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A Skeptic’s Path to Prayer 480 640 Thayer Fox

A Skeptic’s Path to Prayer

“I have been driven many times upon my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had nowhere else to go. My own wisdom and that of all about me seemed insufficient for that day.” Abraham Lincoln

It’s easy to depend on intellect and experience when everything is going well, but when hard times arrive, the self cannot bear the weight of our pain. Pain gifts us the willingness to reach out to a greater force in the universe. Prayer is an invitation to this force to enter our lives. You may assume that a steadfast belief in God or some higher being is a prerequisite to begin a prayer practice, and this is not true. The more I pray, the more my faith grows.

Something about the word prayer has always bothered me. It sounds submissive and sanctimonious. Many of us affiliate prayer with a rigid religious practice. The prayers at the Episcopal Church I attended every Sunday were dreary, and I was forced to kneel. In one of them, we apologized to God for our sins repeatedly. It made no sense to me because as far as I was concerned, he should be asking for my forgiveness, abandoning me in this mess of a life. No one explained God either. In illustrations, he was an old man who did not look friendly. And where exactly was he? And why did he care about me? Like the Santa Claus story, it didn’t add up.

My puppy Glennie died suddenly when I was eleven. Devastated, I cried and yelled at my bedroom ceiling. I made a decision then to abandon any possibility of God. Why would I continue to seek a God who kills a little girl’s puppy? As I became more aware of the suffering in the world around me, the atheist philosophy of Nietzsche and Sartre felt more accurate than anything I heard in church. Cynical and resigned, I steered my own ship until I smashed it to pieces and staying alive required me to lean on a group of strangers in church basements.

Finding a Higher Power is part of 12 Step Programs. The AA literature makes it easy for obstinant cases like me by offering options that replace a religious God. Early on, I heard a man say that if you think you’re the most powerful force in the universe go stand near the ocean and tell the waves to stop. I also realized that I’d been praying for a long time without labeling it. “Foxhole prayer” is the name people in AA called my frantic last-ditch pleas to nothing in particular.

Sober and stable, I built the life I thought I wanted. After a few years, I got too busy managing it to keep up the simple practices that saved me. I didn’t know how far I’d drifted from a spiritual path until after I had another awakening last year that reignited my faith in God. Afterward, I started craving meditation. No longer just an item on my to-do list, meditation became a sacred time in my day when I could detach from my thoughts and the buzzing world around me. But something was not transferring into the 12-hour blocks between sits, and I longed for more.

In January, a new friend came into my life who talked casually about prayer. It cringed at first but eventually became curious. My new friend is humble, and the way he speaks about prayer is enticing. He suggested I read a few essays in Power Through Constructive Thinking by Emmet Fox. After doing this, I was excited to experiment.

Emmet Fox was part of the New Thought Movement which developed in the United States in the 19thcentury. New Thought holds that “Infinite intelligence or God is everywhere, spirit is the totality of things, true human selfhood is divine, divine thought is a force for good, sickness originates in the mind, and “right thinking” has a healing effect.” PTCT was first published in 1932. Emmet Fox writes a lot about the importance of “scientific prayer”, which simply means a routine practice. Scientific prayer is not “The Secret”. Praying regularly does not rig the system so I get my way all the time. Over the past few months, many things have not aligned with my will, but because my faith is expanding, I know that whatever shows up is part of my curriculum.

My initial reaction to not getting my way hasn’t changed. I panic, get angry, blame, feel hurt, etc. I live in a body with a nervous system, so my physical response must run its course when I’m triggered. But now, I experience acceptance within an hour or two of being rattled. Letting go of anything that doesn’t serve my serenity is instinctual. The desire to be right or force an outcome has dissipated. There are fewer “problems”, more lessons. Navigating my day is easier and I feel pretty peaceful most of the time.

It took a while to re-wire myself, stop figuring things out and shopping around for advice. Answers formed by my intellect are biased and convincing. Logic never asks me to step outside a comfort zone or place someone before myself unless there’s something in it for me. The insight I receive from prayer is subtle but clear if I stay tuned in. Meditation is an important partner because it keeps the space open. Answers arrive in the form of a hunch, a person, an email, a phone call, a tug in my heart.

