In most Western Advaita circles prayer is an absolute anathema because it seems necessarily to imply duality. So with most seekers I have waited years until I introduced the topic. (As up to now I have only worked with people on a one on one basis, no-one has been exposed to something that he was not yet ready to digest.)
When finally I do introduce prayer people respond in a very similar way to it: with a mixture of scepticism („This certainly is something we are beyond, aren’t we?“), bad conscience (“Is not this a regressive step?”) and longing to allow themselves to pray.
The biggest obstacle to prayer is the Western notion of God. The God they know of is an entity different from them, meaning this God definitely is part of duality. No Western Advaitin wants to turn to that. Moreover – even though there is much talk about His benevolence – many people have developed a healthy kind of a mistrust concerning His expression of love and care. They associate God with shame, guilt and punishment and much rather live without Him.
In traditional Advaita Vedanta God is Ishvara and Ishvara is nothing but the total of all natural laws and orders and their flawless interlocking. What natural laws? All those laws that make nature work as it does: the law of gravity, the law that makes a child turn to it’s mother for support, the law that makes humans commit mistakes under certain conditions and under other conditions make them open their hearts, the law of karma etc. Some of those laws we know, most we do not. Is there a law that makes me slip and fall when I step out of the door? According to what law does the pigeon fly up or rather does not and gets run over by the car? What law makes the wind turn and if we know what law it is, then, what is the law that makes that law work?
So as individuals we are embedded in a network of natural law and order, in fact our whole body-mind-system is nothing but these laws and orders working and interacting. This means we are inextricably woven into Ishvara, as much as we are inextricably woven into nature and nature is inextricably woven into Ishvara as well. Yet, Ishvara can be looked upon as different from us, just as we usually look upon nature’s law and order as different from us.
Action, Free Will and Levels of Reality
Having understood this, the next argument against prayer that comes up is: Nature works the way it does, who am I to ask to change it’s course – and anyway, what should that bring about?
This contention seems to be perfectly valid – having a set of natural law and order that works perfectly without our interference, us trying to influence it, even through prayer, certainly can do nothing or mess things up.
But as you are not external to nature you also have no power to mess things up. You yourself are included in the natural law and order – you are doing this, doing that and one of those doings can be prayer. As much as doing this or doing that has its effects, prayer also has its effect. There is no action without a result; prayer being an action has a result too.
When you do something in order to gain a certain result you may be able to get the result you wanted or you may not be able to – depending on your karma. But your actions usually are based on employing free will.
Before I go on, I have to introduce something that is missing in Western Advaita teaching: distinguishing between different levels of reality, mainly transactional and absolute reality. Vyavaharika (transactional reality) includes the view that we have from the perspective of a body-mind-organism that perceives itself as surrounded by various other body-mind-organisms as well as a whole lot of bodies that do not seem to have a mind (some also claim to perceive lots of minds that do not seem to have a body, i.e. angels, Gods etc.). Vyavahara signifies dual reality. Paramarthika (absolute reality) on the other hand stands for that which is in and through this vyavahara: existence-consciousness-limitlessness.
Important to note is that there are not two realities – of course not: we are speaking of non-duality here. But there are two ways to look at one reality. We read about paramartha in the Upanishads and come to know it from those who have first hand knowledge of it. Vyavaharika on the other hand is our normal worldview, which helps us to make breakfast, take photographs, read books, enjoy the sunshine, love someone – or pray.
There is no free will in paramartha because there is no will, – or rather the wielder of the will, the will and that which the will could be wielded upon is one and the same.
But there is free will in vyavahara; and prayer is free will applied. The exercise of free will is prevalent throughout the life; it is applied when we take off the wrapper of a sweet before we put it into our mouth or when we put shoes on before we leave the house in order not to hurt our feet. In that sense prayer is something completely ordinary; when we are ready to put aside all those ideas which have suffocated it, we can pray as simply as we can thank a friend for his help or ask a lover for support.
Now this is a little difficult for most if they stick to the thought of “the totality of natural law and order”. As much as it may be in accord with reality – we are humans and humans like to talk to a someone. This someone being God and God having turned into something not trustworthy, we should endeavour to find a someone, who in fact IS trustworthy for us: our own personal Ishtadevata.
In the end to be gifted with the recognition of your Ishtadevata, one’s favourite personal God, is a wonderful piece of luck. If you have not been struck by this piece of luck yet, maybe your faith is enough to view the abstract idea of all natural laws and orders as “the divine”. And addressing the divine you can pray for your Ishtadevata to reveal him/herself to you.
