Prayer And A Principle of Addiction
Recently I’ve begun the daily practice of a form of prayer popularized by Thomas Keating called “Centering Prayer.” It’s a contemporary updating of an ancient form of prayer that is marked by its peculiar lack of an object of thought. In fact, it is precisely the release of all objects of thought that characterizes this prayer. So instead of “Lord help me find my watch!” (a prayer with and object), we have “Ah! That’s right! I’ve lost my watch! Where could it be? [release]… [silence].” (prayer that releases its object)(Incidentally, and interestingly, I once found my watch during a prayer of this sort!).
At any rate, the aim of Centering Prayer is to, as Keating says, make the subtle effort necessary to cease all our usual efforts and so cultivate a “docility to the Spirit.” In other words, to get over ourselves and be present to what the truth of any given moment holds for us. There’s a lot more to it, but I’ll save that exposition for another time. You get the point.
This morning during prayer I was taught an interesting lesson about my own potential for addictive behavior. For the previous two days prior I had been spending an inordinate amount of time playing a stupid (quite fun) iOS app where you fly around with little airplanes and shoot other planes (You can also upgrade your equipment, buy new aircraft, and add on sweet special abilities like ultra-fast target acquisition!).
What I noticed was that as I settled into silence… there—was—no—silence. Every moment was filled with the sound of the warning buzzer of incoming missiles, banking jet fighters, and machine gun fire. I simply could not release these images and sounds. Now, to a certain extent it’s simply impossible to completely quiet the mind for long periods of time. Most of my prayer times are a steady oscillation between mental activity, release, and silence. But this was different. There was no silence. The full 30 minutes was filled with noise from start to finish. I’ve been thinking about it ever since.
What I’ve come to see is that what I was experiencing was a conflict of anxiety management systems. These last few days I’ve been exhibiting addictive behavior toward this game not simply because it’s fun and makes me feel nice for a little bit. I’ve been addicted to it because it’s begun to play the role of soothing my anxieties (which are ever present). Centering Prayer is also designed to deal with our anxieties, but not by drowning them out, or intoxicating ourselves. Centering Prayer is designed to acknowledge our anxieties as they bubble to the surface, but then, in faith, release them and so be free from the compulsions they carry with them. What I experienced this morning was a conflict of ways of handling my own anxiety, the addictive type, and the faithful type. And though it may seem as though the addictive type won out, I feel like my eyes have been opened in important ways and the addictive power of the game seems to have been broken as a result.
All of that leads me to articulate a principle of (non-drug induced) addiction that I’ve never seen so clearly: We become addicted to things/activities/etc that play the role of masking the anxieties of life. These addictions can be more or less benign, a glass of wine every night, a silly game, buying lots of shoes, picking scabs, whatever. But regardless of how socially acceptable they are, they all represent forms of unfreedom, the inability to cope with life on its own terms, the need for a prop, a mask, a crutch.
My goal is to ever reach toward the faithful type of dealing with the anxiety of life. This is the only road I see toward freedom. It is a path that finds liberation not by avoiding, medicating, or denying the doubt, ambiguity, and terror of existence but by embracing it and being embraced by it. To practice the release of faith in this moment is a deeply courageous act, perhaps “the” courageous act, but the result is freedom, freedom from fear of non-being in all its forms, from death, from meaninglessness, even from the fear of life itself. May we be free. May we train for it.