Prayr n meditayshun - yr not doin it rite

Dr Haim Ginnott is credited with the mnemonic, "labeling is disabling." Primarily he was concerned about how unhelpful it is to pin a label on a child, but this principle can be extended to other things. Words and their definitions are a form of labeling. They satisfy a need within us for things to adhere to some kind of order. It aids in communication, but it can also be used to control. When rigidity is demanded, we can fall victim to control. The problem with putting a label on something is that it acts as a shortcut for the brain. It fills in all the blanks. No need for conversation, no need to think. You hear part of an explanation which includes a key word - say, "Jesus" - and all the rest is left unsaid. "Oh, you're a Christian. 'Nuff said." It is lazy and disrespectful - both ways. We can often be guilty of throwing in a label in order to halt a conversation. "Yeah, I'm a Christian/Buddhist/Libertarian/ know the rest." Anybody visiting this website is likely to see "Jesus" and "Bible", and immediately write it off as a "Christian" blog. The reality is, I wouldn't consider myself a Christian at all, but I am intrigued by Jesus as an example of compassion and empathy, and I am keenly interested in stripping the Bible of its mysticism.

So, when people hear the word "prayer", they immediately take the mental shortcut to the desired definition:
prayer    /prɛər/[prair]
1. a devout petition to God or an object of worship.
2. a spiritual communion with God or an object of worship, as in supplication, thanksgiving, adoration, or confession.
3. the act or practice of praying to God or an object of worship.
4. a formula or sequence of words used in or appointed for praying: the Lord's Prayer.
5. prayers, a religious observance, either public or private, consisting wholly or mainly of prayer.
Further to this definition, prayer is either reciting from memory, reading out what others have written, or it is praying in public in front of a multitude of people. Prayer has been turned into ritual to be engaged in several times a day, otherwise one is believed to have wronged the Lord. People struggle with that guilt. I have no desire to subscribe to any of these methods. By these definitions I neither pray nor meditate, but then I don't think Jesus did, either. If he was doing anything when he talked about prayer, he was trying to convey a completely different mindset about what prayer is.

As if to illustrate the confusion that surrounds the concept of prayer, Jonathan Sacks recommended prayer as part of his resolutions for the new year. When doing so, he made this comment:
Some people don't pray because they try it and it does not work. They forget that prayer is done best in the company of others, in a holy place, in song, the language of the soul as it reaches out towards the unsayable. The most life-transforming prayers are choral not solo.
But then he goes on to follow this up with:
Iris Murdoch has a lovely analogy (sic.) for what prayer can achieve. She describes looking out of a window in an anxious and resentful state of mind, oblivious of her surroundings, brooding on some resentment, feeling sorry for herself. Then, suddenly, she sees a hovering kestrel. "In a moment," she says, "everything is altered. The brooding self...has disappeared. There is nothing now but kestrel. And when I return to thinking of the other matter it seems less important." She calls this "unselfing", and that is what prayer achieves at its best. It opens our eyes to the wonder of the world.
Prayer according to Jesus
Of the two examples sited by Mr Sacks, Jesus would appear to support Iris Murdoch's "unselfing" as a more accurate expression of prayer. In Matthew chapter 6, Jesus calls out the Pharisee for his showy display. He denounces public prayer. Even his model prayer is questionable. What is commonly known as the "Our Father" seems much more like a Judeo-Christian invention - the insertion of a prayer that already existed by the mid-60s. These were a lyrical people - Paul was already quoting hymns in his letters - they weren't averse to penning songs, poems, and ritual prayers after the style of the Psalms.

Verse 6 places us much nearer to the region of what Jesus was encouraging:
But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
Solitude, privacy, secrecy. Nobody is made ill-at-ease, either by the embarrassment of catching someone at it, or the comparison of extravagant words. That is not the point. No words need to be uttered.

