Ask Andrew W.K.: Prayer Is Stupid, Right?

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Photo by Ashley Eberbach
[Editor's note: Every Wednesday, New York City's own Andrew W.K. takes your life questions and sets you safely down the right path to a solution, a purpose or — no surprise here — a party. Need his help? Just ask: AskAWK@villagevoice.com]

Hey, Andrew.

Thanks for doing what you do and helping people. I'm going to make this short and to the point. My older brother was diagnosed with cancer last week. My whole family is freaking out and trying to deal with the news. Everyone is trying to find different ways to help, but something my grandmother said has really got me angry. She said we should all just "pray for my brother," like prayer would actually save his life. Just thinking about it now makes my fists clench with frustration. We need to actively help my brother and do actual things to save him, not kneeling on the ground and mumbling superstitious nonsense. I got into a fight with my grandmother and the rest of my family about this and now I feel worse than ever. I need to get them to see that praying and religious mumbo jumbo doesn't help. How do I explain this to them?

Thanks for reading this,
Not Gonna Pray

See also: Ask Andrew W.K.: My Dad Is a Right-Wing Asshole

Dear Not Gonna Pray,

I'm deeply sorry to hear about your brother's diagnosis. I'm sending you my thoughts, and my heart goes out to your brother and your whole family. Guess what? That was me praying for you. I think the idea of "praying" is a lot less complicated, a lot more powerful, and a little different than you may realize. In fact, I'll bet you're already praying all the time and just don't realize it.

Prayer is a type of thought. It's a lot like meditation — a type of very concentrated mental focus with passionate emotion directed towards a concept or situation, or the lack thereof. But there's a special X-factor ingredient that makes "prayer" different than meditation or other types of thought. That X-factor is humility. This is the most seemingly contradictory aspect of prayer and what many people dislike about the feeling of praying. "Getting down on your knees" is not about lowering your power or being a weakling, it's about showing respect for the size and grandeur of what we call existence — it's about being humble in the presence of the vastness of life, space, and sensation, and acknowledging our extremely limited understanding of what it all really means.

Being humble is very hard for many people because it makes them feel unimportant and helpless. To embrace our own smallness is not to say we're dumb or that we don't matter, but to realize how amazing it is that we exist at all in the midst of so much more. To be fully alive, we must realize how much else there is besides ourselves. We must accept how much we don't know — and how much we still have to learn — about ourselves and the whole world. Kneeling down and fully comprehending the incomprehensible is the physical act of displaying our respect for everything that isn't "us."

This type of selfless awareness contains a contradictory aspect that sets the tone for true immaterial experience. It's the feeling of power in our powerlessness. A feeling of knowing that we don't know. A feeling of gaining strength by admitting weakness. We work so hard to pump ourselves up and make ourselves believe that we know all the answers and that we have the power and strength to do anything — and we do — but the fullest version of that power comes not from our belief that we have it, but from a humbling realization that we don't.

The paradoxical nature of this concept is difficult, but it is the key to unlocking the door of spirituality in general, and it remains the single biggest reason many people don't like the idea of prayer or of spiritual pursuits in general — they feel it's taking away their own power and it requires a dismantling of the reliable day-to-day life of the material world. In fact, it's only by taking away the illusion of our own power and replacing it with a greater power — the power that comes from realizing that we don't have to know everything — that we truly realize our full potential. And this type of power doesn't require constant and exhausting efforts to hold-up and maintain, nor does it require us to endlessly convince ourselves and everyone else that we're powerful, that we know what we're doing, and that we're in control of everything.

To know that you don't know is the definition of a spiritual awakening. And keeping that realization at the front of our mind and in the core of our being informs the rest of our existence. It takes a deeper type of strength to admit to ourselves that we don't have it all figured out than to run around keeping all our plates spinning. It seems strange to think that turning yourself over to your own bewilderment would actually bring clarity, but it does. Solving this riddle is the beginning of any true spiritual journey.

