An Open Letter to My Friend about Praying Difficult Concepts

Good Morning O.,

It was so FINE to get to hang and see art with you and K. And R. yesterday, and for all four of us to talk about the paths we’re finding, where curiosity is leading us, how we ensure entropy isn’t just leading us by the nose to the grave. 🙂

I’ve always loved human technologies that are ancient and also reinvented and alive now—whether they’re for production, beauty, or spirit. I think the first one, many years ago, that caught my attention was tattooing, then I was drawn to storytelling, puppetry, playing live music/singing, jokes, beekeeping, building a fire, fermentation, growing food, butchering animals, bird calls and identification, paying attention to the weather, religion…lots of things. I haven’t done them all, but they make my ears perk up when I hear about them. If they’re a trendy thing, like tattoos say, I think, Well, good on ’em. The urge to decorate ourselves, to play with our bodies and define ourselves beyond our biology is alive and well. It’s mostly not popular these days, at least in our subcultures, to define distinctly human activities in a positive light—we shit, and have shat, in our own and everybody else’s nests for too long. But as fucked-up as we all are, I basically like humans and find them really interesting. It also helps me like myself better.

So we were talking about psychedelics, plant medicines, spiritual technology that goes back to the beginning of human “consciousness” (and as you stated, may have been a catalyst in creating it). You asked if I missed working with these, since it’s been a part of my life in the recent past, and I said no. That process was important for me to get where I am now, and informs what I do today. You asked about what I do for spiritual practice these days, so I told you I pray in the mornings for about 40 minutes, based on the traditional Jewish morning prayers, and you asked me what I pray for.

This is such a good question, and when you asked it I was surprised nobody’d asked me it before. Your real curiosity is a part of why I love you, O. The religious Jews I know wouldn’t ask that because they know the words to the prayers we’re saying and, I think, kind of assume we’re praying for the same thing. My spiritual-not-religious, and just-not-religious friends (y’all get called “nones” in the world of theological demographics) I think are kind of uncomfortable with the fact that I do pray, and especially that what I pray is set, traditional, repetitive, and often in an ancient language.

But you, friend O, asked it, so I tried to answer, which meant running through shacharit in my head, saying my translations out loud. I got only as far as Elohai Neshama:

My G_D,

The soul you’ve put inside me is pure.

You created it,

You shaped it,

You breathed it into me,

And someday You will take it from me, restoring it to everlasting life.

As long as spirit breathes within me

I give thanks before You, Hashem,

My G_D and the G_D of my ancestors,

G_D of all works,

G_D of all souls.

Blessed are You, Adonai,

Creator of the universe,

Who restores souls to dead bodies.

You asked me What do you mean when you say ‘everlasting life’?

Again, O, with the good questions. And it was right then that the concert started and I didn’t get to give you an answer. But your question here is really the kernel of this whole letter, here on page 3, so here we go.

I started saying this prayer about 15 years ago and when I did, as a Jew who was moving from being barely religious to practicing, this was one of the many concepts I had problems with myself. Are these words about heaven, an afterlife? What if I don’t believe in heaven?, quickly followed by, If I say a prayer I don’t believe in, am I doing damage to myself? Am I brainwashing myself, or even being brainwashed by this tradition? Or is it just stupid to pray words you don’t believe in or agree with? It begged those questions for me. But then I remembered I did have a conception of an everlasting life I firmly believed in, and it was biological: after I die, my body will go back into what I think of as “the soup,” all the organic materials of the Great Compost Pile, and the building blocks that make me will go on to make something else—I always think of a tree, but it could be hundreds of thousands of arthropods, and that tree with what was “me” in it will give fruit that’s eaten by my grandchildren, and those arthropods made up of “me” will get eaten by birds and small mammals, and those animals and my grandchildren will die and be consumed, on to infinity—everlasting life. I still believe that, and that’s the simplest answer to your question (and the reason I don’t want my body to be cremated, but to be wrapped in a shroud and put in the ground).

Around the same time I figured that out, I got a concept from the Torah that was really useful for me. In Exodus (24:3-7, for reference), Moses gets the Commandments and tells them to the Israelites, and the Israelites respond, “We will do, and we will hear.” Now, there’s centuries of discussion and hot takes on what this means, but when I started praying A teacher told me this: As modern “Western” folk, we usually want to understand things before we do them…this still kind of sounds like a good idea to me right now, and it might to you as well, right? But what if the best way to understand something mysterious was to do it for a while and see what happens? This tack allowed me to engage with mysteries I’d have written off in the past. And as I write this I think of an example: If someone offers you a gram of mushrooms, would you think, What will these mushrooms do? Will I have a good trip or a bad trip? Will it show me things that will make me change my life? Most people, if they were the sort of people who eat psilocybin mushrooms, might have done some research before, but when it gets down to it, they eat the mushrooms, and that’s how they find out what the mushrooms do.

So when I started doing traditional Jewish prayers, I started eating lots of concepts like Everlasting Life, Soul, Raising the Dead, Chosen People, and God, and I heard what each of them did to me, which is a lot of different things. Another simple idea another teacher gave me that’s in the mix (I wish I remembered the names of these people so I could honor them) is to ask myself in the face of ideas and texts that make me feel somewhere from Zero to repulsion: “If this idea meant something to me, what would it mean?”

A simple way of saying it might be: I can only understand the text—whether it’s prayers, holy books, things people say to me, world events, or hospice patients I see as a chaplain—if I try on what it’s like to believe it, to live with it as if its the truth. I have to engage, converse, digest.

There are things that are absolute in the world—strangers donating kidneys, suicide bombers, the words of a thousand year old prayer. And then there is my response to that Absolute—which is as creative as I can be, skeptical, engaged and curious, and finite because I am finite.

So that’s what this ancient meme, everlasting life, means to me, and thank you for asking. Now do you want to ask me about The soul You have placed within me is pure?  🙂




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