1st, 2nd, and 3rd Persons in Prayer
When I studied and practiced at the Milarepa Vajrayana center, I heard a charming anecdote.
At a retreat, my teacher Ellenmarie told me, a student had asked the Rinpoche about the deities they'd been visualizing.
“Are the deities real?” the student asked.
“At least as real as you or I,” the Rinpoche responded.
People have trouble with deities (and Angels, and even Saints) because they challenge us to suspend our disbelief. We don't like doing that, because we don't want to feel silly, and are afraid that putting faith in this imaginal realm is childish.
The Rinpoche’s response was brilliant. Sure, it's hard to imagine a deity, let alone pray to one. But I, myself, as an ego-persona, don't really exist either. Who I am fluctuates from moment to moment, situation to situation and, while I might seem like an objective thing to which you can refer, I'm actually always changing. The body I inhabit loses and regains new cells, replacing itself, and my ego-persona is something of a realistic illusion that serves the purpose of allowing you and I to interact with one another.
This is a core tenant of Buddhist philosophy, the mutability of all things and the illusory nature of the Self. In liberating oneself from the endless cycle of suffering and desire (rebirth), one of the first steps is to recognize that the self itself is not a fixed or concrete thing.
Cognitive science and contemporary psychology have learned that we can better withstand pressure and solve problems by thinking of our situation in the third person. Instead of thinking “This is happening to me,” I can think “Aaron was confronted with…” This is a handy mode of conceptualization which can have a legitimately positive effect. It offsets the pressure, and helps the mind to gain insight, seeing the trouble more clearly, and with more power to determine alternatives.
When praying the other day, I realized that something similar goes on when we address a personal God. As I address this “person” called “God,” I am shifting the emphasis of how I think about my situation. Instead of it being all about me, I'm talking to a second person, re-framing the narrative such that I can talk about the situation I'm confronting. This is a substantially different sensation than simply thinking about, or even contemplating or meditating on, the problem. It suddenly becomes something I can gain distance from, something I can assess and evaluate.
Many a non-theist and agnostic have professed that they do not believe in a personal God. As far as whether there's an actual, singular being who is intimately related to you — I'm equally skeptical. And even during petitionary prayer, I don't think that the point is to come up with a wish list, hoping for presents.
Instead, I think that a large part of the benefit of prayer (even petitionary prayer) is that unique breed of perspective which allows us to uniquely see what just what it is we're confronting.
When I'm actually praying to that second person, that person is at least as real as I am (even if it technically resides in my imagination). And when I ask them for strength to maintain emotional composure as I face life's challenges, they are listening (even if they are actually me). And that affords me confidence and composure, and ultimately agency.
How this relates to the origin of the cosmos? I know not, but I do know that it has something to do with how Sapiens relate to it. For all of the legitimate skepticism toward prayer, it is still practiced the world round (and by all manner of people). And I do think there's something to be said for the hypothesis that whatever we do to better attune our consciousness to have right relation with the world around us, the more connected we are to some kind of basic, underlying truth.
That may be hard to believe. But it's worth the investment of good faith.