Sunday, August 11, 2013

Mindfulness in Prayer: Eat an Orange

Mindfulness is a state of active, open attention on the present. It is a way to observe your thoughts and feelings without putting any sort of value judgement on them.  It is living in the moment and paying attention to all that is offered within that moment.  

Praying mindfully is a way of paying close attention to where your thoughts and emotions are, acknowledging them without judgment and allowing yourself to sit with all of the nuances, conflicts, affirmations, and sheer variety of human experience. Have you ever been in a situation where you were flaming angry, or deeply sad, yet could also see gratitude or relief, hope, excitement, hatred, compassion, regret and a whole world of other sensations there at the same time?

As a psychologist I have often counseled people in grief, devastated by the loss of a loved one, and tortured with relief that a death long in coming also brought time to rest and the ease of responsibility, and tremendous guilt that comes along with that relief. This scenario is all too common, not just in grief, but in many troubles and delights as well.  Life is rarely so plain and simple that we experience only one side of a coin when encountering almost any event, pleasurable or miserable.

A path to clarity, calm and connectedness is to allow all of those mixed, conflicting, mis-matched, swirling thoughts and feelings to be as they are, without judging them as good or bad, useful or not, or revealing something desirable or not about ourselves. 

Like many other prayer practices, it is a useful tool and a skill that can be learned.

As such, to this I say, eat an orange.

Find a time of quiet, make yourself comfortable, and eat an orange.  As you choose it, peel or slice it, bite it, chew it, swallow it, pay very close attention to each action. How does the orange feel in your hand? Is your mouth watering? Does your lip twitch in anticipation of the taste?

As you peel it, does the peel get under your fingernails? Does that cause you some discomfort? Does juice squirt out from the fruit? Notice the stringiness of the white pith. The dimples of the zest. The weight of the fruit. Take the time to notice everything you can that comes with the action of peeling the orange.  

Take a bite. Do you peel off a section? Cut the fruit into quarters? Do you just bite into the whole fruit? What do you experience in that bite? Is it juicy and sweet? Tart? Dry? Woody? How does it feel sliding over your teeth and tongue? What do you experience as you chew? How does your throat feel? Your jaw? Are you salivating? Is there juice on your cheek or hands? Does the pulp of the fruit feel different in your mouth than the pith? Are there seeds? Do you swallow them or spit them out? What does the fruit smell like? What does it sound like to chew? When you swallow, what do you notice? Does it go down smoothly or stick in your throat? Does the taste linger on your palate? Do you feel sticky? Can you feel it move down your esophagus? 

Take your time. Linger. Take another bite. Ponder it. Relish in it. Soak up every tiny nuance of the experience of biting, chewing and swallowing, of your thoughts and feelings while eating. Immerse yourself fully into each moment of your encounter with this orange. 

That, my friends, is mindfulness.

Do the same as you ponder the ebb and flow of each day, of each prayer. Allow yourself to acknowledge and experience all of the aspects of wherever you are, whatever you are dealing with, hoping for, wishing for, grieving about. There are always two sides to the coin of all we experience in life. Allowing yourself to experience them both and in all of their complexities and nuances will open yourself up to wholeness and healing.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Monkey Brain

My post this week is going to take a direction I have not taken before. I'm going to write less about using a prayer practice and more about Monkey Brain and how it can absolutely gut prayer. 

I started taking Tai Chi lessons last week. I have had a few lessons in the past, but it was not an art I have every really studied.  I have been interested in learning most of my life, but I never found a class I liked. Until last week. I now find myself in that exhilarating and agonizing place of realizing fully that someone has been dropped into my life in this place, in this time, for a reason. Part of me is fascinated in this realization, and part of me is terrified- and what is worse, there is very simply no where to hide. My instructor (or "Sifu" in the trade) has me pegged. He had me pegged two minutes after we met. It feels like one of those dreams where you show up at school naked. But, I digress.

