ONE MONTH OF DAILY PRACTICE
A Guide to Prayer and Meditation
The following readings are here to support a daily practice for the next thirty-one days. They are hints for entering the Presence that is more than our own.
Presence Beyond All Names,
I need more deeply than I can know.
I ask to be given what I most need. Please be with any thought or memory
that tries to convince me I’m all alone.
Please heal what I have no power to heal.
Please fill me with your Tenderness.
Each day, as I begin this time of Silence, I remind myself that, for now, there is no thought, no insight, and no experience that is more important than my simple willingness to rest within original holding. Each day, as I breathe tenderly, I trust that what most needs to happen is being offered at a level outside of my current awareness. My deepest need is held as I enter each breath with reverence. This need is spoken with each breath and, should I so choose, with each silent repetition of a chosen word. [Please consider: Home or Abba or Amma or Tender with a single syllable on each slow in-breath and a single syllable or no syllable on each gentle out-breath. You may also want to consider placing your hands in a similar position to the hands of the child in the image above.]
My full asking is alive in each new breath. For these next minutes, I can quit being in charge of my life.
Whatever blessing I receive I share with all beings, everywhere.
This tender breath. Only this. Amen.
There is life without love. It is not worth a bent penny, or a scuffed shoe. It is not worth the body of a dead dog nine days unburied. —Mary Oliver
We speak of love all the time. In our homes, our communities, our places of worship. Yet who among us truly trusts in being fully lovable and fully loved? The word becomes weightless. Even so, love is our first need, what we most long for, a hope that – when we are fully honest - we may be afraid to hope.
Prayer is a willingness to risk returning to our original need. We might ask, “How can breathing-as-prayer possibly make a difference?” or “How can ten or twenty minutes a day change things?” or “Isn’t this just another attempt to make me believe in something that isn’t really there? Nothing seems to be happening. What if that’s all that ever happens?”
Such resistance is not only understandable, it’s pretty much required. Our resistance and doubt come from the honest place in us, the true place in us—which is indeed the only place we can experience being held.
This need. This tender word resting in this soothing breath. Amen.
[From our earliest moments on planet earth] there’s one question that all brains want answered, and they want it answered, “Yes.” And they don’t want a lukewarm “Yes,” or a “Maybe Yes,” or a “Getting-to-Yes, Yes.” They want a substantial, resounding, unequivocal, “YES! Yes.” When the answer is something other than “Yes,” if the answer is “Maybe,” or “I’m not sure,” a confusion and uncertainty begins to take shape in our brains. The question our brains ask is: Are you there for me? Do I matter enough that you’ll put me first when I need you to? Can I count on you to attend to me in the ways I need you to? Do I truly and deeply matter to you?
—Mark Brady, Ph.D.
We are hardwired for “Yes.” We are hardwired to matter and matter absolutely. Not sort of. Not somewhat. But fully. Unless and until this happens we keep searching, trying, strategizing, thinking it’s up to us to get it right. Our need to hear an unconditional “Yes” isn’t selfish, it’s our birthright. It is also at the heart of prayer. Until we come home to being-with-as-Yes, we keep seeking or demanding or despairing that it will ever happen, at great cost to ourselves and those who surround us.
Prayer is being-with-as-Yes in this very breath. Coming home. Already home.
It’s what we all want, in the end,
to be held, merely to be held,
to be kissed (not necessarily with the lips,
for every touching is a kind of kiss).
Yes, it’s what we all want, in the end,
not to be worshiped, not to be admired,
not to be famous, not to be feared
. . . but simply to be held.
For many of us, “Maybe Yes” or “Somewhat Yes” is the best we got growing up. Good parents, doing their best, but too busy or too lost or too caught in their own search for the Yes they never fully received. Of course, by now it’s too late to have a happy childhood. But it isn’t too late to experience what we may have missed experiencing then. We can find holding now. Every spiritual tradition has its own way of revealing the same underlying reality: that Love/Deep Peace/Original Dwelling is always present, regardless of external conditions of happiness or suffering.
Each tender breath is soothing received. Each restful breath releases the demand for something extra. This simple breath is the arrival. This gentle breath brings me home.
