The Magic Washcloth

I came down with another cold! Two in one month! What a way to start the new year. The last time I was this sick was about three years ago- I remember standing in line at costco so feverish and dizzy I began to pass out before bracing myself against the conveyer belt.

I was feverish and miserable new year’s eve, spent as much time as I could in bed which I don’t enjoy doing. I’m not exactly a productive person but I hate sitting (well laying) around doing nothing. I read Graceful Exits: How Great Beings Die, compiled by Sushila Blackman. The book gives vignettes of how gurus and zen masters leave their mortal coil. Most will predict the exact day and time of their death, and sure enough on that day and time they pass away. Occasionally they throw in a zinger: don’t touch my body for three days! And after three days he starts breathing again, only to really die this time. There were also reports of bodies remaining warm to the touch after death, particularly at certain chakra points.

In retrospect this was perhaps not the best book to read while sick. One passage struck me- when ramakrishna was dying he would say, O mind, do not worry about the body. Let the body and its pain take care of each other. For some reason that resonated with me.

That night going into the new year I continued to be feverish and in pain despite hefty doses of advil. Let the body and its pain take care of each other. It got so bad I thought of how lokenath brahmachari promised to protect anyone from the dangers of war and jungles.

Baba lokenath, I thought inwardly. I’m not in a war or jungle but could you please make me feel a little better?

Right away I ‘heard’ a response: get a wet cloth and place it on your forehead.

I hadn’t done that since I was a kid! I scrounged around in the dark for a rag, wet it in the sink then collapsed back in bed with it folded over my forehead. A little water dripped onto the pillow.

Within five minutes my body was cool to the touch. It was the craziest thing! I couldn’t believe it myself. I touched my face, throat, stomach, legs. What had been burning up was now ice cold. Was it divine assistance? A magic washcloth? Did the advil decide to kick in? I don’t know but I managed to get some sleep- only to wake up that morning feverish again. But at least I was rested.

Despite feeling like death warmed over I had to do some birthday shopping for the almost 16 year old, then it was back to bed. I reread some Graceful Exits then watched a very funny episode of the IT Crowd where Douglas learns the truth about his new love interest. Reader advisory: if you’re easily offended, you may not want to watch these highlights. Why is british comedy so much better than american stuff?



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.”

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.