"[A person] of all ages and cultures—is confronted with the solution of one and the same question: the question of how to overcome separateness, how to achieve union, how to transcend one's own individual life and find at-one-ment." —Erich Fromm
"Before you can find God you must lose yourself. . . . The central aspect of worship is the feeling of being at one with God." —Ba'al Shem Tov
While "prayer" has many meanings, one way of using the word covers what almost all people mean by prayer. This meaning, in turn however, takes several sub-forms.
I am talking about a prayer from a supplicant to an almighty, magical God whose personal intervention in the world accounts for many of the events we experience. Prayer, in this sense, is an appeal, an entreaty, a supplication, plea, request, or petition to this supernatural monarch (often actually called The King of the Universe) for an abrogation of natural law. The devout believer who prays in this way also engages in other activities called prayer. For example, many prayers ask for nothing and simply extoll the greatness of the King of the Universe. These are the prayers of veneration, idolization, worship, adoration, and glorification. However, a moment's reflection upon the function of these prayers quickly reveals that they are merely a subset of the first group, the special pleas and supplications. Apparently, typical religions actually seem to believe that God is like an egotistical king or schoolyard bully: Extreme flattery, homage, and tribute will get you in, on His good side. When you've sufficiently buttered up God's—apparently fragile—ego, He will be more likely to respond favorably to your prayers or, at least, to not be angry and bring suffering down upon you. Finally, these believers engage in a set of superstitious rituals that also can be called prayer but again are seen to be in the service of obtaining miraculous intervention from the Almighty Magician. These are the prayerful rituals of benediction, blessing, consecration, and sanctification in which the Great Sorcerer is asked to have special concern or show special care for a particular person, or for a person who uses a special thing or enters a special place.
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Indeed, that is how I was introduced to religion and how I understood God, prayer, and my relationship to God. It was enormously comforting. It is what people find most meaningful in religion and how they get a profound serenity from "a personal relationship with God." It is why most people become religious. Having had the full experience of this type of prayer, let me stand before you and say that you are missing out on a truly great experience if you've never had this. I urge you to go and join one of the standard religions and to seek this experience with your hearts and mind open to their fullest extent. However, if that were possible for you, you probably wouldn't be here today.
There are three sorts of people for whom that type of religious experience is very difficult. And of course, people don't fit neatly into categories and a person can be one or more of the following. The first group of people who have a hard time with God are the broken ones. These are the ones who have few or no conscious or unconscious memories of being held and comforted as infants and toddlers. Often they are brought up in religious traditions in which they try to experience the loving embrace of a personal relationship with God, but having had no experience of ever being a little one in the protective arms of a large powerful caretaker, they have no analogue, no internal template to turn to. Inside, they experience the world as uncaring, unloving, and dangerous.
Such a person was Sue, a woman who spent more than 20 years of her adult life in mental hospitals. (Cumulatively, more than a full year in seclusion rooms and/or mechanical restraints!) After her mother died during childbirth when Sue was one year old and her father—who had been left alone with seven children to care for—contracted a fatal illness, Sue, at the age of three, entered a children's home where she spent the next six years. It was a very religious children's home and eventually she was adopted by a fundamentalist minister and his wife. By this time, Sue was so frightened, suspicious, and mistrustful that her adoptive parents could not get her to feel safe and act normally. Sue desperately tried to adopt her adoptive parents' religious beliefs. At services, she would always raise her hand when the preacher called for those ready to "take Jesus into your heart." But Sue had no inner sense of being held and loved. As soon as she lowered her hand, the feeling of excitement would turn to dust and nothing remained within. Because of her wickedness, she was subjected to innumerable beatings, exorcisms, and "savings" as she was repeatedly exhorted to try "to expel the devil and take Jesus into her heart" and to stop doing the evil things she did. What evil things? Her adoptive parents ran their own children's home in another state (where Sue went to live with them). When they would enter a room, the children would jump up and down with excitement and glee. Not so Sue. She would hide in the closet, or run outside and hide in the bushes. For her lack of enthusiasm for her adoptive parents, she was deemed wicked, evil, and possessed by the devil.
Sue no longer lives in mental hospitals—and is off the psychiatric drugs that nearly killed her and left her with permanent brain damage—but it was an amazing ordeal for her to get to the point where she could believe that love and caring can possibly be real. It is almost impossible for people like Sue to have a sense of a comforting God for more than a moment or two. For these people, healing in a caring community in which they can come to experience genuine, consistent love for the first time is a prerequisite for more abstract religious experience. For them, care and belonging is a religious experience in its own right. One could say that they only know the serenity of "prayer through action." And for Yoans, holy, righteous activity is, indeed, a form of prayer.
