Saturday, June 29, 2013

To pray or not to pray

What is prayer and who is it for? Does it matter?

I sometimes discuss issues of religion or spirituality on social media with Clark Strand, former senior editor at Tricycle magazine and author of books on Buddhism and how to access underappreciated or misunderstood elements of religious tradition.

While working on a new book, Clark has been posting quite a bit over the past year or so about prayer with an emphasis on the rosary.

Recently he posted that "everything prays" and that "the purpose of life... is life".

I replied that I used to say (here on this blog, actually, in 2006 and again in 2008) that we need to replace "of" with "is" in "the meaning of life."

I also thought that his sentiments resonated with the idea that everything we do is a prayer, so the question becomes not "Should I pray?" but "What am I praying for?"

This raises the question of what we mean when we use the term prayer, and this actually gets back to something I recently wrote about spirituality.

So what is prayer and who it for, anyway?

Following the thread laid out in the linked posted just above, life is a series of replicating loops of information which can expand increase in complexity through integration and creativity.

Through barriers and interfaces it regulates, transforms, and stores information. Integration is facilitated by communication, which relies on/forms higher level meta-maps and schemes, like complex interactive feedback loops, like the mental landscapes of organisms with more sophisticated neural capacity, and like the social landscapes of humans with their embedded symbolic architecture and language.

The creative impulse of life is one of its most distinctive features, and relies on its tendency toward novelty, which is tempered in turn by the tendency for order and integrity in the regulation of its loops or cycles of information.

This fits in nicely with my reply to another comment raised in response to Clark's post. 

The part where I finally address prayer explicitly

"And who is praying?"

That can be a useful question at times, but in my own experience it can easily lead to abstraction and distraction.

As part of the larger natural processes of which humans are a part, we seek to discover/create larger patterns and structures of meaning into which we can integrate ourselves. Thus we perpetuate and occupy the social landscape with its symbolic reality and different configurations of identity and relationship. (Yes, I really talk/think like this when discussing such topics!)

Yet, perhaps what I am thinking of is more simple, in that however we identify the "who", that "who" is still praying. We, in effect, are a prayer. Whatever "ontological categorizations of thought" or "axiomatic assumptions" behind how we identify or conceptualize the meaning of "who", whatever cultural systems and related notions of  defining or recognizing individuality.

Whether we are manifestations of a root consciousness, spiritual beings having a physical experience, physical beings having a spiritual experience, manifestation of the divine, or all of these and more (or none of these at all), "we" are a prayer. "We" are always praying.

Prayer is a human concept/expression for that capacity and desire for meaning and integration out of which organic life as we know it takes shape and evolves. Thus, "we", however that is conceptualized, are always praying, whether we do so in an overtly spiritual (as that term is broadly known in post-Enlightenment societies) or formally religious sense.

From a human perspective, our social/symbolic landscape is what is most real to us in terms of shaping our perception, so even if there is a meaningless, nihilistic, objective reality outside of that subjective projection, from our point of view, everything prays.

Who is prayer for and why does it matter?

It can be argued (quite convincingly I might add) that if you broaden the scope of a term or concept too much, it becomes so diluted as to lose distinction and impact. The loss of specificity can weaken a term and lose the usefulness of its previous narrower meaning.

On the other hand, broadening on a term can reveal connections that are otherwise overlooked and provide a context for related meanings and intentions used with that term. That is, it expanding the term can let us appreciate it in a new light.

Saying that life is a prayer will upset those with semantic allergies toward religion and its associated terminology. But coupling it to a view of the nature of life itself and how we fit within it helps to appreciate the many forms of what are called prayer.

By framing prayer as the human expression of a larger patterns of behavior intrinsic to life, we can appreciate its various manifestations within sacred traditions as well as spot them in places we might not otherwise look.

As a manifestation of the natural drive or inclination toward inclusion and identity within something larger than ourselves, prayer is fundamental to spirituality, which I think of as consciously recognizing and acting on that desire to seek purpose, meaning, and identity rooted in something greater, something more.

Confession time -- I don't tend to pray in the way that most people in contemporary post-Enlightenment societies think of that term. I have nothing against it. I even did a version of the Daily (or Divine) Office on a regular basis for quite a stretch. I've also tried the more conversational approach, and even basic meditation and visualization when I was practicing weekly with a Buddhist sangha.

But my framing of prayer suggests that while I may not pray in a particular way, I still do. I may do so unconsciously and unaware, with little attention or guided intention, but everything I think, say, and do is a prayer for or about something.

By changing the frame, the new orientation then prompts me to examine my life and how I am living it. Whether the prayer is to a higher power, to the universe, to humanity, something beyond all of these things, or something which includes all of these things, I am praying.

I am part of a chorus of prayer that includes my fellow humans and the rest of life in all of its forms -- past, present, and future. And for those who subscribe to elements of animism, pantheism, panentheism, and panpychism, that chorus also includes the rocks, the mountains, the streams and oceans, and even the stars themselves.

The question then turns to the value of praying consciously and intentionally, of being aware of what kind of prayer we are and what kind of prayer we choose to be. Perhaps, then, the more conventional uses of the term prayer are referring to prayer done with such awareness and intentionality. That distinction is still useful, then.

In any case, whether that intention and awareness in prayer is supported by traditional practices -- such as the Daily Office, the rosary, prostrations, chanting, veneration of deities and Buddhas, reciting portions of sacred texts, and so on -- or whether it is something less structured, formal, and traditional, ones relationship to prayer reflects ones attitude towards life.

Be a Christian. A Buddhist. A Jew or a Jain. A Hindu or a Sikh. A Muslim, a Wiccan, or a Rastafarian, or any number of other religious affiliations. Be an atheist, an agnostic, a humanist, or a "none".

That still leaves the question, broken into different facets: What kind of prayer are you? What are you praying for today? Tomorrow? With your very life?


  1. in my view prayer is communion with God. Perhaps some would put it in different terms, depending upon what you understand by "God," and "communion." From a Christian perspective I do not see prayer as just a time to ask for things. prayer is not just a request line. It's just like spending time with a friend. You are hanging out together. Of course we have to remember that's just a metaphor.

    1. Hey Metacrock, good to see you over here.

      All of those views, the ones you accept and the ones you reject, are included within the framework I've developed. It's one thing to simply treat the God or the Universe like a vending machine and prayer as the coins, but expressing longings and needs and seeking things in prayer are still valid expressions.

      If you see prayer as focusing one's awareness on God, that's valid too, but it still represents the idea of integration into something larger or bigger (often called "surrender" in theological terms) and it is still a way of being conscious of you are, what you are doing, and why.


Hello! Thanks for leaving a comment.

Everything but spam and abusive comments are welcome. Logging in isn't necessary but if you don't then please "sign" at the end of your comment. You can choose to receive email notifications of new replies to this post for your convenience, and if you find it interesting don't forget to share it. Thanks!


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...