In case you have not noticed yet, prayer, for me, is a rhythmic thing. Just about any practice that has a steady rhythm to it will draw me into a deeply transcendent place. 

Except when it doesn't.

Meet Fred
And in that place, is Fred. You know that voice in your head? The one that rambles on and on, endlessly yammering and distracting you? Even criticizing, nagging, and being a general pain in the noggin'? In lots of different mental disciplines, that little voice is called Monkey Brain.  My Monkey Brain's name is Fred (and I apologize to all of the real "Freds" out there- no slight intended).

I was not in a productive place during my Tai Chi class tonight. Actually, Fred was in fabulous form and I spent most of the class fighting off anger, frustration, and tears. I could not clear the worries and frustrations of the day from my mind, nor could I leave them to God. Fred kept up a downright admirable volley of distracting commentary, and when that did not break my resolve to FOCUS ON THE TASK AT HAND, he got nasty. There was no worry, no insecurity, no fear that Fred did not lob at me tonight. I tried putting him the back room. I tried sticking him in the truck of the car. I tried tying him to the backyard fence.  

I think that just made Fred that much more determined to press me, and in the end, Fred won. Class ended with me in tears and I beat it out of there as fast as I could without looking like I was trying to achieve warp speed sans dilithium crystals. I cried all the way home, cried while I fed the cats, and cried in the shower, all with Fred chanting "you suck!"

Ok, this is not a bid for sympathy. There is no need to send cards or encouraging e-mail, (though Belgian chocolates are never out of line). Sometimes you get into that place you want to be, and sometimes you don't, and sometimes you miss the mark SO badly that you wonder why you ever try. The point is, my friends, to continue to turn back to whatever discipline you practice that creates that space where you encounter the Holy. The obstacles and "failures" are insignificant. Ignore them. They are just Monkey Brain distractions on steroids. It is in those times where Monkey Brain is the strongest and we are the weakest that God meets us. It is the reaching out, it is the invitation to engage, the desire for relationship that counts, regardless and in spite of everything else.

So, Fred, tonight when I am finished saying my prayers and I settle into bed to practice abdominal breathing, I am introducing you to a roll of duct tape.

Good night, Sifu. Tomorrow is another day.


Monday, July 22, 2013

1,000 Cranes- Origami

I received a seminar ad from the program my spiritual director is the executive director for, and it reminded me of how prayerful Origami can be. So, I am sharing this idea with you this week.

Paper folding can be a highly meditative, relaxing, and prayerful practice and can be done just about anywhere. Materials are colorful, easy to come by, inexpensive, and very diverse. All you need is a square piece of paper. You can use plain printer paper cut to size, or a wide variety of Origami paper can be easily found in craft stores or online. You can also use old Christmas paper or pretty much anything else that can be folded into crisp creases.

Like any repetitive task, Origami can lull your mind into deeply quiet place, shielded from the distractions of the world and where you can encounter the Holy in remarkable ways.

A favorite Origami piece is the crane. Legend is, that if you make a wish while you fold 1,000 cranes, your wish will come true. 1,000 cranes are sometimes offered as gifts for newlyweds, for birthdays, life milestones, and other special occasions. 

On a smaller scale, these beautiful small pieces of art may be given as tokens of encouragement, emotional or spiritual support or used for personal prayer, much the way we might use a rosary. I have used them to say prayers while actually folding them, and once made, used in meditative prayer while I arrange of few of them on a small scene, like on a mini Zen sand garden, and I have left in the center of labyrinths, left at grave sites, tucked into lunch boxes, left on a doorstep, or on a pillow for someone I am thinking of and praying for. They can be strung on thread and hung from trees, bushes and balconies, piled into glass jars, or anything else that strikes your fancy and is meaningful to you or to the person you give them to. I have also seen baskets full of them left in cancer treatment centers and tokens of hope for those being treated there. The possibilities for their use are endless.