The essential dynamic for establishing security in infants can be described in three words:
Jesus was exceptionally clear. In a religious culture where it wasn’t acceptable to even speak the name of God, Jesus boldly described the ultimate nature of God as Abba - a term signifying the most tender and attentive of parents. Within current developmental research, the common denominator within all secure children is their trust in the loving intention and responsiveness of their caregiver. Two thousand years ago, Jesus was making clear that this formula for security is at the heart of prayer: Need. Ask. Holding. (The image of the child’s hands resting in larger hands on the cover page depicts this exact trust. While meditating it can be useful to share this child’s hand posture.)
To breathe with intention is to ask. Whether it’s thirty minutes, three breaths, or the pause in the middle of the day during a single breath—a simple meditation-as-prayer practice is a willingness to open to hidden soothing.
This need. This tender word resting in this soothing breath. Amen.
After the first few steps in the Christian life we realize that everything which really needs to happen in our souls can be done only by God. —C.S. Lewis
I mislead myself everyday: “The outcome of my life is up to me.” I never say this consciously, but this core belief, learned very young, repeats itself throughout almost everything I do. Need. Don’t ask. Figure out the best game plan possible. When all is said and done, I’m on my own.
Good News: the change I most need isn’t up to me. No matter how hard I try, I don’t have a freaking clue what I most need.
O God, I need more deeply than I can know. I ask to be given what I most need.
OK, it’s also up to me, but not in the way I typically think. My task is to commit to a brief time each day and to be present, open, receptive. This moment is neither self-determined nor predetermined. Prayer is another dimension altogether. My work is not to work. My work is to set these few minutes aside, to risk trusting and to rest into what – at times – I’m almost certain can’t be here.
Please heal what I don’t have the power to heal.
Alas, I do not know either the mystical word or the mystical diagram, nor do I know the songs of praise to thee, nor how to welcome thee, nor how to meditate on thee . . . nor how to inform thee of my distress. But this much I know, O Mother, that to take refuge in thee is to destroy all my miseries. Om Tare Tutare Ture Soha.
—Tibetan Buddhist Prayer
With our computer, access to a domain name makes all the difference: type it, press enter and another dimension opens.
Mantra practice is the choice to take all of your needs and all of your asking and all of your (limited but growing) trust in hidden holding and letting this entire process reside within one sacred word. Mantra practice is the choice to risk not knowing what is happening at the deepest place within you and trust the nature of Love to accomplish what most needs to happen.
A different metaphor: You are watering a young tree on a hot summer day. You’re not happy. In fact, you’re deeply upset. Your mind keeps repeating angry or fearful thoughts about whatever it is that’s bothering you. Even so, you continue watering the tree. Regardless of what you’re currently thinking and feeling, the roots receive the water, deepening into the soil that holds them. Regardless of what you are currently thinking, you water this tree everyday.
Does not everything depend upon our interpretation of the silence that surrounds us?
Needing and asking with no discernable response in the present moment . . . . who would keep doing that on a daily basis? “It’s just opening up, time and again, with nothing happening. Why keep trying?” To continually trust in the unseen seems at least irrational and probably foolish.
What most of us don’t know is that our view of the Sacred was formed in our original experience of relationship. If we experienced being-with on a consistent basis, we likely experience God as genuinely available and responsive. But, to the degree that we had experiences of “Yes, sort of” or “Yes, but I’m busy” then somewhere, hidden beneath conscious recall, we’re struggling with memories of emptiness: nothing happening when we really needed soothing and presence to happen. This is the birthplace of All Alone, the certainty that we are actually on our own. “I need and no one actually responds.” This non-response then colors our view of God: “I ask and get nothing.”
It may well have been true, then. I doesn’t have to be true, now.
No need to argue with our negativity. Of course it’s there. How could it not be? Just find that hidden self that speaks with cynical certainty. Help that self to breath as you breath.
Hell is a state of mind . . . And every state of mind, left to itself, every shutting up of the creature within the dungeon of its own mind is, in the end, Hell.
But Heaven is not a state of mind. Heaven is reality itself.
Our negative certainty, inevitably cynical, wants us to no longer hope. We do no one any favors by continuing to believe that message in our head that promises absence. It always speaks of inevitable difficulty, pain, trouble, and ruin. Empty words formed in emptiness reconfirming emptiness.
