From hokey to eternity

“Love is not restricted by limitations. For love does not have any bounds, being as aspect of the Infinite Love. If one has love for something physical, then this physical thing becomes a vessel for love. But when one has love for the Infinite Being, then her love is clothed in the Infinite. Both the love and its vessel are then boundless.”

(Imrei Tzaddikim, trans. Ayeh Kaplan)

At our last meeting a dear friend related how in her experience she found  an initial bit of psychic friction when doing an openly devotional practice, which dissolved as the practice took hold. Her words struck a chord, saying at one point that the whole thing started out hokey, but soon became profoundly “non-hokey.”

Openly, unabashedly devotional practices, as found in many of the world’s religions, often appear infantile to us, especially those of us initially drawn to the meditational and rational systems within Buddhism.

Devotion can be frankly embarrassing from these perspectives.

But I would we suggest we not be so quick to judge.

On the surface, the prayer enterprise seems utterly preposterous. Prayer seems absurd, and it is. Yes, it imagines a God and seemingly asks for favors, at least in some popular forms.

Yes, devotion implies a devoted to, and with it we seem to cement duality. And duality, of course, is implicated as the metaphysical culprit behind our very human malaise, the stunning conundrum of being human.

Yes, prayer is based not only on weak metaphysics and pre-rational thought, it’s also, well, hokey.

Yes, but when was the last time you prayed?

Not since I was a kid, you might quickly, and exasperatedly, reply.

Yes, prayer is preposterous, but so is the heart. The heart speaks a language which the mind often rebukes.  And in the end, heart trumps mind.

Much of the refinement of certain seemingly rational philosophical and meditative systems has been the product of this split, with the mind wrestling with the heart, and winning a sort of victory.

But as Jay Michaelson observes, after many years of study, the principles which he found the most transformative have been the most banal –they could fit on a bumper sticker. And Jay has been there and done that (mystical Judaism, and elite nondual Hinduism and Buddhism).

The capstone of any deep transformation is the full engagement of the heart: a naked heart completely unashamed of itself.

Nonduality is not quite the adversary of prayer we often imagine it be; it’s quite the opposite. I think it is because of nonduality that we can even begin to pray, and pray meaningfully.

It starts out hokey, then turns utterly, stunningly, non-hokey (thanks to Gloria for the line) precisely because of nonduality. As we allow the insights of nonduality to sink in, the stubborn veils of the ego are lifted, the self is seen as a construct, and the pretensions of knowledge drop away.


It turns out we don’t have a clue, and that’s perfectly, brilliant fine!

This is the birth of the great I don’t know, the liberating trumpet blast of the text we looked at earlier—the sublime negative treasure of The Cloud of Unknowing, the blessings of negative theology.

We relax when we finally get it that we don’t get and maybe never will get it.

This grand unknowingness gives the heart permission to express itself, and that expression is often one of yearning. A yearning we have often silenced through rational, systematic deconstructionist meditation.

Let me leave you with a few thoughts from Raymond Sigrist. He charts the path of what he calls “pragmatic apophatic mysticism” in his brilliant book “In Love With Everything: Apophatic Mysticism. The Benefits and Dangers of Love without Reason.”

Sigrist explains that “it does not matter that you have prayed to a god that does not exist. This is probably because in praying to a perceived external power you have implicitly recognized that what you want will require that you engage and collaborate with a complex of unidentifiable forces located both within and far beyond your own psyche.”

Prayer, aided by the fragmentation bombing of nonduality, encourages a deeper and fuller surrender of the ego.

Sigrist, I think, agrees with me on this last point, and adds that “this psychological and neurological surrender resets and optimizes the resonance among the forces that are coming to the fore, enhancing the resonance between your psyche and the world it inhabits … Whether or not the prayer phenomenon demonstrates the existence of a god is of no interest to the apophaticist. He is only interested in the quality of the fruit, not the correct identification of the tree.”

Thank you Raymond. Thank you Gloria. Thank you Sangha. Thank you everything and everybody!

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  1. I’m fascinated by your encomium to the “liberating trumpet blast of the text we looked at earlier—the sublime negative treasure of The Cloud of Unknowing, the blessings of negative theology”. I’m not sure how this is superior and more worthy of praise than ordinary not-having-a-clue. Take monism & non-duality for example. Though I could stir my brain cells to remember what those terms mean in practical terms, if they do mean anything in practical terms, I’ve reverted to ignorance about them, like the man in the street.

