Dear Still Water Friends,
This Mary Oliver poem reminds me how completely my understanding of prayer has changed since I began mindfulness practice.
In my growing up, prayers were read or recited as part of a religious service, or occasionally at home. The prayers were traditional, a habit from the past. I never heard anyone in my circle, young or old, say that the prayers meant anything personal to them, or that they thought the prayers had any consequences.
To a young scientist – my high school identity – the prayers seemed like remnants of primitive superstition. My parents, despite their strong identification with their Jewish roots, seemed to have the same attitude toward prayer.
As a mindfulness practitioner, my conceptions changed. Rather than understanding prayer as a ill-founded custom of others, I began to see prayer as a of way of expressing and enlarging myself.
Sometimes, as Mary Oliver suggests, prayer takes the form of saying or writing a few words, expressing our gratitude for being alive, for being able to partake in the dance of life.
Sometimes prayer is sending our mindful energy out into the world with a hope or a wish. If being mindful of my breath can change my breath, and being mindful of my anger can transform my anger, then perhaps being mindful of my friend’s illness can in some small way help him to heal. Perhaps my awareness of the suffering in Syria can in some way bring healing there, too. This is the Buddhist meaning of karma: that every thought, spoken word, or action creates ripples in the pond. Whether we see the effects or not, the energy of our prayer has changed the world.
Sometimes, too, mindful prayer is not about words, hopes, or wishes, but about being so fully present to our lives that the separating ego melts and we see the world not with our eyes, but with universal eyes. We experience the wholeness and connectedness of all that is. We come home. Thich Nhat Hanh writes in The Energy of Prayer:
The prayer of a spiritual practitioner is very deep. The spiritual practitioner understands that our health, our success, and even our relationships with our loved ones are not the most important things. The most important matter for a practitioner is to be able to break through the veil of the material plane in order to enter the ultimate dimension and see the innterconnection between us and all other phenomena in the world around us.
This Thursday, after our meditation period, we will say a prayer of our own creation and share our experiences and understanding of prayer.
You are invited to be with us. A related quote from The Energy of Prayer is below.
Praying as Spiritual Practice
by Thich Nhat Hanh from The Energy of Prayer
If we are practicing and we only pray for health, success, and good relationships, we are not yet an authentic practitioner. An authentic practitioner has to pray at a deeper level. We have to practice in such a way that in our daily life we are able to have insight into the interdependent nature of all beings. Our greatest desire as spiritual practitioners is to discover the essence of things and to be in touch with this essence. When this satisfaction is there, then whether we have very good health or poor health, we can still be happy. Whether we are successful or not successful in our work, whatever it is, we do not suffer. When our happiness is not dependent on our success or our health, we will be less likely to argue with others or make them suffer. Good relationships will be there quite naturally.
So, how is this kind of prayer different? It is different because of the level of our prayer. When we have been in touch with the ultimate dimension, with nirvana, when we have been in touch with God, then we can accept whatever happens in the here and now. We have already gone to the land of peace and joy and we do not need to suffer. Whether we have another ten years to live or five years to live makes no difference to us. At that point we have changed our way of seeing the world.
If we don’t pray and deepen our spiritual practice, we suffer intensely when we don’t have what we want in the world. But when we have been in touch with the essence, the suchness of all things, then it doesn’t matter if we don’t have what we want. Before, if we were not successful in what we wanted, we thought our whole life was a failure. But when we have been in touch with the ultimate dimension, then whether our temple or our practice center burns down, whether people smear our reputation, are jealous of us, or accuse us unjustly we can still smile and be peaceful and joyful as usual. What we thought to be success, what we thought to be the basis of our happy life, we do not need anymore. Because our happiness is already there in the ultimate dimension, it goes beyond all ideas of success and failure.