It helps to cast aside all preconceived ideas about how he/she will be though. Maybe he/she is someone well known like the power to attract (Krishna), she who destroys unhelpful thoughts (Durga), he who removes obstacles (Ganesha) or she who bestows wisdom (Saraswati). But maybe he/she is someone surprising like a river, a tree, the sky or fire. Maybe he/she is someone you have harboured prejudices against, like Kali or Mother Mary or an ancient celtic God. Whoever it is (and even if it is still the somewhat abstract “divine”) – open to him/her, know him/her as being an expression of Ishvara, the totality of natural law and order, and decide to place your trust in Ishvara through him/her. Consider your Ishtadevata as the mother, the father, the lover, the child, the friend you never had but always wished to have had and love him/her as you always had wished to love someone.
And then pray.
To be able to trust in what scriptures and teachers tell us is, in itself, a wonder. Against all evidence, and against what the whole world says, being able to assume that we are NOT little insignificant worms in an indifferent universe, at the mercy of all kinds of hazards and prone to illness and death, is a blessed miracle. Why blessed? Because only this trust will make it possible for us to be able to understand who we in fact are: That which is one, free, all-pervasive and eternal.
Trust has become a rare phenomenon in a world which proves again and again that trust does not pay. If you do not trust you have to be on guard, you have to think of everything yourself, you have to do everything yourself otherwise it will not get done, you have to take care of all and everything. In other words, you think that you have to be Ishvara, the knower and wielder of all laws and orders working in this universe, plus making them work in your favour. No need to say that you will be constantly under extreme tension – because you have taken on a task that is beyond the limited abilities of any human being.
As a seeker of truth you should know that enlightenment is impossible without trust. Why? Because in enlightenment you have to utterly, totally, absolutely relinquish the one who you take yourself to be, this pseudo-Ishvara, striving to get your life right. To let him go, you need trust. There is no shortcut to trust. If you did not have a loving family in which the seeds of trust were planted in your heart, you will have to work on it yourself. The one and only reliable one to place your trust in is the divine. Everything, everyone will fail at some point.
How develop this precious trust? You need to realize how fed up you are with the load you have taken on in order to try and be Ishvara yourself. And then find the tiny little voice inside yourself that wants to trust, that wants to love and surrender to something bigger and higher and unconditionally caring. No matter how tiny the speck of trust you find is, go with it, start from there.
How to pray?
Many people have asked me how to pray; they think that they have to do it a certain way, different from how they prayed as children and somehow properly. They also think that there are certain rules for advaitins to pray. No, there aren’t.
Allow yourself to be little again, because in the face of Ishvara you are. Even though you know that you and Ishvara are both one and the same you can give yourself permission to play the game of duality and pray.
Nothing is too silly or too big or too mundane.
You can thank for everything you feel thankful about in that moment: the summer, the green trees in the garden, the peace you are living in …
You can thank for your parents and their parents, for your brothers and sisters and their families, for your own family, for your beloved, for your friends (far and close), for your colleagues, for your clients, for the artists who delight your heart, for all those teachers who helped you in your journey, for the teacher you may be with now, for your neighbours, for all those people who help you (your doctors, your computer advisors, your favourite saleslady, your hair dresser etc.).
You can ask for blessings and protection for all of them and that their minds may open to a bigger truth – on the level appropriate to them – and that they may be able to surrender to that bigger truth.
You can ask for blessings and protection for the house you live in. Or ask to be guided to find a good place to live.
You can ask for health and healing for all your loved ones, i.e. all mentioned above, and for yourself, and can name all those who need special care because their health is frail.
You can ask for a compassionate heart, for trust, for a teacher, for your Ishtadevata to reveal him/herself. You can ask for self-discipline, for courage, for strength and true authority. You can ask for the ability to set priorities right, for calm and for equanimity.
You can ask for a deeper understanding and spiritual guidance,
For anything that is close to your heart you can ask it to be blessed and that you may be able to act wise, loving, courageous and true.
You can ask for blessings on your day and that you yourself may be a blessing to everyone you will come in touch with during the day, passing on the blessing of the divine.
Swami Dayananda says: “Prayer is invoking grace as well as an act that is a simple autosuggestion.” Giving, day by day, energy, love and care in the direction of everything that is important to you and to everyone who is close to your heart, is bound to change you. And when you change slowly slowly your life will change too.
Prayer does help.
photo credits : S. Hofschlaeger@pixelio.de