What is it to pray? At its essence, what is prayer? Sometimes in explorations with seekers, the subject will come up. Do you pray? I’ve occasionally been asked, or Do you think I should pray?
Any attempt to define prayer is doomed, whether it’s me struggling at it or the formulation of some religious or spiritual tradition. It’s like the idea of God, or of love. Reductive no matter how you approach it. Language is only ever an approximation, subject to making small a thing that cannot be contained, or defined. Yet there is the attempt, even so, words being a way of reaching toward one another, across the silence and emptiness that appears to separate us.
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Prayer tends to be for something, expressed to someone. It’s reaching toward a perceived source of wisdom beyond yourself. Maybe the name given to that is God, some word embodying an all-knowing, all-loving entity. Religions and spiritual traditions have their particular names and practices. Like all words, any formulaic expressions or ritual intended to embody the reaching toward truth, these are inevitably reductive. It’s the same with an individual’s own spontaneous cry for help or clarity, which tends to be generated by the mind, the suffering heart.
What happens at awakening is that an ordinary human being comes to sense the no-separation from all-that-is.
People typically pray either from practice (habit) or in response to a longing. We’re moved to pray when we want something: some resolution, to be relieved of a burden, rescue of some sort. Making a deal with God in a moment of crisis. We pray for another. Or for a lofty inner experience. Sometimes a prayer of thanks may come, seeking nothing. How restful, how softening, the expression of gratitude can be.
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So much of the spiritual life is a matter of getting out of one’s own way. It involves the humility of realizing you cannot know with any sort of confidence the “meaning” of anything, or what your “problem” really is, nor what will most deeply benefit you at a given time. There is the recognition of barriers within yourself, blocks to clarity that your mind is impotent to dismantle, since it’s the mind that erected them in the first place (all in the name of perceived self-protection).
And so it is with prayer, which frequently assumes a person to be equipped to know what is needed. It’s the mind, of course, supposing this, the mind giving formulation to the heart’s desire. To ask for a particular something can erect its own kind of barrier. It says “I know what I (or someone else) needs, what will be of benefit in this situation.” If I’ve learned anything, it’s that I cannot know what will serve me, or be of help to another. It isn’t up to me to know this. Whatever I might formulate would be skewed or short-sighted. Nor would I presume to suggest prayer to another. If a person is naturally moved in that direction, I would not dissuade them.
And then there’s that oft-cited matter of “being careful what you wish for.” How something fervently hoped for may well occur but not — as seen in retrospect only — deliver the longed-for goods. Life itself has taught us again and again that we cannot know what will truly benefit us.
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To pray is to enter into a humble receptivity. It’s to realize the familiar self’s inability to deeply know. Most fundamentally, to pray is to open to wisdom that’s available to come to the heart, in a time of readiness. This is not the emotion-saturated heart cramped by desire or need, but the open one that’s receptive to truth, painful or otherwise.
To turn toward such openness carries a faith of sorts: there’s a sense that more awaits you than you’ve been aware of to this point. The possibility of insight, perhaps. Of release from something imprisoning or limiting. Maybe there’s an underlying hunch that you will be up to what comes. Which may not always be so comfortable.
It’s no wonder prayer is traditionally associated with being on one’s knees, head bowed, eyes closed. There’s a welcoming of rest from familiar effort or striving, a willing letting-go. The posture of prayer is akin to the idea of metaphorically being brought to one’s knees, cut down by some life development. Life holds many invitations to be reminded of our inability to know, let alone to control. Or to know how to pray, or for what. When the eyes are closed, there’s no seeing what’s ahead.
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There is always available to the receptive heart a larger knowing than we’ve yet been able to take in. To allow to take us into its kindness and instruct us, point the way somehow. It may be surprising, or even fierce; it frequently is. Witness the fabled dark night of the soul, the potential transformative power in a time of crushing loss and despair. What will actually benefit us (bring about a letting-go, enable a deeper resting in the truth, going someplace we’ve kept walled off within ourselves) may in fact deliver terrible pain and a sense of awful loss and disorientation. A removal of the very foundation we’ve long stood upon. Who would pray for such a thing? Willingly invite it? Yet it’s possible to see, looking back, how some life crisis, or crisis of faith, did in fact bring about a significant release, some opening. Though we’d never have imagined it at the time (let alone asked for it). Which is not to say every significant altering inner experience will be devastating. The point is that it isn’t up to the mind to know, to imagine it can formulate, what we need at any given time — what will most benefit our ongoing opening to the truth.
There’s no end to what is there — even long past awakening, so long as a person doesn’t assume stability or ultimate knowing. We receive what there’s readiness for, and nothing beyond that. Always there will be more, on another occasion, so long as we remain open to it, so long as we don’t expect (or desire) “stability.”
Something knows better than we do what we’re ready for, and at what point.
The concept of a higher power (used in twelve-step groups) is a way of expressing that something beyond the mind’s ordinary knowing, without resorting to familiar ideas of God and the like. It invites humility, receptivity. Carrying a quiet faith in the prospect that a person can have access to something beyond what has so far been taken for the truth, it doesn’t suggest the source resides “elsewhere” in the universe, as an entity. It simply invites opening to a wisdom beyond what the mind has access to. It says maybe there’s more to existence — to the imperfect self — than a person has yet come to realize.
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Many years ago something happened that altered the sense of prayer I’d had all my life until then. The moment occurred in the months of unfolding discovery after fear relaxed its grip on my conscious awareness. I felt moved to pray, to reach toward God, to turn toward some sense of the divine. Was it to say thank you? Was it to ask for insight about a particular matter? I no longer remember the context. Because the shock of what happened next took up all the space in awareness and is what has endured.
I was stunned by the vivid sense that whatever source of wisdom I was accustomed to reach toward — “out there” somewhere — was . . . not there. Simply not there. How could this be? But then I saw. It took a moment’s reflection, and then it became apparent what was happening.
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Our error — the illusion that accounts for our lifelong torment and striving and blindness — is the impression, the belief, that we are apart from divinity. That God (or whatever name we give the source of unconditional love and truth) is remote from our very selves. Is other. There is that idea celebrated in so much religious and spiritual literature of longed-for proximity to God, the aching for union, with the enduring assumption of our being distant from divinity. Witness Michelangelo’s poignant image on the Sistine Ceiling, Adam’s finger straining to touch God’s. As if we were separate in the first place.
A way of saying what happens at awakening is that an ordinary human being comes to sense the no-separation from all-that-is. Another possible name for God, the divine.
How poignant it is, that all our lives we ache to be understood, acknowledged, appreciated. To find the great love. As if we — what we most truly are — could be lonely. As if we were “incomplete.”
There never was any distance to reach across to find God, to access wisdom. To come to “know,” to pray to. It’s a matter of letting oneself discover, bit by bit by humbling bit, the boundlessness of the heart’s capacity to sense . . . to allow . . . the fullness of the truth within. To realize in a bodied way that we are both human and divine. That we are not, after all, apart from what we long for.