December 24, 2020 Category: Religion

Assaying Different Forms Of Prayer:

Prayer is not just for asking for favors; it can be a way to show reverence, humility, or appreciation.  Rather than beseeching a deity to give one something, what is often referred to as “prayer” can be a matter of deep introspection and/or patient reflection (as with, say, “samatha”); or even just an opportunity to count one’s blessings.  This more “contemplative” form of praying is seen as a matter of communing with–or, as the case may be, getting in touch with–the divine.  The ancient Greeks referred to this as “henosis”.

Mindfulness is referred to as “vipasyana” (“dhyana” / “dharana” in Sanskrit; “jhana” in Pali) in Hinduism; “nirvana” in Buddhism.  It is what Neo-Platonists referred it as “ataraxia”.  It was referred to as “shek[h]ina[h]” (indwelling; derived from the Aramaic “shekinta”) in the Talmudic tradition.  The general Eastern term for this is the Vedic “moksha”.

This is achieved not via worship; but via some kind of contemplative activity–what was known to the ancient Greeks as “koinonia” and in the Judaic tradition as “kawwana”. In the argot of Eastern thought, this is a matter of bringing one’s “atman” [soul] into alignment with “Brahma[n]” (the divine that pervades the universe), and–having overcome the slings and arrows of worldly existence–achieving a state of serenity.  The idea is to achieve a state of mind that is at peace–that is: freed from the anxieties and misapprehensions that addle our minds.  Such psychical asperities invariably hamstring our ability to contend with the tribulations of life (and, in having overcome such psychical obstacles, to flourish).

And so it goes: Prayer in the Far East is primarily a contemplative practice, as it is done to achieve communion with the divine; though there is sometimes idolatry involved.  This heightened state of consciousenss is not a matter of submission; it is a matter of liberation.  

This contrasts starkly with “prayer” as propitiation, which typically involves idolatry (that is: worship); and–as mentioned earlier–is a form of conditioning.  Tellingly, the term “hurriya” [emancipation] is to be held in contradistinction to “Islam” [submission to god]; in which the supplicant is characterized as “abd-Allah” [slave of god].  Yet only the emancipated can truly experience the divine.  The notion that subservience can somehow be a means to liberation is discussed at length in Appendix 3.

This approach can be contrasted to the Abrahamic tradition, where communion with the divine is seen as a matter of submission–referred to as “deve[i]kut[h]” in Old Semitic.  This is often framed as “feeling” the presence of the Abrahamic deity (via the holy spirit, or the breath of god, depending on the preferred idiom); which may refer to anything that “brings us closer” to the divine. But, as we’ve seen, communing with the divine does NOT involves submission. In the Judaic tradition, when such an act was referred to “shek[h]ina[h]”, it typically referred to an un-scripted / un-choreographed, quiet contemplative practice; not to propitiation (a performative act characterized by affectation and idolatry).

Alas. Even when communion with the divine is ostensibly the aim of Abrahamic prayer, groveling invariably enters into the act–serving as a kind of empathogenic / enactogenic tonic.  In such cases, the supplicant finds himself pandering to the deity even as he is attempting to get closer to it.  (Call it resonance via subservience.)  This conflation is commonplace.  For example, in Islam, the notion of “wasilah” is sometimes taken to mean getting in touch with the godhead; yet it has connotations of submission.

There are other rationalizations for prayer.  Religionists who pray like to think of it as an expression of not just piety, but of self-discipline.  But when it comes to petitionary prayer, this impression is erroneous.  For obeying commands is hardly an autonomous act.  Any idiot can follow orders or engage in supplication; it takes self-discipline to think for oneself.

Genuine self-discipline involves what the Ancient Greeks called “askesis”.  Aristotle referred to it as “enkrateia” (the mental discipline required to resist temptation); the Stoics referred to it as “apatheia” (imperturbability).  Hindus refer to it as “shravan[a]”.  Mental discipline is based on autonomy–and entails what Kant called “maturity”. {1}  It is in this way that one may achieve enlightenment (“prajna” / “jina”; “panna” in Pali). {2} This entails being emancipated FROM (anxiety, misapprehension)…which is the anthesis of submitting TO (authority figures, edicts).  Finding an inner peace is about transcendence rather than obedience.  It is what Mahayana Buddhists dub “Zen” (a Japanese variation of the Sanskrit “dhyana” / “dharana”); and what Kant considered “experiencing the sublime”.  This heightened state of consciousness needn’t involve theism.  One might even say that theism PRECLUDES such a state.

