How Many Ways to Pray (whether or not you believe in God)
Let us begin with a clarification: the existence of God is beside the point.
The fact that we can question God's existence as external deity— for or against, conjecturing at an intellectual arm’s length— means we have already lost God as the spark that dances in each rock, tree, and flicker inside another human being.
Before asking or bargaining, prayer is simply the revelation of reality, the revival of links between. Hold an object in your mind for long enough, and the object will unfold, branching into everything. Hold a human in your heart for long enough, and the face will unfold, revealing both wounds and miraculous possibilities. In holding either object or human, you accept the strings of commonality between. You bring all livings into communion with your awakened flesh and spacious heart.
Seeing earth as crammed with divinity is not a question of evidence, but of relaxing into a state that lets the world come alive. Not an addition of beliefs, but a subtraction of sedimented expectations, instilled nearly since birth by our materialist, objectivist worldview.
Drawing back the sharp blade of intellect, the world wides open her mouth. Speaks. This is the beginning of prayer: conversation. With plants. With soil. With sea (wordless, of course, since you are not so simple as to think the earth's meanings are human meanings).
When you have sat awhile with your fellow livings, the only human word that will find adequate meaning is the one pronounced over your head at birth: peace. This is simplest of prayers, and not a blessing pronounced from me upon another, but a recognition of the peace each living exhales naturally, the peace so simply alight between our separate names, our far-stretched bodies. So lovely is this Muslim greeting: A salamu aleikum (peace be upon you), for this is the natural greeting between each living body, and this the natural reply: Wa aleikum asalam (and also with you).
You can pray "peace" upon each creature as you walk. "Peace be upon you," as you reach out your sight to touch a falling leaf, your fingers to wave with a gentle breeze. Or simply, "peace." This "peace" greeting is the simplest of prayers.
But there are many more species of prayer.
Here is another:
It's early fall, and my daughter and husband have mild colds. I make a pot for minestrone soup, and I try to remain present to both "please" and "thank you." Thank you, I breathe, as I slice a zucchini. Thank you to the onions, bell peppers, carrots, oregano, thyme. Spiraled noodles. Vegetable stock. Fresh green beans. As I slide them into the pot, I think: may you nourish the ones I love, may you nourish me. As we eat, prayers are recited with each bite: my heart opens to receive your love; my body welcomes you.
I recite an affirmation. I tell myself who I am, and I believe it. Before I drive her to preschool, I feel moved to affirm my daughter: "May you walk in peace over the earth. May you feel the love being poured on your head with each step." I affirm also my husband, affirmations for his specific needs.
Are these affirmations not also prayers and blessings? I pray not because I believe in God (though I do believe in a version of God) but because I believe in the power of words to walk like incantations over the earth, changing the atmosphere around us, carving paths of possibility.
Can you sense how simple and ubiquitous is this practice we call prayer?
I am working on other species of prayer, as well. Like holding a student in my heart for a moment before grading an assignment. Like breathing deeply into a conversation, imagining my chest opening wide enough to receive every stray perception, thought, and personality trait of the one before me. Like lifting up my eyes to the sky and saying thank you thank you thank you (and then to the dirt: thank you, thank you, thank you).
How will you pray the world today? How will the world pray you?