What is Prayer? A Practical ‘Non-religious’ Guide

Ever made a decision? It could be about going to college, whether to take up a new job or stay at home vs going abroad. Sometimes, it becomes extremely confusing regarding which direction we should take in our lives.

In such situations, we run from pillar to post asking people for advice. The end result is that we get multiple pieces of advice from people who know a lot about the subject. And yet, you may feel discontented …a sense of malaise. None of their suggestions seem to work. People seem to know a lot about what to do in a situation, but somehow nothing strikes you as ‘right’ or ‘true’.

The missing link is you – you have asked everyone but yourself. We need to consider everyone’s inputs as just that…inputs. But the only person, I repeat, the only person, who needs to live with your decision is yourself. And therefore, you need to ask yourself what you want.

But how do you ask yourself? Can you truly see yourself? If you go to a mirror, you can see your reflection – but that is merely your body. You can’t see your mind to split apart the tangle of thoughts that trouble you. More importantly you can’t see your soul to talk to, not in the mirror anyway.

Different people have found different ways to address this. Some realize that inside us exist different energies – the energy of time exists inside us (the Hindus call this Shiva) – this same time energy produces new life through sex (again Shiva). Some see other energies inside themselves – the energy of fertility (we have another god for that), the energy of sustenance (another god) and so on and so forth. For every aspect that troubles us, we can find a god – this was the approach taken by Hinduism and even the Greeks (Zeus, Athena, Dionysus – God of wine etc.). And thus, to help us analyze different aspects of a problem, we try to find the ‘energy’ within us that is causing the problem. But it is often difficult to separate these energies for one who is struggling with self-awareness. Finding and asking this energy is easier if we can have an external representation of this energy.

But how do we create an external representation? The easiest way was to write a story about how this energy had its own ‘personality’, about how this energy was born and grew within us. We find these as stories of how gods were born or created, and how they used their powers to solve problems. The stories of gods are nothing but stories of how the equivalent energies were created within us. Once we have a story to help us understand the energy better, it is important to keep a bookmark of sorts, to quickly refer to the energy – we may even give this energy a name – Shiva, Vishnu, Brahma and the like. And we create a physical bookmark to help us remember the various energies within us – we call these idols.

And so, when we pray to an idol for help or advice, we are essentially asking ourselves for advice. We are talking to our souls.

However, having idols was not sufficient, people needed to relate to their soul in a more ‘human way’. Many of us struggle with the concept of the soul, especially if we are not very abstract-minded. And so, several religions created a ‘human’ manifestation of our soul. Hinduism refers to them as gurus, Christianity calls this person Jesus, Muslims may reach out to a Mullah, and the Jews to a Rabbi. These are human teachers who have been able to talk to their own souls. These teachers can’t talk to your soul – they cannot give you answers and it is dangerous to ever ask them ‘what to do’. Always approach a Guru, or Jesus, Mullah or Rabbi to ask them how YOU can find the answers BY YOURSELF. Seek guidance, not answers.

Realizing this, the Buddhists took it a step further. They eliminated God as a concept altogether, and directly talked to their soul through meditation. Many of us live in a noisy environment where everyone has an opinion on what we should do with our life. Sometimes, the only way to get away was go outside a city where no one knew you and where no one would interfere with your thought process. Today, we travel and take vacations to ‘get away for a bit’. In ancient days, people didn’t have that luxury- all around the city were forests and that is exactly where they went. They left their home and went away to a forest and meditated. What do I mean when I say meditated? It simply means roaming freely outside and inside your mind allowing your thoughts to flow freely, till you find the path that works for you. That is the crux of meditation, not sitting cross-legged and repeating words or chants. Meditation that can’t help you be happy or make a decision produces few results, unless you like chanting as a hobby. Chanting can give you peace, only because you have blocked everything else out. But blocking out the world can never solve your problems; it only exacerbates them further.

Christians created a two-step process – a God that represented our soul, and a teacher – Jesus who died like any other human on the cross. The life of Jesus was only to show that we are all Jesus too – if a carpenter was able to see his soul and be happy, so could you. Muslims looked to their Prophet for guidance in finding God (soul). But the Prophet couldn’t be everywhere and so they created Mullahs, not very different from priests in their function.

The end goal of this system was to help people be happy, not create a ‘religion membership club’ of Hindus, Muslims or Christians. The aim of every one of the original teachers in each of our religions, however small or large, was to help people find peace WITHIN themselves. Many religions realized that they could not accurately describe such abstract concepts in a boring manner. No one would have read a blog on religion or faith, if written like a philosophy thesis. So, they used stories and examples. A collection of these stories and examples became the Bhagwad Gita, Bible, Koran, Buddha Charita and the Guru Granth Sahib. All of these writings refer to the same entity- our soul.

Following one religion over another is merely a choice of PATH. In reaching a destination, some may prefer to take a train and enjoy the view. Some of us may be disabled and may prefer flying. Some may prefer to sneak into a cargo ship and hide till the ship reaches the port and then escape to our destination when the captain isn’t looking. These different methods are effectively the various religions today. Sometimes, it is not possible to reach a place purely by flying. You may have to get down at an airport and then take a cab, for instance. Similarly, Hinduism or Christianity may not answer all your questions, you may have to refer to Buddhism or Islam for part of your journey. And then perhaps transfer to Zen for the last mile- and vice versa. We need all our teachers; we need all our religions, to complete our journey. One teacher alone cannot provide all of our answers, just like one single friend or just your spouse can’t fulfill all your emotional needs. We need many friends, we need many teachers, we need many religions to find our path to our soul.

With the help of these teachers, we can talk to our souls. We need silent spaces where no one will disturb us – we call these temples, churches, mosques and well, even ‘sitting under a tree’. Sometimes, our homes can be the most silent place we know – then our home becomes our church or mosque or temple or gurudwara. Every place on Earth (and even the universe or Milky Way) is a religious place of worship. And when I say worship, it does not mean putting your soul on a pedestal because it is superior, it simply means listening. You can’t talk to your soul; you can only listen. Hence, we call this worship – we listen and understand and follow our soul’s path.

And thus, when we worship, we pray. When we say prayer, it simply means listening. When we say listening, it simply means we seek guidance, not to fulfill some higher magic purpose of a revengeful god, but for the simple down-to-earth reason of being happy and at peace. Only our souls know what can make us happy, at work or at home. All we need to do is learn to listen to our souls, hence we look towards teachers or scriptures. But often, we pray.

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