Many people feel threatened or uncomfortable with this sort of gray area. They like things to be "yes" or "no," "black" or "white," and "right" or "wrong." They want to live in the "real world" that they can touch and make sense of. When things "don't make sense," they retreat. These people will have to allow themselves to fully admit that they don't know, in order to actually begin knowing and that's often too frightening of a task. It can be too painful to even imagine, after all those years of effort, simply abandoning our carefully crafted structures and stepping into the immense chasm of the uncharted and unknowable.

Many of us worked for years to build up our idea of the world and who we are in it. We've clung ever more tightly to the idea of what is true and what is false. We've toiled and schemed to get what we need to "be happy," and to gain the sense of security that comes with "figuring things out" and "making it." We do that by building a better and stronger protective shell to shield us from the painful horrors of the unknown.It can be too painful to even imagine, after all those years of effort, simply abandoning our carefully crafted structures, and stepping into the immense chasm of the uncharted and unknowable. And now, it's time to take it.

I want you to pray for your brother right now. As a gesture to your grandmother — who, if she didn't exist, neither would you. I want you to pray right now, just for the sake of challenging yourself. I want you to find a place alone, and kneel down — against all your stubborn tendencies telling you not to — and close your eyes and think of one concentrated thought: your brother.

I want you to think of your love for him. Your fear of him dying. Your feeling of powerlessness. Your feelings of anger and frustration. Your feelings of confusion. You don't need to ask to get anything. You don't need to try and fix anything. You don't need to get any answers. Just focus on every moment you've ever had with your brother. Reflect on every memory, from years ago, and even from just earlier today. Let the feelings wash over you. Let the feelings take you away from yourself. Let them bring you closer to him. Let yourself be overwhelmed by the unyielding and uncompromising emotion of him until you lose yourself in it.

Think about him more than you've ever thought about anyone before. Think about him more deeply and with more detail than you've ever thought about anything. Think about how incredible it is that you have a brother — that he exists at all. Focus on him until you feel like your soul is going to burst. Tell him in your heart and soul that you love him. Feel that love pouring out of you from all sides. Then get up and go be with him and your family. And you can tell your grandmother that you prayed for your brother.

Love,
Andrew W.K.


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180 comments
TVfordinner
TVfordinner

@mineinmono He missed one huge difference between prayer and meditation: God. His definition of prayer is another's def of meditation.

jonahsage
jonahsage

@cdlowell dude. You need to read the new book "the relational soul." Right up your alley.

elkinsa4
elkinsa4

@cdlowell That was amazing! Such an unexpected source. Thanks for sharing!

jdtecumseh
jdtecumseh

Way to dodge the question and serve up  a steaming pile of new age pablum. 


The person asked if prayer can get a higher power to change the course of events. You didnt answer. 


Lame.

LizGirl
LizGirl

LOVE, LOVE, LOVE your though process and your columns Andrew.  Saw you on Beck.  It's all about peace, common ground, and well....LOVE!  Showing respect and humility for those that differ in beliefs or opinions is one of the highest levels of evolvement (if you are not religious) and sacrificial if you are.  Either way, it's win-win.  If every agnostic or atheist as well as people of all faiths could have the open-mindedness, respect for others, and yes--TOLERANCE that Andrew shows, perhaps our world wouldn't be full of people hacking off other people's heads.  This Christian, music-appreciating, chick has total love, respect, and admiration for AWK.  I "PRAY" (send positive mental thoughts your way dude!)  you will make a return trip to the Blaze soon, and if not, I pray our paths cross in the digital realm and/or human realm too, if God willing (or fate allows).  The world is a better place when "engaged thoughtfulness" (as opposed to mindless trolling and anonymous slamming of fellow humans) prevail.  Good job Andrew!  Now I'd like to check out your music!

vn0688
vn0688

Welp, People in the comments are missing the point yet again... 

