Before I can begin to talk about prayer and how it relates to inner work, I am going to have to speak about a few misconceptions. I even hesitate to use the word prayer because for almost all modern cultures prayer has come to mean petition, a request from a man to God, and from the point of view of esotericism it is not possible for a man to speak to God, and even if a man could speak to God, God could not, in the majority of cases, answer his prayers.
Gurdjieff liked to say that man is in a bad place in the universe. What this means is that there are certain scales or levels of perception where man doesn’t reach. The analogy given by Ouspensky is that God cannot communicate to you in the same way your will cannot directly affect an individual cell in your body, and you cannot talk to God in the same way a cell in your body has no real way to communicate with you. The scale is simply too different. (You can, for instance, affect the movement of your hands because the scale of your hands is much closer to the scale of your entire being.)
In ordinary religious thought, it is supposed that God’s omnipotence means that He can come down to our level and change the circumstances of our lives, that he can, for instance, bring rain to the desert, or make a handsome man love a homely woman, or stop a war, or end suffering. But this is exactly what He cannot do.
This is a story that Ouspensky tells in In Search of the Miraculous:
(There was) a student of a seminary who, at a final examination, does not understand the idea of God’s omnipotence.
“Well, give me an example of something that the Lord cannot do,” said the examining bishop.
“It won’t take long to do that, your Eminence,” answered the seminarist. “Everyone knows that even the Lord himself cannot beat the ace of trumps with the ordinary deuce.”
There is more sense in this silly story than in a thousand theological treatises. The laws of a game make the essence of the game. A violation of these laws would destroy the entire game. The Absolute can as little interfere in our life and substitute other results in the place of the natural results of causes created by us, or created accidentally, as he can beat the ace of trumps with the deuce. Turgenev wrote somewhere that all ordinary prayers can be reduced to one: “Lord, make it so that twice two be not four.”
So if prayer is not a petition to God, what is it? Put simply prayer, like being present and self-remembering, is a method of connecting to higher centers. It is the uttering of a (usually short) sequence of words that has a particular significance to the person who recites it. In esoteric Christian literature the most famous prayer is the ‘Jesus Prayer:’ Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me. This is just seven words, but the monks who recited this prayer had definite aims connected to repeating each phrase, and, in some cases, each word.
Before we come to the aims of prayer, it is good to remember that real prayer requires a certain level of knowledge and preparation. For instance almost all discussions I have read on the uses of prayer come back to an understanding of the four lower centers. A man who has no understandings or observations of the different centers and how they work cannot be expected to get the same results as a man who has spent years observing himself and has clear observations about the differences between the instinctive/moving center, the emotional center, and the intellectual center.
So here are just a few possible aims for the use of prayer.
Prayer as a method of dispelling unwanted passions. A monk in a monastery will use prayer to keep his mind clear of passionate thoughts. His inner work is dependent on his feelings. He strives to purify his heart, and prayer is one of the methods he employs. In certain texts in the Philokalia prayer is divided into three types: oral or bodily prayer, prayer of the mind, and prayer of the heart.
Just as there are three elements in man, so there are three degrees of prayer. ~ Hieromonk Kallistos
Prayer of the body is simply the reciting of certain words or phrases. This may be done in combination with kneeling or standing or movements (like prostrations). The aim of the monk here is to bring the instinctive and moving center under his control. By forcing the mind to repeat a prayer, he doesn’t allow the instinctive center to indulge itself in certain kinds of imagination. In a sense all he is doing is keeping the mind busy so that it cannot involve itself with lustful or covetous or frustrated thoughts.
Prayer as a method of focusing the mind. Prayer of the mind is considered more advanced than prayer of the body. Prayer of the mind is a method in which the monk tries to understand or realize certain religious concepts or truths. While he prays his mind is active. He doesn’t just repeat, Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me. He tries to understand what he saying. He questions himself. Who is Jesus Christ, and what does he represent to me? What does it mean that he is my Lord? Why must he have mercy? And who is this me that I call I? Am I unified? Am I a sinner? Am I deserving of his Lord’s compassion? And so on.
These prayers are, so to speak, recapitulations; by repeating them aloud or to himself a man endeavors to experience what is in them. ~ G. I. Gurdjieff
Prayer of the heart. In the texts from the Philokalia prayer of the heart is considered to be the highest form of prayer.
