Below I share my own background with meditation, as well as some lessons I have learned that may help you avoid some of the sillier sides to the industry they call meditation and mindfulness.
My own experience with meditation (skip this part if you don't care!):
I've always been a bit of a mystic, interested in religious rites and rituals of all kinds. I was curious and a little perplexed by those of the episcopal church I grew up attending socially with my family, tried to make sense of a child's illustrated bible my minister uncle provided upon my request when I was 8, and did a 25 page report on Haitian Voodoo ceremonies for an expository writing class in high school.
When I was in college, I ended up double-majoring in art and religion - the least practical two fields one could choose, and two that really were perfect for me. I chose the religious studies department at Brown University because it was a more 'happening' department at that time than the Anthropology department from what I could tell. I studied East Asian religions: Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, as well as Christianity, and a tiny bit of Judaism and Islam. I wrote my senior thesis on Jonestown. I was interested in the difference between cults and religions, how they form and who decides.
I didn't actually meditate at all until I was out of college for a few years, when a good friend, visiting me in the midst of a painful breakup (mine), showed me how. I spent the next ten years trying to attain sainthood by doing lots of meditation of various forms, having a couple of 'special state' moments, and a couple of cultish sidebars that made me wary of the whole thing and fairly confused. Suffice it to say, I learned a lot about what meditation is not, and what to do if you really want to hurt yourself.
After that, I found Vipassana meditation, also called insight meditation, and I liked it because I felt there were fewer bells and whistles, and less outward forms and rituals to adhere to than my forays into Tibetan and Zen buddhism had yielded. I also did some specialized yoga, went on a pilgrimage to south India, and almost gave up my life to go live at an ashram with a couple of kooks; I am grateful that I ultimately did not!
What all those years of attempting to perfect or fix myself and my troubles through meditation did, is to hone my bullshit meter pretty sharply. Here are my *fairly cynical* (you are forewarned!) takeaways or you might call it
Hannah B’s Rough Guide to meditation:
Meditation is being present for what happens. It is simply a form of attention. Attention is love.
There are many ways to be present, some of them are easier than others, some work better for one person than another.
Meditation can be used to calm and center the mind and body, and can be good for your health. It can also really F up your knees if you think it has to be done cross legged like on the magazine covers.
Meditation doesn't look a certain way. You don't have to buy special stuff or hold painful poses. You do not need to have a top knot or mala beads or a shawl. You can eat meat. You can be in therapy. You can enjoy wearing heels or vote republican. If you find yourself developing a new style or persona around your meditation practice, please notice this: it's got nothing, nothing, to do with actually being present.
Meditation doesn't mean that thinking stops. In my experience, you are not in charge of thoughts: the brain thinks like the nose smells, just doing its job. Thinking is not you but a function of the organ called the brain. The more you believe a thought to be you, and believe whatever ticker-tape thoughts come along, the deeper suffering may ensue.
Meditation is not one-size-fits-all.
If anyone tells you their way of meditating is the right way and only way, please do not believe them!
Everybody responds differently to different types of meditation, based on who they are, their genetics, personalities, learning styles and needs, and there are many options. That being said, I recommend keeping it simple and not getting too fetishy about it.
The whole thing, I’ve found, is an inside out process. How you look is just your ego trying to be perfect and liked. I spent a long time trying to 'do it right' and 'look good' because frankly I didn't like who I was, and I thought if I could be this saintly gal, I would have no flaws and I would finally be loved. What I had backward is that the only place where love is is inside, and the outer situation only reflects whatever that relationship is. If the teacher liked me, then I was ok. If I seemed sagely and selfless, then I was safe. Underneath was a really fraudulent feeling and I didn't think it was ok to have such a feeling, to be confused, to be a giant throbbing mess. But I was.
The good news is that, though you can hurt yourself with this "idea" of yourself as a meditator or somehow in a superior place, eventually your course will self correct, it can't not. It may just take longer if you are trying really really hard.
People often learn how to meditate from other people.
