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.

Why do Babies get more Respect than Adults?

On False Joys and True Sorrows

Growing up, I observed a strange phenomenon. As a child, I was encouraged to explore my world, see what I could, understand everything and you know what…choose. Yes, I was given the power to choose until I was around 10 years old. Then, it all stopped. Not in every sphere but in many.

People started getting anxious if you changed your favorite color from red to blue. People panicked if you suddenly shifted your college major. People panicked if you expressed interests in hanging out more with friends than your parents. It was highly confusing and frightening to a child who had received complete acceptance from the day he was born, until a magic day where he was suddenly surrounded by fear – fear of other people who couldn’t tolerate him trying out new things any more, fear of other people who couldn’t tolerate him changing in the slightest bit.

This raised the question – what is fear? And indeed, what is change? Why are people so frightened now, when they were not frightened earlier? When a new baby was born in the family, I observed the same phenomenon – it was pampered and …listened to. The moment it crossed some magic invisible age when everyone felt they understood it, they stopped listening to the child and instead telling it how it should be based on the first few years of its life.

People listen only as long as they feel they have understood enough to control you. And then they stop listening and resist all change.

Imagine a romantic encounter – a man and woman go on a date. The man or woman may have gone through a hundred different experiences, left their homes, faced innumerous challenges and ‘fashioned’ or built their lives based on what makes them happy. Everything goes well until they meet a potential romantic partner who in the initial days of courtship listens, really listens and provides them support and validation. We feel a rush of hormones and healing as we are flooded with acceptance.

However, this is short-lived. The moment your partner has understood you, they start resisting any further evolution of your personality, any efforts at your self-development. “You have changed” or “something is wrong with you”, or “this is not who you are”, they say. My point is yes, exactly, that is no longer who they are- people evolve every day. But the biggest problem occurs when your partner starts holding you to the personality you had at the initial point of your courtship and he/ she tells you that’s who you are and should always be. That can never be the case – no one except yourself can or should tell you who you are. No one except yourself has the right to change you or not change you. You have the right to completely throw out your past personality and become a new person every single day.

Our partners, parents, families and ‘well-meaning’ friends don’t just resist change in you. By questioning who you are, and who you have become, by insisting that you are no longer who they are comfortable with, they try very hard to take away a very fundamental right – the right to choose your life and life path, the right to choose who you are, what your personality should be like, who your friends should be, what you need to learn and unlearn. These rights are taken away from you and transferred to the ‘other’ person in your relationship (again family, friend or partner).

At this point, you forget what was subconsciously a natural part of you since you were a baby- your right to choose who you are, what you stand for, what you want to become, who you want to form relationships with and who you do not wish to be related to any more. You forget that you have the right to form and break relationships – you are not bound to your relationships, relationships are entities that are chosen by you.

When you forget that relationships are a choice, you make the mistake of prioritizing relationships over yourself as an individual. A relationship can be kept stable only in two ways – if no individual in the relationship changes, ever; or if both individuals in the relationship change in the same or mutually acceptable ways. The moment two people (naturally) begin to evolve in different directions, levels of acceptance need to increase drastically in the relationship to sustain it. Relationships are meant to be an evolving structure – the moment you try to make a relationship ‘stable’, it becomes a prison for both the controller and the controlled within it.

We can now see why we idolize our childhoods and initial days of dating or courtship. Listening and understanding who your partner is at every moment is blissful romance, resisting change and control becomes marriage (not for all, but for many). Listening and understanding who your child is at every moment creates a golden childhood, resisting change and control becomes stagnant adulthood and a mid-life crisis (for many).

Friendships do not make any such demands on the people involved. Friendships are built on acceptance of change, on understanding and listening and giving helpful advice only when asked (not involving unilateral demands). It is often surprising that people don’t recognize that in the initial days of courtship or babyhood, we are friends with our partners or parents. As we grow, our partners and family cease being our friends and become controlling, manipulative or otherwise resist any form of evolution. Guilt, fear, anxiety, worry, and constant rejection soon become parts of the family environment, with every person constantly adjusting their behavior to satisfy someone else around them.

When everyone is constantly adjusting their behavior, no one is real/ authentic/ original anymore. Truth flies out of the window. The entire family or marriage becomes one built on false projections of our character. At this point, a sad chain of events is set into motion – people begin to prefer their relationships to be like mirrors, reflecting what they want to see, rather than actually seeing the other person in the relationship.

