There are no short cuts on the spiritual path. To make the most of the journey, we have to process the trip. We have to pause and reflect. We have to talk about what’s happening, and how it impacts us, and what we are doing in response, and how well that’s working. We have to live as slowly as possible if we hope to live well. No spiritual master ever lived on the run. None of the saints rushed from one thing to the next. They all took their time. They sat for long periods doing nothing. They had quiet routines. They relished silence. We cannot have their outlook, insight, and wisdom with our approach to life. Slowing down is the fastest way spiritual growth. Slowing down and speaking up.
We have to say how it is. We have to look in order to see. We have to listen in order to hear. And, we have to speak in order to know what we have to say. What is happening in our lives? How do we feel about that? What do we need to hear that we are not hearing? What do we need to attend that we are ignoring?
Awareness is the spiritual path. What needs our awareness now? What are we choosing to not notice? How can we know if we don’t think about it? If we don’t open ourselves to our physical/emotional response to the experience of being alive? What is the headache saying? What is the backache communicating? What is up with that tightness in our stomach? The trick is to ask the aches and the tightness what is going on. And listen to the reply.
It only sounds weird because we live in the culture of the west and think of our bodies as machines to transport “us” where “we” are going. Things “we” use to get about. Other cultures know that our bodies know more than “we” do. Other cultures know that “we” don’t live in “our” heads. We are one with our bodies, and have to remove the division the culture implants if we hope to be whole. We do that by listening to our bodies, but that takes time. We are in a hurry. We want someone to shrink the spiritual journey to a short list of rules, or pithy little phrases, to remind us what it’s all about as we run through the day. But we are living at odds with what life requires, and can only be spiritual to the extent that we “stop, look, and listen.”
Of course, prayer works. Prayer works the way horoscopes work, the way astrology works. Prayer works the way the I Ching works, the way Ouija Boards work, the way reading tea leaves, and casting lots, and tossing bones work. Prayer works the way voodoo dolls and self-hypnosis work. All these things work. But none of them can reduce the price of gas. Or repair a cavity.
Beyond “working,” we have to consider the matter of prayer’s influence. Joseph Campbell said, “The influence of a vital person vitalizes.” What does the influence of a praying person do? Anything? Does prayer have an influence? Look with me at prayer as a means of exerting our will upon the events and circumstances of our lives. Can we will the future to be different in any respect from what it would have been apart from the influence of our will?
There is a claim, untested and unsubstantiated, so far as I know, floating about that certain forms of group meditation, with the intentional orientation of peace and compassion, have the effect of reducing the crime rate in the cities where the meditators meditate. It leads me to wonder what the geographical limit of their influence might be. And, what the minimum number of group participants is required to impact the crime rate. Do we have a greater influence if we pray together than if we pray apart? Is there a certain form our prayers must take in order to be optimally influential? A certain amount of time spent praying? A particular time to pray? Are morning prayers more influential than evening prayers? Are the prayers of grizzled veterans in the art more influential than those of novices?
I believe we feel better when we pray. I expect we live better as well. Prayer influences those who pray on a feeling, living, level. And, that positions us to influence the world. Whether prayer itself is influential is another matter. If a butterfly just thought about moving its wings, would that effect weather patterns on the other side of the world? It does seem to me that history bears out the emergence of similar ideas at about the same time in widely separated locations. Darwin wasn’t alone with the notion of evolution, for example.
And we are, I assume, familiar with the concept of “the spirit of place.” Some places have a “mood” about them which sets them quite apart from other places. Something about us senses when we step onto “holy ground,” or enter into “sacred space.” And, the animals, you will remember, got out of the way of the tsunami. We seem capable of knowing more than we know how we know. It is not too much of a jump to think that prayer can serve to focus the power, the energy, of attention in a way that is influential in the world of normal, apparent, reality.
The major fault I find with prayer and praying is the flippancy with which we engage in the practice, or withhold ourselves from it. Either way, we fail to honor prayer. We pray without respect. Or, we refuse to pray out of contempt for the very idea. We use prayer to open meetings, and to begin meals, and to start football games. Prayer never keeps us from having the meeting, eating the meal, or playing the game. It is as though we are saying, “Here is what we are going to do, let’s ask God to bless us as we do it.” We limit the possibility of influence by refusing to be influenced ourselves. We know what we want, and we want God to give it to us. And, just to make sure the Big Guy doesn’t get offended, we close by saying, “Oh, and your will be done.” We go through the entire prayer without seeking a will other than our own, and then, in passing, at the end, we say, “Your will be done.” It cheapens the entire enterprise.
Prayer is a holy communion. It is the opening of the self to the self and to all that is beyond the self. It is the path of awareness. We cannot pray if we will not pray attentively. Prayer is listening as much as it is speaking. We don’t just call up God and place and order. Prayer is God talking to God through us. God listening to God through us. Prayer is the mechanism by which consciousness expands, deepens, emerges, unfolds, develops. The words we use to pray are inconsequential. The quality of our attention is everything. When we get to the place of attention without words, we won’t have to ask about the nature of prayer or the influence of prayer. But, we cannot get there quickly. We cannot be in a hurry and pray. There are, after all, no short cuts on the spiritual path.