How To Approach Prayer and the Emotional Energies of Spiritual Practice
by Richard Boyd, Body Mind Psychotherapist, Energetics Institute, Perth, West Australia
If one considers both the eastern and western spiritual perspectives then we find that each has a process to connect and become closer to what we shall call the godhead. The classic eastern perspective is often that the ultimate reality of things does not include an outside entity or object we call god, but it still has detailed and contemplative processes such as meditation to connect to our spiritual or essential self.
If we can allow this essential difference in conclusion about the existence of god to co-exist between the east and the west then we can explore those tools of insight and realisation that each offer. These tools go beyond mere concept and image and can have profound transformative effects on a person who engages with them in an ongoing process.
One might say that in the west we have old Catholic background traditions rooted in prayer and in contemplation which while similar are also different. We might also add that in the east we have meditation with its visual emphasis and also verbal and hand gesture mudras and mantra processes.
Western psychology has little to say about spirituality as it tends to denounce it as a neurosis or non scientific reality and so that which is generally to be sifted out of the therapeutic process. Psychology considers itself a science and science denounces religion and spirituality so there is no room for discourse amongst many secular psychologists and counsellors with clients about spiritual matters.
However those who work with clients find that the existence of a religious belief or of a spiritual nature is an aspect of self that creates both psychological resilience and also an amplifier for positive states such as happiness. I couch that statement by also saying that those who follow cults, extreme beliefs such as ISIS and belief systems that have little in the way of true precepts of a spiritual or humanistic nature, tend to create negative or life negating outcomes.
True religion and spirituality is of its nature a life affirming reality and one that promotes a wider belief system of reality that would then influence the way we then conduct ourselves within the more mundane human aspects of that overall reality. There are some core tenets of world religions and spiritual belief systems that tend to transcend cultural factors and gender.
These basic tenets may be considered to include:
- Life is sacred and where life exists it has rights and value.
- There is a higher power than the individual human.
- There is a hidden or subtle reality that is accessible.
- Death is not the end of life.
- The spirit or consciousness of the individual survives death.
- A person either has one life or reincarnates.
- There is a code or set of rituals which enable one to approach directly or indirectly the Godhead.
The practice and function of contemplation, meditation, prayer and mantra is to create the emotional and spiritual container for experiencing or transforming oneself one step closer to a human representation of the divine. These are not the only forms of practice but are the more well known and common forms of spiritual endeavour that are about internalising the values rather than by living them through rightful living in the community.
For the sake of this article I will group this set of practices under the common title of prayer. Prayer is that practice then that brings the "out there" closer and closer to us so we start and have a personal dialogue or relationship that nurtures and supports us as we navigate through life.
Religious traditions will tell you that the dialogue is not a one way process but that whatever you call god will engage and return the dialogue in potentially supernatural forms as healing, insight, vision, powers beyond physics, or simply as love and support.
This is a very subjective experience that is not felt or experienced by all and that thing we call faith is that reliance on the idea that we are seen, held, loved, guided or protected by our godhead. A large percentage of people giving up religion or spiritual paths as they do not personally experience such dynamics with their god and simply give up thinking that the whole thing is fake, or that they personally are bad or unworthy.
This is unfortunate as the main world religions are already increasingly finding that the people who run these organisations have become corrupted over time as they enjoyed privilege, wealth, power and status for centuries. Their complacency and cultural arrogance saw them abuse thousands in their care in churches, schools and orphanages run under their control and spiritual guidance.
It is no wonder that the public avoid the various western churches and now start to question some eastern religions such as Islam when they see extremism acted out under its name. We are in an era where religion is denounced through its own sins and where there is a need for the personal practices of spiritual development and connection to be separated out from this institutional mess.
We each can begin and develop our own spiritual practice that is some form of prayer. The different forms are well described within the religious traditions and by advanced and experienced commentators and practitioners so I do not intend to describe each one here as that instructional material is better found by seeking out those authors.
What I will dwell on is that closing of the gap of the imagined duality between who we are and who the godhead is somewhere "out there". Each one of us should have as an objective of what I will call "closing the gap" between who we feel we are and that which we call the godhead.
