“Prayerfulness,” an interview with Dr. Robert Wicks on overcoming stress

  Why pray?
That may sound like a crazy question because studies show that prayer is an almost universal impulse. The vast majority of us do it. Apparently, no one needs to be convinced of prayer’s value. And, right now, there’s a whole lot of praying going on as 1 billion Muslims move through the intensive final days of Ramadan and Jews around the world prepare for the High Holidays.
    But why do so many people pray?
These days, there’s a lot of talk in popular media about all the good things prayer can bring. Some best-selling gurus argue that prayer brings health and prosperity. We don’t want to get into an argument about those claims, but not everyone agrees that prayer will bring such material blessings.
Today we’re very pleased to welcome another point of view from Dr. Robert J. Wicks. We’re recommending his new, handy, pocket-sized guidebook to “Prayerfulness.” It’s a sturdy, practical, no-nonsense guide to prayer, pointing out that one of prayer’s chief aims is reducing stress and leading us toward a more compassionate and creative life.
We’re talking here about nuts-and-bolts spirituality to help hurting people—and, these days? Millions of us are hurting on some level, right? We’re talking about such widespread need here that Wicks describes his professional work this way: “I ‘do’ darkness for a living.”

Here’s how he describes the theme of his new book in just a few words: “Prayerfulness, in its purest form, is true receptivity to the essential lessons needed to live a full life. And, even when we are lost or resistant to a much-needed new perspective, spiritual mindfulness can actually position us to be surprised by grace.”
You can buy a copy of his book right now by clicking on the Amazon link at right.
You already may have read or discussed one of Robert’s books without recognizing his name or knowing his background. He is a clinical psychologist specializing in the intersection of spirituality and psychology. He’s a noted speaker, therapist and teacher at universities and professional schools of psychology, medicine, nursing, theology and social work. He’s received various awards from religious groups, including honors from the Vatican. He’s known for working with members of the U.S. Congress—and also with a wide range of other men and women in public service, including the FBI and U.S. Armed Forces. He currently teaches at Loyola University Maryland.


    DAVID: In news media, we commonly report that these are troubling times—that stress is rising in people’s lives to an alarming degree. But, let me ask you this, since you’re internationally known as an expert on stress: Is this true?
Are we more stressed than we’ve been before?
ROBERT: Through the centuries, people have worried in many times and places. As far as stress is concerned, what we’re experiencing now is a lack of space between the stresses. People no longer have the space between experiences of stress to renew and take a breath.
On Capitol Hill, a senator was asked: “What’s the greatest stress facing the Senate today?”
He said: “Not enough time to think.”
This lack of quiet, rhythm, connection with nature—this lack of flow to living—is what makes this such a difficult time. There’s a sense that problems are getting so big that there’s no one, or no way, that some of these stresses can be dealt with.
DAVID: You were born in late 1946—a true Baby Boomer. In the lives of Baby Boomers, can you compare this era to anything else?
ROBERT: The only past instance I can remember is when I was growing up and there was always this fear of a nuclear attack from Russia. We would get down under our desks and all that.
But now there’s this larger feeling, I think, of being overwhelmed not by a single thing but by so many big things.

    DAVID: We’re talking in broad terms right now about the general population. But you also work with groups experiencing greater levels of real trauma. For example, you work with returning American military personnel. From what I’m reading and seeing, the legacy of our latest American wars will include enormous problems for thousands and thousands of families.
ROBERT: This is true. I see this all the time.
I “do” darkness for a living. Most of my work is around the prevention of “secondary stress.”
DAVID: Can you explain that? “Secondary stress”?
ROBERT: That’s the pressures experienced by those men and women whose work is reaching out to others. I’ve worked with physicians and nurses, ministers and educators. I work with people in helping professions.
I’ve also worked with helpers returning among our military personnel.
Among the serious problems we’re seeing now are hidden brain injuries so that people seem essentially quite normal. They might have some other injuries that are healing and they’re in a hospital bed, let’s say. They might appear quite normal, then a nurse will walk into the hospital room, turn on a light and suddenly the person jumps out of bed and climbs under it! Or, a person returning from a combat zone may be driving along a road one day and see the body of a deer dead along the side of the road—or even a woman along the side of a street reaching down to pick up something that she’s dropped—and these things will flash back to an earlier experience. They’re keying off trauma that’s been hidden.

