Making Friends With the Habit of Listening

The best piece of advice I ever received was to wake up in the morning as if I’m doing it on purpose. Getting out of bed with a sense of ambition or eagerness is a simple, yet effective, life hack. It sets the tone for your entire day, it makes every action afterwards feel like a choice instead of an obligation, and it’s healthier than snoozing. Unfortunately, I’ve rarely (if ever) been able to do it.

I’m a night owl by nature and an early riser by vocation, which means getting the minimum six hours of sleep is an accident, at best, and a defeat, at worst. I don’t drink coffee, which means I get out of bed like Garfield on a Monday. So how am I supposed to get up and get going like Winnie the Pooh chasing some honeybees?

To put it bluntly, I am not and I will likely never be that person. Mornings just aren’t my thing. But that doesn’t mean I can’t benefit from this “wake up with purpose” attitude. For me, the “morning” aspect of that advice was never the important part to begin with. What it’s saying is that there are huge benefits to be found in a positive outlook and just a little bit of intent.

Consider how much of your day is improvised. You know when you leave for work, and roughly when you’re going to get home, but other than that, most of your decisions are figured out as you go: when to get out of bed, when to eat, what to eat, what you’re doing after work, what you’re eating for supper, who you’re meeting up with or calling on the phone, all of your social media activity, what you’ll text to who and when, what you’re going to watch on Netflix, when you’re going to sleep, and so on.

We don’t plan anything, and as a result we leave very little time to reflect and recharge. We have almost completely abandoned ritual.

Which is why I’ve recently turned to prayer.

Well, not exactly. Let’s back up a second, actually, and see how I got here.

Ommmmmmygod Meditation is Boring

Like every white person under 40 this century, I decided to give meditation a try in an effort to organize my thoughts and inject some of that ritual back into my day. Some of my favorite people have given it rave reviews–Weezer frontman Rivers Cuomo, comedian Pete Holmes, Chicago Cub (for now) Jake Arrieta, even fucking Wolverine–and there are some really great guided meditations available, for free.

Despite a concerted effort, meditation didn’t really work for me. At first, I thought I just wasn’t very good at it. Clearing my mind was a lot harder than it sounded. But the more I did it the more I realized that our goals were completely different. It’s not that I was bad at it, it’s that my milktoast-Buddhism was taking me to a place I didn’t want to go.

For his birthday, one of the Dalai Lama’s students gave him a big box with a beautiful blue ribbon around it. When he opened the box, he found that it was empty inside.

“Aha!” he exclaimed. “Just what I wanted.”

— The only Buddhist joke I’ve ever heard

As I have come to understand it, the goal of Buddhism (and by extension, meditation) is to rid ourselves of our Earthly desires, to lose our attachments to the external world. This means silent contemplation about, well, as little as possible. I tried a method called Vipassana which involves sitting absolutely still and quiet while observing the sensations of your body. For ten, twenty, thirty minutes at a time. There is certainly something to be said for its calming effect, but it became clear to me that an almost complete absence of thought was not what I was looking for.

I wanted to take time every day to actually think. To reflect on what I’ve been doing, to consider things I wanted to do in the future, to unburden myself of the things I didn’t need and refocus myself on the things I did.

As strange as it may sound (given that I’m as secular as they come), I stumbled onto prayer. Or at the very least, a newfangled form of it.

Praying with Padraig O Tuama

The credit (or blame, if you’re nasty) goes to the Irish writer, poet, theologian, and philosopher Padraig O Tuama (pronounced oh-TOO-ma).

I’ve been reading his book In the Shelter, a Judeo-Christian approach to mindfulness and “being here, now.” It is all about focusing on the present by dealing with our past and preparing us for the future. It is certainly not for everyone, and for the most part it is not even for me. But near the end of the book O Tuoma talks about the practice of prayer in a way that completely hit upon what I have been looking for.

“Neither I nor the poets I love found the keys to the kingdom of prayer. We cannot force God to stumble over us where we sit. But I know that it’s a good idea to sit anyway. So every morning I sit, I kneel, waiting, making friends with the habit of listening, hoping that I am being listened to. There I greet God in my own disorder.

I say hello to my chaos, my unmade decisions, my unmade bed, my desire and my trouble. I say hello to distraction and privilege. I greet the day and I greet my beloved and bewildering Jesus. I recognize and greet my burdens, my luck, my controlled and uncontrollable story. I greet my untold stories, my unfolding stories, my unloved body, my own body.

I greet the things I think will happen and I say hello to everything I do not know about the day. I greet my own small world and I hope that I can meet the bigger world that day. I greet my story and hope that I can forget my story during the day and hope that I can hear some stories, and greet some surprising stories during the long day ahead. I greet God, and I greet the God who is more God than the God I greet.

Hello to you all, I say, as the sun rises above the chimneys of old Belfast. Hello.”