This is not an article meant to promote religion or cram it down someones throat, nor should it be taken as an opportunity to prove ones life style or view as superior to anothers. This is a summary/study of the psychological importance of a certain behavior, and the good that it is capable of for a large majority of people... and its written so well that I would consider it almost academic. it's not about "This is the way to deal with your problems" its about "Do what you can to do the most Good". It is almost humorous that this article actually creates a divide and proves its legitimacy not between religion and atheism, but amongst personality types. 

Religion at its core is not, and should not be, about imposing your thoughts and beliefs on others. All of the major religions of the world(buddhism, christianity, etc.) came to be from the intent to live a better and more complete life. Whether the plethora of variants that evolved after the fact retain this mentality or not, and whether their current versions are good for our world society, is a completely different argument altogether. One should remember that not all peoples are the same, and not all people that follow a given religion have the same beliefs. 

Atheism is at its core, the result of a group coming to their own enlightened conclusion through their own power. This is the individual finding gratification and empowerment through the pursuit of knowledge rather than religion, not in spite of it. It is not intended as a pursuit to disprove the existence of deities, and if it were, it would be very futile to try and disprove the existence of something as simple and omnipresent as a thought. 

Those that force a god or a belief onto another are no different from those that would seek out a god or belief and condemn it as a waste of time, Those that would demand others believe what they believe, are the same as those that would demand others DON'T believe what they don't believe. They are all negative human actions that seek self legitimization through the negative manipulation of others, and in the long run, will always hurt your cause no matter which side of the issue you take. Thats what AWK fights the good fight for... a more positive society.

Those of you that want to dismiss everything written in AWK's article as superstitious religious BS should try to understand that Understanding is all he is asking for. 

freewingz777
freewingz777

What if his brother had asked to pray for him?

pffreese
pffreese

I'm not a very religious person though I was brought up Catholic.  Early 2013 I was diagnosed with a brain tumor.  I don't believe I'd still be here a year and a half later if it hadn't been for the prayers of others of strong religious faith.  I hardly pray but knowing that others have been gave me the will and courage to face this challenge - knowing there were people in my corner.  I say whatever their beliefs, anything they want to do to help lift the spirit, bring it on.  I welcomed whatever people wanted to do to help; cooking, cleaning, praying, music, financial support, helping through day to day life; I took all the help anyone wanted to offer.

sang_froid
sang_froid

Many of the comments have already expressed some of my feelings but no one mentioned the second paragraph. The X-factor is humility? What kind of BS is that? I see absolutely no humility in all the prayers put out by evangelists, preachers and many priests. They say they are praying for your so called souls but all they are trying to do is get you to put out in the collection basket. There is no humility in prayer, only an expression of superiority - my god will listen to my prayers and make you better?


Then you say "Getting down on your knees" is ... about showing respect for the size and grandeur of what we call existence. I show respect for the size and grandeur of the universe and our existence by getting out in nature, hiking the trails, gazing at the stars, enjoying life to the fullest. I respect existence by facing it fully and living it fully.


Then you say "...it's about being humble in the presence of the vastness of life, space, and sensation,..." I don't feel humble at all. I feel proud to be a part of this vastness of life, space, and sensation and revel in it!


And finally you state " ...acknowledging our extremely limited understanding of what it all really means...." The only thing to acknowledge is our limited knowledge of life and the universe which propels us on to find as many answers as we can, KNOWING that we will NEVER understand what it all means. The only thing we know for sure is we will die. That is the final part of life and is inescapable. Once we think we understand what 'it all really means' we are doomed to a life of boredom.


Prayer is useless. Providing love and comfort is far more powerful.

lisajeaninewinett
lisajeaninewinett

Andrew's response left out what prayer might actually DO for Not Gonna Pray or his brother or anyone.  And I don't mean humbling him or them, I mean, what's it gonna do to make the cancer better???


What about the power of surrender relaxing us, what are the physiological effects of prayer?  


I think that is what Not Gonna Pray was talking about, how is prayer gonna help heal his brother on the physical plane?


