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Monthly Archives: April 2020

A Prayerful Life

In What About Prayer I responded to a question from a new blog follower, about whether prayer has any continued relevance after (post-) theism, at least in the version of post-theism I have been advocating for. He understands that post-theism is not hung up in the debate over god’s objective existence but is more interested in what our concepts of god say about us and where they may be leading.

It is not to be reduced to atheism, in other words.

In our personal correspondence, my friend referred to another post from nearly a year ago, entitled More Than You Think. It explores a new theory of mind based on the scientific fact that we possess consciousness-conducting cells, called neurons, not only in our brain, but in our heart and gut as well.

If that is the case, then it’s reasonable to at least consider expanding our definition of “mind” beyond what’s transpiring in our heads only, and to ask whether there might be distinct types of mind that engage us with reality in ways very different from the logical, rational, and discursive thinking we so revere in the (“heady”) modern West.

In this post I want to revisit that model of plural minds, but now with the explicit question on the table of what it could mean to our understanding of prayer. As we’ll see, the model provides a useful frame for appreciating both the ascendancy of theism and its necessary transcendence by a post-theistic spirituality.

My present interest is the continuing relevance of living a prayerful life after theism.

To get started, let’s begin with the etymology of our word “prayer,” which refers to the outreach of supplication to what is beyond us for something we need or desire – protection, provision, wisdom, guidance, comfort, healing, forgiveness, liberation, etc. To seek it outside ourselves is at least an implicit acknowledgment that we don’t possess it already, or at least believe that we don’t.

Both the spiritual wisdom traditions and contemporary science – and what the heck, let’s also throw in common sense – confirm the fact that we are not entirely self-sufficient and absolutely independent beings, but rather that we and every other life form are chronically deficient and profoundly dependent on relationships, resources, and ecosystems for our existence. By “chronically deficient” I simply mean that we need things, like oxygen to breathe, and that this need recurs as an urgency of life itself.

So then, there is a very natural inclination in us to reach out for (or open up to receive) what we need but don’t (simply because we can’t) possess.

Could this be the experiential origins of supplication? Is there already an implicit, maybe even an instinctual acknowledgment here that we rely on something beyond ourselves for what we seek as human beings? If it is rooted in instinct and the life process itself, is it not reasonable to expect that this inclination might find expression in the form of invocation, petition, thanksgiving, and even devotion as it rises into our more evolved human capacities for language, self-consciousness, and meaning?

So goes my theory.

Our logical mind is where the business of language, self-consciousness, and making meaning unfolds. It is what most clearly distinguishes our species from all the others, and it’s also where the illusion of our separateness is generated. By definition, ego is our separate center of self-conscious identity which divides reality – but actually only our perception of reality – between “me and mine” and “not me: other.”

Furthermore, the “I” at the center of this worldview is itself a social construct, a kind of negative space created by the gradual separation of “me” from “not me.” Into this negative space our tribe installs all kinds of codes, roles, values, and beliefs that conspire in shaping this animal nature into “one of us” – a well-behaved and conscientious member of society.

Historically a big part of this project has involved putting the developing ego into relationship with a Supreme Ego who is regarded as the higher intelligence behind the world, an absolute will above our tribe’s moral codes and ordained authorities, as well as the exemplar of virtues towards which we and our fellow devotees aspire. Just as our own separate ego-identity is a construct of language and entirely imaginary, the same is true of this Supreme Ego who stands in the role of patron deity: bestowing blessings and protection, providing for our atonement when we step off the moral path, giving us a longer and higher vision for our lives.

It’s important to understand – though virtually impossible for true believers to even consider much less accept – that this god is imaginary and not real, a literary figure (in sacred stories) and not a literal being (outside the stories), a theological construct and not an actual personality. The roots of this construct are metaphorical and grounded in that deep inclination to reach out for what we need, which at the level of our logical mind is security, identity, meaning, and purpose.

As it relates to my topic, this is where prayer is conversational, imagined as a kind of dialogue between “god and me” (and “us”).

As post-theism begins with the realization that god lacks objective existence, proceeding into meditation on what god means, those deeper roots of metaphor and the experience of deficiency, dependency, and supplication it images-forth lead us through the floor, as it were, of our logical mind. As we enter the sympathic mind of our heart, the separation of ego and other dissolves away and our world construct is left behind.

Here it becomes immediately evident that all things are connected, interdependent, and, as the Buddhists say, mutually co-arising. There is no “separate self,” no “alien other,” but rather a vibrant web in which self and other are “together as one,” partners in a larger reality.

