Living in Recovery Spirituality

Eating the Book

I’m about to step on what sometimes seems like the third rail of spirituality in the contemporary world, and talk about prayer. But before you decide to click on something more appealing, let me say at the outset that I understand and sympathize greatly with those who want nothing to do with that word. Read More

I’m about to step on what sometimes seems like the third rail of spirituality in the contemporary world, and talk about prayer. But before you decide to click on something more appealing, let me say at the outset that I understand and sympathize greatly with those who want nothing to do with that word. Or with God, Jesus, church, or religion in any of its original 31 flavors. And let me tip my hand by admitting that I’m not actually going to talk about prayer, because there’s a catch, or maybe it’s a loophole. I’m going to give away one of the secrets of global spirituality, and it’s this: what people in the western world call prayer, in some cases is almost identical to what people in the eastern world call meditation. So here we are, already back on more familiar turf.

“What’s in a name?” Shakespeare asked. “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” True enough, as the fact that there are more than 7000 languages spoken in the world, each with its own names for everything, should tell us. And yet, names matter. Because it isn’t the names or words themselves that cause problems, it’s what we think about them, based on our personal history. The reason I sympathize with those who can’t stomach traditional religious language is because I know it’s usually what they experienced in relation to that language and those ideas that hurt them. If the hurt is deep enough, it creates an aversion reflex just by the associations the person has with it, using some of the same neurochemical circuitry involved in post-traumatic stress. Someone who was bitten by a vicious dog, especially while a child, may tremble or feel sick to their stomach if they see that same breed of dog years later as an adult. And if you’ve been bitten by an idea as big as “God,” an idea that in one form or another has dominated most of the world for thousands of years, it can be hard to shake that off and find anything good in it. “Good God” isn’t an exclamation, then, it’s an oxymoron.

But there is an ancient practice in western religion that I want to recommend to you, called Lectio Divina (Latin for “divine word”). It’s a Christian practice that originated in the sixth century in monasteries, as a way of studying the scriptures, or holy writings. That’s what you’ll find if you look it up. But as a human art, it goes back much further than that, at least to the way that Jewish teachers learned to study their holy books (which were actually scrolls). And it has analogues in other traditions as well, including Buddhism and Sufism.

Many people in many traditions have discovered that just reading a spiritual text the way you would read anything else, or praying with the same mind you use to shop for bargains at Costco, gets old after a while. Even the most devoted can start to find themselves yawning, going over the same writings again and again. Nobody knew this better than monks, who basically did this daily for a living. Franciscans or
Zen Buddhists, it makes no difference.

The way that some creative types dealt with this is by finding a different mind to work with when doing spiritual study. The beauty of this is that it works just as well with one text as another, and even with many types of writing that aren’t overtly spiritual or religious at all.

Eating the Book 2

The practice is amazingly simple, at least in theory. As with so many things, in application, the experience can be a little different. But it’s very easy to describe.

For Christians, Jews, Buddhists, or what have you, they open one of their sacred texts, sometimes to a passage already chosen, sometimes at random. If it runs on for twelve chapters talking about how to wash the sacred altar vessels, you pick a different verse. Usually, one of the more contemplative passages is chosen. Then you clear your mind and relax your body as fully as possible. Let everything go—all of the everyday concerns, the endless loop of noise in the head. No need to push it away, just don’t hang on to it, don’t give it a chance to build a case you have to
pursue. Then read the text silently, at more or less your usual speed. The first time through, just read it for sense, to get the meaning of what’s being said. Pause for a minute or two, or however long feels right, and digest what you just read. Don’t think it out thoroughly, or start theorizing about it; just get to a point where you feel like you understand the basic sense of it.

Now go back and read the text again. This time, read it more slowly, with a clear and empty mind, letting the words and phrases sink in fully. Let them penetrate your heart. Open your heart, your feeling, to them and take them in. Let the words rest there, in your heart, like planting flowers in the loose, rich soil of a garden. Take your time. Don’t allow anything else to distract you. You can even turn off your phone.

Digest the words, and the meaning they contain, like the cherry at the center of a piece of chocolate. Enjoy them, savor them, like the first sip of a really good coffee in the morning. This is what I call “eating the book.” To do so is to do more than just reading it, in which case it stays outside you, over there, while you’re over here. Only a pale reflection of its words continues to linger for a while in your mind, like the image of a candle flame against your closed eyelids. Eventually, it flickers, fades, and goes out.

That’s Lectio Divina 101. Those of you who are somewhat experienced with meditation will recognize how similar it is in form and essence to many different types of practice. And notice how it doesn’t resemble what most of us think of as “prayer” at all, which all too often is just running a wish list of goodies past a Santa Claus upgrade. But when you truly digest and absorb a text, it becomes a part of you. “You are what you eat.”

The good news is, you can try this practice with any writings that you love, or that move you powerfully. It can be a very effective way of getting a deeper understanding of poetry, for example. And you can use it in listening to music, or gazing deeply at a great painting. Or observing your cat. At it’s root, it’s a particular way of tuning the attention to a deeper, clearer wavelength than our usual state of mind. What you choose as an object of attention, as a focal point, is entirely up to you.

If you experiment with this approach and find it interesting or useful, you might like combining it with journaling. After reading your text in a quiet, inner-focused, meditative state, try carefully and mindfully opening your journal to a clean page. Don’t start writing right away: check in with yourself first, to see if you want to write anything. Remember, the point of all this is to get off of automatic pilot and discover something fresh, something new.

For those in recovery, one good place to start could be the “Big Book” of AA, the Twelve Steps, or any recovery literature that speaks to you. Some find it easier to let the Steps into their inner selves this way, find that it’s like locating the light switch inside so they start lighting up your path. No one can know ahead of time if that will be their experience. All any of us can do is take the first step forward, and see what happens.

Happy wandering.

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