This is a little like the way electricity is conducted through metal. It seems helpful to be in conversation with others. In this day and age, such an interaction can be refreshingly down to earth. In my experience a good teacher makes you feel at ease with things as they are, and yourself as you are. Because in a way this is all a big mirror, if you feel like you are disappointing your teacher or getting corrected a lot, it may be because they are feeling disappointed and critical of themselves. Your boundaries are to be valued and honored, as well as your life experience.
If you feel like there's a level of fakeness in the air at a given meditation center, there probably is. A healthy community that forms around meditation is not hierarchical, does not involve prescribed dress and ways of moving, speaking or talking, or giving up all your cash. It may be you that's feeling fake. So see what it's like if you drop that. If it's not okay, perhaps you're in a cult! They are quite common. If you can't be yourself or make choices for yourself freely in that environment, there may be a problem there.
Sometimes there's this far out thing described as having an enlightenment experience, and somebody who has special status because of theirs. Also, be wary here. If what is being referred to is in the past, is romanticising a certain time or association, or a special state other than the present, including you and your experience, also this is something to avoid getting too enamoured of.
Any teacher sitting in front of you is a human being with their own conditioning, preferences, foibles and imperfections. If this is not acknowledged by the teacher, this is a flag. If they dangle something really special in front of you like waking up, and tell you that it takes a long time, decades of sitting on a meditation cushion, or lots of money and expressions of loyalty to the teacher, please run away! If there is like an inner circle, that too is weird. It is!
Some people may be fully awake and never have formally meditated, and never will. Often people who spend decades on a meditation cushion, like I did, do so because they have trouble getting along in the world, not because they've transcended it. Any claim I make, or another makes, to being superior is hiding a fear of being inferior. We certainly all, as humans, believe and sometimes outwardly make such claims, but remembering this can help you take any leader with a grain of salt. As my friend Brian likes to say, we are all - every last one of us, a bunch of third graders wandering around. No one can claim authority for another when we see this fundamental truth. So be scientific and skeptical. Ask the awkward question. Try it out, but trust your gut.
Just Sitting There
My Philosophy of Prayer
Or see the category: Contemplative Practice
Today is a special day. It is one of those days, like a graduation or a wedding, that has been emblazoned on my brain for about a year, because it is the day that the brand new 2021 edition of Contemporary Prayers to Whatever Works, is officially published!
Because this new title is not self published, the date is significant. With my self published earlier titles,* there wasn’t technically a launch date because I just received the shipment of books and then had to scratch my head about how to not ruin the suspension in my car or pull my back or ruin friendships with requests to help me move book boxes, storing them under my bed and using them as furniture in their own right, as well as how to let people know about them, and how to sell them. This is a lot for one person!
With Tiller Press, a division of Simon & Schuster however, I don’t receive the books, and I don’t sell them either. So what exactly happens today? On this the publication date, the book officially goes on sale, which also means more specifically that the book makes its way today through the distribution chain to those retailers that have ordered it.
Today is the day that my new book hits the shelves! I just held the first copy in my hands, and very relieved that the cover isn’t on upside down or something, and that everything is going as planned.
Also, because I was a one woman operation for so long, the fact that I have had a team of skilled professionals doing their sparkly magic in the background like sharing the title with a sales team, who then shares it with retailers, is all very abstract to me. But it’s darn exciting, because with my last books, there is like, no way to really get them into a distribution stream that isn’t very local and very painstaking to set up. There is a special dread to stopping into a shop to ‘let them know’ about my book.
So even though there is nothing particularly tangible going on over here right now, please celebrate with me! Better yet, please purchase a copy of the book, which you can do here. By so doing you help me be in good standing with the publisher and have the possibility of future dealings with them! All of this, truly is an amazing product of a community of people believing in an artist’s project and supporting it. My intention now is to be of service to anyone and everyone who needs some connection, direction and comfort, with a side of humor, some vibrant new imagery and no BS to tangle with.