Jesus is almost always observed engaging in prayer in a private setting. In Mark 1:35 Jesus finds his "inner room" somewhere outside the house, perhaps up in the mountains. It seems he would often steal himself away to some "lonely place". What was he doing up in the mountains when he "prayed"? He sat there in silence. Maybe he concentrated on breathing correctly. Perhaps he gazed out over the scenery. Perhaps he closed his eyes and simply revelled in the experience of being alive. If he ever did continue "all night" in prayer - as Luke 6:12 suggests - I can only imagine he dozed off quite often, or even drifted into a deep and peaceful slumber for most of the night.

Prayer is not about praying for anything. What do we expect to be accomplished by prayer? Are we asking God for something? Bible writers use words like beseeching, imploring, but that paints a picture of a God who needs to be convinced. Perhaps we might ask for endurance. However, endurance comes from within. "I can't do it without God's help," runs the risk of being a form of mock humility. In truth, you can do it "without God's help."

Perhaps you are asking for help to overcome a habit, or an addiction - extra help where you need help. This is a form of mental trickery. We are using the notion of God as a mentor, or buddy. This is a tried and tested piece of advice for anyone struggling to overcome an addiction: At times of weakness, call a friend or a family member. The act of talking to someone else expresses our responsibility out loud and lessens the likelihood of wrongdoing.

Perhaps we are praying for someone else. Why would we do this? This is part of a whole different discussion about God's involvement in man's affairs. Do we view God as a manipulator of events so that our prayers can convince him to act? Even then, it seems his answer must be interpreted. When Paul beseeches God to remove a "thorn in the flesh," at 2 Corinthians 12:7-9, he had to interpret the fact that the thorn remained as God saying, "My undeserved kindness is enough." Quite frankly, down that road there lies more questions than answers.

James 5:16, 17 suggests a reason for praying on behalf of someone else. "The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective," says James, but to add weight to his argument, he refers to Elijah, an example that bears absolutely no relevance to the real world. Either Elijah's deeds are a mythical invention - if so his miracles were not real - or, he really is a man who called for fire to rain down from heaven and burn up a hundred men, as recorded at 2 Kings 1:9-12. Unfounded rumour has it that he was casually eating a peach at the time, the juice dribbling down his chin while he watched the scorched skin peeling off these men's faces, the smell of charred flesh filling the air, while women and young children wondered when their husbands and fathers were coming home. Is this honestly the best example that James could come up with as someone that can be presented as a "righteous person"?

All of this is to say, whatever we imagine prayer to be, it is not dialogue with God in any way that the common definition of prayer would suggest. Jesus' recommendation of seeking privacy can also be taken in conjunction with his statement, "I and the father are one." Seeking silence and solitude, being alone, is all that is required for what Jesus referred to as "prayer". At Matthew 6:6, sited earlier, Jesus promises that such silent sitting will be rewarded, and this proves to be true: Thoughts can coalesce, memories can resurface, truths can manifest themselves, experiences and events can become defined, confused thoughts can become clear. All these things are given an opportunity to be drawn up from deep within us. Daniel Goleman's "Aha!" moment can be viewed as a form of "reward".

The account of the boy the disciples could not heal
This understanding of prayer as silence and stillness and its rewards makes much better sense of the curious incident found in Mark 9:14-29. Here, Jesus is met by an agitated crowd. Upon asking what the dispute is about he is confronted with a man who explains that he is the father of a young man tormented by "a speechless spirit". He had asked Jesus' disciples to expel it but "they were not capable". After Jesus successfully orders the speechless and deaf spirit to get out of the young man his disciples approach him and ask, "Why could we not expel it?" Jesus said to them, "This kind cannot get out by anything except by prayer." Jesus meant neither his prayer, not the prayer of his disciples. He meant the prayer of the young man.

To grasp the truth of this interpretation we require a healthy dose of imagination, and a recognition of how the real world works. In the longer, untold story from which this account is redacted, Jesus spends a considerable amount of time with the young man. He helps the young man unearth the real reason for his intense inner turmoil, and he explains the vital need to seek moments of silence and stillness in order for the disturbed state of his mind to find some measure of peace. The young man listens to Jesus' advice, and in doing so his life begins a journey of inner transformation. Don't just take my word for it - be astonished by the parallel account at Matthew 17:14-20. Here Jesus is not recorded as saying, "This kind cannot get out by anything except by prayer," no, he says, "If you have faith the size of a mustard grain, you will say to this mountain, 'Transfer from here to there' and it will transfer, and nothing will be impossible for you." Jesus unearthed this tiny fragment of faith, and with it the man himself was able to shift the mountain of his own self-hatred, shackling him to a permanently agitated state.

