Prayer as Spiritual Aikido
Rev. Douglas Taylor

When I pray, my habit is to use one of two particular methods that I have developed. With the breadth of belief among us in this congregation in terms of the nature of God, I will not assume there to be among us any uniform way of accessing or connecting to that which is holy. But prayer is a perennial spiritual discipline and warrants our communal attention by any standard. Myself, I am somewhat eclectic in terms of this spiritual discipline and over the years have fluctuated around several practices and ritual forms. Perhaps this has been the case for you?

I have tried walking meditations, intentional Zen-style emptying meditations, private spoken prayers, communal spoken prayers, daily devotional readings, contemplative journaling, singing, drumming, listening, loving, laughing, weeping, and wandering in the woods. I have sung to the wind my joy and have shouted my pain to the swaying pines.  I have knelt on the floors of cathedrals and at the shores of quiet lakes.  I have held lonely hands at hospital bedsides, have felt the long embrace of dear friends and have listened alone in the long hungering silence. Over the years, each of these practices has fed me, springing up in my need or curiosity. But all through the years there has been, and will likely always be, two practices that have stuck.

In a recent book Simply Pray, colleague Erik Wikstrom writes about a very Unitarian Universalist approach to prayer. He begins by briefly outlining the four classic types of prayer: praise and thanksgiving, confession, meditation, and intersession. Praise and thanksgiving is naming the holy and the sacred in our lives and lifting up our gratitude. Confession is a broader version of a prayer for forgiveness; it involves knowing yourself and seeking after your better self. Meditation is listening in quietness for that ‘still small voice within.’ And intersession is reaching out with love and concern for the hurt in the world. Another way to think of it is that we all have a yearning, a longing to connect beyond the day-to-day mundane ordinariness of life. We seek to connect. Prayer is a vehicle of connection.

In what I believe is the revealing clue that Wikstrom’s book about prayer is a Unitarian Universalist book about prayer is the passage in which – to make that point that the form classic forms of prayer are universal – the author notes the parallel forms in the secular world. The practice of keeping a gratitude journal for therapy is much like the version of prayer known as praise and thanksgiving. Confession is quite similar to the 12-step process of taking a “fearless moral inventory.” Certain forms of basic stress relaxation are clearly meditation. And while intersession is perhaps the most distained form of prayer in the secular world, even this has a parallel found in the notions around the power of positive thinking and the multiple permutations that follow.

But the most compelling argument for talking about the four classic forms of prayer is to notice them and then forget about them. They are useful for labeling and categorizing, but mostly one must begin not with labels but with actual experiences. As with our opening hymn: There is music in the air, there is trouble in the air, there is gladness in the air … these are the experiences. The concluding statement of each verse, ‘there must be a God somewhere,’ is a belief statement that may or may not fit. We begin with our experiences and we then reach for our own ways of naming those experiences. Prayer ought to be a process of articulating that longing.

For me, prayer is a technique for maintaining or restoring balance. And, as I have mentioned so far, while I take advantage of multiple styles, there remain two methods of prayer that are continually of help. I use meditative listening and a form of centering prayer. Both practices focus on balance for me. And in fairness to the theory of four classic styles of prayer, I can fit them into the slots. What I call meditative listening looks very much like classical meditation. And the way I use the centering prayer it is rather like praise and thanksgiving. But functionally, they both serve to help me regain or maintain balance.

The centering prayer is based on the idea or repeating a phrase in your head as a focusing mantra. The one I use is “My God, my One; my God, my All.” A centering prayer can use any phrase. As with the koan from Buddhist tradition, an irrational question is meant distract higher parts of the brain. The phrase gives your thinking self something to focus on while you empty yourself. Repeating the phrase with a certain intent helps quell the other inner noise that arises.

It is amazing how the initial attempts to have inner quiet can call forth all manner of flitting distraction. Often, someone new meditating is lucky to maintain two contiguous seconds of inner quiet. At first, the repeating of this phrase feels more a plea than praise. It is a like a safety line we grasp. It allows the mind a touch-point to return to, to hold to while all else is leaping. There was a time when I could get so discombobulated that I would use two completely different centering phrases to keep myself focused.

But over time, for me this practice developed away from being a struggle to focus, a fight to be in control of my own thoughts. Like with physical exercise when over time the muscles grow used to the work and they strengthen; so too with spiritual exercise, over time the mind or will grows used to the work and strengthens. Now, reciting the centering phrase is as a song of praise. It truly becomes something other than a crutch to help quiet the mind. It becomes a prayer, a focused prayer of praise and gratitude.

This practice also opened up the second regular technique I’ve been doing: the meditative listening. When I think about it, this is pretty much the centering prayer without the mantra. It is simply listening to the world around me, to the world within me, to the person before me, to the still small voice of God. This helps me maintain balance, an aspect of living that has not always been in sufficient quantities before I learned to pray. But this is not simply because I had grown up in an alcoholic home. I suspect many people are out of balance, especially nowadays. The standard template of living these days is, in a word, “busy.” And ‘busy’ simply is not naturally balanced. It is, by definition, impossible to pay attention to what you are doing when you are multi-tasking on three or four different things!

