My prayers are becoming more deliberate and specific. It has occurred to me that it's not much use to send prayers out to the universe that are lazy. Every morning before meditation, I kneel in the temple and talk for a few minutes to God. I found during the beginning of my stay here at the Ashram that I was often dull-witted during those divine conversations. Tired, confused and bored, my prayers sounded the same. I remember kneeling down one morning, touching my forehead to the floor and muttering to my creator, "Oh, I dunno what I need . . . but you must have some ideas . . . so just do something about it, would you?"
Similar to the way I have oftentimes spoken to my hairdresser.
And, I'm sorry, but that's a little lame. You can imagine God regarding that prayer with an arched eyebrow, and sending back this message: "Call me again when you decide to get serious about this."
Of course God already knows what I need. The question is--do I know? Casting yourself
at God's feet in helpless desperation is all well and good--heaven knows, I've done it myself plenty of times--but ultimately you're likely to get more out of the experience if you can take some action on your end. There's a wonderful old Italian joke about a poor man who goes to church every day and prays before the statue of a great saint, begging, "Dear saint--please, please, please . . . give me the grace to win the lottery." This lament goes on for months. Finally the exasperated statue comes to life, looks down at the begging man and says in weary disgust, "My son--please, please, please . . . buy a ticket." Prayer is a relationship; half the job is mine. If I want transformation, but can't even be bothered to articulate what, exactly, I'm aiming for, how will it ever occur? Half the benefit of prayer is in the asking itself, in the offering of a clearly posed and well- considered intention. If you don't have this, all your pleas and desires are boneless, floppy, inert; they swirl at your feet in a cold fog and never lift. So now I take the time every morning to search myself for specificity about what I am truly asking for. I kneel there in the temple with my face on that cold marble for as long as it takes me to formulate an authentic prayer. If I don't feel sincere, then I will stay there on the floor until I do. What worked yesterday doesn't always work today. Prayers can become stale and drone into the boring and familiar if you let your attention stagnate. In making an effort to stay alert, I am assuming custodial responsibility for the maintenance of my own soul.
Destiny, I feel, is also a relationship--a play between divine grace and willful self-effort. Half of it you have no control over; half of it is absolutely in your hands, and your actions will show measurable consequence. Man is neither entirely a puppet of the gods, nor is he entirely the captain of his own destiny; he's a little of both. We gallop through our
lives like circus performers balancing on two speeding side-by-side horses--one foot is on the horse called "fate," the other on the horse called "free will." And the question you have to ask every day is--which horse is which? Which horse do I need to stop worrying about because it's not under my control, and which do I need to steer with concentrated effort? There is so much about my fate that I cannot control, but other things do fall under my jurisdiction. There are certain lottery tickets I can buy, thereby increasing my odds of finding contentment. I can decide how I spend my time, whom I interact with, whom I share my body and life and money and energy with. I can select what I eat and read and study. I can choose how I'm going to regard unfortunate circumstances in my life-- whether I will see them as curses or opportunities (and on the occasions when I can't rise to the most optimistic viewpoint, because I'm feeling too damn sorry for myself, I can choose to keep trying to change my outlook). I can choose my words and the tone of voice in which I speak to others. And most of all, I can choose my thoughts.
This last concept is a radically new idea for me. Richard from Texas brought it to my attention recently, when I was complaining about my inability to stop brooding. He said, "Groceries, you need to learn how to select your thoughts just the same way you select what clothes you're gonna wear every day. This is a power you can cultivate. If you want to control things in your life so bad, work on the mind. That's the only thing you should be trying to control. Drop everything else but that. Because if you can't learn to master your thinking, you're in deep trouble forever."
On first glance, this seems a nearly impossible task. Control your thoughts? Instead of the other way around? But imagine if you could? This is not about repression or denial. Repression and denial set up elaborate games to pretend that negative thoughts and feelings are not occurring. What Richard is talking about is instead admitting to the existence of negative thoughts, understanding where they came from and why they arrived, and then--with great forgiveness and fortitude--dismissing them. This is a practice that fits hand-in-glove with any psychological work you do during therapy. You can use the shrink's office to understand why you have these destructive thoughts in the first place; you can use spiritual exercises to help overcome them. It's a sacrifice to let them go, of course. It's a loss of old habits, comforting old grudges and familiar vignettes. Of course this all takes practice and effort. It's not a teaching that you can hear once and then expect to master immediately. It's constant vigilance and I want to do it. I need to do it, for my strength. Devo farmi le ossa is how they say it in Italian. "I need to make my bones."
So I've started being vigilant about watching my thoughts all day, and monitoring them. I repeat this vow about 700 times a day: "I will not harbor unhealthy thoughts anymore." Every time a diminishing thought arises, I repeat the vow. I will not harbor unhealthy thoughts anymore. The first time I heard myself say this, my inner ear perked up at the word "harbor," which is a noun as well as a verb. A harbor, of course, is a place of refuge, a port of entry. I pictured the harbor of my mind--a little beat-up, perhaps, a little storm- worn, but well situated and with a nice depth. The harbor of my mind is an open bay, the only access to the island of my Self (which is a young and volcanic island, yes, but fertile and promising). This island has been through some wars, it is true, but it is now committed to peace, under a new leader (me) who has instituted new policies to protect the place. And now--let the word go out across the seven seas--there are much, much stricter laws on the books about who may enter this harbor.
You may not come here anymore with your hard and abusive thoughts, with your plague ships of thoughts, with your slave ships of thoughts, with your warships of thoughts--all these will be turned away. Likewise, any thoughts that are filled with angry or starving exiles, with malcontents and pamphleteers, mutineers and violent assassins, desperate prostitutes, pimps and seditious stowaways--you may not come here anymore, either. Cannibalistic thoughts, for obvious reasons, will no longer be received. Even missionaries will be screened carefully, for sincerity. This is a peaceful harbor, the entryway to a fine and proud island that is only now beginning to cultivate tranquillity. If you can abide by these new laws, my dear thoughts, then you are welcome in my mind--otherwise, I shall turn you all back toward the sea from whence you came.
That is my mission, and it will never end.