Contemplative Fieldnotes - Prayer

For the past few weekends, I've been trying to write something about prayer as a category of ritual, partly as an exercise to see what I think about the topic, but also because it's an area of religious practice which gets a bad rap. Some of the reasons it gets a bad rap are pretty obvious and mostly dull; what prayer can do well is more interesting to me in practice, but it turns out that giving some theoretical explanation of that is really difficult when trying to communicate in the grey area between systems and practices.

There is some good work to be found in the area of ritual theory, albeit somewhat confused and confusing. If you're looking for interesting theory, then I'd suggest you go and read Catherine Bell, Roy Rappaport, Grimes' Craft of Ritual Studies, and Seligman et al's book, Ritual and its Consequences, which looks at how ritual functions in the continual re-creation of the 'as if' worlds & pockets of order we co-habit as social animals (Pluralism is also well worth a read, and there is a new one out which I haven't read yet). Parts of this post are directly influenced by some of Sarah Perry's writing about ritual; I've borrowed her use of cringe and misfit (hopefully without butchering them too horribly). Another influence from Sarah comes from her article on excruciating mental states, which motivated me to spend a bit more time thinking about how my special interest in Dharma and weird religious practices might be a viable option for people in varieties of deep pain. I’ll posts some links below, I would recommend reading those posts if you haven’t before. There are many other theorists who don't explicitly talk about ritual as much as those mentioned above, but people such as Bateson and Gadamer come to mind are also well worth reading if you are enthused by theoretical explorations of ritual practice.

Part of the motivation for thinking about prayer at all, is the recognition that in the small circle of twitter I’m connected to, some very interesting and bright people are experimenting with a range of different religious and psychological modalities, and I think it might be helpful to have some novel input to highlight some areas to pay attention to. I jokingly said to one of these bright and adventurous friends that prayer is going to be the next big meditation trend after this recent wave of interest in the body/emotion/healing. I susepct I was wrong when I was joking, and that the next trend might just be a deepening of the re-connection with the body; going deeper into physical practices and embodied skills which re-order experience in ways quite different to cognitive/intellectual pursuits. Prayer and embodiment aren't in opposition, of course, but it isn't exactly the most obvious leap.

Prayer is a good ritual category to think about because of all the ways it can be cringe inducing, distasteful, stupid, boring, weak & powerless; if we can understand prayer with a bit more nuance, we might find it easier to navigate other psycho-spiritual techniques. It is hard enough to train in ritual practice within a particular system with good guidance, let along when people are self-guiding practice from a few wikipedia posts and YouTube videos on how to do esoteric energy practices (shine on you crazy diamonds!). I don’t think I’ve ever had a conversation about how or why I pray without appealing to the internal logic of the religious lineage I train in, so what follows is new territory.

Almost everything I know about ritual has come through practice, which as a learning style brings with it it's own limitations. What does it even mean to learn theory from doing? I don’t think you can understand why and how an onion caramelises at a chemical level by just cooking and eating lots of onion (unless you were a visionary chemist of some sort), but you can come to know the ways they caramelise - or stew, burn, turn to jam and so on - at that level of tacit knowledge at hand. Likewise with ritual practitioners, many of us aren't very good at explaining how the ritual is functioning at different levels of analysis or across contexts, but we know how to do the thing in such a way that it is effective in a given context. We might also be quite good at ritual practices which have a powerful effect on our own experience, but not particularly good in more social/shared ritual contexts (which can require a various amounts of capacity, know-how and willingness for charisma, performance and room reading, in order to conduct the situation).

This brings me to a question I've been reflecting on; what does it mean for prayer to be effective? A significant portion of discussion I have heard around prayer is concerned with whether prayer works, but people rarely take the obvious next step of questioning what would constitute as work done. If you're praying for world peace, then of course it's not going to work to produce world peace (unless you somehow managed to coerce every stakeholder into simultaneously pouring their intention into the desire for peace, and then you might get it for entirely non-magical reasons). I know people who pray for world peace every day, they all count up how many prayers they've done. If I recall correctly they're trying to get to a billion. Many of these people are very smart, PhD's and gifted writers, computer scientists, talented yogis and successful businessmen; it is worth considering that the ritual of pouring one's heart into wishing for world peace might be productive of many things other than world peace. It is also a reminder that smart people are in no way protected from being very stupid in all manner of surprising ways, although they might be doing stupid-seeming things for good reasons.

