Conventional American Christianity tells that when we pray in groups, we are supposed to bow our heads with our eyes squeezed shut. I understand why people insist on bowing their heads: the conventional Christian God is supposed to require this gesture of obedience and submission. But why must our eyes be shut tight? I understand why we’re not supposed to plug our ears: if we did, then we couldn’t hear the words of the person who is offering the prayer. But why does public prayer require lack of vision?
Whenever I see people squeezing their eyes tight shut during prayer — because I don’t close my eyes during public prayers — I’m reminded of what Jesus says in the Christian scriptures: Do not be like the hypocrites who stand and pray on the street corners, making sure their act of piety is seen by others. Do not be like them. Do not bow your head in prayer, for if you do the only reward you will receive is the knowledge that you conformed to the conventions. Do not close your eyes: the eyes are the lamp of the self: open your eyes and your ears and your whole being and let your body be filled with light. Don’t stop when the person saying the words of prayer stops: pray without ceasing, that’s what the Christian scriptures actually say, pray without ceasing, pray without ceasing.
In conventional American Christianity, once the prayer stops — that is, once the person saying the prayer stops saying words — people open their eyes, and the praying stops. I, heretic that I am, didn’t listen to the words of the prayer and didn’t close my eyes. In the eyes of the conventional Christians I didn’t pray, and if that’s all there is to prayer, I have no interest in praying.
Sometimes I need to shut my brain off. One way I can do that is by writing. But writing can also act as a stimulant, making my thoughts go round even faster.
People tell me meditation will shut my brain off. I meditated seriously for years, until I realized that I really disliked meditating, and that it made me detached and mean. I’m one of those people who gets “meditation-related adverse effects.”
Nope, prayer doesn’t work either. I want fewer words going around in my head, not more of them.
Walking is a sure-fire way for me to quiet my brain. Talking with my spouse will do it. Singing. Doing chores (sometimes).
But right now, I’m going to read a murder mystery. It’s too late to go for a walk or sing, my spouse is in Wisconsin, I’m sick of doing chores. A murder mystery, that’s just the ticket. It will engage my brain just enough, but it won’t require much concentration.
You do your spiritual practices, I’ll do mine. Erle Stanley Gardner, here I come.
I’ll be leading a workshop on ecological spirituality at Ferry Beach Conference Center in Main this summer. One of the ecological spiritual practices I’m going to explore with participants is keeping some kind of nature journal. Although most nature journals focus on musings and emotions, it’s also possible to keep a nature journal rooted in the practices of field biologists. An example of the first type of journal might be Henry Thoreau’s early journals, where he relates his philosophical musings to his observations of the natural world. An example of the second type of journal might be Henry Thoreau’s later journals (1853 and later), where his close observations of the natural world lead to deeper insights into non-human organisms.
I’ve found lots of books and online resources that tell how to keep the first type of journal, but it’s more difficult to find accessible books and resources that teach people how to keep the second type of journal. So I wrote an eight-page introduction to the topic to share with the participants in the upcoming workshop. Click on the image below to read a PDF of “A Field Journal for Naturalists.”
I’m currently taking the California Certified Naturalist class, with a curriculum developed by the University of California, and offered through a local environmental nonprofit, Grassroots Ecology. One of the ongoing assignments is to keep a field journal of observations of the natural world.
Keeping a field journal feels like a kind of spiritual practice to me. It’s a way to keep connected with the non-human organisms around us, and helps me pay attention to the abiotic components on which life depends. It forces me to get away from the computer and get outdoors, which is something I need to do more of. And it’s very calming, probably because I stop thinking about myself, and think about something larger than myself.
A few months ago, Dr. Sharpie showed Possum some spiritual practices that might make him feel less stressed. Possum says those spiritual practices don’t work any more for him, but Sharpie has an idea….