“Heart-centered” prayer, then, is very different from the “head-centered” imaginary conversation where ego petitions god for what we need. Deeper into the web of life and our sympathic mind we send our intentions along the axons of communion, receiving and releasing, perhaps redirecting the flow to where in the web it is most needed. As a spider can feel the vibration of activity from far across its web, we also participate in a visible and invisible field of energy, matter, life, and mind.

Prayer is as spontaneous as taking a breath and giving it back, holding one another with gracious intention, living carefully and responsively on the earth, lifting our cup from the communion of life and offering our thanks in return.

We still have one more deeper level to go in our reflections on prayer as supplication. Far below our wordy world of identity (logical mind) and beneath even the vibrant web where all is one (sympathic mind), each of us is a living manifestation of being, of the ineffable mystery of be-ing itself. Here our intuitive mind (centered in the gut) lives silently in the cycling rhythms of our autonomic nervous system, metabolic activity, and physical existence.

This “grounding mystery” (as I call it) is not found by digging into other things, but only through engaging a contemplative descent within ourselves.

Each descending step of awareness entails a surrender of something we may be hanging onto – my tribe, my beliefs, my ego, my thoughts, this thought, thinking itself, the one who thinks he is thinking – until we enter a clearing of boundless presence. Such surrender is a third type of supplication, then, having now dropped below conversational prayer and even communal prayer, into contemplative prayer, where we are content to dwell, silently and with open attention, in the present mystery of reality.

 

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What About Prayer?

A new blog follower of mine commented on how much of what I write about resonates with his own spiritual journey. His faith development led him outside the cathedral of Christian orthodoxy, revealing how much of it is a human construction erected in response to a transcendent mystery – to a mystery larger, other, and deeper than ourselves. He appreciates and still cultivates the benefits of meditation as central to (what I would call a post-theistic) spirituality, especially now in his “elder” years.

My new friend writes:

I am curious about an aspect of spirituality that I don’t think you have mentioned [in the blog]. You write of meditation but never about prayer. Is that something I missed; purposeful or a topic yet to be covered? I do have some interests along those lines.

It would be easy to assume that any more or less disciplined cultivation of spirituality – which, by the way, is my best definition of religion – that is practiced “after theism” and its concept of god have been left behind, would no longer have any use for prayer. If we accept the conventional (theistic) definition of prayer as “talking with god,” then this assumption can stand, since post-theism doesn’t regard god as an objectively existing being.

Of course, I would argue that even a reflective and self-critical theism is conscious of how the genealogy of every representation of god traces back to the human imagination as its birthplace.

But still, “reflective and self-critical” are only descriptive of what can be called late theism, when god-oriented religion has acquired an ability to discriminate between the present mystery of God and our human concepts of god that give the mystery name, form, character, and location.

In the light of this distinction, it is common in late theism for believers to begin doubting the literal truth of these theological constructs, and consequently also to begin questioning the validity of “talking with” a god that might be more in our minds than anywhere else.

It takes some excavation work to discover the extent in which our theological concepts of god are really abstractions from mythological precursors, of deities who live in stories that are anchored to metaphors which link together (or carry across, metaphorein) our experience of mystery and our constructions of meaning. Metaphorically, a narrative depiction of god personifies this mystery, gives it meaning, and invites us into a relationship corresponding to the special powers attributed to the deity.

Once upon a time, there was a god of harvest, a god of healing, a god of love, and so on. In the high theism of biblical Judaism these originally separate attributions and plural deities were unified in the one and only god, Yahweh, and a devotee’s supplication might employ any number of distinct prayer formulae depending on the particular need or objective.

Even here, given that the biblical god Yahweh is also a theological construct of the mythopoetic imagination, the real benefit of prayer can be appreciated as more therapeutic than conversational. While a devotee might believe that he or she is “talking with god” (regardless of the persistent silence at the other end of the line), the effect psychologically might come in the form of a calming relief, an expansion of awareness, the release of guilt, an acceptance of life as it is, or the focused resolution to act for desired change.

True believers will always have recourse to the assertion that god really is there, at the other end of the prayer line.

It’s not necessary for them to have met a deity who fits the biblical profile of Yahweh in order to have faith that he objectively exists. (This is one way that faith gets distorted into “believing it anyway,” when its original and deepest meaning has to do with releasing oneself in trusting surrender to the present mystery of reality.)┬áBut with our historical knowledge of how religion’s concept of god originated and evolved over time, there is no reasonable basis for such belief.

God doesn’t have to exist to be meaningful. Which also means that prayer doesn’t have to be conversational for it to still have an important place in the cultivation of spirituality.