"Praying" out loud?
This 'oneness with the Father' means that dialogue can be a permanent experience. Our thoughts take on the form of a constant conversation with the divine. We might find that occasionally we begin to say things out loud. In order to protect ourselves from the belief that we might be going mad, we might prefer to refer to this audible conversation as "prayer". We would prefer to think we are talking to someone, rather than have people think we are crazy, or otherwise. Even the Bible references such a misunderstanding:
As she kept on praying to the Lord, Eli observed her mouth. Hannah was praying in her heart, and her lips were moving but her voice was not heard. Eli thought she was drunk and said to her, “How long are you going to stay drunk? Put away your wine.”
(1 Samuel 1:12-14)
In actual fact, such audible dialogue does speak of your mental state - it might mean you are a genius. There would seem to be evidence that thinking out loud helps to solve problems.

Prayer is meditation is prayer, is neither, is both, is unimportant
All of this would seem to suggest that the practice of meditation is probably closer to what Jesus was recommending. Meditation, though, is a tricky word to pin down. The definition is so broad these days that it covers everything from full on transcendental to sitting waiting for a bus, and all stops in between. However, ask someone if they meditate and the most common answer you would encounter would be, "No." Such a reply might provoke me to want to say, "Have you ever sat down with a nice cup of tea and a biscuit, and gazed wistfully out of the window? Then you have meditated." One could also claim, "Then you have prayed," but then this is where it all becomes unhelpful. People don't necessarily want to think that they pray or meditate. If that's the case, then don't call it anything. If attaching a word or definition to it makes you uneasy, don't attach a word or definition to it. It is doing so much more good as the undefined experience of sitting with a cup of tea and looking out the window.

As soon as it becomes defined it brings with it the baggage of instructions and "how-to"s, of right ways and wrong ways. How long should one meditate for? Zenhabits suggest a gentle one or two minutes; a sign in town offered a free course in "8-minute meditation"; Thomas Keating claims that 20 minutes twice a day ought to be the minimal length. Additionally, I wonder whether the practice of meditation carries with it its own set of problems similar to those encountered with prayer: We set aside time in the day we must remain undisturbed. We cannot stop ourselves telling others that we meditate. We feel a need to evangelise and tell people the good news about meditation, and if only they were to practice the art it would mean their salvation. All of this makes people ill-at-ease, and no doubt speaks more about the needs of the meditator. It runs the risk of being more about the act of meditation and not about the result.

So why did Jesus refer to this simple act of sitting in silence as "prayer"? I imagine Jesus knew the reality of prayer - silence, inner dialogue - but he expressed it in terms his listeners could accept. He said once, "I have much to say, but you are not able to bear it at present." It is not possible to explain the reality of prayer and expect it to be accepted and understood, it is an understanding that must be arrived in one's own time. It is a realisation, a revelation of truth that can only be gained through silence and unbroken other words, prayer and meditation can only be understood by prayer and meditation. In reality prayer and meditation are the same thing with different names, and ultimately the definition is unimportant. What we are aiming for is a state of mind in which our internal barometer always reverts back to calm. It is not in turmoil, or busy with thought, or chipping away with negativity; it is not dark with anxiety or worry, or plagued with any of these distorted thinking patterns. We are not talking about nail-biting, cheek-chewing, cookie-crunching, beer-quaffing, wine-swilling, cigarette-smoking inner peace. We could say that we are seeking for our minds naturally to revert to a meditative or prayerful state whenever we find ourselves alone - sitting waiting, driving, walking, doing chores. Although, I might add, it is unlikely that we will ever be able to reach this state of mind until first we get other troubling aspects of your life sorted out.

Oh...and if you are reading all of this and identifying with it, but saying, "I am an atheist," then, I hate to break it to you chum, but you're already at one with God. And if that thought upsets your chakra, then it's back to square one with you.