Prayer Practice for Atheists

Ever since I first named it and begun to explore it last year, the concept of submission has haunted me. The pea under my mattress, so to speak. I was raised by a very strong, strong-willed woman, and I have grown up into my very own fiery independent female force of nature. I do not yield unless I am overpowered. Yielding is weak. Surrender = defeat.

So much of the difficulty of motherhood has been releasing the reins of control. Beginning with birth and continuing every day since. I am overpowered.

As I’m fond of saying, it’s easy to get down on your knees when you’ve been punched in the gut. I’ve learned a few things down here in the dirt, gasping for breath. It’s a hard way to go, but I like to think I’ve matured some.

One of the things I have been taught, quite entirely by force, is that surrender does not necessarily equal defeat. That yielding can be strong, the ultimate strength perhaps. At first this seemed anti-feminist to me, but I’ve since conveniently re-written feminism to fit my own needs. Honoring the female. And who can argue that yielding is female? In the strictest biological sense, we yield and are thus given the greatest power on earth– to carry and birth another human being.

In a more metaphorical sense, I have seen how surrendering my ego-grip allows everything to happen, opens up whole worlds of possibility. Yielding to life allows me to move forward with grace and poise.

But how to yield? Can I fall to my knees without the punch in the gut? Shouldn’t there be another way?

Over the last year, as the submission pea rolled around under my mattress turning me black and blue, I have started to feel a pull towards some kind of spiritual practice. Some way to connect with that surrendering soft part of myself which lays hidden under the white knuckle grip of ego.

I don’t believe in any gods or goddesses, unfortunately. I have always believed in a spirit element to the world, just as I myself inexplicably have this thing called a ‘soul.’ But I have never been able to believe in a singular cohesive spirit, so religion is pretty much out for me. I did try the local Unitarian Universalist church a few times. They welcome folks of any persuasion whatsoever, atheists included, and carefully leave the word ‘God’ out of their service. I enjoyed it, enjoyed the opportunity to focus on farther reaching concepts than my typical diapers/dishes/clutter-management shtick, but the whole church experience really is just a turn off for me. And in their attempt not to exclude anyone, it felt sort of cold and spiritually sterile.

The classic for folks of my ‘alternative’ bent is Buddhism. I have several Buddhist friends, and I’m glad it works for them, but I have just never been able to swallow what feels to me like an inherent scorn for the physical world. I’m a hedonist above all else, and I will take my spirit world with a heavy crust of black dirt under the nails please.

Not to mention that meditating for my rat-wheel brain has been a big fat not happening. I know, it takes time. Zen with it honey. But, time is in short order around here.

On the phone recently with a friend, I said something like, “Dammit. Are you telling me I have to meditate? Can’t you give me something easier?” She laughed, “What, like 10 Hail Marys?”

Yes! That is exactly what I meant, exactly what I wanted. Meditation is fine for some, but it is some damn hard shit. Hail Marys, on the other hand, along with rosaries, 5 times daily bowing to Mecca, and prayer in general are for us– the common people.

Prayer is so completely wrapped up in religion for me, but as I picked it out over the next few weeks I realized that essentially it’s just a tool for submitting your ego to something greater, a formula to occupy your brain while your heart communes with the Great Mystery.

And so, after a little groping around in the dark, and a helpful Unitarian Universalist recommendation for non-denominational prayer, I settled on my own atheist prayer practice.

I really liked the idea of beads, a physical grounding element and focal point. As I walked around the the bead store looking for just the right stones to rub, I suddenly realized that I needed pink. I have always patently hated pink, which I associate with the cute, girly weakness I have so sought to eradicate. But standing there looking over the colors I realized that pink is yielding. It is exactly the stumbling block I need to get the fuck over. And didn’t I remember some witchy friend telling me that rose quartz opens the heart chakra? (Right after she told me that every one of my chakras was blocked…) That’s just what I need. Some heart chakra.