Two of the most common products of ritual practices come from ineffective symbolic contexts, confusion and cringe:

The failure of an attempted sacred experience often results in the subjective experience of cringe. Cringe means that, for the cringing party, there is a misfit between the ritual and the context of his own self. He is embarrassed on behalf of the ritual leader, who has tried and failed to induce a sacred experience because of some failure of charisma, ritual, architectural context, or some interaction between these and other variables. Cringe is enhanced when it is shared – when it’s obvious to all that the evocation of sacred experience has failed, as opposed to one lone non-experiencer. (Perry)

Ineffectiveness can come from an incoherence on part of the symbolic system — the words, images, stories, mythological beings and so on — which the individual is trying to use. It can also be an ineffective because of factors more to do with the person, such as prohibitive cynicism, confusion, inappropriate states of mind, lack of knowledge about the system of symbols being used, lack of capacity or willingness, etc. In Buddhist terms, a person endowed with enough of these factors might be talked about in terms of having a good connection with a particular mandala. If a practitioner starts doing a particular ritual practice and they're quickly very good at it, the folk framing could be that perhaps they practiced it in a previous life, or they share a lot of connections with the symbolic world (the mandala). In Perry's terms, these rituals productive of cringe (and I would add in confusion and boredom) would be cases where there is misfit between the person and the ritual context.

Part of being an effective ritual practitioner requires the development of skills which are hard to notice and explain, and almost always require some sort of mentorship. For some reason I haven't found yet, it seems common that many otherwise smart people ignore the asymmetry of ritual skills, and act as if everyone is a capable as anyone else; this is very strange to me, and yet I see evidence of it on a regular basis. In meditation training, one can make use of a sort of aesthetic triad of play, skill and beauty/enjoyment. Play, skill and beauty all feed in to one another, but the first step is usually learning how to play. Play, in a ritual context, is tricky, in part because if you get it wrong you either don't engage the parts of yourself which long for heartfelt meanings and richness and you stay at an ironic distance, or you engage the parts of you which take things too seriously and it all gets very solid and serious and you just make yourself tense and depressed. This capacity for play can take years to develop, but in doing so you begin to connect to the quality of skill. Skill of detection with regards to play is normally how it arises, but it also builds as the person develops the physical, verbal, and mental know how in a given ritual context. When a person has the right touch for play and they've begun to build up a power of skill — a sense for the aesthetic quality of things being lined up just so — then the quality of beauty shows itself quite naturally. In prayer, this could be the sort of beauty which you could call sacred experience; I would suggest that to call it sacred experience could be limiting and possibly confused. The quality of beauty or enjoyment, can be nuanced and varied. I'm somewhat uneasy with using beauty, but it is a reasonable translation of a term I'm borrowing (from a particular type of Buddhist practice), and there is some sort of connection there between sacrality and beauty, which is a rich area to explore. This is an area I’m not sure about in terms of theoretical distinctions, but in practice I’m quite confident that this is an important part of how an practitioner presents system-bound meanings and skills back to themselves.

The following is a brief overview of some ways that we could look at prayer as a category of ritual. The list is limited, and is biased towards my current understanding of prayer in my personal practice:

1) Prayer as letting go of effort (exchanging time for power)

The first prayer which I resonated with and practiced regularly, is a prayer connected to Guru Rinpoche (the person said to have introduced Buddhism into Tibet, and considered to be a second Buddha, among other things) called the Seven Line Prayer. The prayer is very well known, and has a rich tradition as a practice, with several excellent commentaries and a variety of ways of understanding what the prayer means, where it came from, what it is supposed to do, etc.

I was introduced to the prayer during a meditation retreat, where I had been trying very hard to be a good meditator. Another person at the retreat explained to me that one way of relating to the Seven Line prayer is to express our intention to continue in the direction of being inspired by mediation practice, and to place our trust in a symbolic representation of awareness, instead of trying to make it work with confused effort. One way of understanding Padmasambhava, is as a perfect mythological example of a practitioner. I was taught that by singing the prayer, we can let go of trying very hard to meditate, and place our trust in the resolve to align our whole being with a particular type of awareness, and to let that function without needing to make it work from our own confused side. You spend the time doing the ritual properly, and in return you might be blessed with the power of a mind untethered from confused effort. At this time I had next to no understanding of a meditation practice having ritual elements. This is more apparent now, but for years the ritual aspects of meditation hid right under my nose. Buddhists reading this way of describing the prayer might be pulling screwed up faces, but I hope that it makes sense in terms of how the symbol can function in a more general way.

