Tag Archives: prayer

Altered States: Body-Surfing & Biofeedback

No. I don’t mean redistricting on a state level or using any substance more remarkable than morning tea.

Having lived in Southern California, I am familiar with many legal practices that induce altered states of mind. I lived in Encinitas, CA, where yoga was introduced in the US.

Being in the ocean, immersed in the salt water, scent of kelp, and covered with small specks of black sand induces an altered state of mind. I am truly regretful that I did not overcome fears and learn to surf at the well known Swami’s Beach in Cardiff-by-the-Sea. Body-surfing and ocean swimming induces a different rush. Surfers, far beyond the first and second set of breakers, in the early morning hours, sitting alert, ready, but still on a surfboard must enter a contemplative, yet highly aware, state of mind. Swimming and body-surfing in the Pacific in North San Diego County lacks that contemplative element.

Always alert for the next set of waves, the body-surfer hops over the ones she judges too small to be worth the effort, dives through the ones she judges too big for her level of competency and confidence–and takes an occasional pounding nonetheless. The body-surfer looks over her shoulder and starts paddling furiously when a wave of the right size begins to form. This is an art requiring concentration & practice, like any other. Hasn’t every bodysurfer paddled wildly only to have mistimed a wave that crests before she is in motion and ready to ride, or that simply flattens out and ripples by? The keys to the joy of bodysurfing are ordinary: a true thrill, a body rush that requires at least a slight amount of risk-taking. Sometimes that rush requires jumping into very cold water, very quickly, because to delay would be to sheepishly turn back to shore.

Warm or cold–and the water in San Diego is never very warm–there is something energizing and particular to a full-immersion saline, negative ion, kelp & iodine bath. The effect is not realized unless you literally soak your head. This can be particularly salutory after an overly festive evening. But it is the every day experience of surrender to higher power and strength, and letting go, and riding along with, fear that makes swimming in the ocean an experience of renewal. Those who live in San Diego and are not 6am surfers lead normal grocery-shopping, child-rearing, working lives, so the beach is not a daily experience for all. It never was a daily experience for me. But the ability to go to the beach just a couple of miles away, swim for half an hour, and lounge for a bit, is an experience I sorely miss.

After toddlers or young children have spent a couple of hours of ” making castles in the sand,” digging for sand crabs, pail & shovel triumphant, or making new, momentary friends while digging a pool and moat, it is time to pack up and go home. Making the beach part of the day, not the day in its entirety, and going to “my” beach in my home town are experiences that cannot be replicated in Central New Jersey. Having also lived in and visited Sweden, where beach access is free and open to all, paying to step onto the sand rankles. Other family members are equally disturbed by being told when they can or cannot enter the water. The sight of tawdry mansions and cheap thrills or fast food behind are also distasteful to some who spent more years in the ocean with the bluffs as backdrop than I. In that case I remind them that they have a choice which way to look. Look to the sea! Some day, some where we will find our East Coast beach. Since we can’t afford a home on the sand, it may not be on New Jersey. Where is your favorite beach? What are the smells and sensations you love best? I may have to import some kelp. The smell of kelp washed up on shore, stepping on and popping the light brown nodules, and picking up a kelp rope are inherent parts of the beach experience for me.

Other meditative practices which allow the mind to enter different states are prayer and biofeedback. A relative beginner, I tend to need the “right setting” for prayer. Vacillating between belief, doubt, and agnosticism complicates prayer practice.

Not a calm person by nature, “I am open to persuasion” (Joan Armatrading) and will try various practices, pilgrimage among them. I am distinctly post-New Age and perhaps unreasonably prejudiced against Exkhardt Tolle, The Secret, and their ilk. My prejudice extends to listening to the preaching of the Health & Wealth Gospel. I eschew practices that openly confuse peace of mind with financial gain. (Discussing religion, power, and the SES–socio-economic status–necessary for time to indulge in meditative practices is a discussion for another day. But I do not misrecognize (Pierre Bourdieu) all of the implications.)

Thus I am now embarking on the practice of biofeedback. The psychologist and scientist from who developed the biofeedback techniques I will be learning is the renowned Les Fehmi. Does anyone have experience with biofeedback, positive or negative to share? While I don’t anticipate achieving a state of nirvana, I hope to glimpse Wallace Stevens’s “palm at the end of my mind.”

