Gamma, gamma, hey!
Neuroscientists who have been studying Buddhist monks and how meditation affects the brain since the early 1990s have made some pretty phenomenal discoveries over the decades. Meditation on subjects such as compassion, loving-kindness and even just following the breath, is shown to have incredible health benefits including slowing aging, decreasing feelings of anxiety, increasing concentration and attention span and minimizing self-centered, egoic thoughts.
As a kid growing up in the Southern Baptist tradition, I was taught that meditation was a gateway activity to Satanism. The reasoning went something like this: “If we just sit and open up our mind, then Satan can come in and fill that void, because suddenly, you’re no longer focusing on how Jesus died for your sins.” There are actual novels out there, written by Evangelical Christians, which I have read, that teach about the evils of meditation – not to mention that other Satanic gateway drug – yoga.
Of course, there are other practices out there that are meditation but we just don’t call it that, such as mindfulness, contemplation, chanting or awareness practices. Meditation isn’t just one thing – but encompasses many different practices all with the same goal, which is becoming aware of the thoughts we think and how, if we give them an inch, they’ll take a mile and lead us down an egoic road of miscreation.
That, of course, is enough proof for those in my tradition to ditch meditation in favor of prayer. Prayer, of course, is just another form of meditation – but our focus is often very different. Prayer, in the Christian sense, is most often used to ask for things, be they material, ethereal or spiritual. We go to God in prayer to ask for a new car, a good outcome to a challenging situation or to become a more patient, loving, kind and spiritual person.
There’s nothing wrong with that and it is part of what A Course in Miracles, in the Song of Prayer, calls “the ladder of prayer.” Praying for things is usually our “on ramp” to prayer. We begin our lives focused on what kind of goodies we can get in this world and so we often treat God as a cosmic vending machine where prayer goes in and stuff comes out.
We can move into that ethereal realm, too. As children we prayed for God to watch over us as we sleep. We prayed a blessing over our daily bread. We prayed for good grades or to be noticed by someone we liked. We also made spiritual supplications, praying to be made good boys and girls so our parents wouldn’t punish us and Santa would bring the goods in December.
These are all steps on the ladder of prayer, according to the Course, from lowest to highest:
1. Praying for material things, because in this bodily world we experience lack;
2. Praying for spiritual things – such as patience, humility, joy or peace, again, because, again, we think we lack these things;
3. Praying to love our enemies, because in this illusion we see others as separate from us, which means they can be against us or attack us in some way.
The next two steps involve praying for and with others. These steps take us higher because we’re beginning to realize that our separation is not real.
The highest form of prayer, though, is meditation. This is where we are no longer asking for anything, because we finally see, as the Course says, that “prayer is a stepping aside; a letting go, a quiet time of listening and loving. It … is a way of remembering your holiness.” If we are praying for any thing, any gift or any one, then we are in a state of separation – a place where we have forgotten who we truly are.
How do you think you manifested that Tesla, anyway?
This revelation that prayer for any other reason but to remember who we are – to give up any thought of our egoic self so that we can “be at one with Love,” as the Coursesays — didn’t set well with me. In fact, it brought up a lot of old Southern Baptist alarms, not just because it flew in the face of everything I had been taught about prayer, but because it appears to contradict the value of praying for and with others.
I think we can all see that praying for things, situations or better spiritual gifts can be selfish forms of prayer that the ego can easily hijack. We like to feel all spiritual making these kinds of supplications – and the Law of Attraction, when improperly used – can even make us think we’re super spiritual because our prayers “manifest” stuff, power or feelings of spiritual superiority. However, this is all evidence of the ego creeping in and perverting your prayer time.
This idea though, that praying for and with one another, while a higher form of prayer is still not its purest form, took me by surprise. Surely, we are to join with each other in prayer. Is that not a form of ending the separation? Well, yes, it is an early form, a stepping stone, to that ultimate goal. The flaw is that we’re still praying for specific things, situations and outcomes whenever we pray with and for one another.
In this place we’re still in the illusion’s belief system that prayer should produce the specific outcomes and manifestations that we’re expecting. In chapter 19 of the Course, we read these words: Everyone who ever tried to use prayer to ask for something has experienced what appears to be failure. The Bible emphasizes that all prayer is answered, and this is indeed true. The very fact that the Holy Spirit has been asked for anything will ensure a response. Yet it is equally certain that no response given by Him will ever be one that would increase fear.
I think this is the key. Most often, when we pray for things, situations and specific outcomes, our prayers are fear-based. We’re afraid things won’t work out as we want them to, then our ego takes a perceived lack of an answer as “proof” that this prayer stuff doesn’t work anyway so we should give up.
God always answers our prayers – we’re most often just not in the place where we can receive them yet. We’re still too busy looking at the world through the ego’s eyes – praying for things, attributes and specific outcomes and forgetting that as innocent, beloved Children of God there is nothing we need. Once we are aware of this ladder of prayer, though, we can choose again and experience the miracle of a new perspective – constantly answered prayers that invite us to see the world through the eyes of love and not the eyes of the ego’s fear.
That step of praying for and with others then turns out to be one of the most important things we can do. The Course, in that same chapter, says: You can no more pray for yourself alone than you can find joy for yourself alone. Prayer is the restatement of inclusion, directed by the Holy Spirit under the laws of God. Salvation is of your [siblings]. The Holy Spirit extends from your mind to [theirs], and answers you. You cannot hear the Voice for God in yourself alone, because you are not alone. And [God’s] answer is only for what you are.