A truly spiritual person feels no gap and becomes one with the godhead. However at first the godhead is typically aloof and remote but is typically reflected back to us in ways such as the awe and majesty of the stars and the night time view of the universe, or in the smile of a new born baby.
However it is it is common that we look "out there" and away for us and imagine a god who is somehow "over us" or "above us" or "around us". This sort of temporal parental figure is like that which the church used to describe to their faithful and which religious art has for a millennia posed as a patriarchal figure on clouds in the heavens above.
This form of faith and worship is a useful starting place but ideally should not be the place where we cease enquiring and try to deepen our spiritual path. Every major religious school has elements that bring the godhead closer to us and which make it more personal and available to us.
In the western catholic "trinity" there is that aloof and distant godhead who is unseen and unapproachable directly and who is God the Father. However there is a closer relationship through our relationship with a divine human figure who we can speak, see, touch, feel and communicate with.
This God the Son archetype is that literal person who contains god and through whom the godhead is able to fully transmit and communicate to others. Here the gap closes as we can reach out and personally converse and be touched by that divine person.
In each Age and in each major world religion we find that a consistent theme emerges of major human figures becoming manifest in society amongst believers and unbelievers and whom are in service to the ultimate godhead of that religion. These people might be priests, shamans, saints, avatars, gurus, or a supernatural being which acts through the human form.
This belief is an act of faith. The narrative of each world religion claims that there are those distinctly human people who become spiritually realised in their life time and so guide us from this advanced state of spiritual realisation, but do not claim to be anything other than human in origin.
This would include most saints and wise gurus who set aside a life of spiritual pursuit, or who have some moment or crisis which transforms their ordinary life into a life of spiritual pursuit and advanced attainment. Yet there are those one or few figures who show up in religion (e.g. Jesus in Catholicism and Buddha Shakyamuni in Buddhism) who incarnate as realised beings and then demonstrate a life that suggests a supernatural basis rather than an ordinary human bodymind basis for their self.
In each case this personal and more immediate experiential contact between the ordinary and this type of godhead experience is amplified and more transformative when experienced at this level than which normally occurs from praying to a distant godhead on a cloud somewhere.
Many people argue that such spiritual entities exist only in the pages of old religious texts and have no place or evidence in modern life today. However if you look at the Dalai Lama and maybe some of the recent saints such as Padre Pio in the catholic tradition there is perhaps room for thought that such entities may exist but are more sublime in the modern era.
What I mean is that both these figures are revered by followers as divine and the basis of the Dalai Lama is that he lives, dies and reincarnates to become the next Dalai Lama through transmission of consciousness. Some strange experiences that cannot be explained both the lineage of Dalai Lamas and the odd saint such as Padre Pio to suggest that something extraordinary can happen around them and to those who develop faith in them.
What they also represent at the end of the day is a role model for ourselves and how to cultivate a deep and inner relationship ourself with the divine. This closes the gap between ourself and the divine to a quite narrow and subtle level that means the distinction between myself and the godhead becomes less with every year and becomes less visible to ourselves and others as a result.
Eventually we become the embodied version of the godhead and cease to operate out of our old ordinary ego consciousness. We identify with the realisation that than imagined concept the godhead and so there is only a subtle gap or no gap anymore between ourself and the godhead.
The various types of what I earlier termed "prayer" are those practices which build our divine consciousness and close the gap as a continuing process year after year. The practices may seem contrived at first but we know from neuroscience that practice and repletion rewire our brains so it is not surprising that repetition and altered states of consciousness show up in the practices of prayer.
So the trinity effect can be seen in terms of how we start prayer (to a remote godhead out there somewhere), and then to a holy son (closer contact and involvement with the spirit of the godhead seen in another or others), and then our own internalised relationship to the spirit of the godhead as an indwelling aspect of the godhead and also oneself).
However we must also be careful to practice what we call reductionism which is rampant in western science, thought and society. The 3 aspects of the godhead are all equally true and available and are just like different facets or sides to a polished jewel.
Prayer practice tends to recognise all 3 as the whole universe is the godhead. If you study all the world's great religions and spiritual bodies of knowledge then we must be careful that as we possess an ordinary ego as we evolve our spiritual journey we do not forget or judge one of these, or elevate or think of as true just one of these, as that is the tendency of ordinary consciousness to do so.
