My personal savior

I enjoyed a breakfast of decaffeinated Fair Trade coffee and organic dark chocolate while reading about hippocampal atrophy among born-again Christians and atheists in the southeast United States. Hippocampal atrophy is thought to have something to do with memory loss. The idea is, since most people in the southeast US are ‘born-once’ protestants who make it tough on those who don’t think like they do – born-again Christians and atheists in the region experience long term stress which shrinks hippocampi.

Halfway through my cup I was reviewing some text on how meditation is associated with big, healthy hippocampi. I’ve always liked the idea of meditation, but I’ve been put off by the sorts of people who advocate it. It seems like a sensible practice, which I understand as applying one of myriad methods to temporarily remove conscious content from my mind’s attention. This morning I thought, ‘hey, that’s sort of like praying.’

My lifelong approach to praying has been straightforward. As an early teenager, growing up during a contemporary mantra-repetition fad, I decided to make Jesus’ instruction – the so-called ‘Lord’s Prayer’ – the mantra I would repeat. I liked it not only because I thought I was Christian, but because it’s way too long and complicated to be an acceptable mantra. Ever since, I have inwardly repeated that prayer many times daily, far more frequently than you would imagine.

Well into my twenties, it was quite difficult reciting the prayer without thinking of something else. I would get to ‘give us this day’ or ‘lead us not’ and my mind would wander. I would suddenly be thinking a different thought, and I would have to begin all over. I wanted to pray it through without other conscious phrases occurring, so I had to learn, simply, to ‘not think.’ I went through long periods unable to do this. Inevitably, some idea forced itself into the prayer that I couldn’t shake. Somehow I learned how to lose the idea without shaking it at all, how to avoid without resisting, how to recognize distractions before they arrived. After many years, I learned to think only the prayer.

I have occasionally resented my commitment to this. It interferes with some things. I pray a lot while reading, and I have to pause, clear my mind of whatever I’m attending to, and devotedly repeat my silly prayer. I remember a long interval many years ago when I couldn’t begin the prayer at all without cursing Jesus Christ and the whole ridiculous business. I just let myself do the cursing and went right on with the mantra. Eventually that interruption, too, passed.

And now, lo and behold! Meditation (for perhaps I’ve been meditating all this time) may be saving my hippocampus.

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