As best I can understand it, prayer of the heart is the contemplation of a subject (we’re not talking about words anymore) using higher centers. All the material we have on the prayer of the heart is all written in religious or ecstatic language. But the steps are clear. First there is a great emphasis on cleansing the heart of all passions and negativity by using lesser forms of prayer. This takes time and work and friction. But if this work is done correctly, there comes a point where the emotional center works of its own energy; at that moment the heart can be said to be purified. Remember Ouspensky describes the emotional center as an ‘organ of perception.’ But first it must be cleansed of greed and anger and other negative emotions because negative emotions drain the energy of the emotional center.
The transformation of suffering or negative emotions allows for the possibility of a wordless contemplation. When higher centers function, you have what you want. You are in a higher state of consciousness, and the prayer of the heart is one way you can use that time. In other words you can choose to contemplate any subject and use the higher perception you have gained to understand what you cannot ordinarily understand. This is what Ouspensky writes of his ‘miraculous’ experiences in Finland: The thought came to my mind that in this unusual state I might perhaps find answers to questions which I could not find in the ordinary way. (In Search of the Miraculous)
Prayer as a method of remembering. Ouspensky was interested in using prayer as a method of creating a continuous reminder to remember himself. He clearly made certain experiments in this area, but most of them seem to have been done before he met Gurdjieff. He believed that it is possible to achieve something through prayer but only in combination with fasting and breathing exercises, which he didn’t recommend for his students. He also believed that in order to achieve anything real, through the repetition of prayer, you would need complete solitude, at least for a time. What we are talking about here is a continuous repetition of a prayer as it is described in The Way of the Pilgrim; that is, an attempt to take one short prayer and repeat it without stopping for all your waking hours.
During my travels in Russia, I came across a copy of The Way of the Pilgrim and read it in a couple of days. Like Ouspensky, I was interested in making my own experiments. For about three weeks, while I was in Moscow, I chose to repeat (to myself) a prayer of my own invention. I recited it mainly while I was walking on the streets or while I was in the Metro. When I was with friends or at a concert or eating in a restaurant, I made no attempt to repeat the prayer. To some extent I’m sure that this repetition helped me focus my attention on my aim to be present. Obviously I sometimes forgot what the real aim was—to be present—and I would find myself, for instance, sitting in the train in the metro repeating the words to my prayer mechanically. I would awaken to my sleep because the words themselves reminded me. This in itself was useful. And it reminded me of other exercises I had tried in the past. For instance, when I drive or ride in a car, I sometimes pick out a signpost or any other stationary object along the side of the road and try to be present until I reached that marker, and then once I passed that marker, I would choose another marker, and so on. It’s clear from this exercise and others that setting a time limit on an effort makes it more manageable, which is what I noticed with the prayer. Since I only tried to recite it while involved in certain activities, it had the effect of helping me focus on being present during those activities.
It was a strange time in Russia. This was not long after the collapse of the Soviet Union and much of the old ways of doing things still existed, especially in the suburbs and the towns surrounding Moscow. It was winter at the time and there a considerable amount of snow everywhere. Once I was walking from the Metro station to the apartment where I was staying. I was cold and tired, but I decided to stop in a closed market to buy something for the woman I was staying with. The market was in the soviet style; that is, a group of, in this case maybe twenty, wooden stalls. At each stall only a small number of items were sold, sometimes no more than two or three. When I saw that a woman at one of the stalls was selling dried apricots, I decided to get a couple of bags for my friend because it was an item that was not usually available. In order to buy the apricots, I had to first stand in line at the stall where the apricots were on display. When I got to the front of that line, I had to tell the woman what I wanted (in this case, two bags of apricots). She then wrote something on a slip of paper, gave it to me, and set the apricots aside. I then had to go to another line to pay for the apricots. When I got to the front of that line and paid, the cashier stamped my slip of paper, and then I had to go back to the first line and wait again. Finally when got to the front of that line, I gave the first woman the stamped receipt and collected the apricots. The whole process took forty minutes.
Obviously, there was a certain amount of frustration connected with standing in line for so long. But because I was reciting my prayer, my frustration was, to some extent, transformed. Unlike most other times I had recited the prayer, there was a resistance to what I was doing. My instinctive function, because it was cold and tired, wanted to complain, at least to myself, about the cold and about the whole inefficiency of soviet-style marketplaces; that is, it wanted to use the intellectual center to vent its frustration. My intellectual center was more or less neutral; it was just as happy to recite the prayer as it was to complain. What I saw was that the repetition of prayer was a good tool to help me stop the expression of negative emotions. The very act of repeating the words forced me to see my frustration for what it was: the instinctive function trying to vent energy that it was uncomfortable with. In a sense the intellectual center validates our negativity by stating it, even if it is only to ourselves. And truthfully, at that moment, I was not making much of an effort to understand the words of the prayer; I just repeated it. But, in this case, it was enough to dispel my unwanted frustration and anger.