A pdf file of folding instructions can be found here:

Crane Folding Instructions

If you prefer to watch a video, there are lots of them on You Tube. A good example is here:

Check out the Stillpoint "Play Shop" here:

Make a few of them to pass along to someone you want to show support for, and see how wondrous making them, giving them, and receiving them can be.

God's Peace,


Sunday, June 30, 2013


I should clarify, that by silence, I mean outer and inner silence. No TV, music, iPods, ringing phones, no speaking, singing, humming, or pencil tapping.

Silence is one way to slow down, quiet that constant inner voice, and listen. After all, prayer is a two-way street. If your life is anything like mine, there is a constant juggling of kids, spouse, work, school, church, friends, chores, pets, exercise, sleep (at least rumor of it!), dealing with unexpected events... you get the picture. It can be hard enough to make time to pray without feeling rushed. How often to you make time to pay attention to the other side of the conversation?

Silence is a very deliberate, still, calmness. Silence is holy waiting. Silence is not easy.

Aside from how darn hard it can be to simply stop your mouth from making noise, silence has a way of catapulting people into the depths of themselves that they may not be very familiar with, very fond of, or very comfortable with. It may bring up distressful emotions, and it can make you feel profoundly alone.

How's that for a hard sell? 

You'd think I'd tell you all about the wonderful benefits of silence before giving you the bad news, wouldn't you? I came in through the back door on this one because I want to make sure that you are not surprised if any of this happens to you, and to encourage you to stay with it and not run from it. Much of the time, these feelings pass if you can let yourself sit with them for awhile, and they can lead you into equally profound places of peace.

Our day-to-day intensely busy lives not only wear us out over time, but constant business also insulates us from emotion, anxiety and facing things about ourselves or our lives that we tend to avoid, but need to tend to. Spending any period of time in silence can create space for all of this baggage to make itself known.

The trick is to sit with those feelings and give them some attention. Journal, paint, run, (silently!) do what you do to validate those feelings, then let them rest. What you will find on the other side, is worth the struggle.

You will find that space where you can actually listen. Calmly, openly, authentically.

I practice silence in two basic ways. One is sitting quietly for a half hour or so after some other type of prayer. I may pray first for some thing I want help with, I may vent frustrations, I may intercede on behalf of someone else, or spend some time giving thanks, then let my own voice fall quiet and just listen. Another way is to do almost nothing more than say "hey" to God, and immediately move into listening mode. I don't ask for anything, confess anything, or gripe about anything. I just listen.

Try silence on for size by starting with 10-15 minutes. Work your way up to an hour or so of silence before bed. If you really want to throw yourself into it, spend a day in silence, or even two. One interesting variation of this is observing the Great (or Grand) Silence, where you remain quiet from about 9:00 in the evening (or after Compline for those of you who know about liturgical hours) until after breakfast the next morning.

Like anything, the more you practice silence, the faster you will be able to get into that deeper state of listening. Short periods of time are useful, but if you ever have the chance to be silent for a day, or a few days, give it a try. It will take you to some very interesting places.

Saturday, June 1, 2013


I'm going to pause this week in exploring various prayer practices, and talk a little bit about openness, honesty, frankness when we pray.

A comment that was made to me recently by someone who expressed feeling anxious when they pray, was that they had a difficult time telling the "truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth," especially  when asking for help, expressing anger, or making a confession. It wasn't that this person "lied," but had issues or topics that were passively present in prayer, rather than actively brought out into the open. 

I have to admit, I have found myself in that kind of place more than once.  After all, God knows everything about us, so why did it matter that I didn't specifically bring a subject up? For example, I sometimes have those days that I find myself short-tempered or uhm... shall I say... bitchy. During my evening prayer time when I review my day, does it matter if I specifically bring up that I unfairly bit someone's head off? Is it not enough to have it hover in the background, knowing that I know and God knows that it's there?

I will argue that yes, it matters quite a lot.

