Combining Prayer and Meditation

Meditation has been all the rage. From a practice started in ancient Asia, meditation has made its way into the daily routines of spiritual yogis, high-performance executives, and everyone in between. Myriad iPhone apps claim to help you hack your productivity, think more clearly, and restore a sense of calm–in only 10 minutes per day.

I tried it. I didn't like it. I tried it again; nope, still not for me. Then I tried it one last time... and this time... it was no different, it still didn't work. My productivity had not been hacked and I sensed no clearer thinking, even when I meditated daily for long stretches. I did feel more calm post-meditation, but I also feel very calm after a 10-minute nap, a 10-minute walk, or 10 minutes of watching cat videos. So I decided to give it up.

I remember telling Renee that exercise was my meditation and that I had meditative practices but sitting cross-legged on the floor for 10-20 minutes wasn't one of them. I already sit enough all day staring at a computer screen, the last thing I want to do is carve out more time for sitting. Furthermore, I felt that meditation made me more impatient, not less. There was rarely a good time for meditation. In the morning, after our coffee walk, I would feel so full of energy that I couldn't wait to start being productive, and meditation felt like an annoying waste of time when all I wanted to do was start working.

Source: daysofdecadence

In the evenings, I would often forget to meditate, or feel too tired, or have burned through my reserves of self-discipline and decide to skip meditation that day. I found myself coming up with excuses to postpone meditation, I think partly because there was no clear or immediate benefit or impact, and I wasn't sure exactly what I was working toward–enlightenment?–and I didn't have some larger goal in mind. I was laying bricks, as it were, instead of building a wall, let alone a cathedral. In contrast, after exercising, I feel instantly great; the endorphins are running through my blood stream, my muscles are pumped and I'm on my way to muscle growth, heart health, longevity, and looking good naked.

Lastly, I didn't like that I was supposed to let thoughts and ideas "pass through" instead of lingering on them. I was supposed to "let go" of my thoughts, when what I really wanted to do was think more on the interesting thoughts that popped up while I was sitting there with my eyes closed. I would tell myself to remember that idea and write it down after meditation, but I would inevitably forget the idea or forget that there was even an idea to recall.

And that was the way things were for a couple years.

Then earlier this year, after a couple months of intentionally being lazy and taking a break from "work", I launched back into productivity mode and starting thinking more about intention-setting for the new year and new decade. I re-read Think and Grow Rich and was reminded of the power and wisdom of what Napoleon Hill calls the "Infinite Intelligence" or the "ether". He suggests that there is more to our consciousness than just our thoughts and feelings. We are all part of a shared consciousness, an "ether," that can be tapped into at any time, but only with certain stimuli. Those stimuli include DESIRE, SEX, LOVE, MUSIC, FRIENDSHIP, COLLABORATION via master mind groups, and to some extent SUFFERING and FEAR. He suggests that all intentions must first be "mixed" with faith in order to translate desires, with the subconscious mind acting as the intermediary, into terms that the ether can recognize. Upon recognizing this message, the ether, or "Infinite Intelligence," may send back an answer in the form of a plan or idea for producing the object of desire.

Hill states that, "Faith is the only known agency which will give your thoughts a spiritual nature." In this sense, "faith" means the belief or complete confidence in something, even without direct scientific evidence (I would argue that the destructive combination of FAITH and FEAR has led to most wars, but that will be a post for another day).

Sounds a lot like praying to a god you have no evidence of, but complete faith in, doesn't it? I thought so too. We've been praying to gods for thousands of years, from the rain god to the river god to the god of thunder to the monotheistic God. And although I'm not religious, I believe there is value in most anything that has stuck around for thousands of years. For all their differences, the most prevalent religions of our world–Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism–all advocate for some form of prayer.

Since my self-assigned reading theme for this year is, "Learn from the lessons of history," I've been reading and thinking on ancient civilizations and religion, what worked and what didn't, and usually if something doesn't work, it doesn't stick around for long. It intrigued me that prayer has withstood the test of time.

And now, prayer is part of my daily routine, and so is meditation. I combine them into a practice I jokingly call "Jeff-itation", a mix of prayer, meditation, and mobility that I do with intention. Here's how it works (for me):

First, I settle into a sitting 90/90 hip stretch to help my tight hips. It's not enough of a stretch to distract me, but enough to tell my body that this unusual position is safe, to loosen up a bit before starting the day, and to make structurally productive use of this time of sitting and doing nothing (physically). I end up looking something like this, minus the sports bra:

Source: 90 / 90 Hip Stretch

Next, I put on my noise canceling headphones and open the Calm app. I immediately start hearing a running river and chirping birds (or crickets, if it's the evening). I choose open-ended meditation with bells.

