Agnostic prayers, polytheistic prayers, and meditation chants.
February 19, 2014 8:15 AM   Subscribe

I am an agnostic that really likes the calming effect of prayer, but am totally not interested in the monotheism or taking organized religion very seriously in general. Do you have prayer advice for me, and what sort of agnostic or polytheistic prayers (or meditative practices) do you take part in? Resources and recommendations are welcomed!

I used to not think very much about spirituality, but after much difficult life events and mental health problems, I find that on top of exercise, some way to "let go to a higher power" is an effective way to manage my own personal sanity.

The thing is, I'm not very interested in monotheism and organized religion in general. I'm now living in a 95% monotheistic country (hello Philippines!) and I find it all very unappealing. Several generations ago, my ancestors were Buddhist and/or polytheistic, but now nearly everyone in my family is monotheistic. So I'd like to seek an alternative that helps me and speaks to me. So...

1. Do you have experiences with agnostic/polytheistic prayers + meditative practices? If so, what are they and what works for you?

2. Are there specific ones you'd recommend for me?

Stuff I like:
-Conceptualizing female deities/goddesses as archetypes that represent energies in the universe (This sounds very woo but it works for me, as a woman that doesn't like how male-dominated the social and material world currently is. The last thing I want to do is pray to a male archetype.)

-Female deities/goddesses "of colour"
(Again, this may sound a little strange to others, but as an Asian from a country that was colonized by 2+ Western powers, and lived most of my life in the settler colony of Canada and felt perma-othered from the experience, the last thing I want to do is pray to a Western archetype.)

Aaaand go humour my woo!
posted by Hawk V to Religion & Philosophy (20 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
Desiderata is famous prayer that is not specifically associated with any religion.
For your own personal use, you could alter the one line that does mention God, to "the Gods... them."
The author of the prayer intended it to be universal. The use of the term "God" is a cultural thing,
and not a nod to monotheism over polytheism.

I would also recommend reading the Bhagavad Gita.
It is not very long, and very readable. I am sure that once you read that, you could find passages to use for personal meditation.

Good luck.
posted by Flood at 8:48 AM on February 19, 2014 [5 favorites]

If you're interested in female deities, ask your doctor if Wicca might be right for you. Long on karma, short on dogma. Very sex-positive and, obviously, female-positive. Not big on "no."

I've always been fond of the Charge of the Goddess.
posted by musofire at 8:52 AM on February 19, 2014

I'm a practicing Tibetan Buddhist for many years now. So what I can write about is based in that; take what you will.

There are many female Buddhas but the stand-outs are:

Tara. She is most definitely a goddess of color, being green, white and yellow, among other colors. She represents action.

The great mother Prajnaparamita. Since she symbolizes the ultimate nature of phenomena. She is said to be the mother of all the Buddhas since a person needs to internalize the knowledge that she symbolizes in order to become enlightened.

Vajrayogini and her various other incarnations. She is red colored with long black hair and represents emptiness (she is often seen with her consort of course, the two are a pair). She's a tantric Buddha, so sensuality and strength also come to mind.

If you read up on those ladies and feel a kinship with one of them, very simply you could get a statue of her and give her a fresh bowl of water once a day, to inspire her strength & wisdom to flourish within yourself. Think of it like hanging around with someone you admire, and eventually their qualities will rub off on you.

As for meditation itself, what to recommend to you depends on what you are struggling with. Calming? Mindfulness? Increased compassion and love? There's a meditation for that. I'm not sure how interested you would be since again the ones I could write are based in Buddhism, although the meditations themselves are fairly agnostic.

The simple go-to is "Om Ah Hum" breathing meditation which is the base mantra. Om on the inhale, Ah on the pause, Hum on the exhale. Clear your mind completely and just focus on uniting these words with the breath.

Personally the practices I find helpful are exchanging self with other and taking and giving meditation (download this free ebook and on volume 1 page 303* there is an excellent description). I like these meditations because they help me in situations where I am coming up against anger or my own ego, and have helped me at work and in my relationships.

*p. 303 on my iphone; or you can just search on "taking and giving" and you'll find it.

I have loads more to say on this topic since I work the Buddhist practices very deeply and I used to teach a drop-in meditation class from my centre so IM me if you want more details.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 8:54 AM on February 19, 2014 [10 favorites]

If you like group classes, check out Vipassana mediation (link for Philippines). It's a 10-day silent mediation course where the emphasis is 100% on the physical aspects of meditation and none of the religious ones and it's very low cost (pay what you want; also, you can leave any time if you don't like it).

I liked it because of the emphasis on the physical calming (even if I hated guru Goenka's taped voice and stories, which they play several times) and I have successfully used Vipassana techniques to ward off anxiety during periods of high stress. Memail me if you'd like more information.
posted by rada at 9:12 AM on February 19, 2014

+1 for Desiderata. I love it.
posted by GastrocNemesis at 9:22 AM on February 19, 2014

I like prayer beads. Some version of prayer beads is used in almost every religious tradition (I did a sermon on this for a UU church some years ago, and have a personal collection of beads as examples). I'm also an atheist and far more directed toward meditation than prayer, and I've found the beads to be a useful focusing tool.

