This post first appeared at Contemplative Journal in March 2015.
For about five years now, I’ve been beginning my morning period of prayer with a series of prostrations. For the bulk of that time, this practice has come from the sacred world of Islam—the graceful movements of salaat, offered five times daily by Muslims the world over. Offering these prayers daily, I’ve found that they pattern into my soul and body a gesture of surrender. Ultimately, this is an inner gesture; but as embodied beings, the gestures of our souls are often intimately intertwined with those of our bodies.
My teacher Cynthia Bourgeault has often pointed out the ways physical gestures and postures affect mood, reminding her students that not only do our attitudes impact our outer posturing, but our posture also directly impacts our attitude. Alter your outer life, and you’re likely to experience an accompanying inward shift. Are your shoulders tense and your brow furrowed because you’re stressed, or are you stressed because of your furrowed brow and tense shoulders? Try experimenting with this relationship throughout the day and you may be surprised to find just how connected inner and outer actually are—and how easily you can shift one by altering the other.
Spiritual traditions have long understood the power of sacred gesture and its impact on the development of the soul—which is why movements like bows, prostrations, and upraised hands are pretty much universal across our religions. Each gesture is accompanied by a corresponding inner reality or opening, and this inner spiritual dimension is cultivated in the soul through the repetition of the physical gesture. To get a feel for this, you might experiment right now with a few gestures. Try, for example, cradling your arms in front of you as if holding an infant. Do you feel an accompanying sense of tenderness? Or try holding your arms upward in praise, your head tilted slightly heavenward. Breathe through this posture for a few seconds. Do you feel your heart open? Experiment with your own gestures and see what they invoke or open in you.
The repertoire of sacred gestures held within the world’s spiritual traditions is essentially a body of spiritual technology, carefully keyed to awaken the heart. Prostration is one of the most ancient and venerable of these forms, but it has largely dropped out of fashion in the Christian West. Words like surrender, submission, and humility are also not the most popular on the contemporary spiritual scene—and often for good reason. We have rebelled against submission to a patriarchal god and to externally imposed, hierarchical religion. Women in particular have sought empowerment, not surrender or humility—spiritual concepts too often used to perpetuate the status quo.
And yet, humility and surrender, and their accompanying outward gesture—prostration—offer a spiritual antidote that is much needed in our world today. We are surrounded by overgrown egos—both personal and collective—that reinforce separation and domination. We have to learn again to approach one another with deep humility and reverence. At its simplest, prostration is a way of cultivating a relationship of sweetness and surrender with the deep mystery of life. Ultimately, this is not a relationship with an external god who demands our worship, but with the unitive mystery of love that beats at the heart of all life. In prostration, we encounter this love as the ground of our own heart; touching our foreheads to the ground we offer ourselves as its servants.
Prostration is one potential element in a balanced spiritual practice. Traditionally, it has been combined with other disciplines, such as chanting, meditation, and intercessory prayer. Taken together, these various elements create a balanced spiritual diet, exercising in turn the various dimensions of the soul. In the contemporary West, with our renewed emphasis on meditation and mindfulness, we often attempt to divorce the more obviously contemplative practices from that wider body of traditional disciplines—sometimes even seeing the others as inferior or superstitious. The result is atrophied dimensions of our souls.
For example, Buddhism in the West is often seen as synonymous with meditation practice. But in traditional Buddhist cultures, meditation is never divorced from a wider body of practice that includes chanting, prostrations, and ritual. The work is not just in emptying the mind, but also in engaging the heart and body (which, not surprisingly, makes sitting in meditation much easier!). I have often been struck by the power of prostrations following sutra chanting in traditional Zen centers; as the community offers prostration in rhythm together, at the end of each movement, with forehead against the floor, the hands are slightly elevated, palms facing upward, symbolically receiving the feet of the Buddha. This act of embodied devotional humility, with deep reverence, slowly loosens the hold of the ego.
Cultivating this relationship of humility and surrender with the mystery of life (for those of us who are God-people, that’s who I’m talking about), we begin to move through life with a newfound gracefulness—not perfectly, at first, but increasingly so. When I received word a few years ago that my dad had died suddenly and unexpectedly, one of the first things I did was offer salaat. I knew I needed that outward gesture of surrender to anchor its inner reality in my heart. Surrender to God empowers us to let go when we are asked to let go, and to flow with life’s sometimes surprising and difficult challenges. Prostration prepares the heart by patterning that gesture of surrender into us, body and soul.
As I mentioned, for the last several years my work with prostrations has mostly come from Islam—specifically, through Sufism, Islam’s mystical tradition. I found that the practice of salaat, and the accompanying bead prayers and chanting I was taught, offered me tools that I didn’t have access to in Christianity. Recently that has changed, through an encounter with an Eastern Orthodox nun who is passing on to me the practices of prostration and the Jesus Prayer that flow to us from the Christian East. For me, this has allowed for a harmonizing of my personal practice with my Christian commitment and service. It has also made it painfully clear to me how inaccessible these teachings and practices are in the life of the Church.
In the West, we need to reclaim these tools. Christianity, in particular, needs to reclaim these tools. We will need the careful and gracious support of those elders—be they hidden in monasteries or in plain sight in the world—who have kept the fire burning and are ready to transmit its flame to the future. One of those tools is sacred gesture, and I encourage you, as you feel led, to experiment with it. What forms open your heart to love, praise, reverence, humility? If you feel drawn, explore the simple practice of prostration, bowing before the mystery of life. If you want to go further, find a teacher from a tradition that cultivates this discipline. As you explore, my prayer is that, with hearts and bodies bent in reverence, heads touching the sacred earth, we will become a world surrendered to love. Amen.