Thanks again to all of you that have supported me getting to this moment, this is a celebration I share with you!!
much love, lots of gratitude,
*the original contemporary prayers in 2013, Help me [ ], do the thing. that followed in 2016 and the Elements: a love letter to all things everywhere, 2019
In just under a month, the third prayer book, which is my fourth book, and is also my very first book fully published by someone else (in this case Simon+ Schuster’s Tiller Press) arrives! As if by stork. It has in fact already been printed but I have not yet seen it. This feels a little like when you’ve given birth in the nineteen fifties and you are waiting for a nurse to bring you your child. But instead your child is going to arrive one of these days via the US Mail in 2021.
It’s in a very small way like that. The hard work is done - or is it? The sweat of creating the thing has been wiped from our brows, and now the book exists, they tell me, and I am excited! It will be fully out in the world on March 23rd 2021!
But for now, the news I have is that your pre-ordered book is within reach, and is available for purchase via the retailer of your choice at this link: bit.ly/contemporaryprayers
It is funny trying to get ready for something you haven’t ever experienced. It’s challenging to know what preparation matters, and what is just spinning wheels. Self publishing is a very different beast. A lot more control, a lot clearer information, a much smaller platform, and for me, a little more of knowing what to expect. Which here I do not!
Especially in the last year, I find that I am committed to having a reasonably day, everyday, wherever I have a choice in the matter. There is so much in this year that reveals how little control we have, and with this information, it’s become clear to me that being kind to oneself and to those around one is a priority. So I will plan on sharing with you in small bites, in palatable doses for both of us, with the intention of enriching your life and moment, and showing up to be a steward for what s arriving. Here are a couple of sneak peak inside pages for you, and some prayers to get a sense of it.
Among studio objects, my current studio floor I have a very special appreciation for, I appreciate it almost as much as my very first studio floor, which was a very large swathe of high gloss, light turquoise, painted, wooden floor, painted by someone else before I arrived, in a building which was previously some kind of mill. That floor was in the Fort Point Channel in Downtown Boston, where I had my first ever own living space out of college, which had that lovely floor, lots of sun, lots of space, and is now converted to luxury office space whereas before it was artist studio space, not zoned for residential use.
I loved that floor because the color was light enough and bright enough to be cheerful, and because the space was overheated with steam pipes which made it very warm, and the color was cool. I have many photographs from that period of my life with the background of that floor, held many open studios in the space, and made lots of art upon that floor.
Today, here in my personal studio space in a town that doesn't have any affordable studio space (shame on you Ann Arbor), I have a space in our garage that doesn't leak, doesn't risk my safety to get to late at night, is not a crazy commute (30 feet), and doesn't have a printing press operating below it, or a meth dealership, ghosts, peeping toms, walled off fire exits, slumlords, or homeless squatters next door. All of these examples come from 25 years of studio space shenanigans, and I could quietly die here in this space as a satisfied elderly gal, hopefully not for a long time, and I would be grateful.
This floor is a symbol for me of how I can learn things and improve upon things. It's the second studio floor I have 'built' myself. The first was about a mile away from here, in the Walter St. garage, where I put down some plastic sheeting, some thin foam insulation, and then used half tongue and groove flooring I found, and half gray gym flooring. The gym flooring was great, but after about 2 months, the tongue and groove flooring separated, and the whole thing creaked and pitched like an old seaworthy vessel.
This time, I did not make the same mistake. I chose a space with a level concrete floor to start, carefully researched options, and then got help from my friend Patrick to install first a subfloor with little rubber feet, and then I put in (by myself which was truly crazy and not smart but it went ok) a carpenter grade plywood floor, and painted it Alpaca. I hurt my knees and shoulder a bit, and did a few unsafe moves with the circular saw, but The two things a love about this floor are that it is level, screwed in place, has air circulating properly underneath it, and has a little bounce under your step like an interior floor. These are all successes. This is the subfloor, and part of the finished floor before painting.
