A note posted online by a minister friend of mine says, "Lori C. is on the way to the hospital for a double lung transplant. Pray!" What does that mean? Why do we do it? That is what we are here to explore right now.
There are hundreds of ways to pray. Every subgroup of every spiritual philosophy every devised has its own technique. For the person trying to find a prayer practice to begin, that is too many choices. You wind up studying the label on each prayer practice as though it was a bottle of shampoo. Do I get the volumizing formula for colored hair? Or will that leave me with dry frizzies? But I get the smoothing formula, my hair will be limp and greasy by the next day. Should I get the conditioner, too? And now that I've found the right formula, or at least according to what the bottle promises, I must compare prices. When I have found a price range that works for me, I want to open the bottle and smell the shampoo. What should be a simple choice becomes a confusing predicament. Some people who would like to engage in the spiritual practice of prayer spend decades just standing in the aisle with their hands full of various shampoo bottles. Check the bookshelves of today's spiritual seeker. They've got more books about prayer than they have years left in their lives to practice any one form of prayer.
It should be easy. "Lori C. is on the way to the hospital for a double lung transplant. Pray!" What does that mean? It means interrupting my train of thought, pulling my life force around me in the faith that I have a life force, also called energy, and that that energy is connected to everything else that lives. That is part one, the faith. Part two, I focus on Lori C., whoever she is, and focus love, compassion and strength toward her. That is the essence of the whole thing. This is a practice. It means that I do it. I do it as I "do" breathing, something I know to be essential to life and well-being, that I do not over-intellectualize.
This is not a sermon that I wish to leave open-ended or with you wondering where I stand on an issue. I am giving away my own ending here by saying that for me, prayer is just an embodied expression of how reality works. When I pray, I am acting out with my body my deepest beliefs about the nature of ultimate reality, or what I call God. I believe we are connected in spirit. I believe in the Buddhist teaching that the one who prays and the one who is prayed to are not separate entities. I believe that there is an energy field moving between us and all living things. My prayers have one function: to plug me into that energy field. I pray in words, because I am a wordy individual, but words are not necessary and I have prayed non-verbally too. Prayer is a practice that creates inner quiet, a place where thoughts stop and listening – or sometimes just peaceful being—can happen.
Prayer, like sex, is a free and simple form of powerful medicine that religion has always tried to control because … it is free and it is powerful! If ordinary people can access that power, it's harder to control their minds, and to manipulate them politically and economically. When Jesus taught his disciples to pray, it was a more radical act than you realize.
Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be your name (we don't worship Caesar or the Roman Empire; we worship a much-greater, spiritual reality).
Thy kingdom come (not the Roman Empire kingdom, the cosmic reign of justice and peace)
Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven (spiritual power is greater than military and political power, we will put our faith in that).
Give us this day our daily bread (give us what we need to survive, we're not invested in accumulating meaningless material things)
And forgive us our debts/trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us (let us order our relationships with each other on mercy and justice, as we believe these are the highest and most holy values and again, the very nature of ultimate reality)
Lead us not into temptation (help us to be balanced and whole in mind and body) And deliver us from evil (spare us the horrors of needless suffering).
The "thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory" stuff was added later, and was not taught by Jesus. It was a prayer you could take with you, and teach, and recite without having to do any accompanying ritual with it. No priest necessary, or washing hands or bowing or facing a certain direction – just a personal way to focus your life force and send it out. The prayer that works for you is the kind of prayer to practice.
I wanted to introduce you to Thich Nhat Hanh's gentle voice and Buddhist perspective on prayer because it is my experience that may of us get held up on traditional notions of prayer as being asking God for something, or classic petitionary prayer. How many of us have heard the stories about the child – and maybe that child was us – whose faith was shattered when he prayed and prayed to God for a certain outcome, and then it didn't happen? Maybe it was something like winning a baseball game. Maybe it was something enormous like losing a mother to cancer. A heart given so freely, sincere begging of God "please do this for me and I'll never ask for anything again?" Heal my child, Lord. Bring peace among the nations, Lord. Help me get this touchdown, Lord. The theological assumption beneath this sort of prayer is that the ardent desire of my heart, the passionate need for a certain outcome, will get the attention of a magical entity who will make it happen. Our emotional happiness, and our faith, become attached to the desired outcome. The exterior force "out there" either does or does not grant our wish.