The good news is that you don’t need to define what you believe in, you can pray and be skeptical simultaneously. Skepticism is healthy and different from cynicism. A skeptic does research looking for evidence, a cynic rejects before investigation. Scientific prayer will grow whatever seed of willingness you can muster to get started. The power is undeniable if you take it on wholeheartedly.

All I need to pray is a few minutes alone. I pray before difficult conversations or meetings. I pray when I am nursing a stubborn emotional disturbance. I pray to express gratitude for my life as I walk to an appointment. I pray for people who are in pain. There is no right or wrong way to pray. Prayer connects me with the boundless wisdom that exists in my consciousness and all around me.

When I am murky or blocked, I wait to make decisions or run answers received through prayer by a trusted advisor. My will occasionally dresses up as divine guidance when I am physically off kilter. Exercise, sleep, diet, who I spend my time with are essential because it’s easier to hitch my wagon to historical perceptions and feelings when I am not taking care of myself. Regret waits for me in the past and fear in the future, so staying present matters. Once I realized that truth is only available right NOW, it became desirable to stay where my feet are.

“Prayer does change things. Prayer does make things happen quite otherwise than they would have happened had the prayer not been made. It makes no difference at all what sort of difficulty you may be in. It does not matter what the causes may have been that led up to it. Enough prayer will get you out of difficulty if only you will be persistent enough in your appeal to God.” Emmet Fox










Notes From a Silent Meditation Retreat 511 478 Thayer Fox

Notes From a Silent Meditation Retreat

Friday Evening:

I arrive at the Garrison Insitute late afternoon and check in to a closet-sized room. At dinner before the opening program, women near me discuss their concerns about being silent for three days. I wish they would stop talking, but I join in, so they don’t get offended.

At 7pm a bell rings, and we all file into a meditation hall with enormous stained glass windows. I find a chair front and center as I always do. Jack Kornfield welcomes us and begins a guided meditation. He explains the practice of Noble Silence that he requests we keep for the weekend. This silence is different from keeping secrets, shame-based silence. There will be periods to ask questions and speak with teachers. Noble Silence was a practice of the Buddha. He would often remain silent when asked questions that were irrelevant or unanswerable. Silence will help us tune into our inner experience. We should observe the desire to communicate when it arises. What is that we want to say? What needs lie beneath our words?

Jack explains that Buddhism is a science of the mind, not a religion. You can identify as another religion and practice Buddhism too. The Buddha never claimed to be a God, just a person who was awake. He did not teach Buddhism, he taught a way of life. Buddhism is about engaging in practices to discover what is true for you. Buddha taught to end suffering. We all have the potential to wake up and become Buddha’s.

After the session concludes, I make a cup of tea and sit in the library on my floor. People sit near me quietly. I notice there is no discomfort in silence when it’s a shared agreement. I enjoy being with people in this way, without the draining chatter that we are habituated to engage in at a young age. Silence is far more intimate than anything we could say to each other. Why is it the agreement in our society to always be talking? Are words the reason I rarely feel connected in conversation?

Saturday Morning:

I wake up happy in my white monk cell. I am grateful for the simplicity, of having only what I need. At breakfast, my judging mind takes over. That one keeps whispering to her friend, and that one took too much food and pushed to be first. That one keeps giving me dirty looks, what’s her problem. I eat and interact with these thoughts for a while until two questions arrive. Why am I judging them? Who cares what they are doing? It doesn’t affect me unless I allow it too. Maybe it’s awkward for her to be with a friend in silence. Maybe she takes too much food as a way to push down pain that is bubbling up in her silence. Maybe I can have compassion for the woman giving me dirty looks, she must hurt inside the way I do when I behave like that.

Not having to wear my personality is a relief. The way I talk is akin to using a battering ram to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. There is a desperation to it that stems from my desire to connect. But no conversation will ever fill me, my longing is misdirected. Striving causes pain, there are no answers out there. During an extended meditation, I am astounded by a calm, safe garden inside me.

A lady behind me starts coughing. I startle back into the room annoyed. She won’t stop and keeps clearing her throat. Self-righteous anger floods me. Why doesn’t she leave, consider the rest of us? Instead of expanding my complaint like I normally do, I am able to freeze it. Zooming in, I notice how familiar it looks. It’s a thought I get lost in daily that causes me pain. Once my mind becomes disturbed, it sees disturbance everywhere. I can return to the garden or waste the morning obsessing about the coughing woman. I see clearly that my focus is always my choice.