I chose to paint the floor because I didn't want to feel like I had to treat the wood preciously. My studio floors get very grimey and very droplet covered and covered with pencil shavings, and now bits of ash and charcoal.
I chose this warm, earthy version of an off white/gray called Alpaca because I wanted the space to feel like a light box. It does! However, it really accentuates how much of a pigpen I am, and the fact that I have never tended well to floors.
So I try to sweep, I have a swiffer hack that allows me to mop up fairly easily, and I just hope when people pop in they look up at the walls and windows and me, and not down at the layers of floor grime. Eventually, I can repaint it. Once I run out of alpaca, I can try another hue.
Hannah, why prayer?
When I share about one of the prayer books, this is one of the questions that comes up. Why did I write these books in the first place? Prayer was not a regular part of my life growing up, and nobody really modeled it for me. I was raised in an Episcopal church, the Easter and Christmas kind of attendance, where it was more social and obligatory than in any way personal. Church was a place where my mother got support and childcare when she was single, working, and struggling. Church was a place where I remember the toys in the daycare area and the beef broth scalding my tongue after the service. There were a couple of nice prayers, but the repetition en masse felt like I was in an army or something, and I was proving my allegiance for my peers, not in any kind of personal or conscious contact with anything.
I came across a more practical form of prayer from several close mentors I had in my twenties and thirties. I learned about things like a prayer for fear and a prayer for when you're pissed off at someone. I also learned there about laying off the whole 'what is God' type of conversation, as less important than actually being in some kind of constructive action, when the alternative is more suffering, conflict and resentment.
The prayer books I've written do not use a word like 'god,' which I see as the ultimate placeholder word, and instead use a form that is abstract, in other words, it doesn't look like anything specific, and that changes on every page and is part of the sentence. *
Why did you use a symbol instead of the word 'god' in your books? I did this because I actually don't know what it is that I'm praying to. I have no idea. I used to have lots and lots of ideas, studying religion and art at Brown University, but I had no experience of prayer, connecting, or feeling connected to speak of. Just a lot of thoughts and ideas about me and my beliefs. That didn't help in any way. Prayer itself has been incredibly helpful once I got desperate enough to actually use it.
Prayer for me is a kind of gesture that you make. It's a kind of connecting, like when the Buddha touched the earth when Mara was getting all up in his grill, or when a dog comes up for a stroke on the muzzle. It's an act of going into relationship. The weird part is, you can, in my experience only learn what you are going into relationship with by trying it out and seeing what happens. Testing the hypothesis in other words.
The issue that I find with religious forms of authority is that they describe something ineffable and then we're dealing with third hand information, and no personal experience whatever.
Why do you use the form of relationship like in a me and you kind of way, if you don't know what you are praying to? If I may be praying to Gravity, or the Universe, why am I using interpersonal language?
I use this language because it's how I as a human being am wired. I am wired for relationship. For a me and you kind of equation. So the you in this equation becomes anything and everything, when instead of a word it becomes an abstract form.
Why is there a picture instead of a word in your book of prayer? How did that idea come about?
I am an visual artist and also have a background in design. At one point I took Edward Tufte's course on the design of visual information and I learned about Galileo and the way he notated his observations of planets and their travel through the night sky. He used small pictograms or of planets right in a sentence, like symbols in a math equation, instead of a name for it.
This really stuck with me. (The image above is a screenshot from Edward Tufte's website). This is what inspired the use of an image in each prayer, rather than a blank or a word. Also, it was the only way I would ever write a book of prayer, because I strongly feel that every one of us has our own conception of whatever the shared ‘god’ is, even if we all belong to the same spiritual or religious or yogic organization. There is literally no way we all have the same feeling, image, or idea, even if the culture is extremely specific about the details. Everyone is doing some kind of translation process whenever language is used, to make sense of and meaning out of what is shared, just like you are doing while reading here. That I feel is no different for shared spiritual, philosophic or religious beliefs and ideas.
Hannah Burr is a contemporary artist and author. Originally from Boston, she lives in Ann Arbor MI.