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Praying With One Eye Open (Reprise)

 Devote yourselves to prayer, keeping alert in it with Thanksgiving. At the same time pray for us as well… Colossians 4:2-3a

Throughout this series of Life Notes I have presented the metaphor of praying with one eye open in a negative light. I have used it as an illustration of how we hold back from surrendering completely to God. There is another way of looking at this, however, in which praying with one eye open might actually be the most appropriate way to pray. First, I’ll take a slight, but hopefully interesting detour.

Most people are aware that our brains have two hemispheres. It is one of the countless and unfathomable aspects of how we were created. In very broad terms, the left hemisphere specializes in small details and differentiates what it experiences into concrete groupings of right or wrong, dark or light, male or female. The left hemisphere, useful and necessary as it is, cannot see the big picture. The right hemisphere specializes in the big picture and attempts to fit its experiences into a larger whole. It seeks similarities and relationships, not differences. Here is an example of the typical functioning of the two hemispheres of the brain, paraphrased from Iain McGilchrist’s book, The Master and His Emissary[1]:

A small bird in search of food must perform two tasks simultaneously. First, the bird must focus narrowly on the ground to identify what is edible from what is inedible, i.e., a grain of wheat from a pebble. This is detail work that is the domain of the left hemisphere, which controls the right eye. So our bird is scanning the ground with its right eye in search of food. At the same time, our little friend must also scan the environment for predators. This bigger picture focus is the domain of the right hemisphere, so the bird is also checking her/his surroundings with the left eye. For its well-being, our bird must be aware of both its internal needs and its external dangers. The divided brain allows it to do so.

I use this example to illustrate the dual nature of our earthly lives. Although we are one being, we have both a spiritual and physical aspect to that being. In a related way, we have an internal life as well as the life going on around us. Our divided brains show how we were created with the ability to comprehend and experience in both detailed and broad ways, in concrete and ethereal realms, and in our inner and outer lives. As we awaken to the amazing manner in which we were created, we become capable of unifying and reconciling what we witness in the world around us with the life we experience within.

In prayer, there is a need to focus on the details of our personal situation and a simultaneous need to be aware of the needs of others around us. Like the hungry bird, we have need for both attention to our inner details and a view beyond our own little world. For prayer to be effective, we must attend to both our internal and external worlds.

When we understand that God created us with physical eyes and senses to perceive the world around us, but also with internal senses to explore our inner lives, then we begin to see the wisdom and practicality of praying with one eye open. In other words, we have been given the capacity to be attuned to our inner and outer worlds simultaneously. In order to close our physical eyes in prayer, we need not turn a blind eye to the suffering around us. Likewise, we need not ignore the struggles and conflicts within, pretending as if they do not exist. Our inner and outer worlds mirror one another and ignoring one simply intensifies the struggle in the other.

We were created as single beings with dual capabilities. We actually can attend to seemingly opposite realities until it becomes clear that they are two sides of the same thing. We can become unifiers of the seeming dualisms and contradictions of our world. We attain the peace of Christ when we embrace all of the diverse realities in this life as a single and good creation, valuable and worthy of our respect and love simply by being. In order to grow into this knowledge of our essential unity, we need to pray with one eye closed, i.e., focused internally, and one eye open, i.e., focused externally.

This is the 36th in the series of Life Notes titled, Praying With One Eye Open.

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[1] Iain McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary. Yale University Press, 2019.

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Praying With Both Eyes Closed

But as for me, my prayer is to you, O Lord. At an acceptable time, O God, in the abundance of your steadfast love, answer me. Psalm 69:13

In January of this year, I began this series of Life Notes with a reflection about praying with one eye open. I used it as a metaphor for not giving oneself fully to God. Since that time I have written numerous additional reflections about the various ways we find to avoid or otherwise not surrender to God as much as we can or perhaps should. Make no mistake, I do not write these as a person who is particularly good at that type of surrender. Maybe that makes me a hypocrite, but these are topics I struggle with and assume at least some others do, too. I remember Sundays in church as a child during prayer time looking around the sanctuary for people whose eyes were not closed. I always found a few. I think I figured if I got caught, the captor would automatically expose his or her own guilt if he or she called me out. It was not that I was serving as the prayer police as much as it was just difficult for me to keep both eyes closed during the prayers that seemed to drag on forever. I, like most of us, was taught to pray with both eyes closed. I guess it was considered disrespectful to God to be looking around during prayer.

The years have given me a slightly different perspective on prayer. I no longer believe God cares whether our eyes are open or closed. I do, however, believe it can make a difference to our personal prayer experience. We receive so much information and stimulation through our eyes that it is difficult, if not impossible, to focus on something ephemeral, like God, with our eyes open. We believe our connection to God is internal and, as such, that our gaze should be internal, too. That implies that our eyes should be closed.

As I have stated in earlier Life Notes, having both eyes closed makes us vulnerable. We cannot see what is going on around us. We do not know but that everyone else might be staring at something that has gone weirdly wrong with our hair. Keeping our eyes open is probably an instinctual trait dating back to the days when we needed to watch for angry Mastodons that might be coming after us. Keeping our eyes open helps us keep control of our environment, or at least gives us a sense of control. Which is exactly not the point in prayer. Closing our eyes requires a degree of trust and surrender, both of which are helpful orientations in seeking God’s presence. In my experience, God does not compete for our attention.

There is a school of thought that when we are doing something, we should be focused on that one thing to the exclusion of everything else. Work efficiency experts tell us to clear everything out of the visual field in our work space except for the immediate task at hand. Distractions like phone calls, emails, and other projects begging for attention come at a cost in terms of getting our tasks done in a timely and accurate manner. Experts tell us we cannot multi-task nearly as well as we believe, so attending to one task at a time is preferable. Under this methodology, when we pray, we should be completely focused on our prayer, and our eyes should be closed.

Certainly in our relationships, when a friend or partner is speaking, particularly about something sensitive, we want to give our attention wholly to her or him. A quick and sure way to damage the relationship is to check our cell phone while the partner is sharing something close to her or his heart. It is a colossal show of disrespect and an indication of how little we value what is important to him or her.

Perhaps for all these reasons and more, keeping both eyes closed during prayer is the best option. It helps keep us focused on God (at least in theory), and it puts us in an attitude of surrender. Having both eyes closed is a symbolic way of saying we trust God to protect us in our times of vulnerability. Those of us who are parents want our children to trust and feel safe in our presence, so why would God feel differently?

This is the 35th in the series of Life Notes titled, Praying With One Eye Open.

Prefer to listen? Subscribe to Life Notes Podcasts at https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/life-notes-podcast/id1403068000

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