Thursday, September 5, 2013

Caring Prayer versus Curing Prayer: Slow Down When You Pray

Caring Prayer versus Curing Prayer: 
Slow Down When You Pray

     Our English word "prayer" is derived from the Sanskrit word "prashna" which means "to question". The Prashna Upanishad is one of the "primary" sacred teachings in Hinduism. In the Prashna Upanishad six students bring big questions to their Guru; questions like, what is the soul, why do we dream, and what is the goal of meditation? Their teacher tells them to be patient, and to spend the next year in solitude and a deep contemplative study of their questions before bringing them back to the master teacher. At the end of the year, the questions have been resolved by simply patiently caring for them.

     There is a lesson in "prashna prayer". In this form of prayer one merely cares for the problem in the presence of the deity. The surest way to find an "answer" to a prashna prayer is to slow down and approach the concern consciously and carefully. 

     Too often I view prayer as a method to find quick answers from a higher authority--demanding instant cures and snappy remedies. That is curing prayer--and it is a valuable form of prayer. But if the cure doesn't come, it may be time to experience caring prayer.

   Curing prayer focuses on fixing the problem Caring prayer focuses on recognizing and sitting with the indispensable existence of the problematic people, emotional concerns and external situations that move me to prayer. Curing prayer begins with the assumption that I ought to be completely healed right now. Caring prayer begins with the assumption that I am incompletely whole right now. Caring prayer means that my current state of inquisitive fragmentation and discontent is wholly divine in the sense that there is no place where the numinous Presence is not active. Curing prayer sees God present only in the healing. Caring prayer recognizes that there is something holy occurring in every life situation--even the crooked and terrifying experiences. Stephen Mitchell's translation of Tao Te Ching 22 captures this perspective:
"If you want to become whole, let yourself be partial. If you want to become straight, let yourself be crooked. If you want to become full, let yourself be empty."
    Caring prayer recognizes that there is something weighty occurring in every life situation--even in the crooked and empty experiences. Caring prayer sits with the awful experiences in prayer as a parent does with their sick child. 

     Consider a story from the Hebrew Bible found in Numbers 21. The Hebrews have just escaped Egypt and are traveling through a sweltering desert. There is little food and the going is rough--so they scream at Moses and his God. The story says that the LORD sent toxic snakes to bite them. Now don't get caught up in the literal, pay attention to the symbolism. The poisoned and dying people ask Moses to get them some help. Moses asks God what to do and this is what God says:
The Lord said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived.
     How odd is that? The very thing that is killing them contains the antidote! The solution to the life threatening problem is in looking at the problem itself--considering it, taking care of what is right in front of them. This NOT dwelling in the problem, but on the problem. There is a huge difference. To dwell in the problem is to focus on the pain of the snakebite; to dwell on the problem is to focus on the purpose of the snakebite. In this view, every pathology, addiction or problem contains a purpose--an angel, insights, messages, revelations. Like physical pain, psychic suffering signifies the need to care for the problem. Pain is purposeful. Carl Jung writes: "Every chronic neurosis is the result of not attending to the initial emotional suffering." Caring prayer suggests that we look at the poison snakebites in our lives as mediators not only of pain, but of solutions. 

     Even more fascinating is that Jesus uses this homeopathic illustration to describe how his toxic crucifixion would bring salvation (wholeness) to those who pondered its significance:  "You must be born again...Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.” (John 3)  It is through crucifixion that resurrection arrives; it is through our fragmentations that reintegrations occur.

     Caring prayer realizes that the answer is in the question, just like the Hindu students who spent a year caring for their questions (prashna) before the answers could arrive--staring at the toxic conundrum facilitates the healing solution.