Jack says later that separation is a delusion, a manifestation of the small self. He quotes Alice Walker, “One day when I was sitting quiet and feeling like a motherless child, which I was, it come to me: that feeling of being part of everything, not separate at all. I knew that if I cut a tree, my arm would bleed.” Harming self is harming others and vice versa. I am overwhelmed by how much love I suddenly contain.

Saturday Afternoon:

There is time to ask questions and speak to teachers. I wait in line to talk to Jack. I intend to thank him, tell him how much I love being here in his presence. I don’t know how to describe Jack because he is somewhere beyond personality, unattached and emergent. When my turn comes, tears accompany my words. He looks at me and says slowly,” Maybe you were a nun or monk in a past life, maybe a few lives. Living in the cloisters and monasteries, and now you have a different incarnation.” He asks my name, where I live and what I do to fill my time. I tell him about my family and life in New York City. He nods and says, “must be a difficult incarnation for you.” I laugh out loud, the truth of his words makes me feel lighter. A question arises, and I ask it, “How do I stay close to the purity I experience in silence? People normally feel messy and false. Their personalities out of alignment with their true nature.” After the words leave my mouth, I see they include me. There is no separation from what I am and what I see. Jack looks at me kindly, “Why do you think they are false?” Since my question includes me, I know the answer, “because they long to be loved.” Jack smiles, “Exactly. That’s all they want, and they don’t know how to get it, so they do what they learned as a child to receive love, and they do that still. Why don’t you practice loving them?” I walk away knowing that loving them depends on loving myself.

A woman shares with the group about feeling the suffering of the world, especially the animals. She cries. She says that she knows her relationship with suffering started in childhood when she was abused. I feel her pain and cry. I feel my pain and inability to be with suffering. Jack tells her the first of  The Four Noble Truths of the Buddha is that suffering exists and will always exist. The Buddha taught people how to liberate themselves from suffering through The Noble Eightfold Path. We don’t have to suffer.

A man shares next about battling an illness that carries a death sentence. He is afraid, he doesn’t want to die. He cries, and I cry too. Not just for him, but for all our human fears that lead us to the mother of all fear, the fear of death. Jack comforts him. He talks lightly about death, how we are passing through this life and will all die. Impermanence is the nature of all living things. Jack tells us the phrase “Do not be afraid” exists 366 times in the Bible.

Saturday Night:

My tolerance is expanding. I barely notice the coughing woman. Staying present to my patterns, even when it’s uncomfortable. Sit with them, no judgment. An old sadness overwhelms me for a while. I allow it to be there, without writing a story about what it means or grasping on to it. Eventually, it passes, and I am back in the garden. I sense an ancient part of me, something that is just traveling through the identity I inhabit now. I knew it was there as a child, it’s why I looked for aliens and Narnia. I make note that teaching my children that the doorway is within them is the greatest gift I can offer as a parent.

I have faith that my soul contains all the answers I seek. All I have to do is be quiet and pose the question inward. When the answer comes, listen with respect whether I like it or not. God is not an old man with a beard who hangs out on a cloud. God is inside me, inside of everyone at the retreat, in the trees outside my window. God is the sacred energy of life.

Sunday Morning:

I look at my email for the first time. Skimming a response from a friend, I am off to the races, my amygdala hijacked. Flooded with self-righteous anger, I notice there is a lot of energy in this pattern. The details don’t matter because what triggers me is the same thing that always triggers me, I didn’t get my way.

All morning my body feels like a beehive. My thoughts are raging toddlers, and I can barely hear the teachers. Desperate to shift my state I rush over to DaRa, a female teacher, when the break begins. I tell her how I ruined the retreat by reading an email. Now I am disconnected from the beautiful source I located yesterday. DaRa smiles, “It sounds like you have a specific perception of connection?” I consider her words. Yes, I do. I have a specific way that everything should be, including spiritual practice. DaRa continues, “All human beings have a nervous system. This is just what your body does when it perceives a threat. It can take a while to settle. Practicing meditation will help. Connection includes chaos and pain. To become enlightened is to be intimate with life, not to avoid it.” My upset disappears by the time I sit back down in my chair. The story that I was connected and now disconnected made me panic. Panic is sticky, it traps our thoughts so they can’t pass through. It’s so easy to let go, why do I always hold on?

