Nobody asks me to pray for them anymore. Most of what I hear these days is some variation on the phrase, “Please send good energy.” Is this just my friends and family or is this a universal shift? I mean, recently someone whose son was in extremis got as far as saying, “Spin your prayer wheel for him.” I know that was a difficult thing to ask, born of desperation.
My guess is that my relations and dear ones are not particularly godless. Or maybe they are, in that they no longer believe in a deity who needs to be begged to fix something. That’s what most people would understand if I were to say, “I’ll pray for you”: that I think I can go somewhere and use my special influence with God to try to change God’s mind about the course of your cancer or his stroke or her loss of a job. In this scenario, I’m an expert beggar and God is the capricious old man who holds all the cards.
Or maybe these dear people hesitate to ask for prayer because they have had the experience I’ve had, when someone who didn’t love me at all said, “I’ll pray for you,” but really meant, “I hate the way you are. I’m gonna ask my version of God to fix you so that you’re not so fucked up.”
Do I need to say that I don’t believe in these versions of God, neither the capricious fixer or the malicious lapdog? They’re all about power and control. In a metaphorical analysis of “Please pray for me,” you (the sick person) are powerless and I am designated to beg power from the Powers-That-Be. In the second instance, I judge you to be screwed up and powerless, and assume control of your future through my special relationship with the Big Boy.
It stinks both ways.
The problem is that when we throw that praying phrase (and its associated entailments) out of the picture, we don’t know how to replace it. So we’re left without the vocabulary to express a basic human need: the longing for those who love me to bring the full power of that love to bear on a place where pain and suffering seem to hold sway.
Let me name that longing once again. We desire, deeply, that our dear ones will bring the full light of their loving attention to shine onto the place where pain and suffering appear to have undisputed control. This is the source of our inept speech: our aching hunger to alleviate suffering, our longing for others to be in this work with us.
Does the language of energy work any better? I think that many of us use this because we want to show that we know there’s more to any situation than what meets the material eye, and to acknowledge that there’s something that happens when one person attends with an open heart to another. Or maybe we have grown used to the language of “moving energy” to speak of how some people work with others’ physical bodies. Often, we use the language of energy to signal that we don’t think in terms of appeasement or pleading, or a personal God who’s at someone’s beck and call, or any of those misbegotten religious ideas that are such anathema for Western intellectual individualists.
But I’ve reached the end of my tolerance for the sending-good-energy utterance. Because this phrase, like its counterpart I’ll-pray-for-you, is based on careless reasoning and an erroneous sense of human control.
Let me start by looking closely at the metaphor involved. Say you are worried about your sister who has cancer and have asked me to “send good energy.” But I cannot “send” some unspecified energy which I happen to have in my possession and which your loved one needs. Energy is not like blood or money; I cannot donate a discrete package of some life-giving substance. I don’t have a bank account of energy which gets parceled out whenever there’s a flood or famine or cancer strikes. Energy is not a limited and distinct resource to be dispensed at will.
I think what we really mean when we talk about energy is that we’ll think positively about a situation. You are asking me to imagine that your sister’s cancer cells will shrivel up into dust and exit her body; or that your son will get a new job, or your daughter have an easy labour. It’s a mental exercise, the power of positive thinking on steroids.
But there’s a problem inherent in the metaphor. Let’s say that I do some mental imagining of your sister’s cancer cells and she gets worse. Did I not imagine well enough? Did I somehow send bad energy rather than good energy? Did I use the wrong imagery? Or is there something inherently wrong with me that I do not have sufficient juju’s to heal someone?
Excuse me—but haven’t we walked back into the territory of power and control, all over again?
If there is anything that I have learned “God”—the shorthand term I use for the Love that Pulses at the Centre of Everything, or the Infinite Dance of Relationship, or That Which Sustains All Beingness—it’s that everyone and everything is alive with It. We aren’t in charge of It. The Spirit blows where She will, as they say. “God” is not amenable to control or power-plays, no matter how we phrase it. “God” is amenable to love, however. (And when love flows, who knows what can happen?)
So I have been wondering what language indicates my willingness to be part of that flow, and trying out a raft of new metaphors. I’ve tasted the Quaker version “I’ll hold you to the light,” and the alternative “I’ll hold you in my heart.” I’ve rolled the Buddhist language of tonglen around on my tongue, that daring practice where I “substitute self for other” by breathing in the other’s pain and breathing out my own health and joy. But I get hung up on the language and implications of these metaphors. Each one seems to describe a situation where one person acts upon another person or situation: the practice is FOR the other. But what about doing it WITH the other, as part of the dance of Love?
There’s an old Scottish word, kythe, which means to make known or become known. In Madeleine L’Engle’s Time Quintet series, she borrowed that word to speak of the wordless communication between two people, a kind of telepathy. I’d like to borrow that word, too, not to reference telepathy but rather speak of a place of sympathetic resonance. This is in keeping with the archaic Hebrew sense of the word we translate to know, which often indicated a depth of physical intimacy not amenable to words. Kything is a work of the heart rather than the mind. It is an act of solidarity.
Every time I allow myself to really feel a longing for wholeness—whether it’s in response to the latest species extinction, or the cancer diagnosis of my dear friend, or the public spewing of mindless hate—I bring myself together with the longing of the affected other. I KNOW myself as sharing one heart, one hope, one being with those beings who are hurting. I let my heart be broken open. If I can stand in that place without panic, both witnessing and experiencing the mystery of the situation, I am aware of being surrounded by—and a part of—an unending warmth and light and flow. It’s as if my willingness to feel—love and sorrow and the reality of what exists—releases an endless stream of Love. I stand in this place in solidarity, rather than in sympathy. I stand here in vulnerability, rather than in power. I’m not trying to give, send, or beg. I am not overwhelmed emotionally. I am simply aware of my own longing and your longing and the greater longing for wholeness all at the same time. I am rooted in my own frail body, rooted in love for these particular incarnations of the All-One.
I find kything much harder work than addressing a prayer for healing or thinking positive thoughts about someone’s cancer cells being zapped dead by chemotherapy. This kind of “prayer” makes me feel as exposed as those who suffer; this kind of “prayer” costs me comfort and peace of mind. In this way, it is particularly close to the Buddhist practice of tonglen—I risk being deeply affected by your suffering.
Of course, what is most important is this: I don’t care what you call it. When you want me to be with you in a time of fear or sorrow, I am clear what I am doing. So whether you ask me to send good energy, or to pray, or hold you to the light or to do tonglen or hold you in my heart, my intention is to kythe with you.