The second group of people who have a hard time obtaining a sense of a relationship to God through prayer are those who, for at least significant parts of their childhood, were brought up without religion. In our society, they comprise a plentiful minority. In Europe today, they are becoming the majority. Brought up in a secular world of science and technology, they often were bewildered by the magical beliefs of the various religious sects they saw around them. Having never had the immensely comforting experience of sitting in the enormous Santa Claus lap of the the Supreme Being's special love and attention, they have a hard time understanding what all the fuss is about. They are the ones who ask why The Way of Yo is a religion and not just a philosophy. They complain that all we seem to be talking about is the wonder of nature. Yet, more often than not, they suffer from the lack of that which they never had: Their lives have an emptiness at the core. The pursuit of material well-being for themselves and their kin in a world that, in their own lifetimes, is becoming palpably and visibly more uninhabitable leaves a hole in their spirit. The pain of their divorces and deaths leaves an ache in their souls for some larger meaning. Yet, they often just can't understand all this talk of Yo or why it could make a difference.
The third group of people who do not pray is comprised of those who were brought up in religious traditions and who had a taste of a personal relationship with God, but who were subsequently disappointed by the cruelty, exclusiveness, and/or superstition that characterized the religion that provided them with their experience of God. For these people, their literal disenchantment left a longing to return to that magical relationship. They often do, indeed, return to their churches and temples at special times and on special occasions. While unable to find what they lost, when they enter a house of worship, they actually are able to tap into a somewhat watered down version of the simplistic but magical devotion and belief they once enjoyed as children. I was one of these people. Many of these people seek alternative religions where they can get some of that experience without swallowing the pernicious nonsense they see religions promulgating. They become Unitarians, Quakers, Pagans, and many others. But having known the comfort of a personal relationship with God, they hunger for a return to the union with the Almighty, All-Powerful, Parental Being who loves and will comfort them.
So how does a Yoan relate to prayer? Clearly the prayer of the broken—the prayer of human community and loving activity, a form of prayer that we all need—is one that Yo responds to directly through the formation and maintenance of the Yoan Community. But what about the spiritual hunger that remains? Once the broken are healed, they too want that relationship with God. What about the other two groups of non-believers? What can the type of prayer I have been describing mean to a Yoan? Can a Yoan have "a personal relationship with God?" See if you can join me as a Yoan as I engage in this type of prayer in two different dialogues with Yo, the Divine Mystery and Source of All-That-Is. These dialogues are longer versions of the brief interchange in heaven between Oscar, The Devout and God, and they are actually very meaningful to me, a person who once had the experience of a very close loving relationship with a God whom I knew as the Almighty King of the Universe. The first is similar to dialogues I actually engage in when I am upset and confused about my life.
[Note: Old habits die hard. I sometimes slip into referring to Yo with that anachronistic word, "God." See Why "Yo?" Where does the word come from?]
Me: Dear God. You created, manifested, and are the universe. Could You not reveal Yourself to me in that personal way I once experienced You?
Yo: What is it you want, Daniel?
Me: I want to feel Your love and special caring like I once did. I want to feel your Being in a personal, direct way.
Yo: You want to feel special and loved directly by Me.
Yo: Who is it that cradles your head, Daniel?
Me: Yes, God. I know that the pillow that comforts me, the food that fills my belly, and the blanket that keeps me warm is You. I am grateful for that and do feel comforted. But, I ache for that special feeling of being loved by You in a personal way.
Yo: Are you not loved and cared for in a personal way?
Me: Yes. My children love me despite our struggles. Cynthia [my wife] loves me and I could turn to her right now and she would hold me and take me in. She would care for me if I were sick. I have friends who enjoy my presence and people who pay me well, providing me with that which I need. But, God, I wish to feel Your presence in my life as I once did.
Yo: Oh, Daniel. Open your eyes fully and see again. Look around you carefully and feel My love. I am more than the pillow that cradles your head, the food in your belly, the warmth that surrounds you, and the air that you breath. More than these miraculous expressions of my love for you, I am also Cynthia and all your children. I am Isaiah [my 10 month old son] racing across the floor excited with my whole being when you enter the room. I am Yo, the Community of Love.
Me: Yes. Yes. I am remembering. It is so.
