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The Circles That You Find In The Prayerwheels Of Your Mind

I’ve never read Proust (maybe when I finish War and Peace I’ll give him a try) but Alan Jacobs’s Proustblog from yesterday [1] makes me both want to pick it up immediately and never pick it up at all. That quality of “thinking so hard about what-it-will-be-like-to-kiss-Albertine that he doesn’t quite notice that he is in fact kissing her” is way, way too familiar to me for comfort.

I wanted to use the bulk of his post, though, as a jumping-off point for some thinking about prayer, and its relationship to boredom – which is where Jacobs ended his post.

Now, as has probably become apparent to regular readers (and has long since been apparent to people who actually know me), I’m gotten a lot less religiously-observant over the past decade. But I still belong, and go most weeks, to our synagogue, and when I go I pray at least part of the service (including sometimes leading). And here’s the thing: prayer – structured, liturgical prayer, not spontaneous ecstatic prayer – ought to be boring. It’s long; it’s repetitive; it’s relatively tuneless (or, at least, much of the melody is just chant). It should be just about unbearable.

But, if it’s done well, it isn’t boring at all. And all too frequently, the attempts to “enliven” a service – having a choir or prayer leader sing a more complicated tune, or introducing some kind of interactive element that isn’t purely formalized – makes the service much more boring – at least for anybody who has some familiarity with the service. Why would that be?

The reason, I think, is that prayer of this sort – this is my experience, anyway – ideally induces a quasi-meditative mental state that isn’t really on the boredom-excitement spectrum. This kind of prayer is often derided as merely “going through the motions” or “mouthing the words” but that’s almost precisely the point: you’re not supposed to be thinking about what you’re doing or saying, because if you did that you’d realize how incredibly boring what you’re doing is.

That doesn’t mean you can’t have an intellectual or emotional experience in this kind of prayer. But if that happens – again, from my own experience – it happens on a level of consciousness somewhat removed from the activity of prayer, a level that sort of hovers above that activity without being trapped in it. The words flow by, and perhaps one phrase catches you, even shocks you into some new awareness, and even as you keep davening the sensation of being caught by that phrase lingers and sort of oozes over the rest of your prayer. And that quality of floating above yourself, mentally, itself is one of the fruits of mindless repetition.

Jacobs ends with a quote from David Foster Wallace about bliss that lies on the other side of boredom, but he doesn’t explain where that bliss might come from, so here’s what I think. I think there is something about the experience of moving one’s mind and body easily through a familiar pattern – so familiar that it almost requires no mind – that takes you out of the acute experience of the passage of time – the opposite of boredom, which is a painfully acute awareness of time passing without being filled. You have to go through boredom to get there only in the sense that you have to become sufficiently familiar with the pattern, and achieving that familiarity requires practice, and while you’re practicing you will likely find it boring. But the paradox is that you’re aware that it’s boring not because you’ve done it a thousand times before, but because you haven’t; not because it’s old hat, but because it’s still too new.

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8 Comments To "The Circles That You Find In The Prayerwheels Of Your Mind"

#1 Comment By Jake Lukas On October 8, 2012 @ 11:51 am

I think there is something about the experience of moving one’s mind and body easily through a familiar pattern – so familiar that it almost requires no mind – that takes you out of the acute experience of the passage of time […]

You’re not alone in thinking this. Zen practitioners and martial artists speak of [2]. This seems to be one of those areas where a number of traditions touch as something similar is spoken of with regard to the Orthodox Christian liturgy (my own tradition). Regards.

#2 Comment By Wick Allison On October 8, 2012 @ 12:15 pm

The words flow by, and perhaps one phrase catches you, even shocks you into some new awareness, and even as you keep davening the sensation of being caught by that phrase lingers and sort of oozes over the rest of your prayer. And that quality of floating above yourself, mentally, itself is one of the fruits of mindless repetition.