The prayer seemed extremely silly to me when I first heard it. So when I engaged with the prayer in the way suggested, I was surprised, stunned even at how it allowed my mind to line up and drop into a different way of being, a sort of openness to whatever arises, which was very beautiful, and somewhat mysterious - without needing to put in a lot of effort. The prayer actually worked as described, without ever being told that Guru Rinpoche was a real person who I actually had to believe in. When I expressed doubts about doing certain ritual things correctly, the person told me not to worry about it and just make use of it like toilet paper; a useful tool without any emotional attachment. This isn't how many people would teach the prayer — emotional engagement with ritual practice can be pivotal — but it allowed me to make use of it without getting too analytical. There is enormous value in questioning religious practices and rationalisations, but for ritual practice it is helpful to know when the quest for certainty is doomed to fail. Prayer is unavoidably silly, but silliness is a fairly weak force over time when compared to the power of a good ritual practice. Silliness becomes less of an obstacle as you learn to relax and integrate ambivalence with a bit more skill; the shadow side of being able to dance with silliness, is that you can allow for much more sloppy thinking, which can get quite annoying for yourself and those around you.

There are all sorts of magical sounding explanations within the tradition for how prayer works like this, particularly with guru yoga — or uniting with the enlightened nature of mind — but what is important to me is not appealing to magic nor trying to explain it in materialistic terms. What is important to me is that we can practice something which opens up different ways of being. Practicing the ritual has a way of re-ordering experience, if the necessary conditions are in place.

2) Prayer as connecting to qualities of mind (moods/feelings, mental states)

Re-ordering experience sounds vague and hand wavy, but it is basically how prayer can be used to evoke different states of mind. In Buddhism there is some functional distinction between mantra and the various types of prayer, but for the sake of talking about ritual in general terms I think it's reasonable to think of mantra as a sort of prayer. Arguably the most well known mantra in the world is Avalokiteshvara's mantra, OM MANI PADME HUM (there are a few variations, such as using PEMA HUNG instead of PADME HUM, or adding on an extra syllable at the end, because reasons). When people are introduced to Avalokiteshvara/Chenrezig, distinctions are sometimes made between love and compassion, but roughly speaking the mantra is commonly used to connect to the quality of love. OM MANI PADME HUM can be understood as an emanation from the awakened heart of Chenrezig, which when practiced properly — your guess is as good as mine — can give rise to the experience of natural love radiating without limit (once again, apologies to the Buddhists reading this who understand why that is a sloppy description of mantra practice). Along with the mantra, there are many different prayers which can help a practitioner connect to the mandala of Chenrezig; the set of prayers I first learnt from come from a set of teachings called the Northern Treasures. This is one of the first meditations which taught me how I could engage a depressed mind with ritual, because even when I was seriously depressed, I could connect with a quality of love ritually and it had a significant impact on my experience. This isn't an advert for therapeutic compassion practice, but rather it's just a personal example of how prayer might allow some people to shift their experience in powerful ways (all without ever believing in magical powers or omnipresent buddhas, I might add). Prayer allowed me to discover ways of breaking the rigidity of an excruciating mental state (see the article by Sarah Perry linked below), into a different, more enjoyable state of mind. I don't know how easily other people could do this in the same way I did, but from what I've heard it seems like many people have had similar experiences (with a variety of practices). If you don’t know ahead of time about all the cool stuff you can do with religious practices, then you might get very attached to the particular context in which you have powerful or transformative experiences. If you pray to Mary and you feel her healing your trauma, you don’t have to go and become a priest and you don’t have some mystical gift, but your experience is trustworthy and a great learning experience in terms of how prayer can connect to state of mind in a powerful way. If you do find yourself experiencing something transformative during a prayer based ritual practice, you can then experiment with being more direct, such as entering into a quality of experience directly without the words of the prayer. Prayer as ritual experience is a good learning experience because you get to play around with how, when and what you do. A prayer is a sort of ritual tool, and like any tool it is up to the user to learn how to use it properly, what it can/can’t do, where the risks are, how to sharpen it, how to keep it clean, etc.

This particular area of prayer relates to the more general area of power. I have very little to say about this now, because it starts to move into more foundational assumptions about the way minds work and how a person can change over time, but any method which provides an interface with mind — such that we can change how the world manifests in our experience — necessarily starts getting into questions of power. This is another reason why mentorship is pretty much indispensable beyond a fairly shallow level of capacity; if you don't have a personal mentor/teacher, at least find yourself some fellow practitioners who you can chat with in an informal way. You need people who know you and can tell you when you're wrong or acting crazy.