Sunday Afternoon:

Jack says that we are all learners in this life. It’s essential to stay in a “Beginners Mind” and seek people who exist in this mindset. Experts are stagnant. “Many of us have made our world so familiar that we don’t see it anymore. Ask yourself before bed: what did I really see today? Do this with loved ones as a practice.”

Being angry is a practice too. Mara is what Buddhists call “the personification of the forces antagonistic to enlightenment.” When Mara would visit the Buddha, he spoke to her lightly. “Hi Mara, come in, please stay for tea but don’t stay for too long.” Don’t push away suffering, be with it but don’t attach to it either. When we get activated, step away from the source of upset when possible. I use my children as an example. Say to them with love, “I don’t want to add to your anxiety with my own. I want to keep myself steady and peaceful so I can be there for you.” Love is still accessible in anger if you practice.

Jack asks, “What does your heart long to give to the world?” He says the best way to find your work is to imagine yourself ten years in the future. Ask yourself if you lived the life you wanted to live. Yes, I am living the life I want to live, but there is still something missing, something not enough that haunts me. I know I could be more, do more. As if he read my mind, Jack adds smiling, “and give up living up to your potential! None of you will ever live up to your potential.” Whatever is missing disappears with my laughter. Jack wears life loosely, makes a lot of jokes. Humor relaxes me. Why am I so serious? I love to laugh.

We learn the Metta practice. Exactly what I need to gently override my judging mind as I navigate life in New York City. Whenever I catch myself disturbed from judging people, I can swap out my thoughts with “May you be well. May you be safe. May you be peaceful. May you be brave. May you know your worth.” Tailor my own version for loved ones.

Sunday Night:

My heart feels open and free. Everyone around me glows. I am touched by their dedication and my own. It’s a gift to have this time. The busy world won’t slow down so I must. My mind is the source of suffering and joy. Mindfulness and meditation change the way I interact with my mind. Notice when I get attached. That moment is the beginning of suffering. The quicker I let it go, the less I suffer.

Monday Morning:

I am sad to leave, I am just sinking into the silence. Out of all the places I’ve traveled, this has been my favorite destination. I share my feelings with the group. Jack responds that we can create pockets of silence in our lives daily. There can be space around words. We can pause in conversation, and that pause will give us a choice. We don’t have to jump on other people’s trains.

Jack hands out red strings and invites us to take place in the Three Refuge Protection Ceremony. I take a vow with each of the three knots I make before a woman seated next to me ties it on my left wrist. This red string feels more precious than any jewelry I own.

Jack’s parting words to us are to practice daily and take responsibility for who and what we allow into our space: people, news, etc. Take a stand in the world with love, in a playful way. Only love will conquer hate. We practice not for ourselves, but so we can go out into the world and serve others with compassion and love. Plant beautiful seeds and trust that they will create miracles you will probably never see.

No more measuring my existence or seeking outside for a source I will never find. I leave the retreat knowing that I am whole and already connected to everything I need.

“To be holy is to be home, to be able to rest in the house of belonging that we call the soul.” Anam Cara by John Donohue


The Everlasting Solution to All Our Troubles 640 480 Thayer Fox

The Everlasting Solution to All Our Troubles

Mid-life, there is no place left to hide. The panic that follows this realization is such a common phenomenon in our society that we’ve named it. Over the years, I’ve witnessed and supported friends in the grips of a “mid-life crisis”. Buried beneath their unlived lives, excavation is an overwhelming prospect. Change comes at a cost. They delve deeper into their vice of choice. More wine, more bread, more plans or more stuff. Anything to stay numb, they “re-arrange deck chairs on the Titanic”.  A few are hopeful that a new romance or job could fix their internal dilemma. They seek the aid of therapists, playing a weekly game of whack-a-mole. Some are flat out depressed and find relief in medication which doesn’t seem to last for long.

And now, it’s my turn.

This month I turn forty-five. I’m restless and swarming with questions. I feel guilty that I’m not grateful for my blessed life. I fantasize about buying a one-way ticket somewhere far away and warm where I can shed my identity. Wondering how I ended up a statistic in the status quo with all the work I’ve done, my default mode is to shake the world for answers. I know that happiness is an inside job and yet I still grasp at worldly structures and conclusions until I get into enough pain and become willing to try another way.