The best practice with beads that I ever did was with a little wrist-size strand made of clay, with about 20 beads on it (no specific religious tradition; I bought it because the beads looked like little earths and I liked that; a basic Catholic wrist rosary would probably serve your purpose just fine). I'd hold the strand and focus my mind on a particular person per bead, for whatever purpose--someone I loved or was helpful to me, someone I was having trouble with, someone I didn't know well, etc.--and repeat (silently) a brief little mantra about wishing peace and happiness to each person. It's really a modified form of the Visuddimagha instructions discussed here.

I don't believe in a god/gods but I really do believe in compassion and positive thoughts for others, so being able to ground a meditation so specifically to people really did work for me.
posted by dlugoczaj at 9:25 AM on February 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

Thank you for the link to "Desiderata;" I think I will be printing that out and posting it somewhere conspicuous in my life.
posted by tckma at 9:31 AM on February 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

Tonglen-esque meditative exercises is something I've mentioned before and remains my go-to answer. Goddess-type visualizations can complement it well if the more abstract focus doesn't give cognitive handholds--you figure there's a reason Avalokitesvara is a figure in various formulations of Buddhism.
posted by Drastic at 9:35 AM on February 19, 2014

I find Quaker writings very prayerful. It's a Christian religion, but the writings are rather different from other Christian religions.

I posted looking for podcasts and found them, and more.
posted by theora55 at 9:37 AM on February 19, 2014

Although you say you're not a big fan of monotheistic religions, don't rule out Christian mysticism just yet, especially works by female Christian mystics. Theoretically, Christianity is monotheistic; in global practice, however, it's a little fuzzier than that. You can't get much more archetypal than the Virgin Mary, whose veneration in traditional Catholic countries is partly rooted in the need for a feminine divinity. I'm not exaggerating by saying that it is possible that in the Americas, as Our Lady of Guadalupe, she is revered more than Christ himself, because she is viewed as maternal, approachable, and compassionate. There's a Unitarian-Universalist curriculum in which you might be interested called Cakes for the Queen of Heaven that links Mary and other powerful divine maternal figures across many cultures.

You may also find Julian of Norfolk's Revelations of Divine Love interesting. Julian was an English anchoress and mystic around the time of the Black Death and is much beloved as an Anglican saint (although not beatified by the RC church). Her writings are Christian but unusual in that they express a very universalist, transcendentalist, and proto-feminist approach to God.
posted by tully_monster at 10:13 AM on February 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

Something like Ho Ľoponopono might appeal to you. In my particular witchery tradition, this is used as a method of meditation that you do while staring into a mirror and basically you are saying it ("I love you. I'm sorry. Please forgive me. Thank you.") to the aspect of divinity within yourself.
posted by sperose at 11:15 AM on February 19, 2014

And if you need to laugh, there's the parody Deteriorata.
posted by Melismata at 11:43 AM on February 19, 2014

There was a similar question a year or so ago, but I can't find it and my answer, so I'll try to summarize. I have a free-form evening prayer that I sometimes address to Gaia/Oh Great Everything (anything that works for the moment) that has three parts 1) Gratitude, 2) Forgiveness, and 3) Asking for help in the future.

1) The gratitude usually starts with gratitude for this day, every day I had before it, any days I get afterward. It includes specific things about my day that I'm grateful for. I can go on to friends, family, community, dinner... honestly, I often don't make it past this portion before I fall asleep.

2) The forgiveness is often asking for forgiveness for ways in which I felt I wasn't good to myself and others. Ways in which I wish I'd done better, and ways in which I want to forgive myself (or sometimes others!) for things I wish I/we'd done differently.

3) The future part is usually asking for help being the person I want to be in the future (even if that's tomorrow): more compassionate, or more kind to others. It's often related to whatever was in the forgiveness section for that day.

It's by no means an original format, but it gives me enough structure to reflect while providing enough freedom to include all of the aspects of the day that I've had.
posted by ldthomps at 12:10 PM on February 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

Depends on what you mean by Prayer. To some, it's a telepathic link to their deity. (I believe a certain percentage of Christians use this link to express their wishes, like kids writing letters to Santa Clause.) To others, Prayer means oral or mental recitation of a verse, like the Lord's Prayer, or the Desiderata mentioned above. This seems to border on meditation, which is why I asked this related question a few years back.
posted by Rash at 12:34 PM on February 19, 2014

I was going to mention White or Green Tara meditations, but it looks like St Peepsburg has covered this in better detail than I could. But I'm atheist / agnostic and have gotten a lot out of Tibetan Buddhist meditation / mantra practice. The only thing I'd add is to find a good teacher, which is difficult but important when starting a practice; intensive meditation without expert guidance can produce weird or even bad results. Good luck!
posted by aught at 1:06 PM on February 19, 2014

I'm not religious and don't pray, but I do remind myself of the Serenity Prayer every now and then. I just remove the word "God." I say, "Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference." It's higher-power-ish without being theistic.
posted by quiet coyote at 5:57 PM on February 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm in alcoholics anonymous, which has, for one of it's chief tenets the belief that "a power greater than ourself could restore us to sanity." This, along with a bunch of talk about a "God of my understanding" and numerous recommendations that alcoholics engage in spiritual practices like meditation and prayer, makes it almost impossible to get through the 12 steps without seriously confronting your ideas about what prayer is, what "God" is/could be/should be/can be for you.