So I picked out a big smooth hunk of pretty-in-pink heart opener. I strung it up with 18 small “breath” beads punctuated by 4 turquoise “intention” beads. I wrote out a litany of words for myself, roughly following the UU recommendations which seemed to cover the bases. I don’t feel like the words are hugely important. More the intention, which maybe is different for everyone. For myself it’s about quieting my mind and opening my heart. It’s about remembering that I am small, that the wide world is big, that I can ask for help, and be thankful for all that I have. Surrendering with grace.

This new prayer practice is far, far from perfect. I’ve been trying to kneel down twice a day, once when I wake, and once just before bed. But I often don’t get the morning time alone, or the Babe wakes up halfway through, leaving me half-prayered. After the initial fervor of the new words running through my mind, and new beads in my fingers, my mind started to wander off a lot. And there’s a certain irony in devising my own prayer ritual in order to submit my ego to the Great Mystery. Not to mention spending almost $70 on pretty beads so that I can get in touch with my heart realm. But I figure the point is to focus your spirit towards your best intentions, and then let the rest work out in the wash.

That’s why they call it ‘practice,’ right?

23 thoughts on “Prayer Practice for Atheists

  1. awesome post. love your writing as always. totally agree about prayer being for the common folk…its earthiness and its connection to the physical are great. that’s why i love bowing and prostrating to the Great Spirit (soul prostrating to the Creator, body facing the direction of Mecca) 5 times a day, moving my entire being – both physical and spiritual – in submission…and actually putting forehead to the ground. (like this:
    It’s profoundly liberating…and peaceful.

    best wishes with keeping up the practice! this might encourage you:

    Forty early mornings
    A new moon teaches gradualness
    and deliberation and how one gives birth
    to oneself slowly. Patience with small details
    makes perfect a large work, like the universe.
    What nine months of attention does for an embryo
    forty early mornings will do
    for your gradually growing wholeness.

  2. ps. i have pink prayer beads too! my boss made me the rosary, when i used to work at a bead store – the beads were actually a kind called ‘miracle beads’ – the irony. they have a lovely patina that makes them shine.

    pps. this post of yours was so timely – it is Ramadan right now, the month of fasting, and all about prayer practices and submission. (-: try fasting if you want to taste another form of submission….
    thanks again CJ for an opportunity to comtemplate with you.

  3. Your own path is really the only one. Beads were and are typically used to keep track of how much time you spend chanting. Little beads for each repetition, bigger or different beads for breaks or changes, and the biggest bead or a tasseled bead to indicate time to stop. That way you don’t have to count and can focus on the chanting. Incense was similarly used to time meditation. Some form of either and/or both practices are good for the bodies as well as the spirits of Mommys,Lawyers, and booksellers. I sent longer info on chanting to Gabe’s email.
    With palms together,

  4. I am agnostic. I believe in nature and know that ultimately, I am under the control of the circle of life on this planet. The more I ‘commune with nature’, the more I have realised how little control I have over anything, which has led to me letting go (surrendering) more. But not without a great deal of fighting and stubborness and frustration on my part! There is still more to come. I am still trying to be in control, to think I am the one who says what goes on in my life, and that my 15 minutes of fame in the great scheme of time on this planet is somehow worth something.

  5. I love this post. I understand your feelings about church. It felt (to use your words) sterile to me. I never felt spiritually moved in a church setting, I could not reach the divine that way. I have come to accept that as a human I need to use a name for that power in order to touch it on a spiritual level but at the same time understand that it is also nameless. Your prayer beads are really wonderful. Koodos on finding a way to be spiritual!

  6. I don’t know what I believe in most of the time. I’m a little bit christian, til someone says I have to attend church, a little bit buddhist, til someone tells me I need to be vegan, a little bit ethical hedonist, til someone tells me that I am wearing the wrong fabric. It’s all swings and roundabouts, I think, dropping what doesn’t work and picking up what does.

    Good luck and warm wishes on the picking things up.

  7. Think of willow. Bendy, bendy bendy. Yielding. Because it is not brittle in any way you can weave it into amazing structures – which are mega strong!

