People frequently ask me how I manage to fit 2 hours of meditation/prayer into a day, along with my regular job, writing, and maintaining my house. There doesn’t seem to be enough hours to do all of those things well. With regard to the first set of tasks—I get up around 4:30 every morning, and that is when I meditate, for about 30 minutes. (After feeding the cats, of course). I then get ready for work, and leave at about 6:30, by the time I’ve gotten myself together and taken care of all the cats. While I am driving to work, I do my prayers. Yes, that seems odd, but usually I have almost an hour commute to work, and it seems like wasted time to just be sitting there grumbling about traffic. Plus, although you do have to be aware of your surroundings, most morning driving is on “autopilot”, so it’s a good time for mental exercises.
The prayers happen to be very specific chants—the first is the Sri Lalita Sahasranama Stotra, the second is the Sri Devi Khadgamala Stotra. Lalita Sahasranama translates roughly to “the 1000 names of the Divine Mother”. Amma stresses that devotees should chant this daily. It takes about 30 minutes to chant the Lalita Sahasranama, and it’s all in Sanskrit. I have recited it so many times over the years that I almost know it by heart (some sections I still stumble over), but I also have a CD of Indian pundits reciting the chant, so that I can “chant along” while I’m driving, and not refer to my book. If I screw up, at least the folks on the CD are saying the correct thing. The Khadgamala Stotra (translates roughly to “necklace of swords”) only takes about 5-6 minutes to recite, and I have that on CD as well. I include that one because it is a meditation on the Sri Chakra, which is a very powerful symbol for me.
While reciting to myself this morning, I was thinking about the idea of “devotion”. Amma has said about both meditation and prayer that if they are performed with “devotion” they are useful. Another Sanskrit term frequently used for this is “shradda”, translating roughly to “having faith” or “having attention”.
So what does this mean? That they’re not useful unless my mind is completely free of other distractions? That isn’t even possible for the vast majority of people. Even if I’m reciting in a group, my mind is always wandering to other things unintentionally. That is probably true of almost everyone, unless they are a swami/swamini, saint, or, well...Amma herself. And the former two probably have focus issues at times as well.
I’m not the only person who has asked this question, and I’ve heard different answers at different times. “Shradda” has a lot to do with purity and sincerity. Devotees are always questioning how much shradda they really have, especially when we’re also wrapped up in day-to-day concerns and relationships. Do we really care enough about what we’re doing?
I tend to think in similes and metaphors, so it’s helpful for me to think about it this way: When I meet people, I can always get a sense of whether or not they have an “agenda” regarding their interaction with me. This particularly happens in organization interaction—at work, in a religious community—any kind of community. Sometimes I am warmly befriended by someone who raises “red flags” for me. All appearances are good, they seem kind, sweet, sincere—but somehow I know that this person is using me to get something else or to further their own end. There is a political stench overpowering the sweetness of their interaction. People get very surprised when I terminate such associations quickly. “That person is so nice, works so hard, you’re just being unreasonable.” Then, later on, the ugly truth rears its head. I always trust my instincts on this, and so far I haven’t been wrong. It’s why I avoid politics and political people like a contagious disease. If you're being political with me, you also don't really respect me. I'm an object to you.
It occurred to me that this is similar to the idea of shradda with respect to sincerity. If one shows excessive devotion for a materialistic end or to gain some kind of power, then they’re not sincere in their effort. The person who occasionally gets bored or distracted but still keeps up their practices could run the risk of repeating empty rituals, but may also get to real shradda through repeated effort. Regardless of religion, almost all the accounts I’ve read from saints and holy people indicate that they went through periods of “spiritual dryness”, where they couldn’t care less about anything at all. At those times it’s easy to give up, to feel that you’re being insincere, but those are really the times to keep trying.
In this age of religious extremes, one might ask why a rational person would bother with such prayers at all. I can only speak for myself, but I do believe it makes a difference in how I am able to respond to life. I don’t meditate or pray with a “goal” in mind—that’s not the point. I find that being more alert, productive, and compassionate to others is a side effect of regular prayer and meditation. You focus on the ultimate just long enough every day to put everything else in context. Life is a series of ups and downs, and I would prefer to find my way to detached equanimity. Happiness doesn’t come from feeling ecstatic.