We usually think of prayer as an appeal to some higher power. 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 belief that we don’t have the power to change things ourselves—if we did, we would simply get on with the task—so we beseech a higher power to intervene on our behalf.
But what is it really that needs to be changed? Mostly we seek to change the world in order to create the circumstances 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 finally be at peace. However, when we look more closely at why we are not at peace, we may find that the root of our discontent lies not so much in the situation at hand, but more in how we interpret it.
If I am stuck in a traffic jam, I can see it either as something that will make me suffer in some way—being late for an appointment, missing some experience, or upsetting someone—and so begin to feel anxious, impatient or frustrated. Alternatively, I can see it as an opportunity to relax, and take it easy for a few minutes. The same situation; two very opposite reactions. Yet the difference is purely in how I am seeing things.
When I catch myself feeling upset in some way, I find it helpful to remember that my annoyance might be coming from the way I am interpreting the situation. If so, it makes more sense to ask, not for a change in the world, but for a change in my perception.
So that is what I pray for. I settle into a quiet state, then ask, with an attitude of innocent curiosity: “Could there, perhaps, be another way of seeing this?” I don’t try to answer the question myself; to do so would doubtless activate the thinking-mind, which loves to try and work things out for me. So I simply pose the question. Let it go. And wait.
Often a new way of seeing then dawns on me. It does not come as a verbal answer, but as an actual shift in perception. I find myself seeing the situation in a new way.
One memorable shift happened a while ago when I was having some challenges with my then partner. She was not behaving the way I thought she should. (How many of us have not felt that at times?) After a couple of days of strained relationship, I decided to pray in this way, just gently 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 changed. 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.
The results of praying like this never ceases to impress me. I find my fears and grievances dropping 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 perspective often seems so obvious: Why hadn’t I seen this before?
The beauty of this approach is that I am not praying for intervention in the world, but for intervention in my mind, for that’s where help is needed most.
Nor am I praying to some external power. I am praying to my self for guidance—to the inner Self that sees things as they are without the overlay of my hopes and fears. It recognizes when I have become caught in the ego’s way of thinking, and is ever-willing to help set me free.
Peter Russell is a leading thinker on consciousness and contemporary spirituality. He is the author of nine other books, including The Global Brain, Waking Up in Time, and From Science to God.
Peter believes that the critical challenge today is to free human thinking from the limited beliefs and attitudes that lie behind so many of our problems - personal, social, and global. His mission is to distill the essential wisdom on human consciousness found in the world’s various spiritual traditions, and to disseminate their teachings on self-liberation in contemporary and compelling ways.
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