I am a lapsed Christian (my parents are missionaries) and when my first sponsor told me to pray, I told him I don't believe in God. He responded, "that's fine. pick a crack in the wall of your bedroom or some sort of spot on the ceiling. pray to that."

That wasn't nearly mystical enough for my newly dried out brain, so i opted to pray to a massive Egyptian looking eye in the middle of this tapestry I had bought at a head shop, and which was hanging on my wall.

I named it Ra, figuring that picking a religious practice that had been dead for thousands of years was a safe bet when it came to avoiding cult-shit.

I've been sober for quite some time now and worked all but the 12th step (which I am working now). I no longer need to restrict my higher power to an Egyptian symbol on the wall, but it worked well for me for a while, and it's as good a place to start as any. God, as I currently experience it, is some sort of amalgamation of "the best possible version of my self", the beauty of nature, jazz, and the laws of the universe.

These days I still pray, especially when I begin to feel a wave of discomfort come over me for any reason. I find that there are a few prayers that fit well in many situations.

The "Set Aside Prayer" helps when I am getting hung up on my own expectations of how situations should turn out or what my experience with the world today should be.

Please help me set aside
Everything I think I know
About myself, my disease,
These steps, and especially You;
For an open mind
And a new experience
With myself, my disease,
These steps and especially You.

Another prayer, which my sponsor passed down to me, and which he received from his sponsor, helps me to feel motivated when I wake up in the mornings. It's a simpler one.

"God, what can I create with you today?"

I also try to engage in meditations. I do counting meditations, walking meditations, and this new thing I've been trying, which I'm just calling the super trippy color meditation.

I count my breaths until they are calm. I allow myself to become mindful of my breaths. I allow my mindfulness to include the crazy colors running around inside my closed eyelids (I stare at a computer too much I think). I then try to allow a color (any color) to fill the entire field of my vision. I then relax and let that color tint my breathing patterns. Usually the color shades with my breaths. Then, sometimes, If I'm lucky, I can sort of "dive through" one color and into another. Usually happens with purple into green. Can't explain it better than that. Give it a shot. It's super cool.
posted by ichthuz at 12:04 AM on February 20, 2014

I love the responses above, but here's a different approach that you (or others) might find helpful. I'm a non-practicing Catholic, but when I need to get into a meditative state or simply go to sleep, I say the rosary (a cycle of about 60 prayers) in one of my non-native languages. It has some familiarity to me (with the cycle) but the different language places it so far away from my childhood ritual that it doesn't carry any of that baggage. And so I can let the foreign words roll off my tongue and I can lose myself in the repetition.

Yes, the rosary is from the Catholic monotheistic tradition but it's strongly invocative of the female almost-deity Mary, so that might be close to what you're looking for.

It's nice to see so many other responses. I'm enjoying them all.
posted by math at 8:09 PM on February 21, 2014

Thanks for all the great responses, everyone! I love hearing about everyone's own prayer practices. I have many ideas to explore.

I really like the insight about how the practice of Christianity isn't the same all over the world, it ends up being polytheistic in some ways, especially with Catholicism and the saints!

I personally find the almost-deity of Mary to be full of political baggage, just because of the context of the local politics in the country I'm in and the too-powerful status of the Catholic church. But I respect the role she plays in people's spiritual lives, and it's nice to be reminded that different practices of Catholicism can have a very personal meaning full of individual agency.

What's interesting that here in the Philippines, Mary and Guanyin are sometimes depicted in similar ways. An early 16th century statue of Mary showed her as Asian, maybe partly due to the Chinese craftsman who carved her. I feel quite drawn to Guanyin. I like her because she's not necessarily a her, and instead of being a maternal figure specifically, she represents compassion and the hope for liberation in general (and having a thousand arms is cool).
posted by Hawk V at 12:06 AM on February 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

Ah--I understand. I didn't realize your geographical context. Like you, though, I've also seen a lot of parallels between Mary and Guanyin.

For some reason I had Norfolk on the brain -- erk! It's Julian of Norwich, of course. Have you ever read her writings? They are rather interesting and, to me (coming to Anglicanism from a semi-evangelical experience of Christianity, which had its own sort of ugliness), relatively free of baggage.
posted by tully_monster at 4:52 AM on February 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

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