Hell is believing our negative state of mind. Heaven is breathing deeper than our fear. Heaven is allowing ourselves to access “reality itself” – nothing special, merely the nature of Love that has always been and will always be . . . available in this next breath.
A man crawls for years
on his stomach
with his eyes closed.
Then one moment he opens his eyes,
and he’s in a garden.
I am loved in this moment.
But I don’t feel anything. I’m still in the dark.
Feeling isn’t the issue. (Feelings change within conditions. Love is larger than conditions.)
But nothing changes. I don’t feel any holding. I’m still in the dark.
The garden isn’t going anywhere. Yes. It will always be here. (Funny thing, it is grounding you even as we speak.)
My belief is that when you're telling the truth, you're close to God. If you say to God, "I am exhausted and depressed beyond words, and I don't like You at all right now, and I recoil from most people who believe in You," that might be the most honest thing you've ever said. If you told me you had said to God, "It is all hopeless, and I don't have a clue if You exist, but I could use a hand," it would almost bring tears to my eyes, tears of pride in you, for the courage it takes to get real-really real. It would make me want to sit next to you at the dinner table.— Anne Lamott
Prayer isn’t as much about articulating need as it is about allowing need to be exactly as it is. Real-really real. Prayer becomes need allowed, need we can quit pretending isn’t here. Prayer is allowing need a chance to acknowledged, no longer hidden. It's also allowing need to quit swimming in our negative certainty that we're totally alone and risk letting the truth be offered and shared: without labels, without conclusions, without requiring an outcome or an answer.
Prayer is admitting need, then asking.
We don’t need answers. We need holding.
God is foolishly in love with me. He seems to have forgotten heaven and earth and deity. His entire business is with me alone, to give me everything to comfort me. He gives it to me suddenly, he gives it to me wholly, he gives it to me perfectly, he gives it to me all the time, he gives it to all creatures. —Meister Eckhart
“A bit too good to be true” we say. Or just maybe, it’s too true to fit our limited understanding of “good.” Our hardwiring for a full Yes may not be the tragedy it appears, living as we do on a planet with so much limitation in our capacity to offer each other love. Maybe we were hardwired to find Love for a good reason. Maybe we need to recognize the need to ask for the presence we most require from its Source. Maybe our life can be different if we commit to a daily practice of asking for what we most need from the One who is always offering.
Forty years into the process, I’d say this is what makes the difference.
“When we honestly ask ourselves who in our lives means the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving much advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a gentle and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing, and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.” —Henri Nouwen
The chatter of everyday minds. We talk and plan, lost in the trivia of texting and waiting for that next call. Thinking, worrying, trying to control every outcome, often sure it won’t go the way we want: “What if things don’t work out?”
Deeper still, unknowable to the surface of things, breathing rests into Love unseen. Such Love is invisible to the eye that requires proof. Faith is a willingness risk intimacy that trusts in Presence – personal and attentive – deeper than conscious awareness.
O God, I need more deeply than I can know. I ask to be given what I most need.
Prayer takes place at the deepest level of our person and escapes our direct cognition; therefore we can make no judgment about it.
If we take a pill, we don’t micromanage whether it’s working. We take it and go on about our lives, trusting it’s at work outside of our awareness.
For years, when I would meditate I’d keep checking: “Am I peaceful?” “Am I calm?” “Am I getting somewhere with this?” Even though I could watch this need to be calm, my thoughts of getting somewhere, my self-protective vigilance remained the same. I just got vigilant about noticing my vigilance. The underlying tension I had always carried continued, lurking in my attempts to cease attempting.
It was still up to me.
Then a shift: breathing-as-tenderness opened into trust. I lessened my vigilance about being conscious. Consciousness became simply noticing this vigilant mind with a kind of tender care, then returning to a growing confidence that what most needs to happen is already happening, a downloading outside anything I can currently comprehend.
Silence has it’s own vocabulary, a language I’m still only beginning to speak.
I breathe tenderly into this Silence that is always with me.
"Keep only “Don’t Know Mind.” —Zen Saying
I need love in ways I wouldn’t know to ask for. My life needs organization in ways I wouldn’t have a clue how to provide. My plans don’t have access to the wisdom of the Big Picture.