Prayer is about relationship. How open we are willing to be, how much effort we put into laying all of our cards on the table, matters. Think about your human relationships. If a friend, a child, or your spouse comes to you and admits some error or problem they are struggling with, does it not mean more to you, even if you already knew about what they were talking about?

How deeply are you willing to enter into a relationship with God? This truly is a relationship where all of our baggage is welcome, desired, and known. Bring it. Bring your anger, your resentments, your fears your short-comings and your "bitchy" moments. Bring your joy, your accomplishments, your gratitude, your hopes and your wishes. All of it.

If there is any time where we can be genuinely, keenly be every bit of who we are, and be met with compassion, forgiveness, and encouragement, this is it. The more you can willingly and actively bare those deeper, darker, less "pretty" parts of yourself in prayer, the more healing you will find there.

Sunday, May 26, 2013


You may have started reading this article with the idea that I'm going to be talking about using prayer shawls or lap blankets, but I'm not.  Not that these things are not useful prayer aids, but today I want to talk more about the making of them, rather than the use of them, as a prayerful practice.

If you knit or crochet, you may very well already know what I'm talking about here. People who knit and/or crochet (and I'll throw in spinning and weaving too) consistently talk about the meditative experience they have while making various things out of yarn. The rhythmic, repetitive movement, the focused attention, the often altered state of consciousness that can be achieved, the camaraderie between craftswomen and men who share this interest all create a very spiritually based experience, whether the participant is alone or in a group.

Entire ministries are created around knitting prayer shawls to be given to those who are experiencing difficult times, or as a way of offering encouragement, or as a show of community support. Hats are made for cancer patients or the homeless, baby clothes made for orphans or babies being taken into foster care, or endless other possibilities for donating the fruits of one's labors to those in some need. 

Isn't that the coolest thing? 

I have to confess that my own knitting skills are meager, and I don't crochet at all. It takes a lot of "warm-up" time for me to be able to get into a prayerful state of mind while knitting. It often results in dropped stitches, pattern errors, or making other mistakes that challenge my patience and result in the use of language that I would not think of as being *ahem* prayerful. I do have to say though, those times that I have been able to get there, have been pretty darn remarkable.

So, how do you go about giving this  try? I recommend starting off with some small project that you would like to give to someone else as a token of support or comfort. A hat is a good place to start. Before you begin, pray about the purpose of the project and give yourself time in that prayer to settle your mind down. As you work your project, choose how you want to pray. Some people really do repeat a short prayer at each stitch- much like praying with a rosary. Others will say a prayer at the end of a row or round. Others still begin and end their activity time with prayer but do not say any prayers while they are actually working. Some choose to work in silence, focusing their attention less on praying per se, and set their minds to prayerful listening. Do what speaks to you at the time. 

If you want to learn to knit or crochet but don't know anyone who can teach you, there are a lot of good instructional videos on YouTube or on websites of yarn stores.

Knit Picks- an online store that sells absolutely delicious needles and yarns:

Go to YouTube: and type in a search for "knitting" or "crochet" and you'll literally find hundreds of instructional videos for darn near anything you may need help with. 

There are also community groups where people get together to knit in coffee shops, yarn stores or other venues. These folks are very often willing and more than able to offer some basic instruction to get you started.

You can find very inexpensive, perfectly serviceable yarn at dollar stores, and thrift stores can be goldmines for needles and yarn. A few dollars can literally open this avenue for you developing a new prayer practice. Give it a try and let me know what you think!

Monday, May 20, 2013

Holy God, our hearts ache from the devastation in Oklahoma and we stand in awe of the utter power of creation. Bring comfort to those who grieve and rest to those who aid others. Help us find the lost and heal the wounded, and may you shelter all who have died gently in your loving arms.

Guide our nation to meet the challenges to come with generosity and deep compassion as we rebuild what has been destroyed. Let our prayers be made not only with our hearts, but with our hands and feet as we offer all we can to those who are in need.

Let us all remember that we do not face this desolation alone, but stand in the hope, peace, and renewal of your beloved Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ, who reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, now and forever, amen.