At first blush, non-theistic prayer may make little sense, as it would seem that one needs an interlocutor to pray TO.  Yet when one is not in a master-slave relationship with the divine, groveling is no longer warranted.  For, properly conceived, divinity is not a source of authority, it is a source of serenity.  Transcendence is not a matter of obedience / compliance, it is a matter of resonance with that which is larger than oneself.

Ritualized prayer cannot possibly lead to transcendence.  It is doubtful whether it is even genuinely spiritual.  There is about as much mental discipline involved in following an assigned script / choreography as there is in the mind of a canine subjected to a Pavlovian regimen, which operates on a more primeval level of raw satisfaction.  Its appeal lay in the fact that it instills the supplicant with the illusion of dispensation…even as it is concomitant with a kind of fleeting mental deterioration.  After all, the point is to FEEL, not to think; and then pat oneself on the back for being (ostensibly) thoughtful.  This is the primary way that one can be mindless and–with a straight face–call it mindful.

Such Tom Foolery is to be held in stark contrast to prayer as a contemplative activity.  Instead of an excuse to be delusive, it is done to discern the true nature of things–a state of mindfulness that Hindus call “vipasyana” and Japanese Buddhists call “ken-sho” / “satori”.  (Such contemplative practice pertains to the aforementioned “dhyana” / “dharana”.)  Put another way: Rather than an act of chicanery, it is an attempt to achieve lucidity.  When prayer is treated as a contemplative practice (rather than as an occasion to grovel), the aim is to cultivate insight into the ultimate nature of the cosmos.  This isn’t about creating a (subjective) neurological effect; it is about elucidating (objective) Reality.

Such insight stems from an alignment with the natural order–what ancient Egyptians referred to as “Rta”; “bina” in the Hebrew vernacular.  (One might think of it as being in sync with the rhythm of the universe.)  This requires seeing past the veil of illusion–dubbed “maya” in the Vedic tradition.  Hindus refer to such insight as “dharma” (being in communion with the divine); Japanese Buddhists refer to it as “daigo-tettei” (a kind of epiphany that plays an analogous role as “revelation” in the Abrahamic tradition).  The goal, though, is not to placate a temperamental super-being; it is to be more in touch with the divine (which is seen not as an authority but simply as a feature of the cosmos). 

So when it comes to communing with the divine, the key element is lucidity–referred to as “samadhi” in Sanskrit (“samapatti” in Pali; “sanmei” in Chinese).  In Classical Antiquity, the Greeks referred to such a state as “theoria”.  This entails that one is fully in touch with Reality, shorn of outward appearances.  Such an elevated state of mind is achieved via contemplative practice rather than through WORSHIP.

Thus in the Eastern thought, the goal of prayer is insight into the true nature of things.  While quite rare, this is not unknown in Christendom.  For instance, a form of mysticism in the Eastern Orthodox Church subscribes to an approach known to adherents as “Hesychasm”. {9}  And there exists a heterodox Christology whereby the divine is seen as coming from WITHIN–as intimated when Jesus of Nazareth is purported to have averred that “the kingdom of god is within you” (Luke 17:21).

But overall, one’s relationship with the divine in Abrahamic tradition is that of a slave vis a vis a master–a psychical orientation that can only serve to stoke anxiety and create misapprehension.  This contrasts starkly with Eastern religions, wherein the relationship with the divine is about ALLAYING anxieties and DISABUSING oneself of misapprehensions.

In the Koran (was well as the volumes upon volumes of Hadith), there is no mention of any concept that pertains to enlightenment.  The closest Islam’s holy book comes to broaching of such a topic are fleeting mentions of “ilm”.  This buzz-term is often translated as “knowledge”, yet it is just an oblique reference to familiarity with–and fealty to–Islamic doctrine.  Thus “ilm” is not so much a matter of knowledge in the modern sense as it is a matter of piety.  Submission has nothing to do with erudition. {3}

It is personal enlightenment, not currying favor with an overlord, that is the basis for spirituality.  When it comes to prayer, this is a contemplative activity.  Alas.  Abrahamic versions of prayer primarily take the form of propitiation–nay, groveling; and are generally a matter of histrionics and spectacle).  This can be held in stark contrast to quiet reflection.  It certainly has nothing to do with contemplation.

