I am thinking this morning about prayer. I had tried to meditate for the first time in a long time, and encountered the same old problem: an inability to really shut off the chatter of talk and image in my mind. It’s what frustrated me when I was twenty and seeking connection with a higher power in meditation. Perhaps it was that frustration that led me to stop seeking. Recently, I have been forced back because I had lost control over some aspects of my life.
At any rate, this morning I gave up as quickly as ever trying to ignore the chatter, and tried something I have avoided since I was little: I prayed. I used words. This had the immediate effect of making me feel some of that contact which I have again, at forty, realized I need. I am not sure why this works better for me than for others; I still envy those who can clear their minds, and maybe someday I will be able to as well. Maybe it is just the way my mind works; since I am a writer, words wash through my mental landscape relentlessly. I think it must also have something to do with how everyone’s mind works. Perhaps the clearing of the mind is unnatural, though like several unnatural practices—such as writing—great benefits are derived from it. Or perhaps it is just a different mode, because certainly I have caught myself meditating without intending to. (I am referring to the Eastern idea of meditation, not the Western, in which a subject is actively explored mentally.) There have been times when I have looked out over a landscape and puzzled about the wonder of trees, or fussed about the hunger of humankind. But there have been moments when my mind has just cleared, and I have simply looked, or better yet, been a part of the landscape, without comment, judgment, or drawing conclusions.
But this phenomenon of prayer took me by surprise, until I realized that it is really a close neighbor to storying, as well as to dreaming. By storying, I mean not just the reading or telling or stories, but the constant stream of stories we create in our minds throughout the day. We are either recalling an old story, something that happened to us, or revising it (either more to our liking or less, depending on the flux of our mental health). Or we are inventing a story that has not happened, perhaps one that we wish would happen (a happy relationship), or one that we wish would not (getting mangled in a car wreck). Our imagination functions through storying. Dreams, of course, are the most obvious place in which stories come to life in our minds, and though some doubt that these are any meaningful kind of stories, others live by them. In my experience, understanding my dreams has certainly helped me understand parts of my life that were otherwise incomprehensible. I was hiding something from myself which the dream presented to me, either to my pleasure or chagrin.
I think that everything we do, every decision we make must, by the nature of the structure of our thinking process, be drawn through the wash of the storymaker inside. That is why it is essential that we understand and revere that part of ourselves. It is the intermediary between ourselves and that higher power within us. Some call that higher power God or by any other assortments of names. Some believe that it exists only within as a psychological construct, others that it exists everywhere, in every object and force of nature, and still others that it exists as a King on a throne somewhere in the sky. It is impossible to prove where it exists, but whichever metaphor serves each of us in a healthy way is appropriate. I think we can never really know it directly, but only through this intermediary.
The Hopis have a ceremonial figure named a kachina who acts as this sort of intermediary. In their dances are figures who represent beings on the other side of consciousness—gods, demons, unconscious elements, however you want to call it. These are sometimes frightening and always mysterious. It is the job of the kachina to mediate between those members of the shadow world, of heaven or hell, of the unconscious, and our world. To bring us rain and maybe the news from the other side.
Any decision we make without consulting this helper, kachina, storyteller, or whoever, is at best a gamble. We might win or lose. The purpose of consulting with a higher power is not to ensure we win. That is why bringing myself to prayer felt at first so odd, so corny, so shallow. Too often prayer is used to ask for special favors from God, as though higher power were a kind of Santa Claus. Likewise, I was never satisfied with religious justifications for not having one’s prayer’s answered: “God works in mysterious ways.” It is hard for me to believe that there is a divine figure playing dice at my expense, or taking time out from managing supernovas to make sure I get the Christmas present I asked for. I will take a chance here an theorize that higher power is not interested in my personal success, but in the success of life. Thus, if we consult higher power and the decision ends up going “against us,” it is not a loss. In this case we are prepared to use the experience as a learning experience because we are connected to what matters, to the core of life. If we are not so connected and we are disappointed by our “luck” then we are open to confusion, bitterness, and doubt.
God is not so much a part of me as I am a part of God. Higher power is not stooping to help me; I am reaching for it. But this dichotomy is unnecessary. There is a design that I am a part of; the energy flows both ways. Therefore, getting right with myself is not only necessary for my own health, but contributes to the health of all life. This is not a grandiose sentiment, though it could lead to that. It is more like voting. My vote alone means little but, combined with the votes of all around me, can make a difference. I do my part, at the same time encouraging others to do theirs.
This is another way in which the life of the imagination is critical, though it is often downplayed by our culture. Whether it is through story, poetry, art, theater, dance, or other forms of purely imaginative play, we strengthen our contact with the essential core of our being. Art is not fluff, therefore, but one of the most important endeavors of our daily living. It is our way of ensuring that our contact with God is strong. It is also important that all expressions of art be honored. Not all news from the other world comes in a bright sunny form. Sometimes things in our lives or our society are out of sync, are unhealthy, and as with nightmares we need the disturbing expressions of art to help point this out, to help amend whatever is unhealthy.
Of course, some art may truly be only for shock value; perhaps this is akin to the addict abusing whatever substance or behavior that once inspired to now do harm. Alcohol may have helped someone break out of his shell, but then the sensitive personality retreated into the drug, rather than using it merely as a catalyst; or the sex addict fell into the sensual abyss, mistaking the hormonal hit for the boost of feeling connected to life. It’s hard to determine, though, if a work of art is done merely for shock value or other personal gratification only, or from the legitimate need of society to hear the cry of pain from the artist, or what degree of each. Even the artist may not be a reliable source of help on this question, though I think each of us knows when we are acting out of the self or out of communion with higher power.
And maybe it doesn’t matter, since even the most legitimate expression of art will shock or dismay some while it enlightens others. Ultimately, the purpose of art is not to please, but to elevate (though it may please some to be so elevated). Thus, art becomes a kind of prayer (or whatever method of contacting the life-source one uses), a social prayer, through which a group of people may be able to contact what is best in them, in each other, in the life around them. The kachina dances. We watch, listen, join the dance. At the end of the festivities, at the end of the day we return to ourselves alone, and must ask ourselves if we are satisfied with who we are.
The need to contact the power that can make us so is a daily necessity, one which we are reminded of through our social experience, our contact with others and art, through our own behavior, and through our thoughts and dreams. It is hard to avoid some kind of feedback about how we are doing, yet we often avoid it well every day. So, it can come as a shock that we have been living a life out of balance. If the shock does not come in the form of an artifact, still it will come. Nevertheless, when it does there is a force which can help us survive it.
This piece was originally written on August 28, 2000