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The Circles That You Find In The Prayerwheels Of Your Mind

Liturgy, ritual and the "other side of boredom."
An elderly Tibetan women holding a prayer wheel on the Lhasa's pilgrimage circuit of Barkhor. Photo taken by Luca Galuzzi - https://www.galuzzi.it.

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 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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