And so it goes: Ritualized prayer (especially when it involves incessantly repeated recitation) confers sensation of being in communion with divinity–what Muslims refer to as “wasilah” and Sufis refer to as “baqa[a]”.

The incessant reinforcement of ritual prayer ensures that thought-routines remain deeply ingrained.  When the assigned propitiations are performed several times a day, every day, they ensure that nobody has time to stray too far from the program.  The pre-frontal cortex remains stagnant even as the amygdala is ignited–allowing habits of thought to become further and further inculcated.

The neural wiring of the brain morphs according to the operations it is asked to perform.  Famed neuroscientist, Alvaro Pascual-Leone found that people who had only imagine playing notes on a keyboard in front of them exhibit precisely the same changes in their brains as those who had actually pressed the keys. (!)  One’s mind becomes what one’s thought routines behoove it to become.  In other words, our habits of thought can literally change how our minds work.  Such plasticity is both exhilarating and disturbing, as it holds tremendous possibility as well as plenty of room to be manipulated.  For how we regularly use our brains dictates the delimitations of our thinking.

In “The Shallows”, Nicolas Carr noted: “Just as neurons that fire together wire together, neurons that don’t fire together don’t wire together.”  Ritualized prayer has supplicants using their brains in very specific ways, day in and day out, month after month, year after year–thereby orienting the mind away from certain ways of thinking and toward other ways of thinking.  In this sense, ritualized prayer is–at best–a self-imposed cognitive handicap; and, more often, a way to allow oneself to be manipulated.

Ritualized prayer is largely about conditioning.  The name of the game for propitiations that are highly-scripted / -choreographed is inculcation…in perpetuity.  From the point of view of authorities, demanding people “make salat” five times each day, every day, is an effective way to ensure nobody gets “out of line”; or has much of a chance to engage in “errant” thinking. {7}  The ramifications of this is that the (under-used) higher functions of the brain are always trumped by the (hyper-stimulated) lower regions.  

The ploy has been employed by authoritarian religious institutions–with staggering success–since time immemorial.  (Recall Nazi propagandist, Joseph Goebels’ statement about the “big lie”: Repeat something enough, people will start to believe it.)  Beware of that which you are exhorted to repeat over and over and over to yourself / others.  Anything with merit maintains without needing to be recited incessantly.  If one finds that one needs to keep repeating something, it probably isn’t true.

Salafis recite “al-Fatiha” to the point of distraction; and do so for roughly the same reasons that conservative Roman Catholics recite “hail Mary” or the “Kyrie eleison” ad nauseam.  In between sessions, the mind has little opportunity to stray from the assigned routine.  The mental choreography that has been prescribed to votaries is thereby perpetually reinforced.  Neural pathway dependency is established; and supplicants are rendered the equivalent of Pavlovian dogs.

Awash in serotonin / dopamine, the supplicant experiences a “trip” that is construed as having achieved “wasilah” (communion with the divine).  The anterior cingulate cortex (primary hub for analytical thinking; i.e. problem solving) idles as the limbic system goes haywire.  With each “salat”, the chance for critical thinking is once again forestalled, even as prescribed thought routines are further inculcated.

This is why so many versions of supplication emphasize redundancy.  Roman Catholics recite the Rosary over and over and over.  Vajrayana Buddhists chant “Om Mani Padme Hum” over and over and over.  The Hare Kirshna mantra is comprised of just two words repeated over and over and over.  The Soka Gakkai chant “Nam-myoho-renge-kyo” (“Devotion to the Mystical Law of the Lotus Sutra”) over and over and over.  Following the moniker for the godhead in Sufism, practitioners of “Eckankar” recite the single word “HU” over and over and over.  For Baha’i, “Allah-u Abhar” is recited over and over and over.  Etc.  Such votaries insist that there is power in repetition.

Why is it that repetitious (and/or vociferous) soliloquizing is supposed to have magical effects?  It might have something to do with the perception that adamancy somehow translates to potency.  (Stridency is thus conflated with efficacy.)  The hope is that the designated verbiage–if mouthed frequently and insistently enough–might confer some kind of spiritual benefit (e.g. communion with the divine…and consequently currying favor with a vainglorious god-head).

