“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 interconnection between us and all other phenomena in the world around us.
“When we pray we have to have wisdom. When most of us pray, we usually want God to do something for us or bestow this or that upon our loved ones. We think that if God were able to do this one thing, then we would be happy. But every one thing is made up of a million pieces. As long as there is birth, there has to be death. Do we have enough wisdom to be able to set up that equilibrium or not? If we do not have that capacity, our prayer could be just a manifestation of our foolishness or our greed. Depending on our understanding of life, on our compassion, we want to make a list of work that needs to be done and ask God or Buddha or Allah to follow it. So we have to look deeply so that our prayers consider the whole, and not just the parts.”
– Thich Nhat Hanh, from The Energy of Prayer
I was asked once again, as a spiritual leader and Buddhist representative, to take part in our local Unity Church’s interfaith service to celebrate their World Day of Prayer coming up on September 10th. This will be my 4th or 5th year participating and it is a great privilege and honor to be involved. Their service includes a variety of speakers from different faith groups around town. As a speaker we have about 5-10 minutes to share some words of significance from our particular tradition based on the annual Unity World Day of Prayer theme. This year their theme is: As I pray I connect my highest thoughts with my deepest faith.
As a little bit of background the Unity Church formed in 1889 and is rooted in five basic ideas:
- 1. God is the source and creator of all. There is no other enduring power. God is good and present everywhere.
- 2. We are spiritual beings, created in God’s image. The spirit of God lives within each person; therefore, all people are inherently good.
- 3. We create our life experiences through our way of thinking.
- 4. There is power in affirmative prayer, which we believe increases our awareness of God.
- 5. Knowledge of these spiritual principles is not enough. We must live them.
When I heard the theme my first thought was, “Uh-oh.” I’ve never much connected with the words pray or faith. But my second thought was, “This will be a good practice to look more deeply!” So I’m using this post to help me flesh out what I’ll say at the service on the given theme and to help me investigate these words and my aversion to them.
When I first started thinking about what I’d say at the service I figured I’d translate the theme into something more approachable from the perspective of my own mindfulness tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh’s (called Thay by his students which means teacher) Order of Interbeing. While I’ve heard Thay speak about prayer and faith before it’s not a common thread I encounter. When I personally think of those words I think of them as being largely rooted in Christianity. So my first thoughts were to internally change up the words a bit to something like: As I practice I connect my highest aspirations with my deepest intentions.
But as I continued sitting with the original wording of the theme I started unpacking the words that I was caught up in. I’ve learned from Thay that when an aversion to something comes up there is work to do. What does prayer mean? What is faith? I took to my old paper copy of Webster’s Dictionary and looked the words up: Pray, to ask earnestly for something; Faith, complete trust. Remembering having read Thay’s book The Energy of Prayer I also looked up quotes from him in order to better understand these words for myself.
What comes up for me when thinking of the word pray are hollow requests without daily action to back them up and a lack of personal responsibility. Thay eloquently addresses this in the above excerpt which I greatly appreciated. When I think of the word faith what comes up is an empty hope for some pie-in-the-sky future not grounded in the here and now. While these ideas I have might be the case for some people there is also a deeper context that can be developed and understood. Prayer and faith can also be wonderful attributes to spiritual practice. They can be tools to cultivate compassion, joy, and ease.
From Thay’s book Peaceful Action, Open Heart he says, “Without faith it is not possible for human beings to live.” This is a very strong statement. I had to sit with it before I could start understanding it more fully. Although I’m still in the early stages of unfolding it what I get from what Thay’s saying is that a certain amount of faith is required for us to be alive, breathing, and moving forward. If we didn’t think happiness was possible what would be the point of continuing to live or wanting to procreate? If we didn’t think, on some level, that tomorrow is inevitable and growth and progress were a great potential what kind of impact would that have on our mindsets and energy?
So these are some of the pathways my thoughts are taking. When I sat down to actually start sculpting a short talk on the given theme this is what emerged for me, with seemingly little effort, and will most likely be the direction I take it:
(start by inviting three sounds of the bell)
Breathing in, I know that I am breathing in. Breathing out, I know I am breathing out. Breathing in, I dwell in the present moment. Breathing out, I know that this is a wonderful moment. (personal note: remember to smile!) When I remember to come back to my in breath and out breath throughout the day I am practicing to connect with the present moment by bridging my mind and body together. So often we are physically in one place but mentally in another place. But it’s only in the here and now that we can be truly alive! The past no longer is and the future has not yet come. My highest aspiration is to live fully in the ever changing present moment with gratitude, ease, and joy while cultivating my deepest intention to be useful and kind, one breath at a time.
In our tradition we have what’s called the Five Remembrances, which are, in a shortened version: I will grow old; This body will know sickness; There is no escape from death; Everything and everyone changes; All I have are my actions. I practice with these remembrances because they are part of life and because we have a strong habit energy to want to ignore these parts or pretend they don’t exist. But when I practice to remember that life is impermanent and fleeting and that my actions are my only true belongings it helps me to embrace the preciousness of the present moment and to deeply appreciate all of the refreshing, healing, and wonderful elements within and around me. This moment is the only moment we know we have for sure. And we can revel in it and make it sacred. This is the beauty and the privilege of life, to be here now on this amazing planet together as a global interconnected community.
As I continue to water the seeds of faith that each moment is a gift what I ask earnestly of myself is for the diligence to practice and to keep practicing. Because the more I practice to come back to the present moment, both physically and mentally, the more my mindfulness becomes a tool to help me connect more deeply with myself and with what and who’s around me at any given time. And the stronger my mindfulness is the more skillfully I am able to engage and respond. Breathing in, I know I am breathing in. Breathing out, I know I am breathing out. Breathing in, I dwell in the present moment. Breathing out, I know that this is a wonderful moment.
I also came across the Five Faculties in Buddhism the other day which I might try to weave into my short talk somehow, which are: faith, diligence, mindfulness, concentration, and insight. When practiced and cultivated well the Five Faculties turn into the Five Powers. They are also referred to as the Five Strengths. I found it very interesting that faith was among the list. It has given me fresh inspiration for a new outlook on what it means to have faith.