    DAVID: When you write a book like “Prayerfulness,” you’re talking to everyone—wherever we find ourselves in daily life—but one reason you wrote this book is specifically to equip people in these helping professions, right? Is it accurate to say that they’re also going through a time of almost unprecedented stress?
ROBERT: Yes, this is a tougher time. Look at what military health personnel are facing. We did not predict correctly how much support we would need, so we’ve got physicians with tours of duty that are just grueling. They’re seeing people with very complex injuries. This is complex trauma medicine over again and again in their tours. And they’re doing multiple tours. And that’s not all. Often, in addition to the difficult levels of care they’re having to provide, they’re also doing all of this while they’re in harm’s way themselves.
Moving away from the war, therapists like psychologists and psychiatrists need to spend so much time right now covering for legal issues that they’re often not doing the kind of creative patient work that would produce effective results much sooner.
Or, think of teachers. In the past, you never would have heard of parents of undergraduate students calling up college professors and haranguing them about their children’s grades, but it’s happening now—and sometimes they’re even threatening to sue teachers.
DAVID: And what about clergy who are working in the hundreds of thousands of congregations nationwide?
ROBERT: It’s very difficult for them right now. Many people are turning to clergy instead of professional therapists. Because of the whole increase in stress and the rising joblessness, clergy have a lot more people asking for help.
Most people in ministry are not trained to do this kind of work. They’re not therapists. So they’re absorbing things and dealing with people who are acting out in troubling ways. This is very, very difficult for people in ministry today—and the demands on them are increasing.

DAVID: That helps us lay the groundwork, I think, for the usefulness of this sturdy little book you’ve written. Given the rising pressures on so many people today, this book is a kind of toolbox. In about a dozen short chapters, you teach ways that “Prayerfulness” can become a very helpful part of our lives. Am I right to describe this as “practical”?
ROBERT: Yes. One of the things I’m known for is encouraging people to take two minutes each day in silence and solitude, wrapped in gratitude. Two minutes. That’s doable.
The goal of the book is based on the reality that spirituality becomes helpful to us when God becomes as real to us as the problems we’re facing on a daily basis.
I take the whole theme of spiritual mindfulness, which has roots in the Desert Fathers and monasticism and Buddhism, and I try to make all of this possible in a doable way. I want to help people incorporate this into their daily lives.
DAVID: That might sound like work and, in a sense, it is a series of daily disciplines you’re outlining. But the overall goal here is a more vibrant life, a more aware life, right?
ROBERT: Walker Percy in one of his novels poses this question: “What if life is like a train—and we miss it?”
There really is a danger that we could miss our own lives.
For the human person to be fully alive, it means we love God with our whole heart, our whole mind and our whole soul.
One of the greatest gifts we can share with others is our own sense of peace—but we can’t share what we don’t have. This book is designed to center us in a doable way.
DAVID: I really appreciate the way that you pull together ideas like “practical” and “doable” steps—with ideas as big as “spirituality” and “grace.” One of the reasons I want to strongly recommend your book is that I’m acutely aware of the millions of men and women who’ve lost their jobs in this economic crash. Beyond all the stressed-out groups you mention, all of those adults who’ve lost their jobs need resources like this.


ROBERT: Yes, it’s a terrible thing to lose one’s job because our identity is so tied to our jobs. It can be a mild form of PTSD. All of a sudden, the secure circle of people around us is broken. Things we counted on, expected and took for granted are crumbling.
But we also know that, while no one would want awful things to happen in our lives, good things can come of it as well. Creativity and new possibilities can come out of these experiences.
I’ve written three books—“Prayerfulness,” “Riding the Dragon” and “Bounce”—and all of them are meant to be honest with readers so that we don’t try to gloss over the deep pain people have felt and the suffering they’re still experiencing.
What I’m trying to tell people is this: It’s not the amount of darkness in the world that matters. It’s how we stand in that darkness.
That’s perspective.

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  (Originally published at https://readthespirit.com/)


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