The Way of the Pilgrim and prayer without ceasing

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Back in March, I hounded persuaded BookBelle to review The Way of the Pilgrim, which she had read for a Spirituality class. I’m happy to report now that I’ve finally read the book myself, and that when you Google “Way of the Pilgrim,” BookBelle’s post appears on the first page, number 10 on the list. It’s always good to make the first page of a Google search.

I became interested in The Way of the Pilgrim for how it’s described in J.D. Salinger’s long short story, “Franny,” from Franny and Zooey. In the story, Franny becomes obsessed with the idea of saying the Jesus prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.”). She is convinced that saying the prayer without ceasing will bring faith and enlightenment. What I understood Franny to be saying (or hoping) was that the action of saying the prayer would bring faith even in the face of intellectual doubt. Because Franny, as a good upper class New Yorker, had some intellectual difficulties with faith. As a twenty-something college student still recovering from the effort it took to shake off a lifetime of good old-fashioned Southern Baptist fear of hell to flirt with atheism, I could relate to Franny.

As a considerably older college professor and sometime practitioner of Buddhism, The Way of the Pilgrim is fascinating for what it suggests about the ways in which mysticism in all the world’s great religious traditions seem to converge. This is not my idea, but comes from a colleague in the anthropology department who studies Sufi mysticism. In his last lecture (not because he’s passed on or left, but because students on campus ask a professor every year to give the lecture they would give if it were their very last…a tradition we had long before the book or the YouTube video), my colleague talked about how the mystical traditions of Islam, Christianity and Judaism all converge on some central truths. One of them…be nice to each other.

The practice of prayer without ceasing as it’s described in The Way of the Pilgrim sounds like Buddhist meditation. There’s a lot about the importance of breathing. The prayer itself is a mantra. The goal is to be able to have your actual heart beat out the Jesus prayer. And the effects of mastering the discipline of the Jesus prayer is pretty much exactly what a Buddhist will tell you should be the results of regular meditation. You move outside your ego. You’re filled with a kind of peaceful joy. You become kinder to people and much less attached to stuff. Who wouldn’t want to feel all of that?

So yesterday, I decided to do my own little experiment in prayer without ceasing. Probably because of my experiences in a Southern Baptist church, saying the Jesus prayer wasn’t going to work for me. I decided to try the Buddhist mantra, Om mani padme hum. This is a Tibetan Buddhist mantra of unconditional love and compassion. It doesn’t translate perfectly, and much of the mantra is about the sound rather than the words. According to Lama Surya Das, “…’Om’ is the universal sound. ‘Mani’ means jewel, and ‘Pedme’ means lotus, so together they mean the jewel in the lotus.” (p. 186, Finding the Buddha Within). The hum is for the sound, to balance out the om at the beginning. So this mantra kind of means something and kind of doesn’t mean something.

The lotus represents the idea that we live rooted partly in the muddy, mucky world of the water a lotus blooms in, but that part of our nature is also the bloom itself–our divinity or our enlightened selves. And also the idea that the answers are self-contained–in The Way of the Pilgrim, this is expressed in the Bible verse, “The Kingdom of God is within us.” Only for the pilgrim, literally, it’s inside us.

So starting yesterday morning, I tried to say, Om mani padme hum.  Perpetually.

This is difficult.

First, there’s getting the saying of it right. Click here, and you can here an actual Tibetan saying the mantra, so that’s okay. Then, there’s just the saying of it. Sometimes I said it out loud…in my car driving to work and in our empty house. But also in my office and walking across campus, which made me wonder if someone would report that the professor was losing her shit, so to speak. And would they think that any less if I explained that I wasn’t talking to myself, but saying a mantra over and over again? The rest of the time, I said the mantra in my head.

At first, I found myself noticing things…the bright red leaves outside a building on campus, the way the early morning frost on the grass followed the patterns of the shadows, the designs on the steps leading up to my office. I found myself really noticing these things, like absorbing them in some deep and meaningful way, despite the constant background noise of, Om mani padme hum. In that way, it was kind of like being stoned.

And then it felt frustrating. This happens often when I try a daily Buddhist practice. Back when I had first started dating my husband, I tried an exercise for keeping yourself in the present moment. Throughout the day, you say to yourself, “I am brushing my teeth. I am putting on my socks. I am walking up the stairs.” It’s pretty effective at keeping you in the present moment. I hated it because I was in that new phase of our romance where all I wanted to think about was my husband.  But like the mantra, it also made me feel like a zombie. The monkey part of my mind starts rattling the bars of its cage. “Really?” it says. “Is this your life? Walking around saying this shit over and over and over again? What kind of life is that? What about all the other things you could be thinking about? Isn’t that supposed to be your job? Thinking?”

You can still think and function while you repeat a mantra in your head over and over again. I could listen to my book on tape, though it took me a while to believe this. I kept saying to myself, “You’re not really listening hard enough,” but then when I tried to recall what had just been said, I could. I could watch a film in class. I could knit. I could drive. I couldn’t grade while saying the mantra. And I couldn’t talk to my husband, though I could say it inside my head while I listened to him. He found it amusing to ask, “What are you thinking?” and be told, “Om mani padme hum.”

It turns out your brain is pretty good at multi-tasking. So at least what happened for me while I was saying the mantra was that I could think of other things, but the mantra kept me from doing the kind of hamster in a wheel thinking that I’m fairly prone to–the worrying I do that’s compulsive and largely pointless. There just wasn’t room for it in my head.  In this way, saying the mantra felt like what maybe a lobotomy or prozac would do, only without the surgery or the drugs.  It shut down certain parts of my brain, straight-up shortcircuited them.  When I would start to think something like, “I can’t believe that student actually said that,” the thought would just kind of harmlessly float by, instead of becoming the subject for an obsessive two hour examination of everything I find frustrating about students, teaching and my life.  This is what meditation should feel like…thoughts surface, and you smile bemusedly at them, and watch them float away.  Only this was real-time floatiness.  Thought there, thought gone.  Moving on.

And so though I felt like a zombie at times, at the end of the day, I also had to take stock of all the things I had not thought about in the course of my day. For example, my anxiety about plans for the weekend. Or how much I wish it was Christmas break already. Or the grading I would have to do over the weekend. Or how I was going to fit everything into the remaining weeks of the semester. You get the idea. The mantra leaves little room for that kind of stuff. And that was worth the slight zombie feeling.

Was I cheerier? I think I was. Was it easier for me to handle the daily aggravations of life? Yes, definitely. Daily meditation helps me with this, too, but saying the mantra in my head helped me several times to avoid saying something out loud that wouldn’t have helped me or the person I would have been saying it to. Did I feel a bubbly sense of effervescent joy in my heart? No. This may take more time than one day and perhaps a more serious commitment than I’m willing to make. Did I say the mantra enough to the point where I began to miss it when I stopped, to crave it, to feel it as a kind of physical need, which is what the pilgrim describes in the book? No. Again, I think one day doesn’t quite get you there. Am I saying it as I write this? No, I’m not that adept yet. Will I keep saying it? Yes, I think so. It seems worthwhile given the results to continue my experiment a little longer. And certainly, it’s something that could come in handy in my higher anxiety moments.

Will I give up my house, my job, my husband and my child to wander around the American continent like the pilgrim in the book? Nope.  But as with Buddhism, one of the points the pilgrim seems to be trying to make in this book is that you don’t have to become a pilgrim or a monk or a hermit in order to reap the benefits of prayer without ceasing.  You just have to be willing to run the risk of seeming a little crazy for walking around talking to yourself.  A small price to pay.

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