In the beginning, I let my mind wander to wherever it wants to go. Sometimes, there are thoughts on the forefront of my mind that just need some space to wander, and usually reach a dead end and fizzle out. I let them fizzle; sometimes it takes a few seconds, sometimes several minutes. Once my mind calms down a bit, I start to focus on my breath. My goal at this point is to quiet my remaining conscious, scurrying, unproductive thoughts ("I have so many things to do today," "What should I prioritize?" "Who should I start on my fantasy football team?") It's hard, if not impossible, to have a lot of conscious thoughts when I'm focusing all of my energy on my breath. When unhelpful conscious thoughts do pop up, it's usually because I lost that breath focus for a second. That's okay, I just let the unhelpful thought go, and re-focus on my breath. As my conscious mind quiets, my subconscious mind has a chance to speak up.

It's like having ten Rottweilers and one cat, and your cat is terrified of your dogs, to the point where the cat will almost never enter the same room as your dogs. They may unintentionally cross paths every now and then, but if you want your cat (subconscious) to come out and play, you have to put your barking dogs (conscious thoughts) in another room for a few minutes, which is easier said than done.

Once my subconscious mind does have the floor, that's when the magic happens. I have a couple of options here. I can either continue keeping my conscious mind clear of thoughts to see what pops up from my subconscious, or I can consciously set an intention or desire (aka pray), and have absolute faith that I will attain it, whether it's a more short-term solution to a problem or a more long-term career goal. Maybe attaining that desire comes from the Infinite Intelligence and the ether, or maybe it is simply from my subconscious mind having the space to connect dots and make interesting connections that lead to helpful insights. Either way, it doesn't really matter to me how exactly it happens. I'm sure we'll be able to adequately explain the science behind it all someday, but until then, I stick with this form of prayer because it works.

Throughout this process, I keep a journal next to me where I write down interesting insights that pop up from my subconscious while I'm meditating. Whereas I used to think of subconscious thoughts that pop up during meditation as distractions and try to push them out, I now embrace them. I nurture them. I notice where they take me. It could be a dead end, in which case I get back to my breath and wait for the next one. Or, the subconscious insight could be the breakthrough idea I've been waiting for. My subconscious mind cuts through all the clutter and excuses that my conscious mind has been telling itself. Instead of finding reasons why I shouldn't do something, I find that my subconscious mind shines a light on the reasons I should, and helps show me the path to getting there.

I think a major component of prayer is the understanding that the Infinite Intelligence may show you the path, but you still have to walk it. If you pray for riches, don't expect to win the lottery; but rather, be open to opportunities that seem to "pop up from nowhere" and pay attention to the ideas you have that seem to "come from nowhere." It is in these ideas and opportunities that you find what you're looking for.

I've found that the subconscious can be directed, like the way you change the frequency of a radio. There are mornings where I go into prayer/meditation looking for a specific answer, and direct my subconscious energy to finding that answer. I might even say it out loud: "What is our company trying to achieve this year, and why?" or "How do we solve [some specific] problem?" Armed with the relevant information, data, and context, my subconscious will usually connect the dots and cut through the noise to show me the answer. When kings and prophets of the past claimed to have "received a message from God," they were probably just zoning out while their subconscious produced a thought that seemed to come from nowhere, a feat much easier without the distractions of TV, social media, email, chat, and iPhone notifications.

Sometimes though, I don't get an answer, or can't even get to the point where I know the right question/s to ask. I'll sit and nothing will happen. No insights, no shining path, no magic, just me sitting on the floor looking weird. Some days I'm just not feeling it, and I think that's okay. I sit for 10 minutes, hear a couple bells, feel that I'm not in the right state, and end it. It's by no means a relief that it was a short session, but rather it's a disappointment that I didn't have quite the right stimuli that morning to transcend and quiet my conscious thoughts. No matter, I'll have the next day to try again, and more days than not, I'm rewarded with a valuable insight, aha moment, or wisdom that feels like it came from elsewhere.

I switch my 90/90 position every one or two bell rings (5-10 minutes). After anywhere from ten minutes to two hours, I slowly open my eyes, take off my headphones, and start my day, spring-loaded to take on the world.

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