Prayer for Agnostics

I heard a song my incredibly talented friend in an Instagram post:

my thoughts become my reality
my thoughts become my reality
my mind is always thinking
better give it something good
’cause my thoughts become my reality

I was not raised to believe in the power of prayer. The neighborhood I grew up in was mostly monotheistic, mostly Catholic, but we were raised skeptic. Skeptical Judaism was our unofficial denomination. We were taught to doubt everything. Anyone could be misinformed. Anyone could be lying. Practice critical thinking. Great teachings in many many ways, and, it didn’t pair well with believing in the power of prayer. Anything attributable to prayer could always have been something else, so I’d look for the more rational conclusion.

So what makes someone with my background want to write about prayer?

“Worrying is like praying for what you don’t want” ~Robert Downey, Jr.

Break it down:
A prayer is a thought.
Thoughts guide our actions.
Actions create results.
Results show up as our reality.

Praying is consciously focusing our thoughts on what we want.
Worrying is unconsciously focusing our thoughts on what we don’t want.
Whether there is a divine presence or not, focusing on what we want directs our actions towards manifesting those things.

[I know some of you pray-ers will laugh at my needing to break it down pragmatically, but this is not for you. This is for those filled with worry, living without prayer.]

People who dismiss prayer as “magical thinking” are pointing to this phenomena: if we think there is a divine presence that is separate from ourselves, that we pray to and wait for this external entity to do the things we need to do, we can miss opportunities. That is – there’s a difference between praying for a job to be delivered without our actions, vs. praying for the courage within to go for the job we know we want.

In the yoga sutras, Patanjali declares right from the beginning that if we do not still the mind, we will confuse our thoughts for reality. We will believe our prejudices and assumptions as fact. Patanjali was one of the original skeptics. Makes yoga a natural fit for me.

“…yoga itself is not a religion. [It relies] not on faith but on … techniques that gradually lead the individual to the direct experience of those truths on which religion rests” ~ Alistair Shearer

I spent much of my youth in a diluted context of religiosity. My parents helped maintain some rituals, like Hebrew prayers at shabbat dinner, Passover, Yom Kippur, and occasional visits to the synagogue on Saturday mornings. There was, of course, mention of God, blessings to God. We learned to stand up the mention of God, when the Ark was opened, or when the Torah was not at rest. My young mind never felt the reverence for the divine I’m now coming to understand. For me it was more a fear of doing it wrong. It landed for me more like “you’re supposed to [insert ritual here] now. You’ll look rude and ignorant if you don’t, and you’ll look like a good boy if you do. We’ve been following these rituals for generations, and want you to have these rituals.” There seems to be a difference between memorizing rituals and having presence to the divine.

“When you let go of everything you believe, what you’re left with is what is true” – me.

Truth is independent of our belief systems. Anything that takes our belief to continue existing is artificial. If I stop believing in gravity, and let go of an apple I’m holding, it will still fall to the ground. Right? Right?? Hard to actually say. I’m not actually holding an apple as I write this, and I don’t know if I COULD let go of that belief. However, I did experience that when I stopped believing I couldn’t touch my face to my shin in a forward bend that I instantaneously found out I could. My beliefs were updated through my direct experience.

“Don’t believe everything you think” ~bumper sticker

Back to prayer. What are we praying to?

My version of god has evolved since childhood. I’m not sure I ever believed in the version of God I was offered as a child. The bearded guy in the clouds, who writes in a big book about what kind of year I’ll have based on how good I was last year. That function has been replaced with my conscience. When I feel bad about my past, I don’t feel like I deserve as much, don’t focus on what I want, and will underperform.

Casting a wider net over various traditions and descriptions of God/dess/divine, I’ve come to this: if there is a God – then God created everything, and God is part of everything, and everything is part of God, including me. It occurs to me that the scope of a human trying to understand God is an impossibly enormous feat due to scale. I attempt to understand the scale like this. First, I look at all of the various life forms on earth as each a part of God, the biosphere a part of God, the Solar System, Milky Way and all of the Universe as parts of God. Then, for comparison, I look at all the cells that make up me: the skin cells, blood cells, intestinal cells. I imagine the absurdity of one of my liver cells trying to understand my marriage. That’s how ridiculous I think it is for a human to try to pretend they understand God’s preferences.

Without completely opening this can of worms, let’s just say that there’s a lot of control available to people who make it their business to act as if they interpret God, and the culturally held shaming they wield as punishment for breaking their rules.

As to predictions of what God wants, let’s leverage the metaphor of my body, as the God of the cells within me: I certainly have preferences for how my various parts get along: teamwork, unity, oneness, yoga. Let’s treat each other as if we’re all parts of the same being! All leaves feeding the same tree. A chain of nerve cells making up a spinal cord. All life supporting the larger form. In other words, less polluting, more cooperation.

Let’s hold a reverence for all of existence, in its weirdness, asymmetry, unfairness, beauty. Pause to remember the miracles of existence: Of sight, that allows you to see these words. The great mystery of brain function that allows you to interpret these organized shapes as words and larger concepts. Of belief systems, that can be influenced by or reinforced against incoming beliefs. Of the human capacity for this great string of technological innovations that are connecting us, screens, the internet, electricity, language itself, and so on. It’s incredible, and I often take it for granted.

It’s so hard to talk about prayer without talking about God, and so hard to talk about God without talking about everything and going all over the place.

Back to prayer – again.

Focus on what you want. Set your intention every day in a prayerful way: ask yourself (or the God you are a tiny part of) for the power to bring your dreams forward, through your action, if they are, indeed, for the greater good. Throughout the day, notice whether you’re putting more attention on what you don’t want, or what you do, and choose wisely.

As she said:

my thoughts become my reality
my thoughts become my reality
my mind is always thinking
better give it something good
’cause my thoughts become my reality
~Adey Bell

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