of differing beliefs.  I have always felt that religious groupings serve two purposes for the participants.  They provide a place in which to express belief and they give a sense of belonging and community to their members.  In some people the former is stronger and in others the latter.

This particular congregation and their outlook is not for me, for all the same reasons I have come to in this blog over the past year.  Nevertheless, it was wonderful to be given the opportunity by my friend Sian to witness a loving community that gives her life meaning.  And perhaps I have also been given the opportunity to let go of a few old ghosts from my childhood.