Our prayers, whether they’re for things, attributes or specific outcomes to situations, are never answered in a vacuum. Those answers – even those things – come through other people. You can’t have a Tesla before it was invented by Elon Musk and put together by manufacturers using materials made by other people. Your dream house was constructed by many hands who gathered and formed the material and drew up the blueprints. Prayer is a communal activity and the answers we receive are a restatement of inclusion – an end to separation and a reminder of who we truly are.
The ego, of course, likes to contradict all of this and remind you that the car, the swimming pool and everything else you think you need is for you alone to enjoy and you alone brought them into your existence. This is why prayer for things, situations and outcomes is the lowest form of prayer because it can be so easily manipulated. That higher form of prayer – praying for and with others – is the gateway we need to go even higher, to that form of prayer that “asks nothing and receives everything,” or what the Apostle Paul, in 1 Thessalonians 5:17 calls, “praying without ceasing.”
Gamma, gamma, hey!
One of those studies on the Buddhist monks produced one amazing result: For the first time, researchers were able to detect that monks who had trained for many years in meditation were able not just to generate gamma brain waves, but to sustain them. Gamma waves happen to each of us whenever we have some manner of insight, or “ah ha” moment, like when we solve a puzzle or take a bit of delicious food. The monks could sustain those kinds of waves for up to a minute, which may not sound like much, but we mere mortals only experience gamma waves for about a fifth of a second.
If the Apostle Paul were here today, he’d use these monks as an example of praying without ceasing because they are able to reach an ongoing state of open, rich awareness in their daily lives – not just when they’re on their meditation cushion. Indeed, the research showed that these monks could maintain those gamma waves even as they slept. They truly do pray without ceasing.
Now, someone reading this may be able to achieve this altered state of consciousness and can produce those fairly constant gamma waves. For those of us who haven’t gotten there yet, there is hope. Because now we understand that prayer, when used as a vehicle for things, situations and specific outcomes is not how we remember who we are. It’s okay to pray this way, but these types of prayer are our cosmic training wheels. As the Course says, again from The Song of Prayer: Prayer is tied up with learning until the goal of learning has been reached, which means we have to go through these stages of learning to reach the highest rung of prayer: meditation that focuses on love alone.
“Well,” you might be thinking, “how’s that gonna change the world?”
I’ll tell you. It changes the world because once you emerge from that state of gamma brainwave activity – and perhaps one day manage to keep it going for more than a fifth of a second – you change. Instead of looking out at the world and seeing things to have, situations to work out how you want or outcomes to be just so, you see a world where the only thing you want is for all of these seemingly disparate beings you encounter to realize their unity – their divinity – their absolute beauty and grandeur.
If that is what you see, how do you think you’ll act in the world? Instead of seeking to fulfill your own desires, because you are afraid of not having enough or being enough, you’ll seek ways to serve and bring so much love into this world that all you will encounter are those kinds of opportunities – because you know everything you will ever really need in this physical realm will arrive when you need it.
Jesus shows us how it’s done in one short scene from the first chapter of Mark that tells us he went to a deserted place to pray. That place Jesus went to was probably a physically desolate place, but that Greek word also denotes a place where there is nothing – a state of mind where we are empty of our ego. The word used for prayer can mean “supplication” but it also means “to worship.”
Jesus is showing us that true prayer – that top of the rung – recognizes that this world is illusion and invites us to go beyond it, into the nothingness of God’s realm and to just worship – or be present there – instead of asking for specific things or outcomes. “That nothingness,” the Course says, “becomes the altar of God. It disappears in God. Herein lies the power of prayer. It asks nothing and receives everything.”
This place of nothingness is what our ego fears the most because in this place it can no longer exist. This is the place where WE truly exist though, which is why we can share this type of prayer with others, because this field of spirit is their true, divine, egoless home as well. This is the field out beyond right and wrong that the Muslim mystic poet Rumi invites us to meet him in.
Guess what happens when we go to that place? Prayers are answered, because we have ended the separation and dispelled fear. The Course, again from The Song of Prayer, says: Perhaps the specific form of resolution for a specific problem will occur to either of you; it does not matter which. Perhaps it will reach both, if you are genuinely attuned to one another. It will come because you have realized that Christ is in both of you. That is its only truth.
Jesus shows us how to put this into practice. After his meditation, he says to his disciples: “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.”
In meditation, Jesus remembers who he is and he remembers why he came here and when he arises – that message is still within him – a constant prayer that he then puts into action by doing what he came to do. We are here to do what we are all called to do. We are all called to pray without ceasing – to climb that ladder of prayer that leads us away from praying for the temporary goodies of the world and instead sets our sights on the eternal riches of God’s realm.
I invite you to engage in this highest form of prayer as often as you can and then go into the world to proclaim and become the message of love, for that is what we came here to do.
Founder of Motley Mystic and the Jubilee! Circle interfaith spiritual community In Columbia, S.C., Candace Chellew (she/her) is the author of Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians (Jossey-Bass, 2008). Founder and Editor Emeritus of Whosoever, she earned her masters of theological studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, was ordained by Gentle Spirit Christian Church in December 2003, and trained as a spiritual director through the Omega Point program of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. She is also a musician and animal lover.