Like … holy shit, right?

Jesus aside (because that’s not what I’m looking for), Padraig’s morning prayer is exactly the kind of ritual I’ve been craving: a time set a side to contemplate what’s here and now and provide myself some context for my “story,” as O Tuama puts it.

It carves out some time to reflect on what’s positive in my life, it allows me to think about what’s important to me and disregard some of the things that aren’t. It helps me relax. It helps me prioritize.

It just … feels good.

I Don’t Care What You Call It

It’s possible that “prayer” isn’t the best word I could be using here. I’m not speaking to a deity, I’m not asking for blessings. I’m not asking for anything, really. It’s more just a time for introspection that’s completely free of judgment.

But there does seem to be a conversation happening, albeit one between me and some other part of me. I’ll say things to myself, in my mind. I’ll ask questions. So there’s some aspect of prayer there, for sure.

Ultimately, I don’t care what it’s called. I only care that it helps, and it does.

Every day I greet my burdens.

I greet the things that will happen.

I greet my untold story, and my unfolding story.

And say hi to everything I do not know.

7 thoughts on “Making Friends With the Habit of Listening

  1. Hey, it’s you! Great post, Rick, you’ve given me a lot to chew over. I love the idea of waking up with intent, and building more moments of intention into your day. A while back, I read a book that recommended always making your bed as soon as you get up, simply because it starts your day off with an intentional, purposeful action. I think it runs along the same lines of what you’re doing here.

    I’m glad that it’s working for you, whatever you decide to call it. 😊

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Well, this was unexpected…

    After the first few paragraphs, I though this was going into productivity hacks/systems. I’m a sucker for those, but I just… observe the culture around them with amazement and confusion lol. I mean, the fact that there are blogs and youtube channels devote to people’s planners…. THOUSANDS of them, some with thousands and thousand of followers…. anyway.

    The beginning of your post reminded me of one of those productivity hacks that made the rounds a few years ago, called “morning pages”

    So how did you come to read this book? Is it like AA, where you have to believe in a higher power, but you don’t have to call it God? I’m intrigued!


    1. I listened to Padraig speak on a podcast and he just blew me away. Great speaker, great thinker.

      In terms of a higher power: not even a little. For me, it’s not about asking anyONE for anything. More just about setting aside the time to reflect on what’s going on with me and what I want to do with it. Nothing spiritual about it. It’s more the ritual I’m borrowing, really.

      As for the Morning Pages, I’ve actually given them a try a few times. I find it hard to keep them up for a long period of time, but every few years I’ll give it another go. I wish I could keep it up, it’s a great exercise. Again, though, it’s that first-thing-in-the-god-damned-morning part of it that dooms me. Writing 3 handwritten pages at 6am is bonkers.


      1. Yeah, I totally get it. I am also a night owl, forced by circumstances to wake up at 5:45 am on weekdays, and I also don’t drink coffee!

        Ever tried bullet journalling? That’s my productivity thing, but can also be used for reflection. Ideally, I take a few minutes before bed to think about what’s coming up tomorrow, and wake up with an already-prioritized to-do list. Don’t ask how often that actually happens.


      2. I’ve looked into bullet journals before, yeah. They seem to do wonders for people. I know you’ve been singing their praises for a little while now. I was just talking to my friend Juliana about this last week, but comedian Demetri Martin had an old one-man show where he talked about how he created a point system for his week. He would assign points to certain activities for the week (work out three times, eat 3 servings of veggies every day, read two books a week, etc.) and then would add up his score every Sunday. This kind of hyper-organization by way of scoring totally lights up my brain the same way sports does, I think. But it forced me to live in a fairly unnatural way (for me), which, while being the point of the whole thing, made it really hard to keep up. Ultimately, I have zero will power. It’s frightening.

        I’d be open to giving the bullet journaling thing a try, but that’s only half the battle. The other half is less about organization/prioritization and more existential, I guess. The big questions about just life stuff: jobs, family, who I am vs who I want to be, mistakes I’ve made, how to be better to the people I love, etc. This new thing I’m trying kind of combines both of these things. Maybe they deserve to be separate, I don’t know. We’ll see.

        You still bullet journaling regularly?


      3. So my other productivity “thing” (which I hardly adhere to at all, see: no willpower either) is “Getting Things Done”, and that is all about the “little things” but their theory is that if you take care of the little things, or at least, have a system for capturing everything so you won’t forget, you free up brain space for the big life stuff. I like a lot of things about GTD but I’m pretty sure the guy who came up with it is nuts and is basically running a cult, lol…

        Yep I’ve been doing the bullet journal thing for almost 18 months now, so it has stuck. I like that everything is in one place and I don’t need any special app or tool… I don’t like that I can’t search for words or phrases though!

        Liked by 1 person

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