That is exactly the sensation I had on Sunday listening to a sung rosary at church. Mumbling the words as the choir sang allowed me to enter a trance-like state. A simple phrase such as part of Gabriel’s salutation to Mary, “The Lord is with you”, which until then had been nothing more than a meaningless pleasantry, somehow began to penetrate in ways beyond words and thoughts. I think you have captured the feeling perfectly. Boredom, the experience of mindless repetition, becomes the gateway into a state of mindlessness. And that’s when prayer as communion begins to happen.

#3 Comment By Alan Jacobs On October 8, 2012 @ 4:59 pm

A possibly relevant quotation: “In romantic thought, repetition is the enemy of freedom, the greatest force of repression both in the mind and in the state. Outside romanticism, repetition has a very different import: it is the sustaining and renewing power of nature, the basis for all art and understanding…. Repetition lost its moral value only with the spread of the industrial machine and the swelling of the romantic chorus of praise for personal originality. Until two hundred years ago virtually no one associated repetition with boredom or constraint. Ennui is ancient; its link to repetition is not. The damned in Dante’s Hell never complain that their suffering is repetitive, only that it is eternal, which is not the same thing.” — Edward Mendelson, Early Auden

#4 Comment By Rebecca Trotter On October 8, 2012 @ 6:38 pm

I think that the other under-appreciated thing about repetition of prayer is the way it uses our brain’s natural plasticity to etch profound ideas and concepts so deeply into our psyche that they become part of us.

#5 Comment By Aaron in Israel On October 10, 2012 @ 12:46 am

“But, if it’s done well, it isn’t boring at all.” Then why do so many people find it so boring? That is, why do so many people not do it well? Looking at this from the outside, I’d have thought from this post that people who grew up with this kind of liturgy would occasionally hit that spot you talked about just by chance, which would be positive reinforcement: they’d then hit it more and more often, until it became routine.

I don’t see that, though. Instead, you’ve got people fleeing traditional, structured liturgy by the millions (my own grandparents were among them), at the same time you’ve got others drawing towards it because of “authenticity” or “beauty” or whatever.

I’ve never been familiar with liturgy, so I have no experience to draw on. But lots of people who grew up with this stuff sure are bored by it.

#6 Comment By Franklin Evans On October 10, 2012 @ 12:15 pm

Not meaning to be glib at all — and not intending to be argumentative in any way — there are two “categories” exemplified by these phrases:

“Please turn to page 247 in the hymnal…”

“Please take this time to reflect…”

Prayer comes in many forms. I view it as a subset of “meditation”. We are social animals, but we are also rationally independent, and finding a balance point between them is an every-day, ongoing effort.

Liturgy can be ambiguous concerning the intent. Is this a communal, one-voice from many-mouths moment? Or, is it a place where each individual is called upon to assimilate and integrate what has transpired so far? Could it be as simple as asking the celebrants to just be explicit about what comes next?

I believe it can be. Modern paganisms that practice liturgy (we call it ritual, but I see them as equivalent) start with a roadmap, as it were. It makes sense from a practical POV, because pagan ritual invites everyone to move at times rather than have them sit and watch throughout the proceedings. They need to tell us what we are doing next, or gentle chaos can ensue.

With all due respect, moments of silence that start with “Let us pray” leave the door wide open for ennui and a strong desire to balance one’s checkbook, or so I see it vicariously from reports of my Christian friends. 🙂

#7 Comment By razib On October 10, 2012 @ 8:09 pm

i think this is what cog sci people refer to as ‘imagistic arousal.’

#8 Comment By EliteCommInc. On November 16, 2012 @ 1:16 pm

The boredom of prayer is not caused so much by it’s liturgical frame, but rather my own state of mind. Prayer for me is an interactive experience bewtweenmyself and my creator.

Sometimes it’s funny (even when liturgical).
Sometimes angry ‘
Sometimes silly
Sometimes self serving
Sometimes calming
Sometimes comforting
Sometimes whinsome
Sometimes enlightening
Sometimes grieving
Sometimes dull
Sometimes sorrowful
Sometimes mediative
Sometimes burdensome
Sometimes a combination of all or any of the above.

But prayer is always serious business and neccessary even when liturgical.