Before going to sleep

My Unitarian parents had my older sister and me say prayers before bed when we were children, more as a cultural practice than a spiritual practice; in the middle of the twentieth century in the United States, it was a cultural norm to have your children say their prayers before bed. But I have only the vaguest memory of this, so I suspect we only did it a handful of times, probably when we were quite young. I don’t remember my younger sister ever saying bedtime prayers, though maybe they made her do it once or twice, too.

I like the idea of some kind of reflective practice at the end of the day, though I have no interest in reciting “Now I lay me down to sleep.” Pythagoras (c. 570 – c. 495 BC), in one of his “Golden Verses,” outlined a different daily practice, which I think would make a good alternative:

“Never suffer sleep to close your eyes after going to bed, till you have examined, by your reason, all your actions of the day. ‘Wherein have I done amiss? what have I done? what have I omitted that I ought to have done?’ If in this examination you find that you have done amiss, reprimand yourself severely for it; and if you have done any good, rejoice.” (1)

Or, as “John Shadow,” an eighteenth century English writer, described the practice: “It was a good piece of advice which Pythagoras gave to his scholars, that every night before they slept they should examine what they had been doing that day, and so discover what actions were worthy of pursuit tomorrow, and what little vices were to be prevented from slipping unawares into a habit.” John Shadow then goes on to suggest that when we get up in the morning, we should examine our dreams to learn even more about ourselves, because in our dreams we imagine circumstances which give us imaginary opportunities of pursuing our good or bad inclinations “to the utmost,” thus revealing to us our true temperament. (2)

I make every effort to forget my dreams, considering them leftovers and trash that should be emptied out, not picked through. And as for Pythagoras’s advice, I’m not sure I want to spend the moments before falling asleep reviewing all the stupid things I’ve done that day, and then reprimanding myself; that seems like a sure recipe for insomnia. Either that, or I’d fall asleep while still going over the long list of things I’d done wrong that day, which seems likely to lead to nightmares.

There is also the Confucian spiritual practice of “quiet sitting,” developed by the Neo-Confucian school about a thousand years ago. The Confucians would practice quiet-sitting in the middle of the day: Sitting quietly in a chair with the back straight and hands on your knees, they would examine the “mind-heart” (unlike us Westerners, the Confucians considered mind and heart to be one). Examining the mind-heart is not easy; there is ancient Chinese metaphor that equates the mind-heart with a lively monkey which prefers to run around and finds it difficult to sit still. The Confucians taught that when you do quiet-sitting, the goal is to get the lively monkey of the mind-heart to sit quietly so you are able to reflect on your “ren,” your humaneness; that is, you reflect on how human you are. (Quiet-sitting technique may sound like Buddhist meditation, though the Neo-Confucians would say it was different: Buddhists sat quietly to achieve an independent mental state, Neo-Confucians sat quietly to better understand themselves, so that they could act ethically and fit into the social order.) (3)

The Neo-Confucians who developed quite-sitting had servants, so they could devote a couple of hours in the middle of each day to this practice; they didn’t have to go off to work. The middle of the day might be the best time to engage in this practice: less chance of falling asleep (especially if you do it before lunch), and no chance of developing insomnia or nightmares. This may be an advantage of bedtime prayers: when you pray, you can repeat verbal formulae — “Now I lay me down to sleep”; “Our God who is in heaven”; etc. — and this repetition requires less concentration and less self-discipline, and is more conducive to comforting sleep.

I am not going to return to “Now I lay me,” nor am I fully convinced by either the Pythagoreans or the Neo-Confucians. But some kind of self-reflection each day, something to move me towards greater humaneness, would be very valuable indeed.

To be continued….

Notes:

(1) The translation is from The Commentary of Hierocles upon the Golden Verses of Pythagoras, rev. ed. (Glasgow: Robert Urie, 1756), p. 140; which was based on the trans. into French by Andre Dacier, as trans. from French into English (London: Jacob Tonson, 1707), see p. 304.

(2) From the August 27, 1714, issue of The Spectator; attributed to John Byrom. The Spectator vol. V, ed. Donald F. Bond (Clarendon Press: Oxford, 1965), p. 4.