This week, a quote I love, penetrated my self-centered turmoil.

“We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.”

When I first heard this Pierre Teilhard de Chardin quote years ago, I assumed that I was already living in the second sentence.  Having had a handful of spiritual experiences, I considered myself a transformed being. What I have come to understand is that yesterday’s awakenings did not turn me into a spiritual being once and for all. I wish it worked like that and it does not. The gravity in the world around me is powerful. I am continuously pulled by longing and disturbance. Staying connected to my spiritual nature takes a Herculean commitment. I must tend to my spirit like the keeper of a sacred fire. My most important job every day is to stoke the flames. I do this by engaging in practices like meditation, prayer and seeking support in spiritual communities.

If cultivating a spiritual life sounds like work, it is. No different than going to the gym or taking a class or anything else that yields results with consistent effort.  So why bother?  Why add one more thing to your busy day that doesn’t directly correlate with advancement in work or personal relationships? Because everything falls into place when I nurture my spirit. It’s a relief when I connect with an energy greater than my identity. Running the show is overrated and exhausting. My way never lasts for long. I must continue to row the boat of my life, but relinquishing the navigation to the higher intelligence found in my deepest consciousness ensures that I will end up where I am meant to be.

I celebrated fifteen years without alcohol on January 2nd. Friends and family outside my sober network associate my achievement with extreme discipline. It’s awkward to explain in passing that I can’t take credit for my course change that included giving up alcohol and other substances that were blocking me from deeper communion with spirit. I don’t drink today not because I fear alcohol but because I know that alcohol is a false idol. It could never provide me a shred of the contentment I have found in my sober, spiritual life.

When I’m living as a spiritual being, I feel unconditionally loved. This is a miracle for a little girl who believed she was broken and unlovable. No human relationship can make me feel loved for long. We cycle through relationships our entire lives blaming people when we don’t feel loved enough. We have an expectation that family, friends, and spouses should offer us endless love and support. This can be true for the luckiest among us, but human love never quiets the patient whisper that tells us every time we fall that we will never be enough. When I take care of my spirit, I am at peace, whole, complete, exactly where I longed to be my entire life.

And when I slide back into unconsciousness and treat the world around me like that’s all there is, I become afraid. Afraid of not getting my way, afraid of getting older, afraid that I will enter my grave with the song still in me and afraid of death. Death is the mother of all fears. Studying Buddhism this Fall while simultaneously expanding my meditation practice eased this primal dread. The truth of our existence is that each of us will die. Everyone we know will die too. It’s not tragic, it’s the promise of our humanity. When I am planted in my spirit, I see that death is just part of a cycle and life is everlasting.

As we evolve into smarter rats, we believe that we have more control over our lives and the world around us than ever. Control is an illusion. Our choices obsess us, they become our masters. We are worn out by the endless decisions required of us to navigate mundane life. Choices perpetuate the illusion that we are running the show.

There is a reason monks live in monasteries on mountaintops wearing the same robes every day and eating what is offered to them by villagers nearby. I only understood this after staying in a monastery Labor Day weekend for a silent meditation retreat. Simplicity is a pathway to spirit. As is silence. The shiny bells and whistles of the modern world distract us. If I do not carve out time to be alone, I lose my way easily. Pain, my loyal guide, nudges me back on track when I stray too far away from a spiritual solution. Few among us come to spiritual practice naturally. The majority of us find our way after surviving through the dark night of the soul. We roll our eyes at the concept of God until we lose a loved one, get sick, have our heart broken or our house burns to the ground. Only then do we turn to prayer.

For those of you that associate prayer with religious doctrine, I invite you to suspend your belief that religion is the opiate of the masses. That’s too easy an out. Try it on that different religious institutions are spiritual support systems all in service of the same force. When I “take the good and leave the rest” in spiritual practice and my entire life, I am surprised by what I receive.

My favorite line in the Big Book of AA is, “God could and would if he were sought.” This has always been true for me over the past fifteen years. Please don’t take my word for it, if you are in pain, go seek for yourself.  And if you are not ready yet, your time will come. And it’s never too late.


Four books I recommend reading if you are interested in developing a spiritual practice:

Buddhism Plain & Simple by Steve Hagen

The Sermon on the Mount by Emmet Fox

The Wise Heart by Jack Kornfield

Anam Cara by John O’Donohue