Thus, the family unit becomes a crucible for a false self – a cemetery where your true nature and ability to evolve are buried. It becomes a graveyard of hopes and dreams – and yet families celebrate this by praising other members for ‘sacrificing’ their lives for others. Sacrifice is unnecessary when you accept others for who they are. It is only when people hide from the truth that sacrifice of your dreams, hopes and personality come into play.

Thus, instead of sacrificing their outer relationships for true inner authenticity, people sacrifice inner truth and begin celebrating outer falsehoods and artificiality in relationships. Thus, even sacrifice which people begin to worship as a wonderful human quality becomes a false characteristic. False relationships lead to false sacrifices and worship of false values in each other. Listening becomes replaced by ‘walking on eggshells’ or ‘concern for others’ so as to not disturb those around you.

While it is good to respect boundaries, most relationships break down these boundaries so that you forget where you end, and where your partner/ family begins. Emotions become a confusing mess (which is again celebrated as a sign of closeness). Two people can be close only if they are first themselves as individuals, and then choose to be close. Relationships are not about merging with each other, but about sharing who you are. You cannot share who you are, unless you are fully and authentically yourself. A false closeness generated due to confusion and power struggles (however subtle – manipulated by fear, anger or guilt-tripping) can never be aligned with your true nature.

When you thus forget who you are, and choose falseness in relationships over inner truth, you stop listening to your soul. And when you stop listening to your soul, it stops speaking to you. Thus, you lose your connection to your deepest self and live an unenlightened life, filled with false joys and false sorrows. The only thing that such false joys and false sorrows can lead to is unmitigated suffering – it starts slowly by nagging you with a quiet inner voice, insisting that something is wrong in the way you are living your life.

But sadly, many ignore this voice for years and this malaise moves into stage two – you begin to feel lost, somewhere around middle-age. Society encourages you to ignore this or asks you to take medication – alcohol or drugs to kill this voice, and your soul stops trying to guide you altogether. You move into the last stage- inner death. Life becomes a monotonous journey, devoid of meaning and soul and purpose. You neither have the energy to live, nor die and you walk wearily up to death, where your family gathers around you and weeps upon losing you. But the sad thing is, they didn’t lose you now, they had lost you a long time ago. They only lost your body now, but your soul which is the True You had died a long, long while ago.

It is unfortunate that our friends and families don’t realize that the soul is more important than the body. Their attachment to our outer manifestations makes them lose their connection with the inner self. And thus, they weep for the wrong reasons, at the wrong place, at the wrong time in your life. And many of us die, thinking that their tears are genuine, for we ourselves have forgotten what we should be really sad about.

Listen to your soul, choose your inner truth, live a life of true joys and true sorrows. It is only then you will know when to really be happy and when to really feel sad. You won’t need others to tell you when you should be sad or happy (based on their false perceptions). The real truth will never ever be the same as the false truths that are forced upon you.

Therefore, if you wish to live a life of truth, find your own truth, let others find their own truth, do not ask others to justify their truth to you, and do not justify your truth to others. In that way, when you die, you won’t weep, for it will only be your body dying, while your soul will be very much alive and ready for the next part of its journey.

The Beginning- Listening to your Soul

Every one of us begins our childhood with a recognition of our needs. A recognition that our feelings matter. What we think matters. What we say matters.

Over time, we lose touch with this deeper self. Our family ‘teaches’ us to respond to them first, and ignore our feelings. These are done in subtle ways- guiding you as a baby to come to them, increasing your attachment to them which in turn is reciprocated.

However, attachment is not affection. A dog that you keep as a pet is dependent on you for food, and thus becomes attached to you. We perceive this as affection – but this is little more than dependence of the dog on you for sustenance. A baby is no different from a dog in its attachment- it is born cute to attract others to it, highlight its vulnerability and thereby survive. Endearment that results is of usually two levels – one at the attachment level that helps the baby survive; and the second at an affection level that respects the baby’s needs to eat or not eat, poop or not poop. A baby is thus protected and also respected.

As we grow older, we are encouraged to ignore our feelings of self-respect. Society beats us down. Our parents, friends, teachers, colleagues beat us down. They insist that your feelings are not as important as theirs, your goals (however subtle or unformed) are not as important as theirs. This results in a significant contradiction – it is only a person who can feel his or her feelings who can actually create or visualize what kind of life he or she wants. A person who is encouraged not to feel his/ her emotions can never move to the next step of visualizing his or her ideal life. All vision is born of emotions.

