Memory and Prayer

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Surgeon General's Warning

When I first started to explore standard memory techniques, I had a couple of concerns. Guarding your internal state has been part of Christian ethics from the beginning. Not that this is uniquely Christian; it was a standard concern in ancient Rome, and the same or similar concerns are usually not too difficult to find in world religions. And to those concerns, which might as well have been from Plato or the Buddha, the specific technique used is a way to make your mind suffer a cutting blow from a forceful image where a key ethical concern is bringing mental images under control, especially forceful ones. It's a way to achieve results at the expense of spiritually polluting your interior landscape.

I retain some variant of the technique as I have simply found nothing like it for learning words in new languages. (The book Greek to Me applies the skill to learning New Testament Greek, but I have heartily recommended it to people wanting to learn almost any language.) I also believe that as an optional skill it continues to make sense for people like Toastmasters who give speeches, don't have the benefit of teleprompters, and want to maintain eye contact without looking down to read (external paper) notes. In antiquity, the skill was considered a part of rhetoric, and some millennia later using it for that purpose still makes sense.

Nonetheless, I use the skill little and believe few of us should be using it too much. And for the driving purpose for this web posting, as a tool to support prayer, is one I have used in the past, but I've found better. The freeing nature of prayers from a liturgical prayer book dispenses with the need to keep composing words as long as you're praying; and a good prayer book like the Jordanville prayer book is an invitation to pray with the saints. If you're looking to pray better, you might consider the Jordanville prayer book.

CJS Hayward

Note to people searching for "please pray for me right now": I pray for all of my visitors each day. I am already praying for you. Please send me an email, if you like, so I can pray for you more specifically.

What is this odd gadget?

I'll explain that in just a moment. Before I explain what it is, I want to explain why it is here. That is something deeply connected with prayer.

For much of my life, I have irregularly prayed one simple prayer. What is it? I'll skip the first minute. After the first minute, it goes, "Um, God, let's see... I want to talk with you... um, uh, help me to be a better person... and help my friend's knee to get better... um, uh, I really want to pray more..." It would start whenever I remembered to pray, which was inconsistent, and continue for as long as I could stand praying without anything to say, which wasn't long. Even though I have much experience with this prayer, it's not one I recommend.

If you pray that prayer, I do not want to criticize you for it. What I do want to do is give you a real alternative, so you can pray something else if you want. There is a connection I made which allows me to have an hour of good prayer each night. I'd like to share it with you. There's a little bit of a story.

One time at lunch, my best friend Robin gave me a pen and a piece of paper, and asked me to name twenty items (whatever I wanted) for him to write down. He looked at the paper for about a minute, and then handed it back to me. Then he recited all twenty items. Then backwards. Then he invited me to quiz him. If I gave a number, he gave the corresponding item. If I gave an item, he told me its number.

He explained that he was reading a book of powerful ways to apply a simple memory technique. That particular book wasn't magical; any of several others would have worked just as well, but there is useful memory technique that isn't taught as widely here as it has been. Later, I asked for the title, and read the book. I stopped partway through, but the portion I read and acted on was very useful.

When I go to a library, I no longer need to write call numbers down. It's quite a convenience not to have to hunt for pencils and paper. It's nice, when I'm falling asleep and remember something for tomorrow, to know I can remember in the morning without writing it down. I've learned to read Latin in a month, which may help me get into a good graduate school.

Before I go further, I want to address one concern a friend raised. In essence, she said, "You can use this, but you're brilliant. Will it work for the rest of us?" The answer to that is a resounding yes.

This works on the same principle as material that is taught in special education so mentally retarded students can helpfully interact with the rest of us. It doesn't require an abstract mind because it works very concretely, and I had to work a little harder to use them than most other people would. You don't need to think like me to use it; it works for all kinds of people.

There's a way of linking two things together, called pegging: you have some pegs that you can hang things on. To do that, you represent each one with an image, and imagine some vivid, ludicrous, surreal, dreamlike image combining those two. Suppose that you want to peg the word 'transcribe' to your toes. How can you do that?