3) Prayer as expression (or as communicating between confusion and wisdom)

The experience of cutting through depression with a ritual practice — as well as other experiences of practicing allegedly non-ritual mediations — taught me something about how a person might be able to move in the direction of balance (in some contexts). It is as if there is some part of us which knows there is a problem, and intuitively knows what a possible solution might be. This is suitably vague for something I can think of no satisfactory explanation for. To attempt some messy explanation would also miss the point of this note about prayer, which is that ritual practice can allow different ways of learning & interfacing with life.

Another Buddhist prayer which I find is particularly elegant (in the context of my having some degree of understanding of the symbolic system being used, as opposed to it being universally accessible and good and true), is called the Aspiration Prayer of Samantabhadra or Kunzang Monlam. The Kunzang Monlam is a prayer which was discovered by a mystic called Rigdzin Gödem (which means something like 'Knowledge-holder Vulture Feathers', because as the story goes three vulture feathers grew out of his head at the age of twenty-two). This is an aspiration prayer, which is something like an expression of a wise intention. In this particular aspiration prayer, the act of making the aspiration and the fulfilment there of are self-fulfilling; the aspiration is an expression of the un-fuck-upable nature of mind beyond purity and impurity, and as soon the the practitioner makes the aspiration, it is already accomplished, as part of the natural spontaneity of mind itself......or something along those lines. My point here isn't to give anything like an explanation of the prayer itself (because I'm not qualified to do so and it’s meanings are system bound), but rather as a loose example of what it could mean for a prayer to act as a communication between our sense of being confused, lost, longing, and the possibility of some sort of wisdom already existing within us — closer than the marrow of our bones, as the saying goes — if only we knew how to know it. With any luck that will make some sort of sense.

I once heard a martial artist say a prayer before she went into a fight; "May I relax into the flow of what is about to happen, may the momentum of training guide my movements, may I embody fearlessness in victory or defeat." This for me tastes kind of gross, but for her it apparently worked to help her compete instead of being locked in the toilets hiding like she used to. This is what it means to express something honestly, honouring limitations and the possibility of a way of acting in line with some other quality of being worth cultivating or honouring.

A similar example is found in some types of Christianity, where there is a tradition of ejaculatory prayer. These prayers have nothing to do with sexual fluids, but are the short prayers which a practitioner says in order to reconnect with virtue and faith. It is common practice for people to ejaculate in order to release stress, or to ask for strength at times of stress and temptation.

4) Prayer as including parasocial elements to private experience.

If Seligman and his co-authors are correct, ritual is always going on in some degree in our lives. It is how we continuously hold together the 'as if' social worlds. We are always and everywhere between worlds, and it is our capacity for ritual which allows us to maintain boundaries, norms, connections; ritual allows us to integrate the 'unavoidable ambiguities and ambivalences of our existence'. Ritual is always social in some way then, and there is an abundance of examples of social rituals and the social effects of group and shared ritual practices.

However, what I am calling parasocial aspects of contemplative practices, are more to do with the ways a person can open their experience to include others, even if their practice is fairly private and even if the included other is imagined. A gross example would be those Buddhist practitioners who recite a prayer in order to give rise to a spirit of compassion for all sentient beings, but a slightly more subtle example of parasocial ritual effects would be a person who slowly cultivates a sense of familiarity with a symbol (or symbol set) over time such as the prayers which evokes the names of famous practitioners in a lineage of practice, or a particular saint whom a person prays to for no reason more than it is what their granny did when they lost a sock. This might function a bit like an adult version of an imaginary friend, but familiarity with symbols is part of how people can get better at navigating them and making them work better.

In my own daily practice I think that the best example of this might be the prayer I recite silently when I drink my morning coffee. The prayer involves aligning myself with an attitude of openness and gratitude, recognising that in drinking this cup of coffee I am benefitting from other people having contributed, and that no matter how seemingly remote their contribution, they get factored in to some other symbolic woo to do with Buddhism. This might make some of you throw up in your mouth slightly – which is how my body reacted when I first heard the prayer recited in a group meditation retreat — but over time I have found it beneficial and often enjoyable, offering the pleasures of the senses to a symbolic representation of a particular way of being, and remembering some glimmer of gratitude. Its worth noting that as with any of the things I'm saying about prayers, the offering prayer is beneficial/enjoyable in the context of my connections with the prayer and the world it is a part of, the prayer isn't objectively beneficial by virtue of its own contents nor by my subjectively virtuoso practice there of; the benefit is produced in the interaction, roughly speaking (see: David Chapman's rainbow analogy from Meaningness, linked below).
I think there are some more interesting ways someone could look at parasocial effects of prayer practices, but I'll leave that to someone with more cognitive capacity.