<3) The description of quiet-sitting is adapted from John H. and Evelyn Nagai Berthrong, Confucianism: A Short Introduction (Oxford: Oneworld, 2000), p. 34.

Rules for prayer

Even though I’m the guy who wrote the essay “Why I Don’t Pray” in the pamphlet “UU Views of Prayer,” I’ve been thinking a lot about prayer recently. Not because I’ve started praying (I haven’t), but more because I’m sick of hearing about the alleged virtues of meditation and mindfulness. You see, meditation and mindfulness are being coopted by consumer capitalism: Meditation will improve worker productivity! Mindfulness will help your children get better grades! And if you work more, or get good grades and go to college, you will be able to buy more!

These are fairly recent developments for meditation and mindfulness. Prayer, on the other hand, got coopted by consumer capitalism a few decades ago. Prayer is an integral part of the “Prosperity Gospel,” a mutant offspring of Christianity and consumer capitalism which holds that if you believe in God and pray and give generously to your church then you will get rich. While I try to be tolerant of other people’s religious beliefs, the Prosperity Gospel is bullshit. And it’s clear clear to me that meditation and mindfulness are on track to being coopted in the same way prayer was: soon we will faced with the spectre of the Prosperity Dharma.

Unitarian Universalists have developed some standards and best practices that have tended to insulate us from the worst excesses of the Prosperity Gospel. It is worth reviewing what those are:

1. Prayer is not going to make you rich; some people who pray might get rich, but that’s random chance. (In fact, the same can be said of religion in general.)

2. If prayer works for you, go for it. If prayer doesn’t work for you, then don’t — AND don’t be an asshole and make fun of people who find that prayer works for them.

3. Unitarian Universalists generally agree with Jesus when he says in the Bible, “When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray on the street corners to be seen by others” (Matt. 6:5). In other words, it’s fine if you pray but don’t be a show-off. In fact, don’t be a show-off with any spiritual practice.

4. We do not have to bow our heads during prayer (see previous point). If you want to, that’s fine, but you don’t have to.

Why is it worth reviewing these standards and best practices? Because they can also be applied to meditation and mindfulness. And meditation and mindfulness are coming ever closer to breeding their own mutant offspring with consumer capitalism. And the last thing we need is to be taken over by the Prosperity Dharma.

REA conference, part four

The fourth plenary session of the annual Religious Education Association conference was devoted to “lightning talks,” five-minute presentations by scholars on their work in progress. I’ll give brief overviews of three of the lightning talks that I found of particular interest; and I’ll add one more quick overview of current research at the end.

Mark Hayse of MidAmerica Nazarene University spoke about his current research in theology and technology, and in particular about his study of video games from a theological perspective. He said that there is a tension in video games between narrative or story, and procedures and rules. He also said that video games provide an interesting bridge between religious education and technological studies. In his research, he draws on the work of Dwayne Hubner and others regarding the synthesis of the spiritual and the aesthetic.

Hayse said his research has raised some challenging questions, including the following: Continue reading “REA conference, part four”

An item of concern

For the past decade or so, I’ve been most concerned with the institutional health of liberal religion: there are human values which are carried best by human institutions, and without a strong institutional structure those values seem likely to wither like a plant without water and adequate soil.

But recently I have become increasingly concerned about the spiritual health of liberal religion in general, and Unitarian Universalism in particular. We religious liberals spend so much time on social justice — and there is indeed an overwhelming amount of social justice work to be done — and we spend so much time on the health of our institutions — and again, there is indeed an overwhelming amount of institutional work to be done — that it has come to seem to me that we are slighting our spiritual well-being.

Along with that, we have come to understand “spiritual well-being” in such individualistic terms that the phrase has almost no meaning within the context of institutional Unitarian Universalism. In the past month or so, I have heard the following mentioned, and even glorified, as activities that foster spiritual well-being: yoga; Zen retreats; shamanic training; dream work; walking the labyrinth; meditation that is rooted in non-Western practices. These are either highly individualistic practices, or practices rooted in another spiritual community; or both.

Yet I rarely hear religious liberals speak lovingly of the core practices that lie at the center of our own liberal religious tradition. Those core liberal religious practices include the following: Continue reading “An item of concern”