It is surprising that while vision is naturally born of our emotions, we are asked to be ambitious, have goals to travel to far-reaching places – but paradoxically we are asked to let go of any self-respect we have for our emotions. Family and friends urge us to aim high, but settle low. The soul can only ask, it is not capable of shouting. Our souls whisper to us through emotions – emotions are the language by which our souls talk to us one way. We cannot talk back to our souls – our soul was here first.

This leads to the next obstacle. The moment we abandon listening to our emotions and respecting them, the moment we stop listening to our soul, we have effectively begun using our body to accomplish the desires of another soul – one belonging to your peers or friends or family. I say that the ‘soul belongs to another’ but in reality our bodies were given to our souls. You were made your soul’s keeper, to listen to it and nourish it and respect it, to acknowledge it and help its deepest unspoken needs flower and flourish.

Our soul’s needs are simple and they rarely differ from one person to the other. Our souls simply ask for freedom and space to grow, and be unique. Our job as the gatekeeper of our soul is to use our body, our senses – our sight, touch, smell, taste and hearing, to honor our soul. You are the only one your soul can talk to – if you don’t listen to it, you are doing it a great disservice. This is your sole mission in life- to listen to your soul.

Mark our language earlier – we said our job is to be the gatekeeper of our soul. We are the listeners and executors, our soul is the speaker and expressor. Thus, we realize we are of two parts- we have a soul, we have a gatekeeper inside us, and we have a set of tools – our body as a container, our senses as receptors and our mind as a processor to help us achieve our soul’s asking.

This is where we have to take care and execute with wisdom. Freedom can be achieved by peaceful means – a live and let live philosophy; or freedom can be achieved through war and bloodshed. The second method makes you no better than our previous aggressors who asked us to abandon listening to our souls. By choosing war and bloodshed (this may be emotional or physical war, a domestic fight to coerce someone to do what you want or an inter-country peace process), we become the very enemy we are trying to escape. If you recall, we started listening to our souls because others were trying to make us listen to theirs. If you listen to your soul and try to achieve freedom and space by making others listen to your soul (instead of their own soul), we transform into the very people who were attacking us earlier and end up tyrannizing others.

Each of us has a soul – a separate soul and it behooves us to listen to no other soul than our own. It also behooves us to encourage others to listen to their own souls and no other. Thus, we realize the concept of boundaries – of separateness and individuality that is so essential for inner harmony (with our own souls) and outer harmony (coexistence and mutual respect of different souls side by side- what we call live and let live in the truest sense).

Thus, we begin our journey to peace, happiness and fulfillment by one simple act of listening – not to the noise outside us but to the silent voice within us that urges us to greatness. Does greatness mean becoming the President? Hardly. Greatness for the soul is just being true to what it asks. You are great if you are a carpenter, you are great if you clean the sewers, you are equally but no greater if you are the king. Our souls are equal – it is our execution that lends to our lives’ different shades and flavors. Some of us execute freedom in the material world, some within our families – nourishing children, some as travelers seemingly seeing all and achieving nothing in a material sense. All of these lives are equal for all of their souls are equal in value – it is only their external manifestations that differ.

Thus, listening to our souls provides us not just individuality and separateness, freedom and peace but also equality in its deepest sense. You rest in the idea that you are equal – no more superior or inferior to anyone else. And when you realize the inner equality you share with every human being and animal and plant on this planet, you cease to evaluate by external appearances. You cease judgment and embrace universal acceptance. When I say acceptance, it is not to make you feel ‘ high’ temporarily for that is merely your ego; but it is to help you realize acceptance in the truest sense of not expecting anything from others around you. Acceptance does not mean pitying others whom we consider have inferior manifestations/ lives or idolizing others whom we consider have superior manifestations/ lives (for that would go against our realization that all of us are equal).

Acceptance means simply knowing that we are all equal in our efforts to simply listen to our soul. Acceptance means respecting others’ needs to listen to their own soul and not yours, or vice versa. Acceptance means respecting your need to listen to your own soul and gently push away those who try to impinge on us. Acceptance means realizing we are all on our individual soul journeys, some of which appear bright on the outside and some of which appear dull on the outside. Dull is no less than bright – gold however beautiful cannot be used to construct your home, and iron however strong is rarely used in delicate jewelry. Each of us has our place in the world and this acceptance, respect and peace comes to us by one simple act – when we listen to our soul.

That one act constitutes the beginning.