Listening to a conservative-ish Christian discussing the notion of ‘prayer’ with a Jungian psychoanalyst recently, I heard the analyst say that in the experience of his clients hardly anyone who ever prayed in the way they had been taught when young ever got very far with it.
That sort of prayer is too often a run-through of what other people have told you prayer ‘is’ at some point in the past, he said – or what you have seen in the media.
These are the forms that are easiest to satirize: someone nagging or cajoling the divine, promising X in exchange for Y. Or giving a run-down of what they’ve been up to lately, like a holy – and carefully edited – Facebook post.
More useful, said this analyst, who came across as an agnostic or ultra-liberal (I’m not sure which he is), is to treat the whole thing as an experiment.
Understood in religious terms, this kind of experimentation is a form of communication – or self-surrender, a signal that we are open to communication – with something so wholly Other that a cosy chat is simply not an option, beyond a certain age.
To try out different things, and to see what happens – in short, to experiment – involves a kind of intention totally different in character to a mere recitation (unless that recitation has a ritual or contemplative purpose), or to a To Do list of stuff that you’re hoping God will arrange for you.
Understood in Jungian terms, to pray is to hit the pause button on the parts of our selves that we usually rely upon and know as ‘me’ – conscious mind, will, intellect, etc. Doing that brings up, after a while, material from other parts of ourselves that is so utterly unexpected and alien that it might as well come from ‘outside’.
Perhaps the distinction, at this point, between prayer, meditation, and therapy becomes difficult or unimportant – Thomas Keating has talked about one form of prayer as ‘divine therapy':
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M.K. Gandhi called his autobiography ‘The Story of My Experiments with Truth‘. And he meant that very literally: the book is shot through with different ideas and practices (including dietary) that he tried out across the course of his younger years – and includes accounts of how these experiments were occasionally pretty stressful for his wife and family.
Part of Gandhi’s point is that people who settle unnecessarily for what they have been told – in any area of life – possibly, if they’re honest with themselves, don’t care all that much about the thing concerned.
What good would the scientist be who sat back with the latest publication in her area of study and thought ‘that’s probably about right, I’ll leave it at that’?
In an age where the science versus religion debate has come back with a vengeance, and often not in a very informative way, here is one concept – experimentation – on which many could agree.
Another way in which the concept of experimentation gets used is when Matthieu Ricard, a French Buddhist and aide to the Dalai Lama, talks about Buddhism being a series of experiments – mainly concerning the human mind – going back centuries on end. (I know a fair few Buddhists whose favourite ‘saying’ of the Buddha is “take nothing on trust”.)
There’s always the danger of having a concept of ‘prayer’ that is so broad it might fail the philosopher Julian Baggini’s ‘fluffy‘ test, but the idea of replacing the image of on-one’s-knees-wishing-and-apologising with one of open experimentation has something compelling about it.