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A Skeptic’s Path to Prayer 480 640 Thayer Fox

A Skeptic’s Path to Prayer

“I have been driven many times upon my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had nowhere else to go. My own wisdom and that of all about me seemed insufficient for that day.” Abraham Lincoln

It’s easy to depend on intellect and experience when everything is going well, but when hard times arrive, the self cannot bear the weight of our pain. Pain gifts us the willingness to reach out to a greater force in the universe. Prayer is an invitation to this force to enter our lives. You may assume that a steadfast belief in God or some higher being is a prerequisite to begin a prayer practice, and this is not true. The more I pray, the more my faith grows.

Something about the word prayer has always bothered me. It sounds submissive and sanctimonious. Many of us affiliate prayer with a rigid religious practice. The prayers at the Episcopal Church I attended every Sunday were dreary, and I was forced to kneel. In one of them, we apologized to God for our sins repeatedly. It made no sense to me because as far as I was concerned, he should be asking for my forgiveness, abandoning me in this mess of a life. No one explained God either. In illustrations, he was an old man who did not look friendly. And where exactly was he? And why did he care about me? Like the Santa Claus story, it didn’t add up.

My puppy Glennie died suddenly when I was eleven. Devastated, I cried and yelled at my bedroom ceiling. I made a decision then to abandon any possibility of God. Why would I continue to seek a God who kills a little girl’s puppy? As I became more aware of the suffering in the world around me, the atheist philosophy of Nietzsche and Sartre felt more accurate than anything I heard in church. Cynical and resigned, I steered my own ship until I smashed it to pieces and staying alive required me to lean on a group of strangers in church basements.

Finding a Higher Power is part of 12 Step Programs. The AA literature makes it easy for obstinant cases like me by offering options that replace a religious God. Early on, I heard a man say that if you think you’re the most powerful force in the universe go stand near the ocean and tell the waves to stop. I also realized that I’d been praying for a long time without labeling it. “Foxhole prayer” is the name people in AA called my frantic last-ditch pleas to nothing in particular.

Sober and stable, I built the life I thought I wanted. After a few years, I got too busy managing it to keep up the simple practices that saved me. I didn’t know how far I’d drifted from a spiritual path until after I had another awakening last year that reignited my faith in God. Afterward, I started craving meditation. No longer just an item on my to-do list, meditation became a sacred time in my day when I could detach from my thoughts and the buzzing world around me. But something was not transferring into the 12-hour blocks between sits, and I longed for more.

In January, a new friend came into my life who talked casually about prayer. It cringed at first but eventually became curious. My new friend is humble, and the way he speaks about prayer is enticing. He suggested I read a few essays in Power Through Constructive Thinking by Emmet Fox. After doing this, I was excited to experiment.

Emmet Fox was part of the New Thought Movement which developed in the United States in the 19thcentury. New Thought holds that “Infinite intelligence or God is everywhere, spirit is the totality of things, true human selfhood is divine, divine thought is a force for good, sickness originates in the mind, and “right thinking” has a healing effect.” PTCT was first published in 1932. Emmet Fox writes a lot about the importance of “scientific prayer”, which simply means a routine practice. Scientific prayer is not “The Secret”. Praying regularly does not rig the system so I get my way all the time. Over the past few months, many things have not aligned with my will, but because my faith is expanding, I know that whatever shows up is part of my curriculum.

My initial reaction to not getting my way hasn’t changed. I panic, get angry, blame, feel hurt, etc. I live in a body with a nervous system, so my physical response must run its course when I’m triggered. But now, I experience acceptance within an hour or two of being rattled. Letting go of anything that doesn’t serve my serenity is instinctual. The desire to be right or force an outcome has dissipated. There are fewer “problems”, more lessons. Navigating my day is easier and I feel pretty peaceful most of the time.

It took a while to re-wire myself, stop figuring things out and shopping around for advice. Answers formed by my intellect are biased and convincing. Logic never asks me to step outside a comfort zone or place someone before myself unless there’s something in it for me. The insight I receive from prayer is subtle but clear if I stay tuned in. Meditation is an important partner because it keeps the space open. Answers arrive in the form of a hunch, a person, an email, a phone call, a tug in my heart.

The good news is that you don’t need to define what you believe in, you can pray and be skeptical simultaneously. Skepticism is healthy and different from cynicism. A skeptic does research looking for evidence, a cynic rejects before investigation. Scientific prayer will grow whatever seed of willingness you can muster to get started. The power is undeniable if you take it on wholeheartedly.

All I need to pray is a few minutes alone. I pray before difficult conversations or meetings. I pray when I am nursing a stubborn emotional disturbance. I pray to express gratitude for my life as I walk to an appointment. I pray for people who are in pain. There is no right or wrong way to pray. Prayer connects me with the boundless wisdom that exists in my consciousness and all around me.

When I am murky or blocked, I wait to make decisions or run answers received through prayer by a trusted advisor. My will occasionally dresses up as divine guidance when I am physically off kilter. Exercise, sleep, diet, who I spend my time with are essential because it’s easier to hitch my wagon to historical perceptions and feelings when I am not taking care of myself. Regret waits for me in the past and fear in the future, so staying present matters. Once I realized that truth is only available right NOW, it became desirable to stay where my feet are.