     To practice caring prayer, identify the most problematic or toxic snakebite, or troubling question (prashna) in your life. Spend five minutes caring for that issue each day--looking up at it. Caringly pray with each problem--yes, with the problem. Pray with the money that is missing or the health issue that is assailing you--don't pray to have it "fixed" but pray to see in what ways it is "fixing" you as you pay attention to it. Pray with the person who is driving you mad--don't pray to have them removed or fixed, but see how they are fixing you

     Ruminate on any words, insights or ideas. Hold the name and face of the person you despise, care for the emotions you are feeling, the item you don't have enough of or want more of. Listen, watch, sketch and write down any images, insights or revelations that "pop in". Research any words in a dictionary, or images online. Care for them as a sculptor cares for the clay s/he is molding. 

     Quite often, like the serpent on the pole, these words and their images mediate the solutions to our questions and the answers to our prayers. They will come when cared for, attended. Jot down insights. Draw images. Write poems. Put it to music. Dance it. Talk with it. Engage with the problem. Get acquainted with these profane and ordinary annoyances as "imperfectly perfect" manifestations of the numinous. Each event and relationship is potentially a container of soul-making activity. 

     However, this does not mean passive acquiescence to intolerable circumstances, nor does it mean surrendering to the will of some bully, human or divine, but rather conscientious and contemplative engagement with those things we often hastily pray to have removed or fixed. 

     Caring prayer suggests that I set aside instant cures, and focus on gathering what is right in front of me for careful attention--until it answers the question or provides the insights. Once that occurs, it will then leave of its own accord when, and if, it is done. In its own time, not ours. Some of these snakebites last a lifetime--but if cared for, will provide a lifetime of divine revelations and astonishing psycho-spiritual transformations. 

Or not...

It's All Good, But Some Good is Gooder

     There is a popular trend in the modern new age movement that is inclined to label some things as "spiritual", implying of course that other things are not "spiritual". Many seem to think that the word "spiritual" ought to be understood--believing that things like meditation, yoga, Depak Chopra and an assortment of trendy new age books, gurus and ancient secrets are "spiritual". I haven't really heard anyone clearly define what is not spiritual, but the general unspoken consensus seems to be that the erratic and prickly ego is not spiritual, and obviously all of those annoying and negative emotions are not "spiritual". And of course those dogmatic fundamentalists, greedy capitalists and obstructionist politicians (pick your party) are not spiritual.
    I want to challenge this assumption about what is and is not "spiritual". I will argue that spirituality is a matter of degree rather than an exclusive category. I get this idea from the Hebrew Bible, paying special attention to a statement found in one of Paul's epistles where he writes: "There are heavenly bodies and earthly bodies, but the glory of the heavenly is of one degree, and the glory of the earthly is of another degree" (I Cor. 15:40). The word "glory" serves as a kind of synonym for divine or spiritual. Paul goes on to say that the visible material world and the invisible heavenly realm both have a "measure" of glory, indicating that all things material and non-material have their own style of glory or spirituality. In another place he puts it like this: And we all...beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another" (II Cor. 3:18). In this passage Paul is comparing the glory of the earlier Mosaic ritual law to the glory of freedom from perfunctory religion by being in Christ. Neither is bad--and each has its own "spiritual" place and function. Yet he is making a clear distinction--one has more glory than the other. Psychologically this optimistic attitude implies that we grow in consciousness, that we mature into a more solid kind of glory. I believe this is what Jung's individuation is about, as well as Hillman's notion of soul-making. Former phases of life and "less satisfying" modes of consciousness are parts of the process as we mature and deepen. In this view, the idea of a holistic approach means drawing a circle around all of life, including times of dis-ease and disintegration. The new age movement, on the other hand, often seems to suggest that wholeness arrives when I am peaceful and healthy in body and mind.
    Perhaps it is time for a "newer age" movement that sees all of life as part of a spiritualizing process rather than moments we label spiritual or unspiritual. Perhaps we ought to write books about spiritualizing rather than spirituality, or name our growth communities Centers for Spiritualizing Life, indicating that we are always moving from one kind of glory to another. That would give our much maligned ego and all of those annoying people and negative emotions that "get in the way" of my spiritual life their degree of glory for the soul-making process as we pursue the transformation "from glory to glory". Then we could change our slogan to: "It's all good, but some is gooder."