Paying attention is key to balance. And what do you do if something major comes into your life when you are out of balance? What if there is a serious illness of the death of a loved one, job loss, or other significant tragedy? Let me invite you into an extended metaphor that may illuminate this well. It may even prove to be not simply a metaphor, too.

When we were living down in the Washington D.C. area, our older two children became involved with a martial art called Aikido.  We found the Aikido lessons of such value for the kids, we did not mind in the least the 45 minute drive each way to get to the dojo, a trek we took at least three times a week.  Aikido is a martial art based on non-violence.  It emphasizes rolls and how to fall without getting hurt rather than punches and how to throw other people.  Aikido is about balance. It was founded in Japan in the first half of the 20th century and has developed a noticeable following in America after World War II along with many martial arts, of course. The principle difference from other martial arts such as Karate and Jujitsu is that in Aikido you do not try to meet your opponent’s force and overwhelm it, you try to move out of the way of your opponent’s force and control it.  Instead of blocking a punch and hitting back, you step to the side, allow the punch to follow through by grasping the other person’s wrist and pulling them off balance.

There is an elegant connection to some of the concepts of Taoism. On conceptual rendering the 69th chapter of Tao Te Ching reads, in part, “The martial master understands how to yield and triumph.  When his opponent’s blow arrives, he is not there.  He moves, yet maintains position, bends, but stays balanced.  … Thus in yielding, you will truly triumph.”  (The Parent’s Tao Te Ching) Do not meet force with greater force; allow the energy to flow past you. When a person is off balance they are not a threat.

Seeing the philosophy spelled out I cannot help but think of Dr. King’s concept of ‘soul force’ and Gandhi’s non-violent direct action. In each case there is a great deal of work on self-control rather than controlling others. In the Dharmmapada it says, “If a man practices himself what he admonishes others to do, he himself, being well-controlled, will have control over others.  It is difficult, indeed, to control oneself.”(#159) Aikido certainly taught my children balance and how to deflect and control another person’s energy with balance.  I have seen that it also gave them an inner balance to control their own energy.

The primary work of Aikido is to learn how to receive the energy of an attack and transform that energy back onto the attacker. In other words, the enemy’s own energy is ultimately used to defeat them. Now, I am far from the first to suggest that such ideas are not limited to the tangible physical world. The “enemy” need not be a thug with a knife set to mug you. Indeed, the principles of Aikido can be applied to emotional and spiritual “enemies” such as anger or spiritual despair. We can learn techniques to receive and integrate the energy of internal or external enemies and to transform this energy back onto that which attacks us.

One practitioner offers this simple example:

There are times when you’re just turning a bolt on a wrench and I find myself at arm’s length to the job. I think “Well, am I in my range of effectiveness?” and I pull in and it’s easier to work because I’ve found the proper distance. [In Aikido,] it’s the same principle. I’m in my range when I can naturally turn the wrench. I’m out of it when I’m extended.

… [Another one shares] an application of Aikido in a social situation.

I practice Aikido every single day of my life. I’m in sales, and it’s been the greatest thing for my sales. It has been. The idea of, if I’ve had a lot of unhappy customers, a lot of rejections, whatever it might be, and for me, that’s an attack. And to be able to take this energy, and redirect it to a more neutral position, so it ends up in a win-win scenario, that’s Aikido. That’s the best Aikido.
(from “Aikido as Spiritual Practice in the United States” by Peter W. Boylan, M.A.)

Another practitioner commented on the applications to a spousal relationship, seeing an argument with his wife not as something to win or lose. Instead, notice the level of the argument that plays out in the energy. You may still get angry – if you are human, you will still get angry at times – but (if you think of it as energy) you can remain in balance and allow the other person’s energy to move past you. And maybe this is not just at the level of metaphor anymore, I’m not certain. But I caution you to not consider your spouse to be the “enemy” or the “attacker” as Aikido terminology would have it. Perhaps your own anger is the “enemy.”

Think of something that causes you to become angry or disheartened. Now think of that external negative stuff in terms of energy coming toward you and your anger or despair is the counter energy you are presenting back. In the same way an Aikido practitioner would see an attacker in terms of energy and would step to the side, grasping the attacker’s wrist and allowing the energy to sweep past – you can do that with those things that cause you anger or despair. We can practice a spiritual aikido. We can learn to apply a peaceful redirection of energy deeply grounded in the principles of nonviolence. We can pay attention to the energy, step to one side while grasping a corner of it to be sure it keeps moving along.

A recent search has turned up an Aikido club on the BU campus and a dojo up in Norwich that I think I will look into. But Aikido is meant as an extended metaphor about how prayer can be a vehicle toward restoring and maintaining balance. Whether you use prayer as a development of a relationship as the western religious traditions and certain indigenous religious traditions teach, as an internal dialogue as the secular understanding offers, or as the process of enlightenment into the oneness of the universe as eastern religious traditions hold – however it works for you, I believe we all need the balance we can learn from prayer.

In a world without end
May it be so