Do Not Try This At Home

The Most Reverend Metropolitan Kallistos Ware must be reading my blog, because he too is contemplating the corollaries between hinduism and christianity. The article’s tl;dr is that the hesychasm tradition in orthodox christianity is similar to meditative techniques in hinduism, mystical judaism (the so called ‘chariot mysteries‘) and the muslim dhikr (repetitive recitation of god’s names and attributes). In short, all four traditions teach repetitive prayer techniques geared toward ‘touching god.’

Hesychasm is something of a guarded tradition within orthodoxy, tagged with caution that if improperly practiced, or if practiced without the supervision of a spiritual father, great spiritual harm shall ensue. It’s pretty much slapped with a “do not try this at home!” warning. This is something I’ve noted about orthodox christianity in general: have a question or spiritual venture? Ask a priest.

My interest in the jesus prayer was piqued after reading The Way of the Pilgrim some years ago (I blogged about it here). Despite the supposed danger I began reciting the prayer off and on, usually aiming for ‘loops’ of 100. I would recite it during obstinate stretches of late-night insomnia. This was less to obtain enlightenment than to bore myself back to sleep, and along the way I memorized a few sanskrit mantras off youtube. These too I recited in 100-loops but I never really thought of it as “meditation.” For instance, I never utilized a particular posture or breathing technique (still don’t).

In my post about astral projection I mentioned I have no idea why this phenomena is hitting me with such frequency. What was once a rare and bizarre experience is now commonplace for me. I’ve lost count how many times I’ve projected just this month, and last night was in a state of near-constant projection.

Looking back to last year when I began projecting frequently, I realize it was around this time I began reciting the jesus prayer in force, using prayer beads to make sure I was getting those “100 loops” and not doing it solely to bore myself back to sleep- I just somehow felt compelled to do it. It was also around this time I memorized and recited those sanskrit mantras in earnest.

If I were to approach this from a non-partisan perspective, my guess is that repetitive prayer- regardless of the religion- “wakes up” spiritual points in the body and energizes- for lack of a better term- one’s spiritual capacities. This is something that has, apparently, been well known to ascetics from religious cultures ranging from east to west, indigenous to sophisticated. Keep in mind these ascetics practice not just repetitive prayer but deliberate starvation and sleep deprivation (amazonian shamans will starve and isolate themselves to achieve greater spiritual heights). Starvation (fasting) and interrupted sleep also likely trigger “spiritual points” within and without the body.

As for what’s happening to me I know orthodox christians would say I’m in a state of prelest– spiritual delusion- because 1) I ventured into repetitive prayer without permission or guidance of a religious authority and 2) my experiences and beliefs do not match orthodox christian doctrine. My use of sanskrit mantras, belief in reincarnation, and involuntary astral projections would be considered heretical (if not downright satanic) and even disqualify me as a christian. That all being said, I have no clue if repetitive prayer and astral projection are linked. I mean it’s not like I spend all day praying, and there have been many times I projected without having recently prayed.

Either way I’m not too worried about it- I’m not pretending to be in a place of spiritual authority here- I’m just sharing my experience. If someone asked me for advice I would do my best to give it, but that advice would be, at best, imperfect. I also don’t expect or even particularly want anyone to believe me. I share this information in case someone might take an interest in it, or perhaps someone in a similar plight might garner a little help from my words.

Sometimes when asked what I do, I have to stop myself from saying- “I’m a praying person.” Prayer is like a sport. It takes practice, endurance, determination. Just as it’s difficult to run x number of miles, it can be difficult to pray x prayer x number of times. Furthermore it takes practice to “navigate” prayers. Hard to explain what “navigate” means here, but it’s one thing to look at a map- it’s another thing entirely to TRAVEL what that map represents. Likewise you can recite a prayer rote (which still serves a purpose) or you can “travel” that prayer within yourself. This is why orthodox christians call it “interior prayer.”

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Fr. Lazarus El Anthony

I stumbled across this outstanding footage of modern-day hermit Fr. Lazarus El Anthony, a coptic monk living in a cave in the Egyptian desert. I call it “footage” rather than a documentary because this appears to be a serialized interview filmed for coptic religious classes. However, there is a documentary about this monk, The Last Anchorite, but it’s not available on netflix.

This lengthy interview is worth watching regardless of your religious persuasion or lack thereof. Fr. Lazarus spins a fascinating tale of going from marxist, atheist academic to desert dwelling coptic monk. After the devastating death of his mother he reads Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain and decides that if monastery life brought Merton peace, it might bring him peace. So he phones the local Catholic monastery, is asked if he’s Catholic (no) or if he was recommended by a priest (no). The monastery hangs up on him. Then he calls a local orthodox monastery, but I will leave the remainder of the story for you to watch.

This is a playlist of 12 videos; it has an annoying insignia superimposed over it, but since the film is simply Fr. Lazarus talking, you could minimize it and just listen to audio. His relaxed, friendly demeanor and vast intellect are engaging; I felt I was listening to a close friend rather than a desert recluse worlds apart. Despite being Australian, he speaks with an odd sounding Egyptian accent. I noticed the same phenomena in Hippie Masala, where the European gurus spoke English with a Hindi accent. I guess if you live in an area long enough you eventually start speaking like those around you.

The Coptic Christians Fr. Lazarus joins are the same minority group being persecuted in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. I was left wondering, while watching him speak, what has become of the ascetic, as I know more than one monastery and countless churches were destroyed by muslims. The fifth century Berber siege of Scetis (Skete, or Wadi El Natrun), where the original desert fathers dwelt, comes to mind as a haunting historical forerunner to the events of today.

The Way of the Pilgrim

“The Way of the Pilgrim” is an anonymously written 19th century Russian book that probably would have been relegated to obscurity were it not for the fact that J.D. Salinger mentions it in “Franny and Zooey.” “The Way of the Pilgrim” has far reaching influences in Salinger’s writing. In fact, if I were an academic type (which I’m not) I would write a thesis about how “Catcher in the Rye” is written as a dystopic “Way of the Pilgrim.”

It is not known if the book is autobiographical, or if it is fiction written as autobiography. My impression is that “Pilgrim” is indeed autobiographical; there are clumsy narrative tropes that a fiction writer would not use, even if trying to make something sound autobiographical. As the books proceeds it sometimes sounds more like notes to self, than prose. The overall tone of the narrative is inconsistent, almost as though the writer grew tired of writing at certain points (in that respect, it almost reads like a proto blog). And the many snippets and vignettes of life in rural 19th century Russia are either too bland or too bizarre to be fabricated. The earliest known manuscript was present at Mt. Athos in the 19th century, and in the course of the narrative, the pilgrim encounters a monk from Mt. Athos. It is very possible that when the pilgrim finished his writings, he put them in the hands of this monk (who in the book, is fluent in Russian and Greek).

So what is the book about? It is about interior prayer, which, as you discover in reading this book, is no simple or small achievement. Just like yogis have to study endlessly and tediously to gain their wisdom, so does a pilgrim have study and pray endlessly and tediously to achieve enlightenment. “Enlightenment” here means prayer without ceasing– prayer that continues even in sleep– a sort of Christian nirvana state. At one point the pilgrim recites the Jesus Prayer 6,000 times a day until he achieves a state of “prayer consciousness.” But this is not good enough, and he wanders years (and six more chapters) beyond this point to achieve greater understanding, humility, and perfection in prayer.

The book can get repetitive and abstract but somehow manages to remain interesting. However, the book is so complex and philosophical that I would have to share my meager thoughts and observations on a chapter by chapter basis, which I hope to do in the near future.