Making Prayer Real (Mike Comins) – notes on the book

These are my personal notes that I made when I read: Mike Comins (2010) Making Prayer Real: Leading Jewish Spiritual Voices on Why Prayer Is Difficult and What to Do about It, Jewish Lights. When I make notes, they are just to jog my own memory of the book, so I am aware that they may not always make sense to the general reader. However, I hope they are of some use to you, and perhaps also inspire you to read the book itself. The ideas that I put in square brackets do not come from the writer of the book, but are my own responses as I read; references to ‘Zalman’ mean Rabbi Zalman Shachter-Shalomi (z’l).

  • Prepare for the service – get in the mood
  • Make the space simple
  • Connect to the body
  • Empty and open the mind
  • Bless God’s, my and others’ presence
  • Shema – listen to what God is saying to me
  • Mi chamocha – last week and next week – what is redemptive
  • Open my lips – let my Godself speak to God
  • No Shabat requests – just be
  • Amidah – thanks for all that is
  • Absorb the Torah reading, as if for the first time
  • After Torah sacrifice – what will I pledge this week?
  • Aleinu – for peace
  • Slow down, make space for God, listen, respond, commit, act
  • I must be a participant, not a consumer and critic of services
  • Break from trad formats
  • Lay cantor
  • Rabbi, cantor and leader not responsible for my inner experience
The problem with Jewish prayer
  • Unknown language
  • Lack of belief in the God of the siddur
  • Little belief in the power of prayer
  • Speed davennen – all talk and no listening
  • [prayer needs to engage the whole person]
  • words touch intellect first
  • music engages mind, emotion and body
  • mind-heart-body connection
  • body affects mind and feeling
  • use your own voice and song – don’t be an audience
  • siddur is a useful recipe book – but can’t replace a good creative cook
  • “to whom am I praying, and what good is prayer?”
  • developing personal prayer skills helps us appreciate the siddur
  • [like shamanic journeying …] prayers must affect action in the world [restore and sustain conscious God-connection]
  • enable personal encounter with God that can inform action and transform the world
  • diverse reasons for attending shul – all valid
  • the less confident or knowledgeable need clergy, structure and environment
  • communal prayer is necessary [but not sufficient …]
  • do what works for you
  • feelings of inadequacy in knowledge
  • expect a spiritual high that doesn’t happen (unlike in nature)
  • don’t feel at home
  • God of the siddur is disempowering
  • [prayer leader can suggest a kavanah for standing]
  • [make communal prayer a God experience]
  • make shul a place for vulnerability & transformative experience
  • modern values have eclipsed the value of humility before God
  • engaging with what prayer is opens Pandora’s box on issues of faith
  • “every step brings its own reward”
  • improvise – have fun
The efficacy of prayer
  • “I call out because I need to call out.”
  • No need to hide anything – God already knows
  • Call out my truth, in order to encounter myself
  • Berkovits: “tumble into the presence of God”
  • “put down the prayer book and open the inner chamber of my being”
  • keep a current mi sheberach list
  • formal prayer = score without rests; meditation = score without notes
  • silence and talk are both true – don’t be attached to either
  • prayer strips us of our ‘story’ we are attached to
  • shul is too scripted, and therefore not ‘present’
  • Ps 42:7 deep calls to deep
  • Connect to nature and body [God through the senses]
  • Nigun to focus, open us to holiness [separateness and transcendence]
  • Mochin d’gadlut = big brain [mind]
  • Buber I-You —- ‘Between’ is authentic relating God is here
  • [My inner state — my body state. My body state thru body, sound and breath can change the space around me, and affect others]
  • [My thought affects my material body-self … and beyond?]
  • [How to compare effect of my mind on self with effect of the collective culture of millions of minds on myself?]
  • objection to ‘God’, redeemer prayer impacting God or reality
  • Mind may argue, but heart yearns and opens
  • Avoid fanatic and New Age notions of prayer
  • I want to yearn [and be grateful]
  • Surrender my sophisticated resistance, my demand for coherence, my ‘I’
  • Jacob’s wrestling is One with the One
  • No separate God
  • No manipulation or bargaining magic
  • No intellectualization
What is Prayer?
  • Prayer can change people [the new mind leading to new action]
  • Prayer is truth-speaking
  • Praise-thank-beseech-spur to action-comfort [confess]; improve traits; bond with Jews; develop awareness; develop compassion; disturb
  • “if you pray well, you pull yourself to God” Rabbi David Wolpe
  • prayer closes the circle – when we allow God to speak thru us to God
  • prayer is ‘mental floss’
  • liturgical text is not informational but evocative – David Wolpe
  • prayer establishes and reinforces relationship with God and community
  • Cantor Ellen Dreskin: prayer comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable
  • Change yourself to change the world
  • When you walk out a better person, prayer works
  • There is something bigger than us – we are not alone
  • [l’hitapallel – judge self]
  • sharpen ethical self
  • praise; sharpen ethical self; thanks
  • “I don’t let my spirituality get in the way of my spiritual life.” Rabbi Lavey Derby