So then, what is prayer? If it’s not a way of getting god’s attention, persuading his mercy and forgiveness, stoking his wrath against our enemies, motivating his miraculous intervention on our behalf (etc.), then what use is it? Post-theism has an answer.

Our psycho-spiritual development as humans follows a trajectory in the formation of a self-conscious center of personal identity, or ego (from Latin for “I”). The deities of theism are cultural counterparts of this formation, and one of their primary roles is to serve as mythopoetic ideals (i.e., more perfect and self-actualized versions of ourselves) that awaken and evoke from us such higher virtues as patience, compassion, benevolence, and forgiveness – the distinctly humane virtues.

At this seemingly “conversational” stage, our supplication of god for these higher virtues, along with our worship of god in exemplifying them to us, activates our commitment to their demonstration in our own life, with whatever consistency we can manage.

Petitioning god’s forgiveness, for instance, and then returning gratitude for our release from guilt, motivates our own forgiveness of others who have wronged us.

At first, we look to god for the strength we need to set aside vengeance and act with kindness instead. Over time and with practice, however, living a forgiven and forgiving life becomes more second nature for us: The virtuous strength we had earlier looked to god for is now active in us. Our prayer for god’s forgiveness has awakened in us the power to forgive. That is to say, the virtue of forgiveness which god had personified has now “come alive” in us.

This, by the way, is a post-theistic interpretation of the early Christian myth of Pentecost, where the spirit of Jesus was transferred into the disciple community, which subsequently became the resurrected body of Christ. I am convinced that earliest Christianity, taking its inspiration from Jesus himself, was a post-theistic revolution that later (too soon) was co-opted again by a resurgent theism.

A full account of prayer thus begins in a theistic frame, with god and his virtues depicted as beyond us. Eventually we move into a post-theistic frame, where the virtues of god are awakened and active within us, flowing through us and into our daily life and relationships.

Prayer as conversation transforms into prayer as incarnation, and we step fully into the liberated life.

 

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Living By Wisdom

Times of urgency and extreme hardship have the effect of either pulling us closer together or pushing us farther apart. Our present crisis is doubly hard, in that keeping our distance from each other is how we demonstrate our mutual care and respect. Reflecting on this strange predicament, I find myself turning once again to the great depository of worldwide spiritual wisdom.

Just as animal instinct has driven our survival and adaptation as a species over millions of years of evolution, our gradual rise along the gradient of cultural awakening has been building on an accumulation of insights and principles – what Aldous Huxley named the Perennial Philosophy. It is at once a product of our “love of wisdom” (philo-sophia) and a deep tradition that flows like an underground stream of enduring truths beneath the remarkable variation of world cultures.

As I said, suffering can move us closer or drive us apart. Whichever way it goes has everything to do with the depth of our empathy and breadth of our compassion. To me, these are not two words for the same thing. Empathy (“in-feeling”) is a function of our own individual grounding and thoughtful engagement with experiences of pain, loss, failure, bereavement, loneliness, disorientation, anxiety, frustration, and disappointment – in other words, with the more or less normal range of human experience.

A deep and thoughtful acquaintance with our own human experience attunes us, as it were, to the similar experiences of others. Compassion (“with-feeling”) is itself a symptom of our own self-understanding as limited, fallible, vulnerable, and dependent beings. Only one who has empathy by virtue of such an honest and humble self-regard can reach out to another with genuine understanding and love.

Together, then, empathy and compassion have provided the “lift” of our human awakening over the millenniums. By their internal-external, contemplative-ethical dynamic we have been slowly rising – with many setbacks along the way – into the liberated life of human fulfillment.

In recent times, and perhaps particularly in the North Atlantic capitalist nations, the erosion of community and a sense of belonging to something larger, deeper, and other than ourselves as individuals has put us at risk of losing our spiritual bearings. Just now, we need to bring those age-old principles of wisdom back out into the open where we can reflect on them, engage in dialogue with each other on their import, and work diligently to put them into practice – before it’s too late.

In this post I will offer what I regard as the five principles of spiritual wisdom found in the Perennial Philosophy, buried beneath the countless distractions of daily life and willfully ignored over many generations and by many of us, to our peril.

Wisdom Principle 1

Cultivating inner peace is key to making peace with others.

We cannot coexist well and get along with others if we are at conflict within ourselves. Our insecurities drive us to attach ourselves emotionally to what, and to whom, we hope will pacify our anxiety. But nothing and no one can make us feel secure, for the simple reason that existence itself is not secure. The harder we grip down on a pacifier, the faster it slips from our grasp, leaving us feeling rejected, abandoned, and resentful. So we try reinforcing our attachments with ultimatums, convictions, and guarantees, which only amplifies our fundamental problem.

