Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
“Seriously? We haven’t talked about God for a while so we better bring Him back into the picture.” This was how I felt when I looked at Step 11 for a long time. The only saving grace for me was that the payer recommended in the Twelve and Twelve was the Prayer of Saint Francis, which despite being a Catholic prayer, has always been a personal favorite and that peculiar word “meditation” in the step.
I really couldn’t imagine myself praying. Certainly not to an omniscient, interventionist deity who had fixed me and now had a plan for me. I struggled with this step. As a way to make this work, I tried to get comfortable with ignoring all the theistic overtones and focusing on meditation.
I’ll be honest, my success with meditation has been less than stellar. I have tried doing it in my own. I’ve tried to do it with the help of apps. I’ve read about it to the point of recognizing that reading about it isn’t actually doing it.
Where I struggle with meditation is making it a ritual. I’m just not a very ritualistic person. The only ritual that I adhere to is the ritual of making coffee in the morning. That happens every day, right after getting up.
But when I do make time to meditate, something happens to my monkey mind that is hard to explain. It never stops. The thoughts keep coming. But I’ve learned that this is not actually the point of meditation. By recognizing the thoughts, noting the thinking and not judging it, over and over and over again, I come to a more peaceful state of mind.
I do a fair amount of walking, running, and in the past cycling. I’ve always found that cycling by myself is meditative, and the same is true of walking and running. It’s time for me to slow down the thoughts, focus on one thing, get moving, and just be in a state of flow. Time passes effortlessly.
Still, I wondered if I was doin this step wrong since I was so adverse to praying. I worried that I needed to actually be praying — on my knees, hands folded, eyes closed, saying some rote words to a deity that I knew in my bones does not exist. And so I did a lot of reading. One book that really helped me is Waiting: A Nonbeliever’s Higher Power, by Marya Hornbacher.
In the chapter on Step 11, I came across some words that would totally change my perception of prayer on page 114:
“November morning. The sky turning from indigo to violet blue, the curly oak sketched in black on the sky. Steam rising off the lake. I sat in absolute stillness, absolute peace.
This, too, is prayer.”
These words encapsulate what I’d sensed all along in my life every time I’d stood in awe of the natural world. The sense of finiteness in the infinite that I feel when I’m alone on the beach looking at the ocean. The feeling that everything would be okay when I’d hike up to the top of the ridge at Shingletown Gap and look down in the campus of Penn State when things felt overwhelming. The sense of peace that comes when I can no longer hear the sounds of cars as I walk down a trail in the woods.
Those words also showed me that prayer need not be directed to a specific deity. That you could simply send prayers out to the great mysterious universe. My uncle gave us a small Buddhist prayer bowl for Christmas. The bowl came with the instructions to write our prayers on a small piece of paper, to put them in the bowl, and to set it near a window. When the suns rays hit the papers the prayers are carried out to the universe. This gift reinforced the notion that prayers need not be directed to a specific deity.
Today I think of many things as prayer. My silent walks in the woods can be prayerful. My time writing these words can be prayerful. Simply closing my eyes and noticing the breath is prayer. There is something centering about prayer. Something contemplative. Something quieting.
It all comes down to intentionally making time to refocus, to find a small amount of peace in an otherwise chaotic world.
That’s what prayer is for me.