Every tradition prays. One could say that every religion is bound to pray, for religion is an anthropological way of defining the universe, and prayer is an expression of how far it has gotten in this task. Theistic and non-theistic religions pray. Something else is meant by prayer in the latter case if it has to do with God, yet at the same time something more fundamental is meant by both forms of prayer.

In western scriptural religion (Judaism, Christianity, Islam), prayer is usually a form of petition asking God for favor. But this is the case with all religions, even more clearly in ancient and primitive religions of multiple deities where aspects of nature are distributed among the gods. After petition, motives of prayer begin to show the degree of the religion’s sophistication: praise, contrition, gratitude. Each form of prayer represents a predisposing psychological state, which in turn is a universal that is expressed culturally. The cultural expression shows a range from simplicity and spontaneity to complex theological justifications.

Yet what is most heartfelt prayer is that which is simple, genuine, and closest to the innate psychology that transcends culture and taps into the universal. The more layers of theology are applied to the phenomenon of prayer (the more “knowledge,” to use Nietzsche’s term) the less genuine the expression of the individual, and certainly of the culture. This is where prayer is most public and also most easily manipulated: prayer for victory in war, prayer for profit and wealth, prayer for good health while abusing the body, for deliverance from pain and sorrow while ignoring reflection and introspection. Ultimately, institutional prayer devolves into the appearance of the contrived and cynical. We think of the ancient Roman auspices, during which an army commander on the eve of battle tells the priest what to say about the signs from heaven in order to reassure the troops of heaven’s favor and upcoming victory. And, of course, this scene can be reproduced in religions and states everywhere, in every era.

Genuine prayer is spontaneous awe. It is an insight into the natural order that glimpses the transcendent order, if only for a moment, and expresses this awe. For that matter it can be a poem or a sigh, let alone a formulaic religious expression. This is the essence of genuine spirituality: to marvel, to stand impressed and overwhelmed but spontaneously, not in a contrived or artificial or second-hand way. Yet most people do not perceive prayer this way, neither those who believe nor do not believe a particular religion. No wonder that mystics do not form collectives or speak freely even in their congregations, for their perceptions are spontaneous and come when they will, and between times they develop an understanding of their insight and experience in order to nourish their own view of the universe. All else is “so much straw,” as Thomas Aquinas put it when he experienced a mystical insight, even after writing his many tomes of theology. This is the touchstone of prayer’s simplicity, yet it eludes the majority of people.

True prayer is gratidue. We experience this gratidue not by repeating prayers but in becoming conscious of moments of spontaniety, as when one sees a rising sun or a flight of birds or a field of flowers or a work of art and is thankful for the experience, for being alive for such moments, even if the gratitude has no object or hearer. These moments we want to bow or kneel or make obiesance to All. No distinction of culture or belief matters to this core sense of gratitude. As long as we appreciate the moment, this very moment –that has nothing to do with the past or future, with the evils of humanity in the past or present, with the impenetrable sufferings of human existence — then this is gratitude. And this is prayer.

Awe and gratitude are the same, after all. The same motive compels the sensitive soul to pray, to be united to everything that seems not to be us. To be completely selfless in this expression means to fully embrace a sense of humility, however, and to acknowledge our complicity with what culture has done to the true sense of gratitude and awe. To pray means to separate ourselves from the accidentals of culture but to fully acknowledge that we are part of everything in the first place.


Loneliness is not solitude. Loneliness is born of separation from a loved one, from what one does well or happily, from familiarity and symbols of reassurance, whether cultural or personal. This type of painful emotional separation is clearly involuntary.

Loneliness militates against the apparent core of human personality, which is sociability. Aristotle pronounced the human being a social animal, and ever since, loneliness has accompanied lack of social opportunity, regardless of the culture or beliefs of the person. In short, loneliness is an intrinsic condition of human existence.

What strange personal power, then, when someone can enter this state of “loneliness” voluntarily, like a prisoner of conscience or faith. In such cases, loneliness is not likely to be a deterrent to their determination or will.

But the revolutionary or martyr is not necessarily a healthy psychological model for everyone. We may want to imitate the fervor of belief or the determination, but we instinctively feel that there is an unnatural price to be paid. Loneliness is only part of this price for those without such fervor. Few people can suffer it voluntarily, for it is never a voluntary thing. Loneliness is always imposed by circumstance, already lurking in the subconscious, like an inkling that life is not right, that a flaw tears at the fabric of the universe, and that loneliness is only a manifestation of this bigger hunch. The feeling of desolation or abandonment is the sense that no human consolation is possible, that no insight can rescue the incomprehensible and cruel ways of the world.