It would be some years later, when I was back in California, that I returned to using prayer as a method to better remember myself. At the time I was at a stage in my life where I was convinced that I needed to bring more intensity to my inner work. I was experimenting with a number of exercises, some of them physical, some of them mental. I was also working physically hard at the time. I started with a short, and variable, prayer. At first I just recited it when I remembered, but then it occurred to me that I should count the number of times I recited it each day. I kept a tally and began to fairly quickly increase the number of repetitions. At night if I didn’t reach the number I had set for myself, I stayed awake until I did. It was when I reached eight hundred repetitions a day that I began to see certain possibilities as well as certain dangers.
Ouspensky said that theoretically it is possible to pass a prayer from the intellectual center to the moving center. I’m not sure about this, but, more importantly, I am not sure that I would want this experience. What I saw from my experiments is that once the prayer becomes more or less continuous, it is not passed to the moving center; instead, the intellectual center becomes connected to the mechanical part of the moving center. And that the longer and more often I recited the prayer, the stronger this connection became. In order for you to understand why this is a danger, you need to understand that sleep at night is possible only when the lower centers disconnect.
A man’s sleep is nothing else than the interrupted connections between centers. ~ Gurdjieff
If you have difficulty falling asleep, it is often because your centers have not disconnected. In some cases the emotional center will connect with thoughts and keep us up at night. In my case what I began to notice was that I had difficulty disconnecting the moving brain from my intellectual center. In other words, when I was ready to relinquish the prayer, it kept repeating itself automatically. The strength of the connection between the lower parts of the moving and intellectual center had become so habitual that it started to become difficult for me to break the connection.
At the same time I realized that I didn’t want my experiences of higher centers to have, so to speak, a background noise of words automatically repeating in my head. For one thing, it wasn’t very interesting, but more importantly, if I filled the space in my mind with a prayer, it didn’t allow the space to be filled with other thoughts, inspirations, and realizations.
Really what I came to understand from this experience is that essentially remembering is emotional. Perhaps it would be better to say that remembering is ultimately based on the emotional perception of what we see and hear. When we see that people are asleep, that people are mechanical, that people are identified, we are reminded to not be asleep, to not be mechanical, and to not identify. The way this works is that an emotional state tends to feed back on itself by showing us the reality of the world. To really remember, to get to a place where we are reminded about remembering ourselves, we need the energy of the emotional center, because it is only that energy that is powerful enough to keep us in the moment.
If you want to experiment with a very simple prayer or repetition, I can recommend one, which is slightly adapted from an exercise given by Gurdjieff in Views from the Real World. The prayer is: I wish to be present. When you say ‘I’ try to feel it sound in your head; when you say, ‘wish’ try to feel it sound in the lower part of your back; when you say ‘to be’ try to feel it sound in your chest; and when you say ‘present’ try to remember all of yourself. I am comfortable reciting this prayer at a speed of two or three breaths. You can inhale on ‘I’, exhale on ‘wish,’ inhale on ‘to be,’ and exhale on ‘present;’ or you can take a full breath on both ‘to be’ and on ‘present.’ You will probably find that three breaths are more comfortable when you are sitting or passive, and that two breaths are more comfortable when you are walking or active. The breath should not be forced in any way; it should feel natural.
If you try this for ten minutes when you are tired, you will probably find that afterward you feel refreshed. The way it works is simple: when you move your attention from your head to your lower back and then to your chest, what you are actually doing is ‘sounding a bell’ first in your intellectual center, second in the instinctive/moving center, and then third in the emotional center. (With some practice the fourth bell, when you try to be present to all of yourself, will sound in the higher emotional center.) The way Gurdjieff explains this is that the large accumulator is energized when the small accumulators, which are connected to each center, work in a definite order.
In the end it needs to be remembered that prayer is a method of the second way, which is a way of belief, contemplation, and solitude. Prayer, if it is to work in the Fourth Way, must have some serious adaptations. It must be adapted for people who have jobs, who have families, and who live in ordinary life.