Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Prayer - A Jungian Perspective

Synopsis: The birth of consciousness and structure of the psyche, The function of prayer, The importance of the religious impulse, Forms of prayer in Western and Eastern culture.

All over the world, from time immemorial, humans have prayed. The objective of the prayer has varied widely: humans have prayed to other humans, to statues of every imaginable shape and form, and finally, to a nameless, shapeless, almighty entity who cannot be known or seen directly. Despite dire predictions to the contrary, prayer has persisted throughout modern and even post-modern times. Prayer is universal and timeless. But what is it? What does prayer do, and how does it work, if it works at all? Is it a mindless relic of times past, as Freud famously posited, or does it have an irreplaceable, meaningful function? Can we explain it in rational, objective terms?
I will try to do so in this post, using the most suitable approach for the purpose - Jungian theory.

The Structure of the Psyche and The Birth of the Ego
One of the most important contributions of Jungian psychology was Jung's model of the human psyche, it's structure and manner of development. Jungian theory posits a completely unconscious mind in the beginning of human life. From this unconscious whole, there develops a self-consciousness. The center of this self-awareness is called the Ego. It is born in a long, drawn out process that is difficult and painful. By the end of this development, the Ego becomes separated from the unconscious, and an invisible wall exists between the two. The wall is there to protect the Ego from the enormous energy that the unconscious still retains, thus enabling us to lead more or less normal, steady lives that are, as far as the ego knows, guided solely by our conscious being.
This would be an ideal situation for humanity if not for one problem – in gaining it's independence, the Ego has also separated itself from the source of psychical energy, from it's original birth place where life was effortless, without tension or strain.
We may liken the Ego to a human being stranded on an island, like Robinson Crusoe. It can survive and perhaps even thrive, but is lonely, and often desolate, because it is disconnected from the whole. The whole in the ego's case would not be society or the group, but the total personality, embodied by the Jungian concept of the Self. This understanding is crucial to our theory of prayer, because in Jungian theory, the life we experience is actually the life experienced by this ego.
This means that we experience life both outside of ourselves, in the physical world, but also inside ourselves – in the psychical world. In our inner world, there still exists a lively, ongoing relationship between the ego and the unconscious (with it's various components – archetypes). Normally, even in a fully functioning adult, the ego will not have the energy available to deal directly with the unconscious. Therefore this relationship, which is vital to our existence, must be experienced secondhand. This is done mainly by projecting it on the outer world.
In other words, according to Jungian theory, our inner relationships are experienced in the outer world, even if we are completely unaware of the fact This is reminiscent of the Buddhist term Maya – the idea that the world is an illusion. Following Jung we can now understand that this does not mean that the world does not exist, just that it is obscured by our own projections upon it. Once we withdraw them, we will see the world as it is.

What is Prayer?
Now we can also understand the phenomenon of prayer - we see it as an inner relationship, being projected and experienced in the outside world. But what relationship is this?
I think this would be the relationship between the ego and the self , the self being the totality of our psyche comprised of the unconscious and conscious parts. This relationship cannot be experienced directly because the ego is not strong enough to experience the seemingly infinite energy of the total personality without any mediation. Yet, a relationship exists. The ego was born from the totality, was separated from it, and yet, is still a part of it.
Unfortunately, for a healthy ego there is no going back, no regression. From this point, that most of us reach early in our lives, there are two main paths forward. One consists of striving to maintain and even strengthen this connection, perhaps even re-establishing it, while the second way is to deny this connection completely, and assume all the powers and majesty of the self, the totality, God - into the ego. The former, the people of faith, intuitively understand the true relationship between them and the world, inside and out, and express it daily by praying to the totality, to God, and that, ladies and gentlemen, is the purpose of praying – to express and strengthen the connection between the Ego and the Self. The latter, secular people, lead essentially lonely, desperate, bitter lives, based on a grave psychological mistake.
This is why Jung cherished the religious impulse, understanding that it is a very important and healthy way for us to express and experience the true relationship between our consciousness and the self.

Prayer East and West
If the purpose of prayer is indeed to express and strengthen the connection between the Self and the Ego, then there are many ways in which to achieve this.
Judaism has chosen the path of verbal communication with the Self, and it's daughter religions have followed suit. But the Self is composed mostly of the unconscious which cannot comprehend the word, only the accompanying emotions. This is why formal, unemotional prayers are not very effective. Emotion is the lingua franca of the soul, and only emotion – the correct emotion, expressed correctly - can reach the ears of the Almighty, the Self. Therefore singing is an important means of prayer, as well as dancing.
This is the Western approach to the problem of experiencing the Self. There is also an Eastern way which is slowly entering our culture. The East has developed, in addition to verbal prayer, a rational way to increase the connection, strengthen it and even, eventually, experience it directly. I am speaking of the various forms of yoga and meditation which, if practiced correctly, persistently, and , most importantly, sincerely, strengthen the Ego to such a degree that the wall that separates between it and the unconscious slowly crumbles, and finally, falls away. This, while the Ego remains intact, still able to experience life as a unique, self-conscious identity, but also in the direct, innocent manner of a new born babe. Such a practical technique of prayer has never been developed in the West, and if you are really interested in a religious experience, then I recommend it whole-heartedly, in addition to the Western method. The path to God is a long and treacherous one, and a sincere seeker will use all the methods of prayer available.

Next Week: Why Women Are Exempt From Prayer In Judaism - A Jungian Perspective


Karma said...

I think that I see Jewish prayer hitting at some of the unconscious or non-verbal aspects in:
Karlbach services which focus on the niggun instead of the words, Jewish meditation, and in the way that some frame traditional Jewish prayer - that it is about more than the words, its about the practice of saying them over and over (repetition of prayer within a service or throughout our lives)so as to let the mind reach a different a different spiritual plane.

Jerusalem Joe said...

Yes. those are very good examples. have you experienced this yourself by any chance?