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Pray Tell

How to Order by Jay Kinney
There's a Sufi tradition that insists that no prayer goes unanswered.

When first proposing the dual topics of this issue's theme - prayer and meditation - we would have been hard-pressed to predict that the majority of material submitted for it would concentrate on prayer, with relatively little about meditation. After all, meditation is the inner activity par excellence for those engaged in the spiritual quest.

Yet, on further thought, perhaps this tilt towards prayer is not so surprising, prayer being for most of us a necessity of sorts, while meditation remains a luxury. By this I mean that when faced with adversity, our first instinct is usually to pray for relief, not to meditate for serenity. That is, assuming that most of us pray in the first place, which is perhaps an assumption worth examining.

Do most of us in fact pray? And if so, what do we mean by that? I am not speaking here of polls and demographics which identify the U.S. as one of the most religious nations on the globe. For all intents and purposes, I assume that if you are reading this magazine, the notion of prayer is not an alien one. Rather my question is whether what we assume to be prayer is actually deserving of the term.

Prayer comes in many guises, ranging from the prescribed ritual prayers of church, temple, or mosque, to the spontaneous inner yearnings of an individual towards a mysterious Other that may elude words altogether. At the very least, we might define prayer as the attempt of the solitary ego to rise above its own isolation and commune in some fashion with a larger reality that is presumed to be responsive. Whether that larger reality is seen as God, as Goddess, as one of many gods, as Nature, Gaia, or even as one's deceased relatives is not so much an issue here. Nor is it an issue whether this is done through words, song, movement, or creative acts.

More important is the question of what constitutes a meaningful prayer - whatever its form and object. The greatest of Sufi shaikhs, Ibn 'Arabi, was of the opinion that "he who is not present in front of his Lord when he prays, and does not hear Him and does not see Him, is not consciously in a state of prayer."(1) In other words, mere ritual prayer, no matter how impeccable, as well as prayer performed out of obligation or even desperation, doesn't really constitute prayer at all. It may be an exercise in public piety or self-comfort, but if there isn't a deeply engaged sense of both parties being present, it doesn't even reach the starting line.

By this standard, the whole protracted controversy over whether to allow school prayer is much ado about nothing. The likelihood of persuading a classroom full of indifferent kids to fall into a state where their Lord (however defined) is palpably sensed for 30 seconds on a daily basis is about nil. And of course, were that actually to occur it would no doubt scare the bejesus out of most pious supporters of school prayer; for what they wish to enforce is not a spiritual experience but a shared moment of social submission and ritual obeisance, which is something else altogether.

That said, to hold all prayers to the standard set by Ibn 'Arabi may be to disqualify 99% of them, including those which are quite sincere but less than wholly conscious. As if to balance Ibn 'Arabi's rigor, there's another Sufi tradition that insists that no prayer goes unanswered. The response may not be immediate. It may not be in the form expected. It may not even be in this lifetime, but there will be a response.

This pattern of call and response assumes that one is asking God (or Whomever) for something (tangible or otherwise) and that any results come from God.

There are, however, different models discussed in this issue. One is found in our interview with Larry Dossey, who seems to locate the motive force for prayer's effect in the prayer itself. Dossey considers it a proven fact that prayer can encourage healing in a manner akin to creative visualization. If this is so, he reasons, then "toxic prayer" may be just as real, whether through prayers to smite one's enemies or well-intentioned prayers that have negative side-effects.

I'd worry about such matters more if I had personal instances of prayers I'd made where subsequent events could be traced with certainty to the prayers themselves. Alas, in my experience, to engage in such prayers is to come face to face with the ambiguity inherent in most spiritual matters. If one prays for the recovery of a sick relative and the relative recovers, was it due to one's prayers, or successful medical care, or the relative's own determination, or a shift in planetary aspects, or . . .? I have yet to figure out an answer to such questions with any certainty and I doubt that I will anytime soon.

Another approach to prayer, mentioned by both Theodore Nottingham and Robert Sardello in their articles in this issue, is to pass beyond the mode of asking God for something and to move into a mode of being with God. Prayer in this case begins to overlap with what we usually consider meditation.

As luck would have it, in meditation the ambiguity I just referred to only increases. Though different methods abound, from repeated phrases and names of God to a simple concentration on the breath, the object in nearly every case is to quiet the mind so that consciousness can expand free of discursive thought. Depending on the individual and the system with which he or she is working, this may produce a succession of colors or musical tones, a journeying through planes or realms of being, the activation of subtle centers in the body, a passing into the depths of meaning found in the symbols or words employed, or a feeling of great bliss.