The scheme, then, is all about conditioning subjects en masse.  My reservations about NLP (neural linguistic programming) notwithstanding; insofar as it might hold some water, “dhikr” would be its epitome.  It’s all about calcifying neural pathways.  Neurons that fire together repeatedly eventually wire together…which makes UN-wiring them that much more difficult.  Ossified thinking is the inevitable result.

In the event that “cognitive easing” (that is: obtunding one’s cognitive functioning) can be passed of as “enlightenment”, one has gone down the rabbit hole.  For passive-minded mirth is not tantamount to edification.  The maudlin displays that are a signature trait of ritualized prayer betray an artificiality (and a superficiality) that belies its spiritual pretensions.  Deluding oneself is the OPPOSITE of what’s involved when one engages in a contemplative practice (i.e. meditation).

Contemplation is impossible so long as one is following someone else’s script…or even a script of one’s own making.  Critical reflection becomes untenable insofar as one is acting / thinking according to conditioned reflex.  Such non-contemplative “prayer” is analogous to consuming without digestion. {8}  It is a mere pantomime–replete with histrionics.  It precludes the possibility of significant reflection, rendering communion with the divine an intractable task.

Routinized prayer is apt to foster what is called “introspection illusion”, by which one is given the erroneous impression that one commands an unvarnished insight into the cognitive underpinnings of one’s own mental states.  This entails selective exposure, which serves as a vehicle for a kind of confirmation bias known as “congeniality bias”.  (I feel mesmerized by it, so it MUST be doing something positive for my mind!)

The crux of the matter, then, is a kind of veiled cognitive impairment, which is often perceived as cognitive ENHANCEMENT.  Research has conclusively shown that memorizing (and reciting by rote) reduces the role of the brain’s higher functions.  In fact, it has the same effects on judgement as does inebriation or sleep deprivation. {5}  This is about the (coerced) misallocation of mental resources.

Memorization / recitation tends to preclude incisive critical reflection–just as the impresarios of the religion want it.  As Daniel Kahneman put it, “A reliable way to make people believe in falsehoods is frequent repetition.  [This is] because familiarity is not easily distinguished from truth.  Authoritarian institutions and marketers have always known this fact” (ibid.; p.62).  Repetition is the foundation of conditioning; and the prescribed recitation of scripted prayers is apt to engender a kind of anosognosia: a lack of cognizance of one’s own epistemic dereliction.

ROUTINE is the hallmark of cultic activity.  A “high control group” involves regimentation, a fetishization of propriety, demands for conformity / fealty, a sense of obligation, and–most importantly–GUILT.  Heterodox thinking / behavior must be shunned; anyone with the gall to engage in such activity must be shamed.  Once a person is steeped in abashment, he is much easer to manipulate.

It is also worth noting that repetition engenders affinity.  (Note that this primarily occurs on the subconscious level.)  Reciting an assigned script over and over and over, every day, day after day after day, will create neural pathways.  Consequently, it will induce “cognitive easing” over time; and, eventually, pathway dependency.  That is, it will render one less apt to analytically scrutinize the inculcated material–which comes to be seen as GIVEN–nay, as sacrosanct.  Assumption cease to be seen as assumptions; and they dictate how one thinks about, well, ANYTHING.

“Salat” is all about acclimating votaries to a memeplex, then perpetually ingraining it so that it becomes virtually indelible.  Reinforcement attenuates the will and ability to engage in critical reflection (something that would endanger the sanctity of the prescribed dogma).

Repetition of, say, “dhikr” and other supplications only makes sense if we were to suppose that the material might slip our minds after we’ve been repeating the same thing over and over and over, every day / week, for years…OR we are worried that god’s characteristics might slip GOD’S mind; so we should constantly remind him of his own greatness, mercy, etc.  We might also suppose that our petitions needed to be submitted numerous times in order to be taken seriously.  The more incessantly–and ardently–one pleads, the thinking goes, the higher the probability that one will be heard.

Of course, the real explanation for prescribing such behavior is much more straight-forward: inculcation.  And so it goes: True Believers are convinced that, if repeated enough, their incantations will lead to preternatural outcomes.  In reality, the potency of the practice lies only in REINFORCEMENT, and thus in conditioning.