Solitude is only just removed from loneliness in physical terms, and that is why the two are often confused. We are all alone, ultimately, and the confusion of th two can persist in most people’s minds until they understand the difference between voluntary and involuntary. Distinguishing the two points to an aspect of solitude that is not clear to those who do not reach a certain spiritual maturity. This matruity signals a readiness and capability to use the fruits of solitude for good ends. It means that an insight and relationship with solitude that is easily confused with the rote and unconscious version (loneliness) is truly a tool for crafting a philosophy of life and a right disposition toward suffering.

This does not mean that the solitary is exempt from suffering, even from loneliness. Many solitaries have good interpersonal relationships: they are siblings, children, parents, spouses, friends. They are ordinary. Solitaries are not exempt from loneliness because they can still experience the emptiness of the universe and the attraction of love at a human level — both at the same time.

An exemplary solitude full of sensitivity and humanity was that of the Zen monk-poet and hermit Ryokan, of whom I have written elsewhere. Ryokan stood at the great threshold of meaning. A hermit, he easily identified with the people he met: a farmer, a passing woodsman, children of the village, an old city friend come to visit. In later life, frail and ill, he lived with a young nun who was a poet and disciple.

We instinctively identify with Ryokan’s honesty, for the solitary is not a cold and indifferent ego but has, through solitude, discovered what is common to all of us.

I sit quietly, listening to the falling leaves —
A lonely hut, a life of reninciation.
The past has faded, things are no longer remembered.
My sleeve is wet with tears.

Gutter theory

In his book Deep Survival, Laurence Gonzales talks about survivors based on physical risk: military pilots, astronauts, mountain climbers, river rafters, firefighters, surfers. Survival here has a very masculine ethos, though Gonzales tries to make his list of psychological survival skills applicable to everyday survival. But the last words of the book confirm the original focus when the author proposes the “Gutter Theory of Life.”

It goes like this: You don’t want to be lying in the gutter, having been run down by a bus, the last bit of your life ebbing away, and be thinking, “I should have taken that rafting trip …” or, “I should have learned to surf …” or “I should have flown upside down — with smoke!”

Funny, but in one’s last moments, such thoughts seem quite irrelevant. One might just as well think: “I should have gazed at one more flower, one more moon,” or, “I should have hugged my spouse more often.”

Gonzales goes on to wonder if the last thought of a certain astronaut who died in a motorcycle accident wasn’t “I did it all!” Regardless of who he was or what he had done, maybe he really thought, “Dying in the gutter. Ha!”

Yuan Mei

Yuan Mei, the eighteenth-century Chinese poet, is uncannily reminiscent of fith-century Chinese poet Tao Chien (about whom see Hermitary article). Both were recluses from government service, both characterisitic recluses “with family,” that is, married and with children but separating themselves from society by living near small farming villages. Both wrote eloquently about daily life and simple values. Yuan Mei held an income from teaching and writing that included selling funerary inscriptions. Both men are model householders but ultimately recluses.

Both write of mountains, waterfalls, clouds, of paintings and flowers and their love of books. For example, Yuan Mei relates how his wife had to get him to stop reading and get to sleep:

Cold night, reading,
forgetting sleepp.
The embroidered coverlet has lost its fragrance,
and the brazier is cold.
My lady swallows her anger, but
snatches the lamp away,
and and tells me: Do you know what time it is?

When it comes to books, Yuan Mei admits that

Of ten I read, I might remember one,
So much the worse that in a thousand years
there will be more books, no end …

Every word that is written
I want to read each one, that’s all.

There is no philosophizing about the vanity of knowledge here. Tao Chien used similar images, as when he ended a day’s work in the field early, washed up, and had time to spend poring over his books. This is a practical simplicity that socializes with sages of the past, not gossipers of the present.

On a trip somewhere, Yuan Mei notices a little village that inspires his reclusive ideal:

There’s a stream, and bamboo,
mulberry and hemp.
Mist-hid and clouded village,
Mild and tranquil place.
A few tilled acres,
a few tiled roofs.
How many lives would I have to live,
to get that simple?

Then there is a passage most reminiscent of Tao Chien, the recluse with family:

At last to lead
my wife, my children, by the hand,
into some wilderness
to till my own small kingdom.