Thich Nhat Hanh explains that the prayers of most people on earth, wherever they come from and whatever their age, generally come in three categories. We pray for health, because there is very little we can do if our bodies are in pain. We pray for success in whatever we do, whether we are monks or businessmen. And thirdly, we pray for good relationships, because, as he says, "If our relationships with others are not beautiful, there's no way our life can be happy." However, as Thich Nhat Hanh explains, this is not deep practice. This is not to say that it is bad, or wrong, it is simply not deep. Most important for us to realize, to pray for a certain outcome is not ultimately love, but about control, and mostly about fear, or ego needs. Of course this is not something we can tell a child who is praying for its dog to come home after it has run away, but as adults we must realize that deep prayer connects us with the heart of love, and is not attached to a certain outcome except to bring us peace with what is. Through prayer, we actually re-train our minds from a place of desire and attachment to outcomes to a deeper purpose: to illuminate the interconnectedness of all things. What did the Buddhist monk say to the hot dog vendor? "Make me one with everything." This is very hard for Westerners to grasp, so let me say it again more simply: prayer simply helps us plug into the essence of reality, which is that there is no separation between us and the holy, between us and others, or between us and the earth. No division.
If the first part of prayer is to trust the reality of the interconnectedness of all beings, the second part is to quietly transmit energy from our being outward, to connect. That is all it is. When we pray we are just focusing our energy and sending it out. Lori C. is on the way to the hospital. Let us pray. We access the love and compassion in our hearts, and we send it out. It doesn't matter if the person you are sending it to knows or not. The point isn't that we are going to do a kind of experiment to see if our prayer "worked" or not - that's an outcome-oriented attitude that is very Western, almost competitive, and also an attempt to apply the idea of scientific proof to a mystical practice. That isn't what we are trying to do. What we do when we pray by sending out focused love is to put that energy in the world, just because that is the way of compassion. Of course, when we do this frequently we may find that we are changing our own inner lives.
If this reminds you of one of those "think it and manifest it" systems like "The Secret," they are not the same. In "The Secret" or The Course in Miracles and other science of mind systems like that, the belief is that we manifest our reality strictly through our thoughts and by directing our energy consciously. This is not what Buddhism teaches. Buddhist spirituality and spiritual practice recognizes that even though there is an interconnectedness to all of reality, that doesn't mean that we can control reality. Buddhism recognizes that there is systemic evil in the world that comes from greed, fear, anger, striving, suffering and illusion. The point of prayer is not to manifest a more prosperous, romantic or fabulous life for ourselves, but to free ourselves from the suffering that comes from unnecessary attachment and control. We understand that our mindfulness can change things - and especially our inner lives - but that is different than expecting prayer to get something for us.
The Western mind is very acquisitive, it wants to see results, profits, progress. "I prayed for this long, what are the numbers now? Did I get stronger, better, smarter? Did my grades go up or my blood pressure go down? Did I improve my golf game?" In the Buddhist tradition, we wouldn't evaluate that way. We would maybe ask, "Are we sowing seeds of compassion? Was that a right thought or action? Was I, in this moment, present to that situation in a way that helped, that healed, that respected the community?" There is much less ego involved, and far more peace. All our lives, we hear this prayer from those who love us: "May you get what you want. May all your dreams come true." We speak it as a blessing, we blow out candles on our birthday cake and all our friends applaud our wish. What if someone said to you, "My wish for you is that you become so much at peace, that it doesn't matter if you get what you want?"
Breathing in, I feel calm.
Breathing out, I smile.