It’s Sunday today, the day when every week as a child I would go to church. I would sit
on one side of my mother in the Rector’s pew, my sister Flora on the other, with all around us
my father’s congregation; and my father himself up by the altar, leading the service, or standing
at the lectern to read from the Bible, or in the pulpit to deliver his weekly sermon.
This memory goes back eighty years.
I do not go to church these days. Unless as a tourist, I have not set foot inside a church
in all these many years.
I don’t pray. When we were little, my sister and I would get down on our knees every
night at bedtime, bring our hands together as we had been taught, and say our prayers. I don’t
know what we prayed for. For Mummy and Daddy, surely. And, since this was during the war,
for the men and women—it was mostly men, in those days, doing the fighting and
dying—whose lives were at risk on the battlefield or in the air. Or on the ocean.
I have the vague memory of praying especially for the sailors; we were an island nation,
after all, and our navy had for centuries been our bulwark against the French and the Spaniards
who kept trying to invade us. Also, remember, this was the time when the Battle of the Atlantic
was raging and the German “Wolf Pack” of U-boats still had free range of the ocean between us
and America, our mainstay of supplies of food was well as weaponry. Millions of tons of vital
freight were being sent to the bottom—and many thousands of lives lost to these elusive
menaces, until their codes were broken by our geniuses at Bletchley Park, and the danger was
reduced. So I think to remember praying for the merchantmen and the brave navy sailors sent
out to protect them. There was a particularly moving hymn we used to sing, my mother’s
favorite, “Eternal Father, strong to save…” whose last lines, memorably, were “Oh hear us
when we cry to Thee/For those in peril on the sea.” My heart constricts a bit, even today, when
I play that melody back in memory…
Then at my first boarding school we were required to pray, two dozen boys to a
dormitory, all kneeling down in beside their beds in striped pajamas. At both my boarding
schools, too, attendance at chapel services was obligatory. But I suspect that by the time I was a
teenager I was already no longer actually praying when I was on my knees. My mind was mostly
on more important things in such private times—most notably the thing between my legs, a
subject of vastly greater interest, I confess, than Jesus. But at least, for all those years at school,
I went through the formal motions we associate with prayer.
I stopped even the pretense of praying, when I left school. I have not prayed since. And
for most of my adult life I gave it little thought. Indeed, I gave little thought to the spiritual
dimension of my life, except to scoff at it; I don’t suppose I even thought I had one. (I was also
unaware that I had a heart, except for the mundane and necessary business of pumping blood;
but that’s another story). But those early years must have in some way left their impression on
me, because there came a time, in my later middle years, when it dawned on me that there was
a gap in my life where it once had been. Long lost to Christianity and the belief in miracles,
salvation, heaven and hell, God, and so on, I found a home for my “spiritual” yearnings (I put
that word in quotation marks because I don’t like it; it has largely lost its meaning through the
obfuscation of sentimental overuse) in the Buddhist dharma—the handiest and most practical
guide to leading a decent, responsible life that I know of—and the daily practice of meditation.
Which brings me around, finally, by an admittedly circuitous route, to the question I was
wanting to address: is meditation just another form of prayer?
I have often pondered the distinction. Both require the same private, quiet, dedicated
time. Both require me to focus my mind and determine what might need change or
improvement in my life, or in any particular situation in which I might find myself. Or the world
at large. I can pray for others. Mummy and Daddy. Sailors in peril on the sea. World peace. But
prayer, it seems to me—at the risk of oversimplifying—presupposes a belief in Someone (or
Something?) to pray to, as well as the expectation of efficacy—an answer to my prayers. And I
don’t subscribe to that belief. I don’t believe that anyone is out there, ready to take a personal,
or any other kind of interest in my affairs, still less to intervene. No Eternal Father, strong to
save. No one to “hear us, when we cry to Thee..” I see no evidence for anyone out there
“watching over us” and generally supervising the affairs of us foolish human beings. With
respect for those who do, I see no “Higher Power”, no “Supreme Being”, whatever you choose
to call it.
So, with no One to pray to, I see no reason to pray. But I do meditate. In meditation, I
have nothing to ask for and no one to ask it of. When I start out every morning as I do, with the
recitation of the lines I have learned as metta—May I be happy, may I be free from stress and
pain, and so on—I don’t think of this as a prayer for help. The work is mine. I need to find those
things within myself. The Buddha is not a god, but rather a human being who found a way to
achieve those things and is happy to show the way to anyone who cares to take heed and do
the work. When I wish happiness for others, it is not in the expectation that someone will reach
out and solve their problems for them; it is rather that they find their way to the path that can
make this happen. If there is something that I want or need—even if it’s something as big and
unattainable as world peace—I can work to set that intention in my mind. It then becomes my
own responsibility to bring the intention to fulfillment in the best way I can, even if only in the
small ways that are within my reach. I can, for instance, work to create the peace I’m looking
for in my own heart and mind, and be ready to share with my fellow human beings.
So meditation, as I see and practice it, is not just quiet time devoted to the search of
salvation, forgiveness, wisdom, serenity or whatever. It’s work. Inner work, but still work. And I
don’t expect or want anyone to do it for me. Perhaps a Christian, perhaps even my own father
(I suspect he might) would argue that prayer is not that much different. That we are each
responsible for our own lives, our own happiness, our own salvation.
But then, see, there’s still God.