THE SPIRITUAL DYNAMICS OF PRAYER
Editor's Introduction: As leader of the Prayer Project of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, Rabbi Flam asked her working group the below questions on their practice of prayer. What follows is her own response. You, too, might ask yourselves these questions. You might present them to your study partner or spirituality group. We have opened up a discussion thread at the end of the article. If you would like to share your response to these questions, we invite your participation in the discussion.
This article was originally written for rabbis. It contains untranslated Hebrew phrases and words. In order to keep the flow of the text, we have added translations at the end of the article.
by Rabbi Nancy Flam
In my “bare” prayer practice, without liturgy (recently the kind of prayer I practice most frequently, just about every morning but Shabbat):
I am practicing getting quiet and still. This is the first part of my practice, and it is key. When my parade of discursive thoughts/stories, self-concerns, and ego habits calm down, I open to what is all around me. “Be still and know that I am God.” (I do this by sitting down in a quiet, solitary and safe place, with the intention of engaging in prayer for a certain amount of time, undisturbed. And then I just sit, with the intention of allowing preoccupying thoughts, feelings, and sensations, but especially thoughts, to simply loosen their grip, lessen their volume, drain away. As I do so, I come into an experience of my consciousness as being less separate from everything else that is.)
HACHANAH L’TEFILLA – TIME OF PREPARATION
When it gets quiet and still enough, I practice settling into the heart, resting my attention there, feeding the heart with the oxygen of intention, breath, and willingness, inviting it to grow in depth, clarity, and power. By going to the heart I have the sense that I am beginning to inhabit a more real, more essential aspect of myself that feels like it belongs to an essential aspect of God, as well. I’m aligning myself and my attention and experience with the heart of the world, which I imagine lies at the center of creation, generating love, goodness, and compassion. “Rachmana liba ba’ei.” (I do this by directing my attention to the physical area of the chest where the heart lies, breathing into and out of the heart, envisioning its luminosity, making space for emotion, for fullness and for whatever wants to ride in and out on the currents of emotion.)
DEEP STRUCTURE OF PESUKEI D’ZIMRA
Resting in the heart, I open to an empathic connection to creation, mostly to other people, feeling my way into other subjectivities in order that I might connect to them not only imaginally in that moment but for the sake of actually connecting to them in the day that will unfold in a way that will be responsive to their need. I am preparing myself, training myself through neuronal activation of imaginal empathy to be ready to respond with love and presence, to say “Hineini” to people and to the world as they will present themselves to me. Hareini mekabelet alai mitzvat haBorei: Ve’ahavta le’re’echa kamocha. Insofar as I experience a flow of love through me to other specific people right then, in real time, I also have the sense that I am “praying for them,” that I am with my mind, heart and body engaging “an arousal from below,” or alternatively simply stepping into the flow of hesed that is always pouring forth but experiencing it with kavanah/kivvun: intention and directionality. (I do this by allowing my mind to flip through its Rolodex of humans: family, friends, neighbors, community members, sick individuals. And I do this connecting to creation through the heart, too, by opening my eyes, taking in light, and the variety of things in the natural world before me.) I am practicing connection and responsibility.
DEEP STRUCTURE OF SH’MA AND HER BLESSINGS
Then, often, I pause, and release into breathing, just breathing -- back into a sense of the undifferentiated whole, just as it is. (Here, I often note a more refined quality of energy and attention to the One than I had when I first set out in this prayer practice.)
Then I prepare myself to turn to God in conversation. I collect myself into one thing again, draw back in to the separateness of my personhood for the sake of “one-to-One” dialogue. I direct my intention and attention toward a different face of God – imagined anthropomorphically –assuming myself to be already in relationship with the Holy One, waiting for each of us to show up at this appointed time to continue the conversation. Da lifnei Mi ata omed. I start by listening, imaging the divine Other present in that very time and place, before me. Shiviti Adonai lenegdi. And I have a kind of conversation. (My degree of concentration and distraction varies depending on the day, the moment, how I slept, how my practice was the day before and whether or not it has inspired faith, trust and commitment.) I listen. I ask for guidance. I listen. I say “thank you.” I ask to be used. I say “I love you.” I see what comes. (I do this by imaging God present and by talking out loud and sometimes then just in my head, but in words.) I am practicing trust and the art of keeping a relationship alive and relevant.
DEEP STRUCTURE OF AMIDAH
And then I just sit for a bit and make sure I have done all I need to do. I am practicing integration. I want to reenter the world having touched/inhabited different dimensions of consciousness/soul, different “worlds,” in the language of tradition; I want them all accessible and active, “on-line” for the day, and fluent in my being.
DEEP STRUCTURE OF CONCLUDING PRAYERS
That’s basically what I am trying to do, what I do, and how I do it. It’s not fancy. It feels real, authentic, organic, and important. Quite often words of the liturgy come to my mind and heart, sometimes asking to be sung/chanted, dwelled upon. There’s no question that this practice has emerged from a deep imprinting of the matbeah together with the deep needs/shape of my soul. Almost always, I am more alive, more aware, more connected, more loving, more honest, more responsive, and more full for having practiced this kind of prayer.
When I davven with the liturgy as my guide/map/companion, as I do for stretches as a regular practice, or when I can’t seem to generate the focus and clarity of path as described above, I am basically trying to do the same thing in terms of an actual prayer practice, but I’m doing it in connection with a whole lot of words, memories of and connections with those words, and an openness to the words taking me where they will. But it’s that deep structure I’m really dedicated to following, discovering and practicing.
Rachmana liba ba’ei (Talmud, in Aramaic) - God wants the heart
Hineini - Here I am
Hareini mekabelet alai mitzvat haBorei: Ve’ahavta le’re’echa kamocha.
I accept the commandment of the Creator: Love your neighbor as youself.
hesed - lovingkindness
kavanah/kivvun - intention/direction
Da lifnei Mi ata omed - Know before Whom you stand
Shiviti Adonai lenegdi - (Psalm 16) I place God before me always
matbeah - The form or outline of the traditional prayer service
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Rabbi Nancy Flam was the first Director of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality and a co-founder of the Jewish Healing Center in 1991. She then directed the Jewish Community Healing Program of Ruach Ami: Bay Area Jewish Healing Center in San Francisco. She has served as a consultant for Synagogue 2000 and the National Center for Jewish Healing. Rabbi Flam earned her B.A. in Religion (Phi Beta Kappa, Summa cum Laude) from Dartmouth College in 1982; her M.A. in Hebrew Literature from the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1986, and was ordained in 1989.
Published by Jewish Lights