Remember when you were a child, and played with rebuses. You see an image of a hat next to several ones. Does it make any sense? At once! Or, more properly, you looked at it a little while, and then realized that "hat ones" sounds almost the same as "At once!" And you solved the rebus.

I want you, after reading this, to close your eyes and imagine something. We're going to break down the word 'transcribe' into 'train' and 'scribe'. To put them together, imagine that there's a commuter train rushing by, and on top of it is a giant scribe, sitting so he straddles the train, writing great, flaming letters on top of the train. He starts at the front, and slides back until he falls off the last car. Close your eyes and imagine for a moment; that's the representation of 'transcribe'.

Now imagine that your big toenail is a tunnel, like a train's tunnel into the mountain, and imagine that just after the scribe falls off the train, it vanishes into that hole. Imagine it vividly.

Or for another example: suppose you need cucumbers for your kid's project, and want to remember them when you stop by the grocery store. Imagine an inch-long black spike growing out of your heel, pointed down and back. Now imagine you are kicking and puncturing a cucumber with your heel again and again, until the cucumber looks like Swiss cheese—and then you use the spike to cut away one end of the cucumber and hollow it out, and slide the end over the spike so you have a Swiss cheese cucumber peel sticking to your foot.

Now imagine that you also need butter, so you imagine that you have a stick of butter on your knee, which you are using like an ice skate, kneeling, to move around a giant frying pan.

Think about your toes. What do you remember? Your heel? Your knees?

That's the basis for pegging. You can use different parts of your body to store things, and now when you think about your toes, you'll remember the train with flaming letters disappearing, and the scribe, and you can solve the rebus to remember the word: transcribe.

I suggest the following list of parts of your body to use as pegs. Stand alone somewhere and say, "One, toes... Two, heel..." aloud while touching that part of your body. I felt sheepish when I did it, but that gives you and me a solid place in memory to put things, and it's well worth it:

  1. Toes
  2. Heel
  3. Ankle
  4. Knee
  5. Thigh
  6. Waist
  7. Ribs
  8. Spine
  9. Fingertips
  10. Knuckles
  11. Palm
  12. Wrist
  13. Elbow
  14. Shoulder
  15. Neck
  16. Chin
  17. Lips
  18. Nose
  19. Eyes
  20. Ears

Print this page out if you need to. It's worth it. If you'd like a book that explains this more easily, something meant to be doable and practical, I've found Kevin Trudeau's Mega Memory to be an excellent introduction. Pick up a copy and give it half an hour a day.

Each day, add to that list one thing to pray for. I knew well enough that prayer was good. I wanted to, but when I found something I wanted to pray for, I forgot it; when I wanted to pray, I could never remember what I had to pray for. You can avoid that. I now have a nice, long list of things to pray for—that God would bless certain people, or that he would make me the sort of person that will make Heaven real to others, or that people around me would sense God's presence, or simply enjoying God's presence myself. I pray for an hour before falling asleep at night. What about waiting? I don't fidget as much; I can use unexpected waits as a time to pray. I count myself much better off that way.

There are other ways as well. Jerry Root, a teacher at Wheaton, mentioned that you can pray for one person when you brush your teeth, another when you turn on a light switch, another when you open a door. When you have a time to pray and have learned to pray for that list, add to it. One day decide what you will pray when you put on your shoes. Add your own list of daily activities. When that's in place, why don't you pray when you see certain things?

The contraption at the beginning of this page is a tool I created to practice this pegging. You can create a list, commit it to memory, and be quizzed on it. If a twenty item list is too much to start off with, start with three: you can choose how many items are on the list. Add one more each day. Before you know it, you'll be able to handle twenty items. Bookmark this page so you can come back.

I've heard people say a lot of good things about prayer. They've said, for instance, that prayer is not just a celestial vitamin, something good if unpleasant, but a great kindness. They've said it's a privelege to bring requests before the King of Heaven. They've said it's part of how God works with us, and makes us ready to be with him. All of this and more is true; Richard Foster's Prayer is one of many books if you wonder, "Why do Christians say prayer is good?" I have written this especially for people who want to pray but have trouble praying when they can't remember what to say. Now you can.

Thanks to V.V. on Sun's Java forum and all my beta testers.