Prayers are silent,
Prayers are sung,
Prayers are danced,
and Prayers are spun.
What does it mean to live in prayer? My own expression of prayer has changed over the years as many of my prayers have become my reality, and many others not. I still like to give thanks, and ask for things like strength, and peace, and abundance, but I have come to understand that much of my life and many of my actions are in themselves prayers. I have come to see that ceremony is a form of prayer. Ceremony is a way to acknowledge the spiritual essence of existence through symbolism and ritual, and to use those tools to place the experience in a spiritual context. When I carry this awareness consistently throughout my day I feel I am living in a prayerful way—living life in prayer and ceremony.
Many cultures share traditions and ceremony that are designed to acknowledge and strengthen the spiritual basis of daily life. There are reminders by our ancestors that are encoded in our cultural habits so that we can continue to deepen our understanding of life and the reality we live in. Each new life is faced with the same challenge of being born into a baby body, then growing and developing that body and mind into the current social and collective understanding, and in some cases transcending the collective understanding. In my own life, and in our society, there is often a contrasting narrative of the spiritually connected indigenous traditions, and the disconnected western culture of exploitation. I am from both traditions, the contrast between those two narratives has been lost for me in some essential ways. My prayer and my ceremony are about becoming and remaining connected and harmonious by including all that I am.
I grew up on the Navajo rez, and attended a government school. I stopped speaking the Diné language around 8 years old, and really lost it but for a smattering of words. However, I attended traditional ceremonies that my mother’s family would host. But more importantly perhaps, I grew up believing I was inseparable from the world around me and was part of a larger whole. This connection was alive, and vital to forces like the wind, ants, coyotes, and rocks. I moved into adulthood knowing that this paradigm, indeed, is my indigenous heritage.
I was diagnosed at nineteen with a terribly painful health issue called Trigeminal Neuralgia. It came with the entirely unhelpful moniker “The Suicide Disease,” because of the tendency for those afflicted to check out. It is the kind of face pain that drives you to pray. I made it through my twenties with all the usual begging and bargaining prayers that I wove in with alcohol and other distractions as I muddled along. I went to medicine men, and healers, doctors, neurologists. I tried pharmaceuticals, and herbs, and a host of folk remedies. Eventually, I renamed my condition Tryanything Neuralgia.
My impatience and a lack of real understanding about the nature of suffering slowed my understanding. Forms of meditation were key to my survival, and eventually improvements in food and movement helped give me a better quality of life. In 2000 my pain became profound. Prayer and meditation merged into a focus to survive, and to discover what it means to live. Amid changes in my diet, the addition of Yoga brought an end to the medicated fog. Then, I rediscovered ceremony, and this time, in a deeper, more meaningful way. I began to recognize my life everywhere. I experienced the power of ceremony to usher me through a transformation process on a symbolic and spiritual level. Each ceremony would then unfold in the months and years to follow, building on the last to prepare for the next. The deep lessons learned, and visions intercepted, would unpack themselves into my daily life. They would only do so to full effect, however, when I paid attention. If I continued to recognize that I was still participating in my own healing. I made many mistakes, regressed several times, but each step came with a deepening of my understanding; each mistake was necessary, each regression was a part of the transformation.
The lessons didn’t end, and eventually I recognized that the ceremony never really ends. My spirit is consistently participating in an unfolding that includes forgetting and sleep. Reality is a continual spiritual process, and as long as I maintain it in my awareness the transformation continues with less suffering on my part. Prayer became a way to acknowledge that I am a part of this process, and a way to transform my inner and outer experience into one grand ceremony. Prayer becomes a state of recognition that life and ceremony are both about becoming. The order, beauty, and harmony of this state is what the Diné call Hózhó. Prayer is a way to pause and reset my awareness and intent in alignment with the unfolding of my life. The same sacred attention I maintain in ceremony is also required on a daily basis; all of my true progress comes when that is so. The more I settle into the process, the more I am humbled by the realization that there is no “there” to get, and that I am simply not capable of “understanding” in a way that is familiar to me.
