Usually in these columns, I build up to some conclusion, but this time I’m starting at the end. Prayer is what you want it to be. Perhaps prayer is a connection, like my cat sitting next to me. (Thanks, Ralphie.) Even atheists can find their spirit resonating with music, or maybe nature, in a way that is not just pleasurable, I think, but lifts us out of ourselves and our everyday existence. That is how I would define spiritual. When by intention or experience, we step outside of our daily worries to connect with the universe, I think we can call that a prayer.
Some people define prayer as the petitions they present to an all-powerful and interested God. I would liken that approach to wishing on a star – not that there’s anything wrong with that. When I was in the process of becoming Roman Catholic (I am now Episcopalian), I had some difficulty sorting out culture from dogma from theology. One of the things the nuns talked about that I knew was strictly cultural was that when you go into a chapel for the first time you can make a wish. I saw it as a Jiminy Cricket sort of thing. At the time I was working two full-time jobs, and it follows that I had no social life. It was about December 17th and in spite of the fact that I would be working until at least 7:00 p.m. and the previously stated realities, I wished for a New Year’s Eve date. Admittedly a self-serving fantasy, I viewed it as a throw-away request. Surely God had better things to do. I didn’t even take my own wish seriously. I told no one, and forgot about it.
At about 6:45 p.m. New Year’s Eve, I had sent all my staff home and was tending to final work that I could handle alone when a man I had previously only spoken to casually asked me to accept an extra ticket to Penn and Teller because he had a friend who cancelled. This is the story that I tell my nieces under the theme of ‘God has a sense of humor.’ I had a lovely New Year’s Eve and one or two other dates, then found out he was gay. Well, at least now I knew God’s idea of a perfect date for me.
About those petitions…Though I don’t really believe in a personal god, in times of duress, I think we all wish we had a super-power from whom we could request intervention or relief. In that I am no different from anyone else. And in spite of the fact that I don’t think things work that way, when I am in the middle of a struggle, I do in fact yearn for not only relief but an acceptable resolution, and maybe even a rescuer. Who doesn’t? What I think is crucial to human contentment and spiritual insight, is what we expect during the ‘dark night of the soul’ and after. What I’m suggesting is to consider how we view prayer and what we expect as a result of prayer. Why? Because I’ve had too many people tell me they would pray for me instead of actually helping me. Also, I want to reconcile for myself what may seem like the hypocrisy of wishful prayers that are an understandable response to loss, sadness, fear, worry, and despair.
In this capitalistic society, when someone exploits your need to be employed to fulfill their ego’s hunger to exercise power, it is oppression. There are a lot of people longing for relief from oppression, whether it is external like workplace bullies, or internal like clinical depression. As for me, I have had a lot of very bad bosses who have made my work day miserable, and some eventually put me out of work. (I know I am not alone with these problems.) One day on the train commute to such a job when I was feeling overwhelmed by the dread of the coming workday, I looked out the window to see the most spectacular sunrise I had ever seen in my life. The clouds had formed in a way that created rays of brilliant colors that I am unable to fully describe. In that moment, surrounded by other apparently oblivious commuters, I felt that the vibrant and fleeting sunrise view was a gift just for me. It produced in me such a sense of joy that I carried it with me the rest of the day, and in fact I still remember it clearly even though it was about seven years ago. If my yearning for a better situation was a prayer, then that sunrise was an answer. And in that moment, the bliss I felt was more powerful than the relief from getting a new job, which I continued to pursue and did eventually land.
It would be an oversight to discuss prayer without addressing suffering. I have ended the old year and started the new year reading The Art of Happiness (His Holiness The Dalai Lama and Howard C. Cutler, MD) which weaves lengthy conversations with the Dalai Lama into prose. Reading so much from His Holiness on suffering and pain has expanded my understanding of Buddhism. I have always had difficulty with what was my perception of Buddhism’s casual acceptance of the bad stuff in life in the old ‘life is suffering’ phrase. I heard it as a trite aphorism. Now I see that by accepting that there is loss and pain for everyone, my suffering is neither unique nor unfair. That is not to justify oppression which is unfair and unethical behavior, but suffering itself is a common human condition. This subtle shift in perspective helps me connect with humanity, rather than feeling apart, which served to increase my suffering.
If I can get myself to see suffering as a universal human condition, then it also changes my view on prayer. My prayer becomes a desire to connect with the universe in a way that reduces suffering, not just for myself, but for others as well. My prayer becomes a meditation on working to heal my soul in a way that makes compassion possible – toward myself and others.
I weave prayer and meditation together as complementary practices. I pray to release my suffering and affirm my wishes, then I meditate to quiet my ever-noisy head, to touch my bruised heart, and to restore my weary soul. These practices are very personal and I would never impose my approach on others. I write about it here as a means of reconciling my frustration with those who pray from an apparent desire to remain un-involved or from the arrogance of their own theology. I also write to work through my own hypocrisies.
Eventually, my practices include listening. I listen for what I would call the whisper of the universe. My Buddhist friends may consider it getting in touch with Buddha-nature. Some Christians might say it’s the Holy Spirit. I would not make any of those presumptions. I just know that I want the greater good for all of us, and that includes me, though I don’t know exactly how that will happen or even what comes next. How you pray or if you don’t, is just not my business. If you insist on praying for me, then I thank you for your good wishes, because sometimes wishes do come true. Please don’t expect reciprocity, because that is not my practice. Just know that my practice is intended for compassion. For you. For me. For friends and enemies. As the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh said, “I vow to live fully in each moment and to look at all beings with eyes of compassion.” Well, I’m not making any vows, but I’m trying to head that direction. –J. B.