    Think of silk. Yielding, lightweight, soft, playful. You can squash and squeeze a solk scarf into a tiny ball. Yet a silk rope is actually stronger than a steel one of the exact same thickness. Steel will snap quicker than silk.Maybe wearing a silk scarf is a good reminder of this fact, a symbolic trigger for when you feel yourself getting uptight about something.

    Think of water. Endlessly recycling, moving, travelling. In and out of everything. Feeding, nourishing, life giving, home to many. Also destructive, chaotic, damaging. Yin and yang. Surrender to this truth. Krishnamurti once said a very true thing, along the lines of ‘ once you jump from the pool you have dug for yourself and jump into the river of life, life has an astonishing way of taking care of you, because there is no taking care on your part.’ in other words, let go, surrender to the chaos and randomness. Be like water, remember the stardust and water and muck is interactive with the rest of the universe. We are part moon, part motorbike, part cheese, part flower, part dog, part poo, part Buddha, part murderer. Every cell in us is an endlessly recycled arrangement of atoms from everything and everyone else. I am part you and you are part me. If not now, at some time in the expanse of the universe.

    We really are stardust, and we are golden. And you have a headstart since you already got yourself back to the garden!

    I highly recommend reading Siddartha by Herman Hesse. Wonderful exploration into the world of ” what does it all mean?”

    Also the book “F*ck it – the ultimate spiritual way “. It’s all about letting go of things we take too seriously, and reassessing things we give ourselves a stomach ulcer over and realising that most things are less important than we think. I have found myself saying fuck it and laughing more at times when I would have gotten uptight and stress. Doesn’t always work, but I’m working on that.

    Love rose quartz, I too find it very soothing. Sitting in quiet sunlight seems to heal something in me too. And making love! A good old orgasm can be more holy and honest than any sermon!!!


    1. ha. always on point, motherfunker.
      i guess it’s time for Siddhartha. read lots of other Hesse, back in my day, but for some reason not that one, the one that everyone always says i should read (oh, that’s why)
      fuck it sounds right up my alley too.
      i’ll tell you a secret, our first born is named Willow. for just exactly all those reasons.

      1. Ah, how pretty! I always said if I had a girl she’d be called Willow.

        I don’t agree with everything in Siddartha but it’s still a very thought provoking read and wonderful read. His enlightenment is not the same as mine. I guess that’s the point though!

  8. …your prayer beads are gorgeous–love them!

    UU churches are awesome…. they make me feel at ease & welcome (I am pagan)

  9. outstanding! I feel like I’ve landed on my soul sister! Your honesty is refreshing – your ingenuity is ground-breaking. It is time to stop worrying about names for religions and become the people we want to be by practicing the ways that make it so. Good on ya. Keep up the great work.

  10. Seriously, this is the best blog post I have read anywhere for a long time I think!

    Really thoughtful piece, thank you very much for sharing. I have been thinking about adding beads to my mediation for a while and I have been thinking about how to bring prayer into my day.

    Thank you very, very much.

    1. So glad you liked it. I actually thought a bit about you when I wrote it. Good to hear you’re still reading!

  11. Nice. Submission + Service have been my goals for this year. I’ve not been a great yielder either, but I’m getting better (??). Good luck with your practice.

    Instead of beads, I have a hand pump to fill one of my cow’s water troughs. I fill it stroke by stroke by hand – I admit to being secretly relieved when they haven’t emptied the trough, lol. I love standing in that spot of my pasture; It is a beautiful and grounding ritual to end my work day and I don’t think I would ever want to have it any other way.

    PS: I’m big on Calamity Jane myself – I think Martha would be a fan of your blog :D

  12. How lovely. (Off to read your Submission post, next).
    I’m an animist, among other things, and you sound a lot like I do in terms of Practice. I do (approximately) weekly candle offerings and try to center myself through singing and stretching exercises while I’m at it. :-)
    Your prayer beads are quite lovely as well. :-)

  13. Thank you very much! I have been searching for years to find something or someone that I can relate to. When you don’t have a religion and everyone else does, it can be very lonely.

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