Fortunately it’s not up to me. Fortunately there is deep Coherence in the nature of things.
I return, again and again to breathing Presence.
This tender breath. Amen.
Faith is finding security in insecurity, the realization that unless we work hard to maintain a hole in the heavens by which the closed universe of anxiety is breached, the fate of everything in our created world will be determined by . . . fear.”
— Maggie Ross
Fear can’t undo fear. Our fingerprints of anxiety contaminate the events of each and every day.
I don’t pray to be holy. I pray because I’m freaking crazy. If I don’t find a dimension beyond my well-established disquiet, I’m in huge trouble. I couldn’t possibly traverse the difficulties in this life without access to “a hole in the heavens.”
When I light a candle each morning, often in the dark, I'm not fighting the darkness. The light, with utter and total ease, transforms darkness without an ounce of effort. So it is with this next tender breath.
At the heart of faith: “Fear not” and “I will be with you always.”
How did the rose
its heart and give to the world
all its beauty?
It felt the encouragement
of light against its being.
Otherwise we all remain too frightened.
How will this day be different for me as I bring tenderness to my breath?
The encouragement of light allows me to see.
I use centering as a verb to mean a continual process of uniting opposites. Centering, for me, is the discipline of saying yes to what is most holy as well as what is unbearable. The severity of that, as a discipline, is not widely understood.
Prayer has saved me from terror. Prayer has returned me to terror.
As I’ve slowly built a capacity to trust hidden holding, I’ve found myself revisiting memories and feelings that are dreadful. Spiritual practice doesn’t seem to offer an exemption from pain, but it does seem to transform suffering.
So much in my life that I wish had never happened actually happened. Its anguish is still repeating within me. What’s different is that I no longer deal with this distress alone. I allow a soothing Presence that I never knew to be with me as I struggle and flail.
In a world of not enough, enough.
There is a treasure in your heart,
It is heavy with child.
Like trusted midwives,
all the Awakened Ones are saying
Welcome this pain,
It opens the
Dark Passage of Grace.
Whether I like this moment or wish it were completely different, I breathe trust as I walk this dark passage of Grace.
Way will open. Way is opening.
Another morning and I wake with thirst for the goodness I do not have. I walk out to the pond and all the way God has given us such beautiful lessons. Oh Lord, I was never a quick scholar but sulked and hunched over my books past the hour and the bell; grant me, in your mercy, a little more time. Love for the earth and love for you are having such a long conversation in my heart. Who knows what will finally happen or where I will be sent, yet already I have given a great many things away, expecting to be told to pack nothing, except the prayers which, with this thirst, I am slowly learning.
How might I allow my thirst to guide me to ask in a new way, at a level I’ve been afraid to consider?
How can I call out to the One who patiently walks with me as I learn this new vocabulary of tenderness?
Rest in natural great peace
This exhausted mind
Beaten helpless by karma
and neurotic thought,
Like the relentless fury
of the pounding waves
In the infinite ocean
Part of my appreciation for Buddhism is that it offers a clear sense of our Original Nature, our original dwelling place. “Natural great peace” is a wondrous way to frame what we come home to when we cease traveling the world within anxiety. Deeper than all neurosis, below this seemingly endless experience of suffering, is Original Peace. It has always been here. It is here now. For all beings.
The first step in spiritual practice is to know ourselves to be lovable and allow ourselves to be loved.” —John Main
We’re always taking this first step. I don’t think I’ve ever met a person who isn’t still in need of resting more deeply within the trust that she or he is fully lovable, fully loved, and fully held. To the degree that we are unable to rest in this soothing truth we struggle, creating difficulty and pain . . . for ourselves and those around us. To the degree that we have this confidence, we find ourselves grounded and rooted within Deep Peace.
Every need brings what’s needed.
Pain bears its cure like a child.
The tender-throated infant cries
and the milk drops
from the mother’s breast.
Be thirsty for the ultimate water,
and then be ready for what will
come pouring from the spring.
To understand the nature of water we must understand thirst.
I feel closer to what language can’t reach . . . enter the breathing that is more than your own.
—Rainer Maria Rilke
Trust is rooted within Original Tenderness.
Tenderness is experienced in a part of the brain
that doesn’t have language.