Some people's spirituality is more metaphysical and responds or resonates with ethereal things like prayer, chanting, belief in energy, crystal power, the power of thought to manifest stuff.  Other people need hard reality like diet, putting the blade to the grindstone, doing the actual work.  


Not Gonna Pray was right on for himself, and Grandma was right on for herself.  We all attack  crisis in our own way, and for some, prayer is a  bit of a waste of time.  

marfknox
marfknox

Horribly condescending. 

Andrew W.K.'s solution to this poor person's problem is basically for him to redefine prayer so broadly and vaguely that he can appear to share his family's worldview, thus rendering his secular worldview invisible. In other words, 
back into the closet with you, naughty atheist!

 
http://humanistmom.blogspot.com/

dsandrade9205
dsandrade9205

I know that I am intelligent because I know that I know nothing" My favorite quote of all time. I only just heard of this Andrew W.K. guy, but he's starting to look closer to someone like Socrates than anyone I've seen.

thepourfool
thepourfool

I'm struck by how compassionate Andrew has managed to be here, in the face of a howling contradiction: here's this guy who totally misses the point - that his brother has cancer - and dwells on an attempt to get his grandmother and family to do EXACTLY what he is finding fault with them for doing. He feels that they are asking him to abandon his own beliefs, when he's doing precisely that. At best, his attitude - in a time when the world is NOT all about him -  is at best ungracious and insensitive and at worst callous and cruel. Don't pray at all and tell your grandmother you did. That's not capitulation. It's just an act of kindness. People want and need comfort and strength from their families in the face of such tragic news, not lectures and judgment. The guy is very lucky he wrote to Andrew and not to me and I applaud Andrew's wisdom and restraint.

dbippit
dbippit

Question for Andrew... Are you a Christian?? This blog has gotten me to start a conversation at my church council meeting... and that is what we were wondering as a group.

jasondominy
jasondominy

@rebekahlgilbert I think he has some good points, especially considering the source. I find myself with more questions than answers lately.

mineinmono
mineinmono

@TVfordinner True, he's very general about it. However, to assume any efficacy in intercessory prayer, one has to assume God's omnipresence.

joswald21
joswald21

He answered the question.

If prayer helps you deal with disaster by finding strength and peace, then the answer is YES.

If you pray to make a deal or be granted a favor by some kind of diety, then the answer is NO.

Hellllo
Hellllo

@dbippit His thoughts seem to stem from Buddhist thinking, if you ask me.

lyriaz
lyriaz

@dbippit Someone who believes in sending positivity into the universe, who believes in praying, who believes that thought creates reality... what makes you think that person should be a Christian? Prayer, positivity, and faith are not categorically Christian ideas. Religions should not claim anything as their own.

ItsMsDarcy
ItsMsDarcy

@TheRealEsel You're welcome! I'm frankly pretty wishy-washy on matters spiritual, and found it really thought-provoking.

rebekahlgilbert
rebekahlgilbert

@jasondominy Yeah, same here. Someone recently told me when Xians ask for prayer, it's a way to talk to ppl about what's happening.

buelldawg
buelldawg

@bitmaelstrom Osteens have done that with religion in general. Just be positive bs they spew.

buelldawg
buelldawg

@bitmaelstrom I thought Andrew is making prayer a very trite thing. Not what the grandmother was meaning. Who is he praying to?

bitmaelstrom
bitmaelstrom

@buelldawg --by the =mere thought= of prayer. There's a chance that guy will listen to AWK.

bitmaelstrom
bitmaelstrom

@buelldawg Ah, but Osteen would appear to be undermining Christianity (for Christians). AWK is dealing with a guy who's enraged--

buelldawg
buelldawg

@bitmaelstrom I suppose you are right about that. Andrew is not preaching. He probably ticked the guy off more. \U0001f62e

bitmaelstrom
bitmaelstrom

@buelldawg It's really good. This is how anti-God/religion people have become. The concept of prayer is anathema.

buelldawg
buelldawg

@bitmaelstrom yes, which is probably why this other person told the person seeking prayers that she was sending thoughts.

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