A reader of this blog (aka my mother) wrote in with this question:
How do you pray if you do not believe in a higher power. I don’t say there is not one but for me it does not make sense. I find joy in nature, in seeing a baby, in laughing with friends but that isn’t prayer, at least I don’t think so. I am thankful for the love I receive from friends & family. But I don’t see a motive power outside of the interaction of the people who love. I am thankful that Bill stopped me committing suicide and thankful for the concern shown by my two daughters. But was that connected to an outside power? To believe that conflicts with my scientific bent.
I have been pondering this question ever since, and here are some of the things I have thought about.
My first response was this: I do believe (and I think that most faith traditions would back me up) that a person does not have to believe in God to pray and to get something good from praying. Or as my friend Barb put it,
“You don’t have to believe Someone is out there to say ‘Thanks!’”
My second response has been: since I do experience God’s love wrapped warm around me when I pray, perhaps I am not the person to tackle this question after all. Perhaps I should instead point folks toward the wisdom of traditions like Buddhism, in which meditation is fundamental, but the existence of God is neither central, nor indeed is it something which stirs much consideration at all. Advances in brain science can now show us pictures of what we guessed all along—prayer (or meditation) actually changes our brains and our reality) for the better. Read more from NPR here.
But my best answer to the question, How do you pray if you do not believe in a higher power? is to be found in my sermon On Praying, which I preached to a Unitarian Universalist congregation some years ago. I reread it just now, and do not have much to add.
The simple answer is this—just do it. Sit in silent meditation, if that calls to you. Or start a gratitude journal, if that is more your style. Or start a simple, slow yoga practice. None of these requires “belief”. All that is required is a willingness to pause, and to try something new. Read the poets Mary Oliver and Jane Hirshfield, and practice opening up to awe, to Mystery, to the numinous.
Take a tiny step, start a small practice, let it grow organically in your life and in your soul.
Perhaps, in these practices, you will find hints of the Holy, catch a glimpse of God, see the fingerprints of Mystery. Perhaps not. Either way, you can keep practicing. I believe that gratitude is never wasted, and that paying attention (to the world around you, and to the stirrings in your own heart) is never futile.