The logic remains the same even as the liturgical language varies: Hindus recite their chants in Vedic Sanskrit, Jains recite theirs in Magadhi, Siamese Buddhists recite theirs in Pali, Jews recite theirs in ancient Hebrew, Catholics recite theirs in Vulgar Latin, Muslims recite theirs in Arabic, etc.

The Abrahamic version of prayer typically involves some combination of propitiation and imprecation; yet little–if any–critical reflection.  The idea is to get what one wants out of (what is seen as) a pre-arranged schema.  This is accomplished, it is believed, by currying favor with the deity-in-question.  In other words: paying tribute is about gaining leverage (a.k.a. “grace”) by accruing soteriological capital (i.e. brownie points).  Thus supplication is part worship, part entreaty.   This is complicated by the fact that one cannot always be distinguished from the other–which is to say: It is difficult to discern where the groveling ends and the invocation begins.

Both propitiation and imprecation involve unctuous pleading; so it is sometimes difficult to know which of the two one is doing.  In some ways, they are indistinguishable. For those with spiritual pretenses, then, supplication is a matter of striking a balance between benediction and beseeching.

Such a balance is rarely found, though, as paying tribute is often done ad nauseam.  In the Book of Isaiah (6:3), even the seraphim proclaim: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.”  One need only page through a Christian hymnal to behold the most redundant book ever created: praise, praise, and more praise…in line after line after line, page after page after page.  Clearly, such doxology is designed for conditioning more than for anything else.

Pleas can be for forgiveness as much as for accruing soteriological capital.  When acts of confession rather than of imprecation, prayers are acts of penitence (read: requests for penance).  However, even confessional prayer implicitly involves beseeching the deity to do one a special favor (to wit: give one a pass on a perceived transgression).  “Please forgive me,” we say to those in authority–that is: to who wield the power to reward or punish.  Contrition is–by its very nature–a kind of submission; so ends up being just another version of tribute…which, the hope is, will eventually pay off in the end.  What makes this problematic is that when one feels that atonement can be achieved through supplication, one is less inclined to atone for anything through deeds.  The invocation precludes a need for action; as “grace” suffices for the stead of one’s soul.  Such “solo gratia” (redemption through grace alone, not through good works) is ratified in the New Testament–notably, in Ephesians 2/8-9 and Romans 11:6.

In considering prayer a kind of blandishment, the question arises: To what degree is one obliged to placate a temperamental deity?  Is he vindictive?  Forgiving?  Obstreperous?  Appreciative?  It takes more to satisfy some deities than others; as some tend to be petulant (Yahweh), demanding to be appeased at very turn.  (The godhead of the Torah thrown into a dither at any offense; hence is genocidal proclivities.)  To complicate matters, deities are placated in different ways (follow these rules, show reverence in this way, etc.), which means that one must be familiar not with moral principles, but with a CATECHISM.  Thus doctrinal fidelity, not probity, is the key to salvation.

Regardless of the deity’s character traits, the point is to ingratiate oneself with him / her so that one can parlay one’s good standing into some kind of existential emolument.  The deity-in-question is, it is believed, prepared to do any number of things: healing loved ones who are sick, throwing good fortune one’s way, ensuring one’s side in a conflict prevails, helping one become better at something, ensuring crops will grow, gaining admission into a desirable afterlife, etc.  While this scheme is cheapened by those who treat prayer as the home shopping network (so as to put a gloss on one’s avarice), it is invariably about petitioning the powers-that-be to grant one’s wishes.

A kind of covetousness–be it saving one’s own ass or supporting one’s agenda–bolsters one’s motive for supplication.  Even in its most solemn moments, the relationship is seen as transactional (see my essay on “Fiduciary Theology”).  Thus: “I curry favor for the deity, and in return the deity may be willing to heed my imprecations.”  (Alternately: “I want this arrangement to work, so I am incentivized to appease said deity.”)

How does this arrangement work?  Via a contractual agreement (that is: by meeting the deity’s demands).  While some deities are more petty than others, most tend to be rather persnickety when it comes to modes of gratification.  “If you want me to go to bat for you, here are my terms” is what such “covenants” boil down to.  There’s nothing remotely spiritual about such a bargain.

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