Let us give words to our mistrust.
Let us move beyond words to soothing.
No matter the circumstance, let us allow this tender breath to be enough.
“ . . . it happens secretly in darkness, hidden from the faculties . . . so hidden that the soul cannot speak of it.”
—St. John of the Cross
In this moment, in this breath, I don’t know what takes place within me.
I don’t have to know. I need. I ask.
I trust the watering of roots that move in the dark soil blind, but not blindly.
“[I realized that my life] . . . was in the hands of One who loved me far better than I could ever love myself: and my heart was filled with peace. It was a peace that did not depend upon external conditions. It was a peace that the world could not give.” —Thomas Merton
I often resist trusting in unconditional love.
With this breath I have a choice: keep feeding my well-learned negative certainty or slowly, restfully receive what I most need.
The essence of Jesus’ teaching is simply that the love we all long for in our innermost hearts is already present, beyond longing. [This love] isn’t an illusion. It is real. It is more intimate than anything we can see or touch, “unreachable,” as the Upanishads say, “yet nearer than breath, than heartbeat.” The more deeply we receive it, the more real it becomes. —Stephen Mitchell
To pray is to ask, to give our consent to finally receiving the love we most need. At long last we give our permission for the underlying coherence of the universe to hold us and to slowly transform that which continues to feel lost, alone, afraid.
Our receptivity reorganizes our “reality.”
We surrender to the attraction of interior silence, tranquility, and peace. We do not try to feel anything, reflect about anything. Without effort, without trying, we sink into Presence, letting everything else go. Let love alone speak: the simple desire to be one with the Presence, to forget self, and to rest in Ultimate Mystery. This Presence is immense, yet so humble; awe-inspiring, yet so gentle, limitless, yet so intimate, tender and personal. I know that I am known . . .We wait patiently; in silence, openness, and quiet attentiveness; motionless within and without. We surrender to the attraction to be still, to be loved, just to be. —Thomas Keating
I now realize that prayer and meditation are utterly useless in the sense of being efficient. So is hanging out with a baby. Or talking with a friend. Nothing really gets accomplished. And yet as many come to realize at the end of their lives—this loving, this being loved, this simple being-with is all that really matters.
We are indoctrinated so much into means and ends that we don’t realize that there is a different dimension in the life of prayer. In technology you have this horizontal progress, where you must start at one point and move to another and then another. But that is not the way to build a life of prayer. In prayer we discover what we already have. You start where you are, and you realize that you are already there. We already have everything, but we don’t know it and we don’t experience it. Everything has been given to us in Christ. All we need is to experience what we already possess. The trouble is, we aren’t taking time to do so. If we really want prayer, we’ll have to give it time. We must slow down to a human tempo and we’ll begin to have time to listen. And as soon as we listen to what’s going on, things begin to take shape by themselves. But for this we have to experience time in a new way. —Thomas Merton
Daily practice is a return to an ever-present, internal monastery. Whether it’s thirty minutes, three breaths, or the pause after a single breath—a simple prayer practice is a willingness to open to hidden Presence. Even if a part of my brain tells me that accessing the Unseen isn’t an option, I choose throughout the day to return to the hidden Yes at the heart of things.
Our pilgrimage of silence teaches us that we are here already, with our [Loving Parent] who has called us to be here, who created us to be here, who loves us to be here . . . in our hearts, in silence, beyond ideas. —John Main
Light lingers at the edge of things
blinded by the light we know.
The grace of God means something like: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you. —Frederick Buechner
We might never have been. But we are. And this strange, unrepeatable Mystery we share wouldn’t have been complete without us.
Every person I will ever meet has a true nature and that nature is infinitely precious. Underneath everything we do or don’t do, we each have infinite worth.
Infinite worth seeks the infinite tenderness it was born to know. None of us can rest until it is finally known.
In the Beginning
Fear and his horses
ride over the hill,
but we do not need
to open our doors. Come
to this fire
that offers a simple heat.
Let all the selves
you never wanted to be
be here. Let them sit
near this fire that gives warmth
to whatever comes near.
Maybe tomorrow you will smell
the smoke that soaked
into creases of skin,
the smell of our beginning
This need. Resting in this tender breath. Amen.