  • yearning for wholeness is itself wholeness
  • prayer uncovers the heart
  • Zalman: gratitude enables us to ‘log on’ to God anywhere
  • God & method; attitude and attribute; sincerity, intention, focus, concentration, purpose
  • Archery: kavanah = aim, chet = missing the mark
  • Turn myself towards
  • Prayer is continuous focus
  • Non-judgment improves focus [but shoresh ‘root’ of t’fillah is judge, and what about Yom Kippur?]
  • Be honest and authentic [NB etymology of ‘sincere’ is ‘without wax’; Romans made wax copies of statues]
  • Develop repeated prayer practices to cultivate “soul muscle memory” Rabbi Ethan Franzel
  • Prayer is disciplined – do it anyway, whether or not external or internal circumstances are favourable
Engaging the body
  • Prayer must be spoken and physically experienced
  • Listen and feel the words you speak
  • In Nature, rather than a building “the question of God is not contrived”
  • Prayer is breath – Nature has the best air for this
  • Find Presence somewhere, then bring it into everything
  • Short phrase becomes meditative chant
  • Embody meaning of the words
Listening for God: silence and meditation
  • Zalman: we hang up before we give God a chance to answer
  • [Close eyes to improve inner listening]
  • Insight meditation à follow the flow of myself
  • Programmatic meditation — focus on one thing
  • Contemplation à wait for God
Discerning Divinity
  • [I’m not happy about cause / effect, me-God dualities when it comes to question of God responding to prayer, or communicating in any way. That is when the concept of ‘God’ as a specific agent, separate and interacting with a separate me, breaks down. Perhaps the closest I can get is that this ‘communication’ is taking place when I do not feel separate, when I feel that God and I are One (though how to avoid self delusion and megalomania?)]
  • Intuition, ‘universe telling me’ – less challenging than saying God told me
  • [Why do I need to know an insight was ‘God’? Is it not just another way of asking if something is right / true?]
  • [Beware equating ‘coincidence’ with God or a direct, unambiguous message from God – could be idolising coincidence.]
  • [But wafty-squishy feelings could be a smoke-screen. And gevurah, ‘tough’ love is God too.]
  • [Expansiveness is associated here with God-connection, or truth discernment. I think it might be just my own readiness to live with what I have discerned, or with the decision I have taken.]
  • Rabbi Nehemia Polen: Presence, Resonance, Alignment, Yes – when done this way we always feel connection, intimacy [in-to-me-see] with God, ourselves, others
  • Zalman: types of knowing – sensory (physical), emotional, reason (intellect), intuition (spiritual) – this last cannot be gainsaid by anyone else
Advice for beginners
  • Let passion and wildness enter your prayer
  • [Open to God-ness]
  • be authentic
  • just do it
  • to appreciate prayer, you have to try it consistently
  • find a rabbi and fellow student
  • prayer is being with ‘what is’
  • articulate truth
  • express what is present
  • attend to the quality of the space and awareness after prayer
  • no one else is responsible for whether or not I connect with God
  • [Speak, out loud, to God, whatever you imagine that to be, at any time you are moved or minded to do so.]
The power of You
  • praying to God as ‘you’ creates immediacy not possible through abstract ‘it’ or affirmations [and brings me present]
  • [Pan-en-theism: God in everything]
  • Address everything as God, and you will experience God in everything
  • God as river – the river and I act upon each other, the relationship dynamic with it is unique to me and I am always in it
  • Count blessings
  • Gratitude to open heart
  • [Blessed be, thanks be that this is so]
  • ruach ha-olam (‘spirit / breath’ – as an alternative to the male-oriented melech ha-olam)
  • blessing sets kavanah
  • [just use 1st part of blessing as complete in itself]
  • blessings bring us to expanded consciousness, and connect us to holiness [numinous]
Cultivating a personal prayer voice
  • having a personal prayer voice adds to community
  • What does your gut need to pray right now?
  • [don’t be afraid of ‘ecstatic’ practice. Ex-stasis]
  • verbalise the resistance till it passes [e.g the ‘expression’ exercises in the Hoffman process]
  • my prayer hasn’t been written yet
Teshuvah: personal change, communal responsibility
  • prophetic realizations are better than inner parental voices as agents for change
  • prayer reminds me I am not God
  • interrupt myself – importance, narcissism and self-importance
  • to connect to God, I must hear the voice of the other
  • in prayer we all breathe a bit of each other
  • Heschel: “Prayer soothes and burnishes a being”
  • Have an active prayer life
Coping with loss
  • [when you lose everything, don’t let go of God as well]
  • praying stops us being alone
Spiritual dynamics of the siddur
  • siddur takes us to many important places
  • siddur is web of connections
  • community through time
  • if prayer seems passé or irrelevant, look again
  • a form of words when our own fail
  • prayer as (training) supportive discipline
  • regular time to connect
  • Heschel: “wonder is a form of thinking” ie attitude
  • Awe / wonder is a choice
Learning the siddur
  1. Individual
  2. Interact with others
  3. Inter-connected as interdependent
  4. One Being
Best practices
  • Sound and rhythm
  • Words to trigger heart and soul
  • Know the meaning

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