This post is inspired by a question raised by Pyzahn, author of Prattle. . . from the Flatlands.
I had a few minutes before I was to meet a friend for coffee, so I stopped at a sweet little store that recently opened. It's called the Heart of Tibet. New to meditation, I thought it might be interesting to try out some prayer beads. I browsed and picked a strand made of sandlewood.
Ringing up my purchase was an older woman, on the short side, her hair shaved to tiny bristles of gray, her smile wide and inviting, her face lined with story. She fumbled a bit with the register, then decided to do the math by hand. She took the beads, rubbed them briskly between her hands, and handed them to me.
"Here, nice smell. You like?"
Oh yes, I liked the smell, and their warmth, her warmth. I told her what I was doing and that I planned to use them to meditate. She clapped her hands together as if I'd just told her she had a new grandbaby. And then she took the beads back from me, brought them close to her lips, and began to chant something softly over and over. When she stopped, she grinned and opened her eyes.
"You know Buddhist prayer compassion?"
"You want to learn?"
"I teach you." That smile again.
And thus began a very slow phonetic lesson.
I did pretty well with the first 5 sounds, but that last one stumped me, so she rummaged for a discarded register receipt and wrote each word down. And then she explained the meaning behind each one, most of which made sense, except something that sounded like nasty, ill-tempered little creatures who were not happy but whom we must still love.
I was beginning to worry about the time now, and had to excuse myself before I completely understood the full meaning of the prayer. She let me go without hesitation and invited me to come back any time and learn more. With full intention, I said I would.
I've seen her since then in the neighborhood, buying something at the co-op, and another time as I waited by the bus stop, which is in front of the store. I was looking at the window display, crammed with stuffed animals, and I almost missed her. She nearly blended into the dark interior of the shop, still like a statue, eyes fixed on something that I certainly did not see.
Weeks later, when I did return, the owner of the shop, a younger woman, maybe of Scandinavian descent, was at the counter. I inquired about the compassion-prayer woman.
"Oh, that's An. She's my sister-in-law."
"Ah, well I was wondering, is she actually from Tibet?"
"Yes, in fact she's a nun. She even lived in a cave for a while in Tibet. She knew from a very young age that she wanted to be a nun. Isn't that amazing? An is a term that means sister."
"I see. Well, will you tell her that the woman she taught the compassion prayer has memorized it and says it everyday on the bus now?"
"Oh, she'll be so happy. Yes, I'll tell her."
. . . . . . . . . . .
Most days, I jumble prayer and meditation together.
And some days, when I'm very distracted, I close my eyes, breathe deeply the way Thich Nhat Hanh says to do in the Miracle of Mindfulness , then recite a few Om Mani Padme Hums to quiet down and make sure I'm remembering to send compassion to everyone/thing who/that needs (didn't say deserves) it.
Almost always, I begin with the serenity prayer, move through a few other favorites, and arrive at the lovely peace prayer attributed to St. Francis of Assisi.
By this point, I'm pretty mellow, and I can go in different directions, depending on what's going on in my life. But I always close by turning my will and willfull ways over to The Great Unknowable, adding formally (mostly for my own benefit) that I'm letting go of the outcomes of my requests and making a leap of faith that what is best will happen, even if I don't like it or can't understand it. And I always try my best to listen, but I've got a long ways to go.
That's on my good days.
On harder days, I think I have a running conversation with God, frantically asking for help minute by minute. And sometimes, I wail till I exhaust myself and reach the soft, puddly stage where I can give up, wave the white flag, and just go to sleep.
I have plenty of stories of what has happened when others have prayed on my behalf. But I'll save those for now.
As of today, I have no clue if there's a right or wrong way to pray or meditate. Don't think I ever will. Well, maybe, if I study Buddhism, but I think my Catholic nature will always stick around.
Still, I do know with dazzling clarity when I've touched that holy place inside where I feel connected like a trail of star dust to all that is good (and bad), but most especially to grace.
Image by neocorsten