“Prayer does change things. Prayer does make things happen quite otherwise than they would have happened had the prayer not been made. It makes no difference at all what sort of difficulty you may be in. It does not matter what the causes may have been that led up to it. Enough prayer will get you out of difficulty if only you will be persistent enough in your appeal to God.” Emmet Fox










A New Way to View Our Vices 1024 687 Thayer Fox

A New Way to View Our Vices

Do you have a vice? Many small ones? One massive one? What do you do habitually to release pressure when your system floods with emotion? Grab a bagel? Smoke a cigarette? Call a friend to “vent/gossip”? How long does relief last? Does self-loathing follow?

I define a vice as anything I use to detach from my experience of the present. Vices come in many shapes and sizes, some are innocuous; socially acceptable behaviors and others wreak havoc. They don’t have to take on extreme forms like alcoholism or an eating disorder to negatively impact your life. Most of us learn how to manage our vices by accessing quick relief without causing long term damage. Drinking, overeating, smoking, sex, TV watching, shopping, social media, gossiping- the list is long.

Emotions that trigger our vices are not necessarily negative. It all depends on the neural pathways carved out in childhood. Neural pathways regulate our feelings, reactions, and thoughts. Think of them as hiking trails carved into the gray matter that sits in your skull. Neural pathways explain why it’s easier for me to remember to brush my teeth in the morning than for my 8-year-old son.

Our history causes irrational relationships with present circumstances. When presented with a choice, our brain automatically chooses the path of least resistance. We are all wired up by the time we are twenty, our free will is an illusion.

It took me a long time to be happy without a sense of dread stealing the show. Due to my past, my brain kicks into high alert when the coast looks clear. Falling in love with my husband, without alcohol to calm my nerves, was a terrifying experience. It made sense why I drank heavily through past relationships, I was scared that everyone would leave me like my father did.

During the first six months of our courtship, I smoked and overate. Two packs a day was my average. I smoked first thing upon waking and right before bed. Sometimes I woke up with anxiety and smoked in the middle of the night. My fingers were stained yellow with nicotine. But smoking wasn’t enough, so I started binge eating. When I couldn’t sleep, I would sneak out of bed into my future husband’s kitchen and devour an entire box of cereal in the dark. I never felt full and wouldn’t stop until my distended stomach ached. These vices offered temporary relief by distracting me from the source of my discomfort. It was easier to obsess about my weight than get in touch with my belief that I was an unlovable and defective person.

It took time and rigorous work with my sponsor and therapist to identify the disturbance. Awareness is the first step. I learned that logic will not shift behavior, only action has that power.  A daily prayer practice finally gifted me the willingness to stop smoking. I’d never considered quitting, smoking was my best friend and first addiction. Even though I was skeptical, I knew I couldn’t do it alone. My desire to stop drinking had been lifted this way, so it was worth a try. Two months later, on a subway ride to work, I experienced a moment of grace. I threw out my cigarettes in a garbage can at the top of the subway stairs and went to a Duane Reade to buy Nicorette. I’ve never smoked again.

Binge eating was a gradual fade. After an injury forced me to abandon my punishing cardio routine, I followed a suggestion to experiment with other forms of exercise. Weight training and yoga planted me in my body. Respect developed as I grew stronger and I realized that my mind and body were partners. As my overall mood improved, I gave up caring about my reflection in the mirror. Working out to expand my mind and spirit changed the way I viewed exercise.

We can re-wire the neural pathways that regulate our mental state and emotional responses at any time. Living a Groundhog Day existence is a choice. There’s a lot of brambles to whack through in the beginning, so patience and compassion are essential. To grow, I must be honest with myself about any behaviors that stand in the way of my serenity.

Dealing with extreme vices requires courage. Removing the vice is not the hardest part of the process. Waking up in a life that you didn’t consciously create requires re-structuring. Many people return to their vice because the amount of work occurs as overwhelming. It’s a more comfortable short-term choice to stay numb, but the long-term cost to your soul is deadly.

So why bother looking at your vices if they don’t hurt anyone or you can manage them? Because if you’re schedule and conversations revolve around your TV programming, consider that you haven’t yet created a life you love. It’s waiting for you. As a recovering TV zombie, I can say this with certainty. Trading down vices is a significant first step, especially if you have a big one to confront. Watching TV for 4 hours a night was better than pounding two bottles of wine. Don’t get me wrong, Sunday at 9 you’ll find me glued to GOT but some nights I don’t even have time to turn on the TV because there are so many other things I want to do. A great show or meal becomes an additive after you face unprocessed emotions and fill your void with meaning.

The fewer vices I have, the more awake and open-hearted I feel. Acceptance of myself and others expands as my loathing self-talk dwindles. My creative energy has doubled. I feel more generous; nothing makes me happier than being of service to someone else. I sense the presence of something greater around me, inside me and I never feel alone. My capacity to be with upset has increased. I learn from painful experiences as they are unfolding. I don’t view lows as bad and want to rig my life to get more highs, I want it all. Above everything, I want to be free, and my freedom is dependent on my ability to identify and let go of mental states and vices that that block me from living in the sunlight of the spirit.


“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

Mary Oliver