2016-06-30
Reprinted with permission of Red Wheel/Weiser LLC.

Mantra for the Bad Days:
Somewhere within all this noise is an enormous silence. If I just shut up for a moment, I'll be able to hear it.

Don't worry. I'm not going to presume to tell you how -- or where, or when, or what -- to pray. Nor am I going to assume that you and I necessarily mean the same thing by the word "prayer." Prayer is deeply personal, maybe the most personal thing there is. What I want to explore here is whether it's possible, or even desirable, to engage in your chosen form of prayer at work.

I think it's both possible and desirable. In fact, I think it's almost inevitable, because to me, prayer is any kind of dialogue between the human and the divine, and I believe we carry at least some spark of the divine within us. When we make any attempt to be present for our own lives, to experience our whole selves, we are embracing both our humanity and our divinity. Our mere existence is a kind of prayer. Not that it always feels that way.

You may not agree with me about this. Indeed, the first dictionary definition of "pray" is "to entreat or implore. to request in a humble manner." This sounds, on first reading, like flat-out begging. That was my childhood understanding of prayer: as a plea to an external, paternal God who could bless me, give me the stuff I wanted, and possibly vanquish my tribe's enemies (whoever they were-maybe the Communists) in exchange for my being a good girl.

I'm not really talking about this type of transaction, where the pray-er begs for some kind of reward from the pray-ee. But I do believe prayer is, first and foremost, an entreaty -- a humble request that the divine be present for us right here, right now, and that we be present for the divine. The second dictionary definition of "pray" comes closer to this idea: "to address God or a god with adoration, confession, supplication, or thanksgiving." To talk to God -- whatever we mean by God -- in whatever way we choose, with or without making any specific requests. To have a conversation, a dialogue, with the divine, wherever we find it.

Talking to God -- calling the divine into the present moment -- is not something you need to save for formal meditation or prayer. I think it has a place in every area of one's life, even work. Especially work. When you take a moment to open an inner door to the idea of the divine, you acknowledge the possibility that your life has a larger design than the physical reality before you -- your office walls, your "to do" list, your telephone. You remind yourself that you are more than what you do. You enable yourself to perceive the nobility in seemingly mundane endeavors. And you summon strengths and insights you didn't know you possessed. Prayer is an enormously creative act.

How, exactly, are you supposed to open this inner door to the possibility of the divine during the course of an average workday? Actually, there's more than one door. There are probably as many doors as there are conscious beings, and your form of prayer, whatever it is, is your personal door.

If you're comfortable with the idea of invoking divinity -- of talking to God -- you probably already have your own vocabulary of prayer. It might, then, feel perfectly natural to you to take a few moments during the workday to utter actual prayers to yourself, silently or aloud: "I pray to bring my best self to this work," or "I pray to understand what this difficult situation is trying to teach me," or "I align myself with the divine presence within me."

You already know the words that resonate for you. I'm only going to suggest you remember to say them in what might seem like odd times and places: when you're sitting down to work you find daunting or thankless; when you're attending a mind-numbing staff meeting; when you're facing a difficult interaction with a colleague or client. I have a friend who simply says "Blessed be," silently or aloud, when she wants to remember that we all have the capacity to bring a blessing into being. I sometimes pray just to be fully present, divinity, humanity, and all: "I don't really want to be here. But please, help me be here." Or, more simply: "Here I am."

Words are powerful things. The mere act of saying or thinking the words of a prayer can put you into a prayerful state. If you're not comfortable with the idea of formal prayer, you can simply ask to be open to the idea of a greater reality, and leave it at that. Your readiness to consider the possibility of the divine is itself an act of prayer. But please don't force it. If words like "God" and "divine" make you squirm, nobody's saying you have to use them. This is your spiritual path, not someone else's, and you get to choose the practices that connect you with your own spirituality-whatever that means for you.

Besides, as I'm sure you know, there are many wordless practices -- breathing exercises, meditation techniques -- that can help center you and nourish your spiritual being. I'm not suggesting that you meditate for long stretches at work. Deep meditative states are not wildly compatible with the average workplace (and heaven help you if the phone rings). But you might want to devote a few minutes to centering yourself at various times during the day, with the express purpose of reminding yourself that there's more to you than your workload. What if you're so busy you can't possibly take time to center yourself? Do it anyway. The times you feel the most frantic are the times you most need to coax yourself back into your body and soul, even if it's only for half a minute.

 

Shut your door, if you have one, or just close your eyes, and do whatever takes to bring yourself to a place of inner stillness. Maybe you have a favorite breathing exercise that reliably calms you down. There are dozens of these. One centering yoga technique, for example, is to inhale through your nose for a count of seven; hold your breath for a moment; exhale through your nose for a count of seven; hold your breath for a moment; and repeat the cycle several times. It really doesn't matter how you arrive at stillness; the stillness itself is the point. When you attend to what Oscar Wilde once called the Great Silence, you connect with a source of enormous strength and support. Don't take my word for this; run the experiment for yourself.

. . .

Exercise: Work as Prayer

Work itself can become a form of prayer if you learn to approach it that way. Okay, not all work all the time -- but some work, some of the time.

I used to love practicing the piano. I was never a very good pianist, but I loved the process of learning a new piece. The music lay encoded in those fat black notes on the page; my job was to recreate it in the present moment. To do this, I had to engage in a kind of dialogue with the composer, to try to figure out what he wanted. I also had to coax the notes into my fingers, which did not always respond as I wanted them to. The whole endeavor was a tussle-with the composer, with my own fingers, thoughts, and emotions, and with the music itself. When I actually managed to play a piece well, the music felt like grace, a gift, something I'd managed to retrieve from another place.

You see where I'm headed with this. I'm talking about practice, as in spiritual practice. When you practice prayer or meditation, as when you practice an instrument, you do something both creative and collaborative. You forge your own spiritual path, and you engage in a dialogue with the divine; you invite a greater reality into your consciousness. In stating your readiness to be open to Spirit, you prepare yourself to receive whatever comes. You don't move Spirit-Spirit moves you.

So here's my question: What would happen if you approached an everyday task as though it were a spiritual practice, like praying or making music? What if, when you sat down to write a memo, work on a spreadsheet, or grade a spelling test, you approached it as though this task, too, could be a doorway to your own divinity?

I'm talking about something fairly simpleminded here. A memo is a memo, not a Bach partita, and I'm not asking you to pretend it's more exalted than it is. But even the most mundane chore can be hallowed if you bring your full presence to it. Before you write that memo, pause for a moment to bring your awareness to the task. Try to think of some positive implication of the work you're about to do: "I want to communicate clearly." Or "I want to send a helpful, supportive message." Or "I'm about to impart knowledge that will help others do their jobs." Don't go overboard on this; keep it simple. If you can find absolutely no redeeming feature in the task before you, you might say something like, "Here I am, writing this memo. I want to remember my own worth, and the dignity of my own path." The more inane the task, the more you need to remind yourself that you really are a worthy being.

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