The ambiguity lies in that there are few objective standards with which to judge such subjective states. The realm that one traverses is furnished with the decor of one's imagination, resulting in wildly varying inner scenery from person to person. Those who make it beyond this seem to share certain experiences of union with God or Universal Mind or the Heart of the Universe - experiences which usually elude description altogether.

Or so we are told. Unfortunately such testimonials remain only hearsay to those of us who have trouble sitting still for more than ten minutes at a time. For many of us, our encounters with disciplined meditation remain sporadic and ambivalent. We discover to our chagrin that one can spend years taking one step forward and one step back.

Luckily, the growth of spiritual awareness isn't entirely at the mercy of one's self-discipline. Strict daily meditations or nightly prayers aren't the only avenues to the sacred. As I was gathering my thoughts for this essay, a friend happened to send me an account of his own unique meditative approach:
I began to notice the sequence of my life. There had been so many "coincidences" - and so often they were preceded by moments of "surrender" - moments when I was not in my "normal" frame of awareness, but in which I had truly thrown my full heart and ability into what I was trying to do.

The rule was this: if I was "empty" of self - that is, fully identified with the action - wonderful things happened, seemingly impossible things. As long as I was stuck in my own thoughts, the process was halted. But if I could free me of "me," a channel opened and good things transpired. . . .

People often seemed petty and unkind . . . so I practiced a countermeasure. I would pretend that each person I met was an absolute miracle. A magnificent, awesome creature, put there for me to cherish and appreciate. I practiced very hard, trying to fully appreciate every person I met as the miracle they were. Often it was hard, often I stumbled, but I kept at it, trying to see the wonder and beauty in every single person and act. Soon, something happened, something that defies my ability to explain, but the world became One. It was so beautiful. I was utterly and instantly connected to everything else. I was no longer a separate "self," but an intrinsic part of a greater whole.

That day I found the greatness of Allah. A floodgate opened in my heart and mind. Things I never understood became clear for no reason. I could understand depths of meanings in things that had baffled me in the past. It was almost as if my "intelligence" had increased, but it wasn't that: it was unlearned. It was wisdom and it wasn't mine. It came through me, in moments of surrender. I wasn't "wise." "I" didn't understand. The wisdom and understanding happened when "I" was absent.(2)
This account, like the previous quotation from Ibn 'Arabi, is couched in Islamic terms, but its value extends beyond the confines of that religious perspective. After all, the articles by Sardello and Nottingham employ Christian terms, while Siobhán Houston's article on Bulgarian savant Omraam Mikhaël Aïvanhov explores his solar and Hermetic symbolism and Jay Cleve's article on the Sacred Pipe assumes a Native American frame of reference. All are germane to understanding the spiritual use of our attention.

What is particularly suggestive in the account above is the clue it gives for expanding our definition of prayer and meditation beyond the usual confines. We are used to thinking of those practices as something engaged in with eyes closed - a reining in of the senses to concentrate on inner subtleties. That's an important approach, to be sure, but not the only one. For it stands to reason that if the laws of nature and the intelligent order of the universe are expressed in all things, then simply trying to perceive the uniqueness of each person we meet can be an avenue back to the underlying connectedness of all life.

The unfortunate temptation that lurks in the esoteric traditions, with their emphasis on inner work and personal experience, is the illusion that heroic acts of willpower or practice will grant us singular access to mystical knowledge or attainment. But the fact of the matter is that the price enacted by such enlightenment is precisely the surrender of our much-prized specialness. If we are blessed with the experience of union with divinity or gnosis, we are not permanently transported to some realm of giddy bliss from which we look down upon the rest of humanity. Rather we are thrust back into daily life, where the distance between us and the most miserable junkie shivering on the streetcorner is rendered all too minute. If our prayers or meditation achieve any success at all, we discover that they've brought the rest of life closer to us, not driven it farther away.

If prayer assumes a dialogue or interaction with the Other, and meditation enables us to discover that the Other is, at root, our deepest Self, the final fruit of such efforts is the realization that all beings are passengers on the same ark. The dove's return with an olive leaf, at journey's end, is good news to every passenger, saint and sinner alike.


1. Muhyi-d-din Ibn 'Arabi, The Wisdom of the Prophets (Fusus al-Hikam), trans. Titus Burckhardt and Angela Culme-Seymour (Beshara Publications: Aldsworth, Gloucestershire, 1975), p. 124.

2. Abd al-Qadir Abdullah, private correspondence, January 1998.

© copyright 1998 by Jay Kinney and GNOSIS Magazine
All rights reserved. Reproduction in any form requires permission from copyright holders.

GNOSIS #47 is available for $10 U.S. postpaid from: GNOSIS Magazine, P.O. Box 14217, San Francisco, CA 94114-0217.

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