How My (Prayer) Life Changed When I Stopped Trying To Change

Playing the long game has never been so rewarding.
By Misha Clebaner

I live in the United States and as far as I can tell we value tackling problems head on and solving them once and for all. Once we set our minds to something we expect to see results and to see them right away.

This demand for a quick turnaround shows up in all areas of our lives. From relationships, to the ways we give charity, and perhaps most obviously in the ways we diet. There has to be a “before” and “after” picture and there has to be one immediately. If results aren’t seen after a few short weeks … “why did I even bother with this to begin with” we ask ourselves while looking for the next quick solution.

But then what about things like prayer or meditation – things that don’t yield immediate or visible results? Should I just throw out my prayer shawl along with my old iPhone because it too didn’t get me to my desired goal fast enough? That’s definitely a thought that has crossed my mind many times.

The thing about turning inward for prayer is that internal transformation doesn’t show up in a “before” and “after” photo. So even if I did change after that one session, I most likely wouldn’t be able to notice it. If any growth did occur it most likely would have been a small pivot in perspective rather than a seismic shift in personality: for instance in a greater hope or optimism for a brighter future. When zooming out such a shift is actually a pretty big deal, but in the moment after that last prayer is said it feels instead like I’ve just wasted an hour. “Great, I prayed for peace but has anyone seen the world lately?”

The difficulty in spotting these sorts of nuanced changes in perspective was one of the main obstacles to me sticking with self-reflective disciplines such as meditation, prayer, or journaling. How long am I expected to keep writing in my gratitude journal if I keep finding myself still feeling impatient, angry, or envious of others? “Surely this is a waste of time since I haven’t become a saint yet!”

I’ve heard the expression “rich before 30,”
but last time I checked there’s no “bodhisattva before 30.”
At least, not yet.

I’ve heard the expression “rich before 30”, but last time I checked there’s no “bodhisattva before 30.” At least, not yet. Zealousness for instant mastery might work when it comes to fitness or education, but not when it comes to matters of the spirit. Yes I have control in these other areas of my life, but am I really prepared to give up altogether on tending to and caring for my soul?

Emotional and spiritual change takes time ….

as in decades!

In feeling overwhelmed by my lack of transformation, I need to remember to take a deep breath and to acknowledge that this is a process – a marathon, not a sprint. But the process can’t happen if I hurl my meditation cushion out the window after one-week with “monkey-mind.” My lack of change is not a bug in the journey towards transformation, rather the snail-like slowness of the process is an opportunity and a test for my commitment to the process itself.

Throughout my journey along the long and windy path of Jewish prayer I have held onto my American ethos of demanding to see immediate results. If I didn’t see any change I would instead show my prayer practice the door; at least for a couple of days. Then I would return curiously and naively thinking that it would be this time that my prayers would finally flip me like a light switch from what I was to who I wanted to become.

I am not much of a knitter but the importance of a single thread is clear even to me. When a thread is all by itself it’s not at all obvious what role it will play in the larger picture. But the strength and durability of a knitted product does not lie with any one individual thread, instead it is in the coming together of each and every thread: E pluribus unum – out of the many, one. The final product is greater than the sum of its parts. This is the American value that I have begun to cling to rather than any desire for immediate results.

It’s not any one individual prayer that will bring peace into my heart, rather it’s all of the prayers sewed together that will bring me warmth, comfort, and a sense of security.

It’s not any one individual prayer that will bring peace into my heart, rather it’s all of the prayers sewed together that will bring me warmth, comfort, and a sense of security. It’s in the aggregate over the many years of returning to the cushion or that pew that I will stumble upon the subtle meaning of what my life’s journey is really all about. In a sense this is what religious faith is!

By finally putting my trust in the importance of the long game, I stopped feeling like I had to force myself to change by the end of each prayer, meditation, or journaling session. A huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders. Not only could I breathe normally again – I was soaring. I was free to fly in any direction since I was willing to let the process unfold in its own organic way – rather than seeing myself as a mechanical light switch waiting to be flipped.

There is no such thing as a “changed person” anyways… only a changing one.

I have heard this idea of perpetual change expressed by many people, but the place that I’ve seen it said best was in this article: “Reading a Poem: 20 Strategies” by Mark Yakich, a professor of creative writing at Loyola University New Orleans.

The idea that I want to leave you with is one that Yakich kicks off his twenty strategies for reading poetry (and these strategies should also be seen as tips for how to pray/journal/or mediate) and it’s this:

“Dispel the notion that reading poetry (that prayer) is going to dramatically change your life. Your life is continually changing; most of the time you’re simply too busy to pay enough attention to it. Poems (prayer) ask you to pay attention – that’s all.”

Looking back at each of the self-reflective moments that have actually helped me to grow emotionally and spiritually – it was only because I entered with a mindset and acknowledgment of my ongoing change. I was different yesterday and I will be changed tomorrow, so all that I can do today is appreciate another day of life and be in awe of how much I continue to grow.

Misha Clebaner, originally from San Francisco, is in his final year of rabbinical school at Hebrew College in Boston. He is currently serving as the rabbinic figure of Temple B’nai Israel in Revere, MA.