5) Prayer as aesthetic interface (play, skill, beauty - prayer as enjoyable)

Prayer as something enjoyable isn't often discussed very much as far as I can tell, but it can be enjoyable in a bunch of ways. I suspect that my favourite aspect of prayer practices is the hardest to communicate, and that relates to the sort of aesthetic richness one can experience by doing a prayer practice skilfully. This sort of richness can be condensed down into a single syllable, which then acts as a gateway into symbolic worlds. This is what some Buddhists might call self-secret, or an open secret. I can say that and it isn't a big deal, but it will only make sense to people who have had experience and understanding such that they know what that open secret is talking about. I can say one syllable and my whole body relaxes, it feels that some benevolent force has given me a shoulder rub and reminded me that I was tensing up. This capacity for symbolic compression is a common tool in ritual practices, and allows a practitioner to interface with symbolic worlds with all their stories, philosophy, practices, intentions, etc. Again, this might not make much sense, but it is an important component in how prayer practices can be so enjoyable.

The other thing about enjoyable prayer practices is to do with how it we do it, which is with body, speech and mind. A common assumption about prayer is that it is primarily cognitive, but this misses a huge component of why prayer can be so enjoyable and powerful as a personal ritual. Prayer makes no sense and probably doesn't work in any way without some sort of sensitivity with respect to the practitioners body. One classic method of ritual found across cultures is to funnel energies from various sources — emotional, physical, sexual, attentional — into the gesture; prayer done with this sort of energetic concentration in the body can be ecstatic, and result in deeply moving or pleasurable states of being. The capacity to pray oneself into bliss or awe isn't just good for cheap thrills or religious enthralment, but has a pragmatic role to play in how we relate to mind, especially those states of mind which trap people in horrendous pits of misery and visceral pain. If you’re not sure what a prayer might look like when we takes ecstatic enjoyment as a primary goal, then gnawa ritual music would be a good example. Gnawa rituals are complex and rich, with some meanings and practices remaining secret, but one key component is the experience of hal, which is the ecstasy following on from healing and balancing of the body found in the ritual practices centred around complex methods of music and prayers.

Another way we can experience prayer as enjoyable relates to mythological meanings; the stories, beings, and symbols, and what we understand from mythologies, especially the people we learn them from and practice them with. There is a prayer I practice relating to a female deity, which I enjoy very much partly because the prayer reminds me of a person who taught me a lot just by virtue of how they acted in our relationship. It is a simple connection, but it rarely fails to make me smile and remember some lessons which are well worth remembering. This is one level of how stories can function, and it should serve as a simple example of how the poetry of human stories can be enacted in ritual settings, such as in personal prayer.

Those are a few different ways that one could look at prayer. I hope that these could function as threads for people to play with in their own experience, perhaps find more nuanced ways of communicating the various types of prayer within their preferred symbolic context. It is very difficult to know what to say about prayer in a general sense. I was raised Catholic, and never got on very well with their way of teaching prayer. I was disgusted by the church from a fairly young age, and so it has taken many years of Buddhist practice to even consider talking about prayer as an area worth paying any sort of attention to. The majority of my time doing religious practices (meditation, ritual, yogic exercise, songs, feasts etc) is not spent praying, but the more I open to prayer as a way of working the more I come to understand the ritual elements of non-ritual practice. What prayer is good for and how we can learn how to pray in better ways, is vaguely interesting to me. There is something in thinking about prayer — partly because so much smells like bullshit and tastes like wet cardboard — which allows me to look at meditation practices in a different way. On one hand I really don't care and would be quite happy if I never talked about praying or did another prayer ever again, but that is somewhat dishonest; in throwing out prayer as a human practice, I would also be denying the parallels between prayer and other things I love.

Recommended links:

Cringe and the Design of Sacred Experiences, by Sarah Perry:

Excruciating Mental States, by Sarah Perry:

Rumcake and Rainbows, from Meaningness by David Chapman:

Music of the Gnawa of Morocco : evolving spaces and times, by Maisie Sum:

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