Sunday, August 14, 2011

Prayer from my childhood vs. prayers now

Buddhist prayer flags at the lookout tower nea...Image via WikipediaNow here is an odd thing. Or it seems odd to me. You can judge for yourself. (And if you are someone who has remained in a religion even though in some ways you've transcended it, there is a question for you at the end.)

When I've tried to use certain prayers and the like unknown to me in my youth but from the same general tradition, I find that I analyze them whether I want to or not:

"I don't agree with the premise or the wording."

"This is misguided or offensive."

"I can appreciate the meaning if I take into account the history, culture and..."
As you can see, this isn't exactly the most helpful response. Yet is appears to be consistent and unyielding.

But that's not the odd part.

When working with meditations or prayers from a sacred tradition I discovered as an adult and which was presented as more open and less rigidly literalistic, the response varies from "I don't really have any reaction" to "How moving and beautiful."

OK, now that might seem odd either. It's less like the religion ditched before and all of its baggage, so it's a clean canvass and was introduced in a manner more in keeping with a different set of sensibilities.

But then I thought about a prayer from my youth, a short bedtime reflection that millions of children were taught that is easy to recall and recite. Technically, if one takes it at face value and analyzes it conceptually, it is just as problematic as the other prayers from the same religion. It ought to produce the same kinds of objections. Yet it doesn't.

As mentioned I have struggled to see beyond the conceptual/literal/theological level of the prayers from a different stream of the same religion as my youth, one that is much closer to my current sensibilities than that of my youth, and still failed miserably. Yet with the familiar and brief bedtime prayer of my childhood, I automatically see past all of that.

Of course, this can be explained in any number of ways, but it does seem to suggest something about why it may be harder for adults to relate to certain things. Something deeply familiar from childhood, check. Something totally different, check. Something similar to something previously believed but not as familiar? No dice. It's like the latter still gets hung up in all the old baggage owing to the lack of nostalgia and familiarity.

It does help me to appreciate something else I found odd for the longest time, which is, how do people who have spent their life in a religion, and who have come to have views that are radically different from the basic mainstream level of its teachings, reconcile their new insights with language and interpretations that should be in conflict.

In other words, "How do one keep saying prayers or reading texts that seem to contradict what one seems to believe?"

I am sure a cynic would say cognitive dissonance, and that could be true, but I think that for some they have been able to move beyond the conceptual level of the words and phrases. Not by some analytical investigation or technique, but because they are grounded in a meaning that transcends the more base conceptual limits.

It is not something you can force upon yourself through any degree of effort. Either it fits, or it does not.

Now, to those who have managed to somehow move past one level of your religion to another while still appreciating and benefiting from the same liturgy, prayers etc, please share your experience for those who don't understand how that works. How do you see those aspects of your faith? Thanks!

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  1. I think it has something to do with cognitive associations. When I was a child, my religious participation was not burdened with negative associations, but was approached in innocence. And of course, any new religious ideas I may think about, lack negative associations too. But in the middle is the childhood religious tradition that is not associated with the innocent childhood participation, but does have all the negative cognitive associations.

    So far, I've found that all I can do is try to avoid those prayers that trigger the negative associations. I haven't figured out how to purify them so that I could enjoy them as someone does who approaches them free of negative associations.

  2. Thanks for sharing your own experiences. I personally wasn't thinking of specific prayers or hymns, but just general imagery (i.e. "God", "Christ", "the Lord", "Heaven", etc.). But I get what you are saying. I couldn't go back to the quasi-Baptist fundamentalism of my youth or its practices.

    I think sometimes even getting over general associations is hard because of transference, so that impressions from one set of experiences can bleed into others. That is, we may think we are "over" or "past" such conceptions and feelings because on a certain level we have educated ourselves beyond such thinking. But that alone doesn't cut it because deep down those associations can linger and taint our perceptions and reactions. There is a deeper form of contemplation and meditation that is required.

    I do think it can be overcome by recognizing it and seeing that others have been able to expand to a larger view that allows for paradox and uncertainty. Knowing that others have struggled with these cognitive associations and have fruitfully used the struggle with them as a basis for further growth can give people the confidence to continue themselves. It can be done. But it can't really be forced. It requires lots of honesty and patience, not denial or resentment.


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