My childhood was also peppered with trips to California to visit my father’s family. Their European-American heritage was a big source of Western influence and thinking for me. Christmas, root beer floats, apple pie, and big fish stories populated my mythical understanding, along with the Coyote stories, and the smell of burning cedar. I had a loving connection with my grandmother who had a strong Christian Science faith. When I was about twelve she discovered she had cancer, and, foregoing medical intervention (she did take one aspirin in her last days), she experienced a lot of pain leading up to her death. Her powerful act of faith stayed with me in the background as I continued to live and grow, until I lay recovering from brain surgery thirty years later. I was remembering that I was living a ceremony more and more often when I had a profound vision of my grandmother’s spirit. In the vision she floated over me and held a portal of light open to me for days on end. I bathed in that soothing healing light for weeks as I recovered, drawing strength and inspiration from it. Ever since then, this light has been available for me to place my awareness in. I was gifted her favorite Christian Science book, filled with notes in the margin, and underscored passages and prayers. I read the underlined portions and was struck by the emphasis on the idea that everything is a manifestation of spirit, and that we live in a continual state of prayer as we relate to the divine spirit. Our actions and deeds are themselves prayers. These were very familiar ideas, and I began looking for and seeing this lesson all over Western culture. The idea that all the traditions touch on this basic truth became a truth that I was now living. I also realized that all these traditions are passed on by people not unlike me, although they forget, regress and get confused. Sometimes in a critical way. This is the primary reason that the differing narratives of my indigenous upbringing and the West began to lose their contrast for me. It is all part of my story, and part of who I am, so I take it into ceremony with me whenever I recognize that I am in that space. The symbolism can get disjointed and confusing, like living a mixed metaphor, but I have found some advantages in that. It requires a continual evaluation and discernment that may not directly serve an ultimate truth, but it feels like where I am, so, at the least, it is a necessary tangent. I feel like this is just the beginning of another level of understanding, and I look forward to it.
At the Standing Rock Sioux reservation last year, people from many tribes, cultures, and races gathered to unite in prayer and ceremony for the protection of clean water. When I heard about it, more than my heart and money went out. I joined my prayers for the water to the growing multitudes. I knew that many had come to understand, as I had, what was being practiced on a grand scale, with thousands lending their focus and intent to unite in prayer and ceremony. I was humbled as I contemplated this timeless ceremonial space, a central fire uniting people and their ancestors all over the globe. I am happy that there are those with the knowledge and wisdom to lead in such endeavors. This effort transcended many boundaries that existed between tribes, clans, families, and many other cultures across the globe. Not everyone is ready to understand on a deep and profound level, but many do, and it isn’t race or demographics that dictates that understanding. It isn’t permission for a cultural appropriation free-for-all either. This recognition remains personal by nature, even if it is driven by cultural context. Deep spiritual context is built up over generations for cultures, and over decades for individuals. Appropriating a ceremony or a tradition is insulting because it is impossible. It is also unnecessary. Learning and gaining wisdom from an experience is human, and teaching your community, and creating habits to maintain that wisdom is how great traditions get started.
When I share with another culture in ceremony, I don’t try to copy the ritual unless they are specifically teaching me to do so. There is no reason for that, because without the deeper understanding, it’s just theater. Instead I concentrate on allowing whatever wisdom I can gain to seep into my life, then I look at the stories and traditions from my varied background and look for those same lessons. Once I begin seeing it in my history, and in my story, it usually resonates with me for a long time. Then it becomes part of my ceremony, but it may not resemble how it came to me, only how I came to understand it. There are symbols, metaphors and wisdom to be had everywhere, including in pop culture, American culture, hard science, art, fiction and all the fruits of human venture. What I am includes everything, from my ancestors to the artifacts and tools of my daily life. They all become symbols and ceremonial objects to a degree Some to a lesser extent, because I hesitate to empower the still chaotic corners (or desktops) of my surroundings. Just because it’s all a ceremony doesn’t mean everything has to be super potentiated. In this way, I incorporate more and more of my life into prayer, and ceremony. The process is slow because patience is important and I am truly only beginning to understand how much of a contribution every tradition has to make to my prayer and to what I am.
The Diné end a prayer with the phrase Hózhó náhásdlíí’, repeated four times. I’ll end with four different translations of the same phrase to try and capture the nuances.
Harmony again becoming
Beauty is restored
It has become beauty again
There is blessing