I love self-hypnosis. Too easy. It can’t possibly work? The Mind-Body Jon Kabat-Zinn school of practitioners derisively call it “the poor persons” meditation. (I haven’t paid the $500-$750 for their course.) The Mind-Body techniques may be more fruitful in the end, but what if you are a poor person interested in a quick & effective way to achieve an altered mental state? Personally, I would love to live in Barcelona (Barthelona) & pull down the shades or grate for a long 4pm siesta. But I don’t live there. Life in a convent sounds good at times, too! The real trick is attaining a comfortable state within the circumstances at hand.

Aside from alcohol or drug use–I’m no Puritan or ostrich, but interested in looking beyond the obvious–how do you achieve your desired mental state? Downhill skiing works, but only in season and with a lot of disposable income or seasonal employment on the slopes. Many advocate fishing. Is the goal for most hunters to come home with dinner, or rather to extricate themselves from daily life? These are all possibilities for those with time and money. How do you achieve peace and harmony?

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Pilgrimage: Journey and Destination

Wildflowers in Swedish Meadow by Circespeaks

Wildflowers in Swedish Meadow by Circespeaks

To see a World in a Grain of Sand and a Heaven in a Wild Flower,

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand And Eternity in an hour.

–William Blake

The little flower carries a promise. It is not dangerous to see ones smallness. Small is not worthless….That which is small can bear the grand in the wonder that holds the infinite…

–K.G. Hammar

Pilgrimage in Sweden today is more focused on the journey than the destination, as was traditional in medieval times, and as is traditional in many Catholic pilgrimage sites, such as Lourdes, even today.

Pilgrimage is a common metaphor for the journey of every life, from beginning to end. Surely many of us are also more focused on the journey than the destination. Even those who have a very clear vision of what the ultimate destination following life on earth is, often agree that the right sort of journey will lead to the desired destination, even if the path is not clearly mapped.

It is at this point that opinions, religious and spiritual convictions, diverge. The journey that is sacred for one, is secular for another. In Swedish pilgrimage today, the distinction between the sacred and secular is not sharply drawn. Many of these pilgrims reject the language and authoritarianism of organized religion in favor of spirituality. Whether a Swedish pilgrim joins a pilgrimage through a tourist organization, an educational or cultural association, or a church, or because it is conveniently passing through the person’s hometown, the sacred and secular are brought together with every step of the journey. Though atheist pilgrims, and some agnostic “seekers” would not use the language of sacred and secular, pilgrimage is both for all. Pilgrimage takes place in the physical lived world, and is sacred, as in set apart from daily life and activity. Each footstep may be a lived prayer or a step towards improved psychological or physical health.

Ideally, we would all live each moment as mindfully as those on organized pilgrimage, but for those not devoted to the contemplative life this is not an easily achieved goal. Nor do all desire such a life. Leaping first and looking second may yield surprising benefits along with the possibility of risk.

Walking and running are not my usual forms of exercise, but the misty morning called to me. Once outside and in motion, I was greeted a woman holding a booklet in her hand. She was only momentarily distracted from meditating on booklet which appeared to contain Christian prayers or Bible verses. When I arrived at the track, I noticed a woman walking slowly yet speaking rapidly without pausing. Her words had the cadence of a prayer, perhaps from the Qur’an or other sacred text, perhaps a repetition of her own petition, or the recitation of multiplication tables. She spoke a foreign language, so I can’t be certain, but the latter seems most unlikely. She spoke with focus while walking, and stopped praying or reciting when she stopped walking. Though we may not think of short walks as pilgrimage, local pilgrimage has also always existed, especially for women, who could not leave the home for any length of time. Lunch-hour pilgrimages go forth from the Pilgrimage Center in Gothenburg, Sweden, and from many Swedish parish churches. We are each on our individual and communal pilgrimage. A common Swedish pilgrim prayer, the prayer of St. Birgitta follows. Rather than beginning by invoking “Lord,” which has an authoritarian, masculine, Christian connotation, simply substitute “Spirit Within,” “Earth,” “Gaia,” “Higgs Bosun Particle” or the name of an inspirational figure or religious leader of your faith.

“Lord, Show me Your Way, and make me willing to walk it.”

–The Prayer of St. Birgitta