An Atheist's Faith:
A Spiritual View of Belief & Prayer
Belief and Prayer
What does the world look and feel like when one is dead? What might it feel like if observed from the eyes of a different creature, say a frog or a deep-sea fish? After some soul searching, most of us would probably say, “I don’t know,” or perhaps, “could be anything.” It is this acknowledgment of one’s ignorance that serves as the very basis of spirituality, also called belief. And, it is this acknowledgment of not knowing, which opens up a field of endless possibilities. But spirituality goes further, it assumes that an individual seeking to explore this realm of infinite possibilities does not rest at mere curiosity, but undertakes sincere steps and actions to actualize this exploration. For more details on what spirituality and belief entail, read the articles, ‘Spirituality: Do Belief and Faith Matter’ and ‘Spirituality: What it is. Really.’
One such activity is prayer, which is merely an attempt at communication with this realm of potentiality that lies beyond one’s immediate sensory, cognitive and intellectual perception. For ages, this simple activity has been couched in religious and theological terms, but in essence it remains an attempt to initiate contact with the Great Unknown, and that which is unknowable (and therefore, untranslatable) to the sensory, rational faculties. The great Sufi Master, Shaykh Abdul Qadir Jilani alludes to this ineffable nature of Reality when he states that while the Names and Qualities of God (Sifat) are knowable, the Essence (Dhat) is hidden. This also explains the ancient Judaic reluctance to name God (other than through the letters, YHWH). This sentiment is echoed across cultures and times by other sages. The Upanishads refer to this dimension as Achintya or Unknowable. Similarly, the Taoist saying, “He who knows It, says It not” is a reference to this paradox. This subtle and Infinite Principle, often called, God is therefore only related to via a variety of qualities such as Merciful, Compassionate, Just, Beautiful etc.¹
Theism – A Human Need?
The tendency to humanize this amorphous and infinite realm of possibilities by creating “God in our own image (and ideals)” is a reflection of the deeply human need to make the awe-inspiring subtle, more relatable, even lovable. And it is perhaps this human need that led to the eventual organized deification of the field of infinite potentialities.
One innate effect of simplistic human attempts to understand that which is immense and unknowable is that it generates a feeling of awe. And a consequence of being awed is a sense of humility, which is a natural recognition of one’s limited perceptions. This provides further food for the creation of a theistic line of thought – the Being who is born out of the human need to relate, and is representative of infinite possibilities now naturally, also takes on the form of an Omnipotent Entity by virtue of making us aware of our own “smallness.” Naturally, praying to or worshiping such an “Entity” is but the next step in this unfolding of human exploration into the Unknown.
But in truth, is such a theistic prayer necessary? Isn’t a sense of awe and humility enough homage? Quite, but not entirely. For a perception of wonder, inspiration and joy, a theistic perspective is hardly a precondition. The sense of connectedness and peace that flows from a genuine taste of the Infinite are sacred indeed and mandate no theistic accessories. Having said this, for the one who seeks to know, mere intellectual understanding and occasionally experienced flashes of insight into this Potential Reality are hardly satisfactory. Actually, for most people, who knowingly or unknowingly seek this connection, the limited understanding provided by reasoning and mental cogitation will only act as a temporary antidote to this perennial need of human existence. Any serious exploration of this Reality inevitably demands specific, consistent and deliberate actions designed to actualize this belief.
The Limits of Rational Thought
In other words, no amount of mental analysis and rational debate will provide satisfying answers. Colloquially, the “action’s at” where the action is! Irrespective of what form that action takes – theistic or not! This brings us to the next part of our discussion – what are the recommended actions for developing a connection with the realm of infinite possibilities? While we explore this question in more depth in forthcoming articles, it should be noted here that no matter the type of actions one pursues such as prayer, affirmations, contemplation, music, art, meditation, etc., all progress in this journey is contingent upon the basic precondition of a still mind. Or at least, a relatively calm mind. Only when the surface is stilled can we dive deeper.
Thus far we have seen how exploration of the subtle realities and infinite possibilities is not contingent upon either a theistic or an atheistic perspective. What is required is a genuine curiosity, the willingness to act, and a non-agitated mind. Now to explore the next big question:
How do we easily still the mind?
One simple recommendation is the use of breathwork, as the linkage between the mind and breath is quite extraordinary. Some readers might have noticed that any activity that demands focus, automatically results in slow, deliberate breathing. And, this is exactly what is taught via the Breath of Four in the initial part of the Meditation: Zikr of Four. The beauty of this simple practice is that it has no preconditions – it takes extraordinarily little time (even seconds), it can be done anytime, anywhere, and it complements every other spiritual practice.
The Breath of Four divides a single breath into four equal and deliberate parts: inhalation, holding the breath with lungs full, exhalation, and holding at the bottom with lungs empty. This practice almost effortlessly quiets the mind. Once that is achieved, body, mind, and spirit are ready for deeper exploration – whether one wishes to pray or not!
¹This only means that the Essence of Reality is imperceptible to the mental, intellectual or sensory faculties. To the innate Human Spirit, it is indeed knowable.