Essay #10: Heartprayer

Einstein said of Gandhi, “Generations to come will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth.”  Gandhi is a worthy subject of study for our own pursuit of wisdom because his saintly nature is a testament to what the human spirit can achieve, as Einstein reminds us, and also because he embodied very human flaws.  Gandhi is a stellar example of something I wrote in essay #5:

What can be valid regarding enlightenment is the idea that as we grow toward greater wisdom some of us will be farther along than others.  Yet even this understanding of enlightenment—that some of us are “more enlightened” than others—is misleading because no one progresses smoothly toward greater wisdom in all areas of life.  We all have strengths and shortcomings in our journey toward our highest potential.  Someone who appears enlightened in some respects will for sure have major flaws that may be hidden.  That’s why it’s never beneficial to relate to someone else as though they are enlightened; it can trap them as well as us in false expectations and possibly encourage shadowy behaviors.

Most biographies of Gandhi focus on his virtues, as well they should, but it’s equally helpful in pursuing wisdom to understand Gandhi’s shadowy human side, as is found in a more probing biography like Jad Adams’ Gandhi: The True Man Behind Modern India.  Here I want to emphasize that Gandhi attributed his incredible saintly accomplishments to a very simple exercise, mantra.  In India mantra refers to the centuries-old practice of silently repeating a word or phrase for spiritual benefit.  Gandhi’s chosen mantra was Rama, the name of an Indian deity that personalizes the concept of God.  This is why the film Gandhi has him utter “Oh God” as he is killed by an assassin’s bullet: because that’s the English translation of his mantra.  Gandhi practiced this same mantra every day of his entire adult life and referred to this practice as his “staff of life” that carried him through every ordeal.  And that’s saying something because Gandhi’s life consisted of one extreme ordeal after another.

Without knowing this about Gandhi and without knowing very much about mantra, I decided at age 23 to try silently repeating a phrase over and over throughout the day just to see what would happen.  At the time I was living in the countryside near Bloomington, Indiana, and working at Indiana University’s Office of the Bursar (business office).  I chose my first phrase, show me truth, during morning meditation and repeated it constantly during breakfast and the 30-minute car ride to work.  The Bursar’s Office is a large building with a wide array of steps leading up to several entrance doors.  Approaching the steps I noticed a man some distance away creating a bit of commotion, so I stayed on my side of the steps as far away from the man as possible and quickly walked toward the doors.  Suddenly this man had somehow dashed directly to me from a good 30 feet away with something in his outstretched hand, saying, “This is the truth!”  It was a booklet containing Psalms and the four gospels of the New Testament.

This got my attention.  Granted, this man was trying to hand out the same booklet to as many people as possible, but this was an unusual experience for several reasons.  First, at the time I arrived, about 9:00 am, a great many people were already on those steps going to and from the Bursar’s Office.  What prompted this man to run so quickly through a crowd to the opposite side of the steps to single me out?  Second, I worked at the Bursar’s Office for three years, and this was the only time I ever saw a person trying to hand out booklets.  And third, why did he feel the need to practically yell at me, “This is the truth!” with a great deal of emphasis on the word truth?  This striking synchronicity inspired me to continue the experiment of silently repeating a phrase throughout the day.

The next morning I chose a different phrase during meditation, teach me humility, and repeated it constantly until I arrived for work.  This time nothing unusual happened, but I continued the phrase all morning whenever my mind didn’t need to be occupied.  At lunch time, as was my habit, I went to a secluded tree in the open commons area behind the Bursar’s Office, removed my shirt and shoes, sat in lotus posture, and began to meditate before eating lunch.  A few minutes into this meditation I became aware of noises in front of me, which I ignored until I finished meditating and opened my eyes to the biggest camera I’ve ever seen staring me in the face from on top of a tripod.  Out from behind the camera popped a man who enthusiastically explained that he was from a large publishing company that was finishing up a textbook to be used in college psychology courses, and he wanted a picture of me in meditation pose to be on the cover of this text.  When I said nothing, probably from being in shock, he emphasized, “Your picture will be on the cover!”   That’s when I remembered my phrase, teach me humility, and declined.  With almost comical enthusiasm he exclaimed, using his whole body for emphasis, “But your picture will be seen by thousands of people across the country!”  I was laughing inside as I again declined and realized that once again a striking synchronicity had matched my practice of silently repeating a phrase.

I have continued this practice every day since, which at the time of this writing makes about 40 years.  I call the practice heartprayer because this word nicely captures how the practice is done.  Every morning during quiet time I consider what’s going on in my life and what my day might have in store, and then I select a short phrase that seems right for that day.  If I’m not sure what phrase is right, I wait until one comes to me.  Then I repeat the phrase many times, often starting aloud and gradually quieting until the phrase is completely internalized.  Then I continue the silent repetition with full attention on both the phrase and the area of my heart.  When the phrase feels as though it’s emanating from my heart, I go about my day continuing the silent repetition as often as I can throughout the day.  With a good start this heartprayer will feel as though it’s automatically continuing from my heart even when my mind is occupied with the daily things that minds need to focus on.  Then whenever my mind doesn’t need to be focused on something, the heartprayer fills my consciousness.

Over the years my choice of phrase for the practice of heartprayer has evolved toward simple affirmations, with three or four favorites, because I find that these are often the most helpful as a “staff of life” to carry me through whatever each day may bring.  Just as a walking staff may be the needed support to help us move through challenging parts of a hiking trail, heartprayer is a constantly available resource whenever we need to call upon our own inner strength and also the support of a deeper reality.  I cannot count the times in my life when I have felt rescued by heartprayer.  Even in ordinary everyday situations heartprayer can help us be the best person we can be.  For example, instead of getting frustrated because we’re stuck in traffic or waiting in a long line, we simply enjoy the comforting presence of our heartprayer.

But the result of heartprayer most beneficial to pursuing wisdom is that it keeps our consciousness focused and clear in the present moment, as well as connected to a deeper part of ourselves.  Most of the potentially meaningful moments of life are missed when our mind is occupied with chatter, worries, and fantasies.    And most behavior that we later regret occurs when we have “lost our mind” by not being present in the moment.  The simple principle of ethical behavior arrived at in essay #8 can only be as effective as our ability to be present in the moment.  Heartprayer is well worth the initial effort required to establish this daily practice, and once established it can become the bedrock of a conscious pursuit of wisdom.

© 2015 Gary Stogsdill