The real solution, of course, is to release our demands, surrender the outward search for perfect security, and settle into our own center. Inner peace is an inwardly grounded and centered calm, a profound composure that is not borrowed or derived, but discovered again (and again) in the depths of our being. By its virtue we are able to make peace with others, creating relationships that embody and express its quiet and steadfast strength.

Wisdom Principle 2

Living for the wellbeing of the greater Whole promotes health and happiness for oneself.

With our focus (bordering on fixation) on the unique individual’s pursuit of happiness, the larger surrounding reality becomes little more than context, a static background for each person’s adventure through life. We take what we feel we need, and a little extra – or maybe a lot. Nature is here for us, the planet is ours. Other people are the supporting cast of our life story. The whole thing moves and gears together for our benefit.

Missing from this mindset is an awareness that “the whole thing” is not something else. We don’t occupy some privileged position apart from it all, from whence we can take our pick, gain possession, and toss aside what we don’t want. As Gregg Levoy says in his book Callings: Finding and Following an Authentic Life, “There is no ‘out’, as in ‘taking the garbage out’.” When we really understand and accept the fact that we all belong and are interconnected, our choices and behaviors begin to honor the wellbeing of the Whole. In the words of Chief Seattle, what we do to the Whole, we do to ourselves.

Wisdom Principle 3

Opening a larger frame with a longer view on life leads to better choices and fewer frustrations.

A correlate to the insight of how human health and personal happiness are expressions of wellbeing throughout the systems in which they belong is an almost intuitive sense of how actions here and today will inevitably bring about consequences later on and even elsewhere. When we lack inner peace, the churning anxiety within characteristically generates a sense of urgency, forging a dangerous amalgam of anxiety, aggression, and a mounting desperation. Our perspective collapses to the immediate horizon and nothing else seems to matter.

It’s probably unrealistic, psychologically speaking, to expect individuals who are feeling stressed and overwhelmed to open their frame and take a longer view on life. It is a proven fact, however, that strengthening this skill as a regular habit of daily living will serve as a prophylactic against anxious feelings and make it more likely that its benefits will be available when the time comes.

Wisdom Principle 4

Letting go of vengeance and practicing kindness instead provides space for damaged relationships to heal and community to arise.

It can be argued that a retributive reflex is coded into our animal DNA, causing us without thinking to snap back in retaliation when attacked. Our big and sophisticated brain has enabled us to spin a large web of associations around this experience of being attacked, to include also violations of trust, transgressions of values, false accusations, assaults on our character, social embarrassment, and slights of every kind. If any of these things should happen – or even if we feel they have happened when they really haven’t – a retributive reflex rises up and snaps back on our assailant. We can’t deny the sweet satisfaction we relish when we “pay back” what we feel is deserved.

This particular wisdom principle was one that Jesus made the centerpiece of his New World vision. He saw the damage all around him caused by the retributive reflex – between neighbors, social classes, ethnic groups, political parties, and religious denominations. With each assault, the injured one felt justified in getting even; which of course was then regarded by the original offender as unwarranted and demanding revenge. On and on it would go, tightening down and spreading out in greater damage with every turn of so-called “justice.”

The advice of Jesus? Hold back that reflex and make room for a different kind of response, one that returns good for evil, love instead of hate, creativity rather than destruction.

Wisdom Principle 5

Living only for oneself leads to loneliness, hypertension, and an early death.

This final principle from the Perennial Philosophy has more of a negative ring to it, counseling against the tendency in each of us to make it “all about me.” In a way, this principle is telling us, “If you choose to willfully ignore the first four wisdom principles, then there’s something for sure you can count on: You will suffer.” Not because someone is making us suffer, but simply as a natural outcome of our unrelenting self-obsession.

Loneliness, hypertension, and early death might be considered the three faces of a worldwide spiritual pandemic that has been spreading throughout our population for a while now. Like many other species, humans are social creatures, and our full development requires trusting bonds, healthy connections, mutual cooperation and creative dialogue with others. Deficient of such interactions we feel isolated and lonely, manifesting in our bodies as a syndrome of comorbid symptoms, chronic dysfunction, and a host of diseases placed in the curious category of “autoimmunity,” where the body eventually destroys itself.


I find myself wondering what would happen if we actually lived by the spiritual principles of our collective wisdom. How would the world be different if each of us cultivated inner peace, lived for the greater good, took a longer view on life, loved our enemies, and accepted our creative authority to be the difference we want to see?

No doubt, it would be a very different world.

 

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