Prayer and Brainwashing

In the last post I talked about feelings — particularly, feelings that are often labeled “spiritual,” and said they may seem more “immaterial” if we are generally unfamiliar with them by training, by habit, and due to a general “negativity bias.”

When I started going to AA, I was a little afraid of being “brainwashed,” but due to a familiarity with therapy, and with some basics of psychology, and a lot of familiarity with culture and anthropology, I was ready to see that there was something to learn—that, as I told my therapist, “maybe my brain could use a bit of a wash.”

A lot of “spiritual growth,” or “recovery,” or “growing up”—whatever you want to call it—has to do with retraining our awareness. Adjusting our habitual negativity bias.

This involves learning to place the attention on positive feeling-states, to notice them more, their quality, the circumstances that help create them or nurture them. This way we may learn to become more active in helping create and nurture the positive in our own lives, as well as notice them more when they arise.

It also involves noticing negative and positive thoughts, and beginning to counter and replace the negative with positive alternatives.

For me, what many call “prayer” is, in fact, just this form of “retraining the self.” We consciously choose to repeat positive reminders, affirmations, hopes and intentions to ourselves. Why is this helpful? Chiefly because we tend to be well-practiced in repeating negative thoughts to ourselves. We can be so steeped in regular negative thinking—self-judgement, anger, resentment, fear—that we have to work hard to include positive alternatives in our lives, and doing so can feel alien, unnatural, almost like we’re lying to ourselves, because the negative feels so real, so much like home.

Put more simply: I’m always talking to myself, so much that I barely even notice it when I’m in a “mindless” sort of state. And my typical self-talk has always been pretty negative. But “prayer” is, basically, mindfully bringing positive self-talk into the picture.

I like to say “mantra.” Specific repeatable mantras or sayings are helpful because they can be learned and remembered as useful little tools. Trying to come up with positive thoughts on the spot can be a challenge; having a memorized little saying can be helpful.

Since I’m trying to repeat something helpful to myself, in order that my feeling-state may head in a positive direction, when I encounter prayers that seem to be directed at a deity or “greater power,” how can I deal with those?

Well, I basically just direct them at myself. I am quite literally entreating myself to help myself, to redirect myself. So why not?

Feelings, Thoughts, and “Spiritual” Experiences

I’ve been thinking about spirituality, and spiritual experiences or “awakening” lately. I’ve always been drawn to things some would call spiritual or metaphysical, as well as complex, difficult-to-describe systems such as evolution or culture. I never quite like the word “spiritual,” nor the word “god,” though, but I see “god” and “spirituality” work for people, as frameworks that help people manage, enjoy, endure, and live their lives.

I myself have had experiences I have regarded as “feeling spiritual,” but what is it about such experiences that gives them that feeling?

“Spiritual” includes the word spirit, which really just means “not the body,” or rather, the immaterial. In other words, one way of looking at it is just another word pointing to things we can’t really point at or easily describe or explain.

What do you mean when you say you feel spiritual? When I hear people talk about it, the following other words tend to crop up:

  • acceptance
  • surrender, or “letting go,” which is basically the same as acceptance
  • forgiveness (also a sort of acceptance/letting go; all three I would say are a form of “coming to the present”)
  • humility
  • gratitude
  • connectedness, or a sense of being a part of something larger than oneself (both humility and gratitude might come into play here)
  • perhaps a sense of perceiving beauty in the world or universe, which might be a feeling similar to:
  • bliss/joy
  • serenity
  • equanimity
  • tranquility
  • a sense of feeling cared for, or perhaps of not needing to worry
  • a sense that one is loved, or perhaps a sense of self-acceptance, and/or a reduction or lack of concern for the judgement of others

A lot of these have to do with being in the present moment and what is, not mentally clinging or grasping at the future or the past, or fighting against what is for what one would rather be. They are about feeling OK with—grateful for, even—the present moment.

The above is not meant to be exhaustive, my aim is only to explore ways in which what we typically term “spiritual” really, for me, points to feeling-states, emotions, our sense of ourselves and our place in the world—all of which may seem immaterial, difficult to point to, but that doesn’t make it magical or supernatural. It’s not even metaphysical.

Feelings are bodily. Our “sense” of things comes from the body. Heck, our “mind” comes from our body. For me, it’s an emergent property of our biology, much like many seemingly (or actually!) orderly, complicated patterns can emerge from extremely complex activity.

One might just as well say that a lot of negative, “non-spiritual” feelings are also “immaterial,” such as fear, jealousy, anger… What are they? Where do they come from? But we are, perhaps, more familiar with the negative. Many of us have negativity bias, learned ways of thinking and habits of placing our attention on the negative. We can practice placing our attention on the positive, noticing opportunities for acceptance, surrender, gratitude, and working at equanimity and serenity.

I feel it’s more useful to talk about the specifics above (and even they require exploration) than to speak of spirituality, which can really get people off the track.