    Yes, I don’t get it and never will, but the simpletons I pass in the street are in the same boat and it’s no big deal.

    As for prayer, I thought I knew what that is, but reading your post, I’m not so sure. Is prayer preposterous, “hokey”? Only to the mind, as you say. Which is like saying “Only to my Intel processor, for the mind is a servant, not a judge, in a well-run organism. The intellect being an overgrowth of intelligence as the horns on an elk are an overgrowth of secondary sex characteristics in the male – an evolutionary quirk.

    For all I know, prayer is a primary function, built-in and essential. For all I know, a slug can pray. For all its defencelessness from predators and careless feet, for all its physical limitations, it’s a highly successful species.

    Whereas in man, the thing that makes it most powerful of the fauna also makes it the most foolish.

    1. Vincent–so much to say here!

      Two of your remarks are juicy:

      “the sublime negative treasure of The Cloud of Unknowing, the blessings of negative theology”. I’m not sure how this is superior and more worthy of praise than ordinary not-having-a-clue.”


      “Yes, I don’t get it and never will, but the simpletons I pass in the street are in the same boat and it’s no big deal”

      I feel the difference between the so-called simpletons on the street , the ordinary not-having-a-clue experience and the experience gained as a fruit of the negative theological practice as taught in the Cloud of Unknowing can be appreciated in this way:

      Most likely the person who makes his or her way to the Cloud of Unknowing has done so as a result of some prior experience with spiritual life in some fashion or other. This person may have gone though the usual ups and downs (a heightened sense of anguish, curiosity, anxiety, urgency, bliss, or dissociation). This person may deep inner conflicts regarding theological issues. When they encounter this text, and do as it instructs, sitting with a “naked intent,” piercing God with a “dart of longing,” and absolutely ceasing any thoughts of God, putting them into “the cloud of forgetting,” one comes to an experience of love that overwhelms the psyche. But it is achieved without the involvement of the intellectual capacity. The person then knows in a non-intellectual manner, and as such they don’t have an (intellectual) clue, but this not knowing is quite far form not caring It’s the blossoming of deep, deep, love the likes of which many have never experienced before.

      You are clueless simpleton, cluelessly in love with everything, to borrow a phrase from Raymond’s wonderful book title.

      And my goodness, how brilliant the rest of your comments!

  2. Yes indeed Tom, I agree on that excellent point: “encourages a deeper and fuller surrender of the ego.”

    And I think it is instructive that you say “deeper and fuller.”

    Spiritual poverty, as seen in both Zhuangzi (“I depend on what I don’t know.”) and some of the Christian mystics like San Juan de la Cruz (pobreza espiritual), is an efficacious perspective. I think there is a disadvantage in claiming that I can completely eliminate the ego. In fact, it might even be the ego that makes such claims.

    Gloria’s report is quite on the mark.  When I was a volunteer interfaith chaplain in a in California hospital I found it useful at times to pray with folks, using their theology (implicitly at least), even though I did not profess to these same truth claims. (Although, conveniently for these occasions, I also did not, and do not, rule out the truths they held in their hearts.)

    Intellectually this appears dishonest. But was it really? In the praying together, the client and myself were both acknowledging that in order to effectively cope with the situation they were in, we needed to find a perspective that could transcend the boundaries of typical habitual thought patterns and machinations.

    What I found interesting was that we could access a dynamic process that was not as available even by listening with that powerful tool which Carl Rogers called “unconditional positive regard” (Carl Rogers)

    As soon as we started to pray, the gestalt in the hospital room shifted markedly, and sometimes dramatically. The discursive thought of ordinary mind nearly completely vanished. Something from the center of our being had become acutely awake. Something quite beyond the thought of having or not having a God.  It is something Meister Eckhart prayed for: “I pray God to be rid of God.” What striking results I experienced from those artless prayers!

    By the way if there is a God, it is apparent that she loves us so much that it does not matter whether or not we believe she exists. I do and I don’t. Like Zhuangzi, I don’t know anything for sure, and that seems to help me get as far away from the claims of the “I” as I can.

    Thanks Patricia, for posting that beautiful Hafiz

  3. “When all your desires are distilled
    You will cast just two votes:
    To love more.
    And be happy.”

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