Also the various practices of what I collectively call prayer each have a common ground that is our bodymind, and then its own context of which aspect of the divine am I conversing with as I use this particular tool of prayer. One of the overlooked aspects of ourself is the stabilising effect that embodied grounding techniques do to the mind and stability of consciousness of that person.
The various schools of eastern thought in particular have psycho-spiritual preparation practices that lead into an ideal foundational state to use the various tools of prayer. In particular the practices of Tai-Chi, Yoga, Bio-energetic grounding, Qi-gong and 3 stage organic breathing such as we see in NSA type chiropractic science, each have the ability to positively influence the bodymind toward settling into a quieter and less reactive mind state from where to commune with the divine.
One of the sufferings and limitations of us human beings is our embodiment which can become a stressed and mental/emotional vortex of inner mind energy movement and flux. This inherent state of our humanity must be confronted and habitually tamed such that our resting state of bodymind is more supple and stable so prayer tools can be properly engaged.
One of the problems of western spiritual practitioners is that they are stressed out bunnies who try and build a stable foundational state of mind from this volatility of mind. What normally occurs is that they spend most of their spiritual session trying to calm, quiet and tame their mind and then times up!!
Whatever practice has gone on has typically not gone deep so little progress is achieved in the early stages of their endeavours. This is the riskiest time in the stages of the spiritual path for novices to get disgruntled or dispirited and simply give up.
So the advice I give is to do your spiritual practice in the morning when you first wake and your mind has not yet fully engaged with the busy mundane modern world of stress. The waking mind has a certain degree of inherent quietness and stability about it so leverage off that as a smart way to do a daily spiritual practice.
So Stage 1 is to start by doing some of the preparation exercises which we should to do mindfully by gathering and bringing our mind into the moment, into the experience of the exercise or practice, and so already go inside ourself more or less and cutoff "out there" oriented aspects of our mind. These preparation exercises or practices may take just 10 mins but are worth every minute in terms of what yield we will get to help us stabilise for the real spiritual practice that comes next.
What comes next is the actual spiritual practice. This is best done from a quietened state of bodymind for reasons best explained by the famous 20th century mystic and divinely connected person we know as Father Bede Griffiths.
In one session of discourse to the public Father Bede Griffiths explained that the god head is transmitting constantly in the universe and it's our job to shift our dial like a radio and "tune in" to what is always there which is the stream of love, wisdom and entrainment of the divine godhead.
Using the radio analogy Bede explained that we are normally "out of tune" and our human nature is to have minds that are full of static and background noise just like you hear when you switch a radio on at night and move the dial around.
Bede explained that the embodied processes that I call preparation or Stage 1 are those which dampen the background static or noise of the bodymind, and which "tune" us into the right frequency of the divine transmission. My own experience has shown me that this is true in practice.
The godhead transmits on numerous and different frequencies and each tool of spiritual practice aligns to one of these frequencies. Each is from the same godhead source but each has its own flavour, receival method and context or message.
Stage 2 then is to engage in communion or be in transmission with the divine. This is where the various forms of what I termed prayer come into play and each involve some form of transmission to and from the godhead or from the person conducting the prayer.
Some transmission methods such as reflection connect us to a broad universal message of the divine. We notice the grandeur of the universe and equate that to the divine and then maybe adopt prayer, praise, right action or meditation as a deeper response. We may also remain in reflection which is enough in itself.
Another channel is mantra which is a focussed engagement with divine words that keeps us in the mind stream of the divine and which shifts the mind to the context of the divine nature. We block out other mundane thought streams and alter our consciousness or change or dial into the divine channel.
Another channel is Prayer which is typically either a conversational plea by that person to the godhead or the devoted saying of existing prayer frameworks and rituals that the church would author. Pray is personal and direct and in Catholicism is the most practiced form of devotion, conversation, and communion with the godhead.
Prayer can be a silent mental process or a verbally spoken process and seeks the external god in its worship. There are many prayer rituals that can be adopted from existing religious institutions or a person can create and adopt their own form of prayer that may involve mantra chanting, walking, dancing, or abstinence of foods and other desires.
