How Do I Pray?
by Peter Russell
We usually think of prayer as an appeal to God, or some other spiritual entity, to change the world in some way. We might pray for someone's healing, for success in some venture, for a better life, or for guidance on some challenging issue. Behind such prayers is the recognition that we don't have the power to make the world the way we would like it to be—if we did, we would simply get on with the task—so we beseech a higher power to change things for us.
Changing the world in some way or other occupies much of our time and attention. We want to get the possessions, opportunities, or experiences that we think will make us happy—or conversely, avoid those that will make us suffer. We believe that if only things were different we would be happy.
This is the ego's way of thinking. It is founded on the belief that how we feel inside depends upon what is going on around us. When the world is not the way we think it should be, we become discontent. This can take many forms—dissatisfaction, disappointment, frustration, annoyance, irritation, depression, despair, sadness, impatience, intolerance, judgment, grievance, grumbling. Yet whatever form the discontent may take, it is actually a creation of our own minds. It stems from how we see things, from the interpretations we put on our experience.
For example, if I am stuck in a traffic jam, either I can see it as something that is going to make me suffer later—being late for an appointment, missing some experience, or upsetting someone—and thus begin to feel anxious, frustrated, or impatient. Or I can see it as the chance to relax, take it easy, and do nothing for a few minutes. The same situation; two totally different reactions. And the difference is purely in my mind.
The ego believes it has my best interests at heart, and holds on to its view of what I need. Locked into a fixed perception like this, it is hard for me to see that I am stuck. I believe the fault lies in the world out there, rather than my beliefs about how things should be. So I tell myself a story of what should change in order for me to be happy, and set about trying to make that happen.
When I find I cannot make the world the way I think it should be, then I might, if the need seems sufficiently important, beseech some higher power to intervene and change things for me. I am, in effect, asking it to do the bidding of my ego. Yet, as most of us have discovered, the ego seldom knows what is truly best for us.
If, on the other hand, I recognize that my suffering may be coming from the way I am seeing things, then it makes more sense to ask, not for a change in the world, but for a change in my thinking. I may pray for the traffic jam to go away, when it might be wiser to pray that my feelings of frustration and tension go away.
The help I need is help in stepping out of the ego's way of seeing. So when I pray, I ask, with an attitude of innocent curiosity: "Could there, perhaps, be another way of seeing this?" I do not try to answer the question myself, for that would doubtless activate the ego-mind, which loves to try and work things out for me. So I simply pose the question, let it go, and wait.
What then often happens is that a new way of seeing dawns on me. It does not come as a verbal answer; it comes as an actual shift in perception. I find myself seeing the situation in a new way.
One of the first times I prayed this way concerned some difficulties that I was having with my partner. She was not behaving the way I thought she should (and how many of us have not felt that at times?) After a couple of days of strained relationship, I decided to pray, just inquiring if there might possibly be another way of perceiving this.
Almost immediately, I found myself seeing her in a very different light. Here was another human being, with her own history and her own needs, struggling to navigate a difficult situation. Suddenly everything looked different. I felt compassion for her rather than animosity, understanding rather than judgment. I realized that for the last two days I had been out of love; but now the love had returned.
With conventional prayer I might have prayed for her to change. But the divine intervention I needed was not in her behavior, but in my own mind, in the mindsets that were running my thinking.
The results of praying like this never cease to impress me. Invariably, I find my fears and judgments drop away. In their place is a sense of ease. Whoever or whatever was troubling me, I now see through more loving and compassionate eyes. Moreover, the new way of seeing often seems so obvious: Why hadn't I seen this before?
Asking this simple question allows me access to my inner knowing, and lets it shine into my life.
The answer does not always come as rapidly as in the above example. Sometimes the shift happens later—in a dream, or when relaxing doing nothing. The prayer sows the seed; it germinates in its own time. Nor do I always get answers to such prayers. However, even if I only get an answer half the time, those times make the asking well worthwhile.
The beauty of this approach is that I am not praying to some power beyond myself. I am praying to my own self for guidance. Below the surface thinking of my ego-mind, my inner being knows the truth. It sees where I have become caught in a particular mindset, and is ever-willing to help set me free.
Moreover, since my prayers are directed within, to my own essence, I have no concerns whether or not they will be heard. The one offering the prayer and the one receiving it are the same.