This Christmas Eve, with my palm nestled in my beloved’s, I watched ducks bathe in the marsh as the sky above caught flame. Overcome by the elements manifesting themselves so magnificently, I called out to them, “Thank you so so much. Thank you, thank you, thank you!” Then: “How can I help?”
“Thank you” and “How can I help?” are two complete and purposeful prayers. To celebrate and serve this beautiful creation are the simplest and most fundamental of holy impulses born from communion with it.
One of the most helpful things I learned this year, something I’ve long eschewed as a rationalist but am now stepping into both deeply and awkwardly, is prayer. David Abram recently offered a succinct formulation: “Prayer, in the Aboriginal sense, is talking TO the world rather than about the world. It’s a call and response with nature.” Suddenly, I realized that “Goodnight moon” is a full prayer — one that children across the world are born wanting to say as they look up sleepily at the silver orb whom I knew as Chandaa Mama.
To relate to the world with such intimacy is innate. It’s also an ancient human practice assaulted in recent centuries by colonizers trapped in a self-centered debate between a supernatural patriarchy and objective-materialism. Western culture has brutally enforced a choice between either infantilism under a ‘Father God’ or solipsism of existence as thought.
I am grateful beyond measure to have been born in one culture and to have grown up in another so I can have the binocular vision to see more depth of possibilities. The insights and practices of the people of northern India are tattooed on the inside of my skin. Even colonization couldn’t eradicate these from my people and even being transplanted to another colonized land couldn’t erase their imprint in me. But my land wasn’t settled by the colonizers and my people weren’t stolen from our land. I have the immense gift of a tether to my ancestry and to my ancestors’ ways of knowing the world.
My heart bleeds for people who were deliberately stripped of their ways of knowing because these ways empowered them at the core. People displaced and enslaved by settler colonizers have often had to repair their shattered hearts through the same machinery of oppression that shredded their bodies. To me, there is no deeper horror than the epistemic violence to ancestral channels of Knowing that provided alternatives to the oppressor’s paradigm. And there is no greater testament to the power of those ancestral channels than the fierce joy still known as a birthright of bodies otherwise long oppressed.
Whether by White Christian or Brahmanic or Han or Islamic or Capitalist or Communist or any other flavor of oppression, there is always a drive to eradicate the oppressed’s confidence in their innate belonging and worthiness. But no reduction to biology nor reeducation in a camp can sever the direct transmission between the cosmic and the personal. It can never be eliminated because the wind whispers it straight into the ear. Someone will hear and they will tell the rest of us. Thich Nhat Hanh and the Dalai Lama will be the refugees in exile still singing in praise of this wild earth. They will teach us to hear the tune.
Even calling this ‘prayer’ makes me shudder uncomfortably. When I was about five or six years old, I asked Papa about god. He said god was people creating a higher power to be afraid of so they would behave well. So I always conceived of god as the greatest invention of humankind. When I told Papa this not long ago, he denied that he could have responded so. He said he “has always really believed in God”. But I remember what I heard amidst the bustle around us of the Katra market in Allahabad. I remember being eye-to-eye with the horse on the tanga we passed by when his comment sank into me and shaped my notion of religion as delusion.
Now, stepping into prayer as “a call and response with nature” feels different. More enlivening and empowering. This is the kind of prayer I can get behind: one in which I feel more deeply how nature gets behind me. Now, I’m reanimating the world through my own vulnerability. Gingerly opening up my whole being — rational, emotional, somatic, spiritual — to the creation from which I come and to which I always belong.
Now, ‘the sun’ is not a deadened object in ‘the sky’ but a star being in whose front yard I live, whose nuclear reactor-heart casts a loving and fearsome halo over all life on earth. Plants are the geniuses who can open themselves to directly receive this immense power. The rest of us survive on the coattails of their “astonishing trick of converting sunlight into food’, as Michael Pollan called it. I am humbled by the grace and generosity of this causal chain.
The majesty and intelligence of the elements to weave into each other in a life-affirming way — that the earth itself is molten fire at its core! you couldn’t make this up, for fuck’s sake! that spirit and bone can tend to each other, that energy and matter are an infused experience in our dimension! — is beyond awesome and magical. Simply to acknowledge the basics of life unfolding around us is to exist in a state of awe. This keen attentiveness is where science and spirituality converge, is the same pulsing root from which each grows.
To behold the most mundane in its true fullness is to be inundated by the holy. ‘Prayer’, then, is the language of the most childlike and ancestral intelligence of all: wonder.