Yo: Turn to me fully and I will embrace you. I embrace you now as I once embraced you in the form of your father when you crawled across the floor to him. For I am the Universe and all that is in it. Open yourself up to me and feel my love, my direct love for you, Daniel.
That was a short version of the dialogue I have with Yo when I feel anxious, confused, and longing for that special relationship with a personal God. It is a prayerful dialogue that is consistent with Yoan beliefs. Some of you may have some questions about it. You may wonder where Yos voice comes from in the dialogue.
Talking to "God"
I have been advised that it is important to be clear that I am using my imagination when I experience Yo talking to me, i.e., that I am not a hallucinating lunatic. But if I denied hearing the Voice of Yo, I would be lying: God actually talks to me! I am referring to the fact that Yo (the Universe, the Ultimate-Ground-of-Being, Reality) exists and is "talking" (manifesting, emanating, radiating all that is) to us all the time. Yo continuously presents Yoself to us. We simply need to open our minds and senses to hear Yos "voice."
Yes, I use my imagination. But not to hear Yos voice that is always talking to us, loudly and clearly. I simply use my imagination to translate the Word of Yo into words. I open my mind to the experience of Yo and imagine what that experience would be "telling" me if it were speaking in human language. (That is also how I wrote The Word. If you would like a chance to ask questions and have Yo answer you directly and truly click here.)
What about "When bad things happen to good people"?
But some of you may have a more disturbing question. You may ask about how I would pray as a Yoan if my loved ones had just been taken by the Nazis, if there were no food or warmth, or when cancer has stricken my body as may very well occur someday. They say there are no atheists in the foxholes. When instead of the inevitable anxieties and confusions of life, the great horrors are here and death is imminent, how would a Yoan experience a personal relationship with God? In the following dialogue I imagine having someday, I introduce the other main meaning of prayer, prayer as mystical union with Yo.
Me: Dear God, why have you forsaken me?
Yo: How have I forsaken you, Daniel?
Me: You have given me this cancer and my body is racked with pain. All the love from my children, Cynthia, and my friends cannot touch this agony. There is no comfort anywhere. And soon you will take my life from me and I will cease to exist.
Yo: Yes. That is My promise to you, Daniel! I "breathed" life into you. By creating/being/manifesting as a universe with matter and the basic forces, I made/became/am the universe that evolved into humans and became you. In my wisdom, I created/manifest as the universe just as It is, so that you (and all the forms of life that I took on) could be. If It (I) weren't as It is (as I am), you never would have existed and experienced the wonders and love that you now cling to so desperately and rail against Me for bringing to an end.
Me: That is so. But the pain. It is too much.
Yo: Daniel, you know I would never leave you in such agony. My promise to you was to give you life and to allow you/me to experience the wonders and joys of My Creation/Existence. I have done that as I do for all living creatures. Some have relatively long wondrous lives. From my perspective, none have more than brief flashes of existence. But my promise is that the wonders will never be accompanied by pain that cannot be endured. Soon I will take you from this life and deliver you from the pain.
Me: But I don't want to die. Oh, God, why must I die?
Yo: It is time for you to wake from your dream. You have lived in an illusion that you are the being called "Daniel Kriegman, Ph.D." It is time to awaken to your true identity. You are Me. Your eyes are My eyes. As Jerry Garcia, I even sang this to you, "Wake up to discover that you are the eyes of the World." You do not die when your body dies. Only the illusory ego called Daniel Kriegman will come to an end. That illusion is a trick, a delusion, a feat of legerdemain. No, it is not a cruel, arbitrary joke. It was a necessary fiction for it is part of the process of evolution that allowed you to come into being. Without an ego, a cherished self, you would not struggle to exist and protect yourself. It is a functional, evolutionarily adaptive delusion, but a delusion nonetheless.
Me: But it feels like I am dying.
Yo: Yes, your false self—your temporary illusion of separate, isolated existence—is, indeed, dying. It is time for you to come to me. I do not mean when you die. I mean right now, while you are alive. You have no more need for the illusion of ego. You have done all you can to live and to care for your children and your world. Your work is done, Daniel. Now, while your body is alive, it is time to shed your ego and re-awaken to your true self. You know how. I have provided holy sacraments that can help you awaken and realize that—while the ego, Daniel Kriegman, will shortly pass away—you will never die, for you and I are one and the same. Come, Daniel. It is time.
These two prayerful dialogues embody the meaning of prayer to me as a Yoan.