Meditation is another widely used eastern tool of godhead transmission but in the eastern traditions there is typically no second person godhead, but an objective of self realisation into oneness with the godhead or ultimate reality. There are many forms of meditation and the visualisation form is another useful tool as we visualise that which we wish to become in ourself.
At this point a critical point must be made. Progress in the spiritual path involves the generation and feeling of emotions and feelings rather than just a dry head based imaging or mental word recitation process. I cannot stress this too much.
Emotions drive neural changes in the brain when coupled with mental thought forms. Feelings bring the body into the equation and self realisation and self transformation using the tools of prayer gains its potency when the body and mind are included within a container of feelings and emotions.
This is why the Buddhists stress the importance of compassion and love so much. They know that the healing and transformative powers of these emotions, and the associated feelings they generate in the body, amplify and accelerate the positive transformation of the spiritual seeker.
The west adopts a more intellectual, heady, dry discourse within itself and through institutionalised church forms of ritual. I spent a childhood watching adults nod off in church on Sunday morning as they showed up symbolically but had no idea of the importance of being present, grounded and emotionally and mentally engaged in the church service.
The Great Cloud of Unknowing which has had its rejuvenation through the Centering Prayer tradition of Father Thomas Keating, has been able to bring alive some of the old mystical traditions that were once taught and practiced in early Christian communities not dominated by intellectual dogma and command and control forms of church organisation.
Centering Prayer is believed to have evolved out of the Desert Fathers tradition whom lived in seclusion in desert caves, and whom are believed to have had contact with eastern mystics on the Silk Road caravan routes. Centering prayer shares the western process of contemplation and inner mental prayer with the eastern meditative process.
Where we are today is not unlike the era of the Desert Fathers. The council of Nicaea in AD. 325 established what today we recognise as the organised institution of the church. Until then prayer and spiritual practice was an individual pursuit.
Again now we no longer have a credible church as it has decayed and collapsed under its own complacency born of losing its spiritual way as it became beholden to power, intellect, rules, status and wealth as a societal powerbroker. The era of personal devotion and prayer is now the most accessible, least corrupted, and easily engaged in practice that a spiritual person can adopt.
This is true of any of the followers of the world's great religious traditions as these are "content" in the process or framework of Centering prayer that holds any such beliefs and concepts within its framework as true. This does not make any other tradition false or its forms of prayer or spiritual exercise wrong.
It just simply gives any devotee anywhere a tool to use to assist in their spiritual path where they may be feeling disheartened or losing faith with organised religion and its temporal leaders. Psychological research shows that people with an authentic spiritual path or belief system have greater psychological resilience and happiness than many of those without such a resource or dimension in their life.
Psychology and science often denounces religion as a neurosis or a fallacy but it cannot denounce the positive outcomes that motivated practitioners have in terms of outcomes in their life when having adopted a regular prayer type of practice in their life. At the end of the day it does not matter where happiness and psychological health originates from – it is simply important that people have access to that which can create such outcomes in our human bodymind condition.
If you read this and are avoidant of religious themes and ideas then I ask you to consider adopting the prayer tools in some shape or form and instead meditate on happiness or health or peace, all of which are positive but not necessarily needing to be spiritual objects of consideration. At the end of the day people access mental health services and self development programmes either to cause cessation of their suffering or to find and grow their happiness in its many forms.
These tools are great enablers for achieving both these aims and so must be included in any discussion on mental health and psychological themes. I point out to many people who will not engage in any psychological process that may allude to spirituality that the meditation, yoga, Tai Chi and visualisation practices they already do, come from a spiritual lineage and so they are not being objective or rational in their views.
Remember that the great spiritual and religious traditions have a lot of psychological wisdom embedded into their frameworks and these can potentially offer help and hope to those with mental, physical and emotional suffering. The internet has ample references and articles on all the tools mentioned in this article.
Contact the Energetics Institute for more information about Depression, Anxiety, and other body-mind states of being that affect yourself or someone you love and interact with.
Richard Boyd is an experienced Body Mind Psychotherapist and the Director of the Energetics Institute in Perth, Western Australia