Prayer in Times of Trouble


What are our prayers for? And what are our prayers made of? For many of us, our prayers are made of illusions, unfounded hopes and dreams that have no mechanism of change built into them. And yet, if we are to live a truly spiritual, human life, we must partake of these illusions in some manner because the urge to prayer is somehow built into our being. We cannot avoid, in other words, this territory. What a dilemma: We must walk gratefully into illusion as explorers because it is only by penetrating and engaging this illusion, imbibing this poison, surrendering to this fantasy, quaffing it gratefully, that we have a chance of see something that will allow us to participate in the universe as co-creators of our human life. The illusion we must deal with is that we can influence events by boldly stating what we desire to occur in prayer, as in we want the conflict in the Middle East to stop; or we want the nuclear reactors in Japan to completely cool down and become harmless to an already aggrieved population.


Why should the universe, and who in the universe, listens to these prayers? If these prayers are to God or to the Spirit of the Universe (all words, deistic and nondual can fit here...), then why should the universe or God do something different once we ask? Is the Deity or Reality simply waiting for us to ask? Does asking prove that we are good people and that by being good, we have passed some sort of test and God or Reality can now back off and cool the reactor or stop the tsunami or stop the war or, to make it very crass, make our side win? Who do we think we are?

Prayers of this sort always bring to light a flaw in our reasoning. If we look around us, at our environment, we see two types of suffering: primary and secondary suffering. But the line between them is often blurred and almost impossible to ascertain. An earthquake is primary suffering. It is existential, non-personal and effects all. All earth events are that way. Death is also existential, whether you live a long life relatively free of suffering or a short one filled with suffering, death comes to us and as beings “who know they know,” this foreknowledge of death is the starting point for all spiritual paths and art, at least for me. This horrific knowledge—deeply hidden for most of us—lurks at the back of our minds and bodies and is the concentrated fuel that fuels our search for meaning and beauty in life.

Secondary suffering, neurotic suffering, arises from our incomplete, unenlightened, response to primary suffering. If I cannot stand the energy in my body, or the existential (not neurotic) anxiety produced by a foreknowledge of death and I smoke cigarettes until I get lung cancer, then that cancer is (partially) secondary suffering. I say “partially” because the primary suffering remains in the fact that we can get cancer from doing anything at all, such smoking or drinking, or even contract it simply because of our genetic inheritance.

War is secondary, neurotic suffering. It involves the obvious and active dehumanization of others; the choosing of one tribe over another, as if the two could not be united in a realistic way. But—and here is an important point—it also seems to be primary suffering in the fact that it has gone on forever and is likely to go on for further forevers. Even in the world of Star Trek, where money, poverty, want, disease have been banished, each episode is about a battle or struggle or fight: the arena for this has just moved from Earth to the entire universe!

So when we pray blindly, that is, with willful disregard for the nature of the universe, with conflict, impermanence, death, unfairness and other sins as part of its fundamental makeup, we are praying to be in fantasy. We are going to make it better. God is waiting for us to step up to the plate and then will make it better. One of the greatest examples about this moment is broadcast around the world every day as competing sports teams going out to play, each side praying to God for victory and the winners believing that God answered their prayers (why? they deserved it more? nicer guys? better eating habits? the Fates are on our side?) and rejected the other team in their favor? And yet, what else is there to do? Our imaginations, when pointed at our belief in our power to change the universe, are instruments of fantasy and unreality. Yet, we must do something since we feel our powerlessness acutely. The world seems to tumble us this way and that no matter what I desired path is. We feel an increasing sense of unreality as our desires and the desires of world do no co-mingle but stand in seeming opposition to each other.

To pray effectively, (and by “effectively” I don’t mean that we learn to pray with some special power that gets us what we want every time), we need to go into and through the illusion that we control the world or that God or Reality listens to us when we speak, and come out the other side into some new understanding that is not yet another version of living in an unreality that supports the notion that, if we have been good spiritual citizens, we can make the galaxies bend to our will. The only thing these types of prayers do is make us feel better.

Instead, we need to begin to understand that we must listen to reality. This seems obvious and more than that, something we think we already do. But we do not. Instead, we usually listen to the version of reality that best suits our supposed solution to our helplessness, which is the omnipotence of pray and personal power from this distorted perspective.

The quickest way into the type of listening I am talking about is to listen to ourselves, the part of us that knows the truth of the omnipresence of conflict and, its actual needed place in the universe. We must listen— without defending against—to the part that knows the omnipresence of impermanence and imperfection, within ourselves and within all of creation itself. And finally, we must also listen to the valid part of us that hears within our hearts the desire and need for healing to take place, wherever the hurt occurs. These seeming opposites must be held together as a single truth, for that is what they are.

When we act in this way we enter the sphere where it is possible for us to actually make a difference in our lives and in the lives of others in a whole-hearted way, without resorting to trying to bend the universe to our little wills or shift the earth so we can have a comfortable place to sit. When we do this, the creation of secondary suffering is reduced and we find ourselves here, in this world and life of opposites and because we are in a real and truthful place, have a clearer path to actions we can do that will make a difference: money donated, sandbags piled up, letters written, calls made, medicine sent, blankets donated and so on.

In this way, we activate a spiritual force that is not available to those who have not gone on the journey of giving up the fantasy of a personally-initiated omnipotence in favor of a state in which they can ask for change, desire for things to be different, even as they hold the knowledge of the fact that suffering is a fundamental ingredient in their own lives, in the lives of others, and in the trope of the universe. This spiritual force arises as we begin to understand that the personal is not in opposition to the transcendent but its focal point, not its enemy, but its realization.

There is no way to describe the power that ensues when one does this. It’s as if a network of lines of force link up around the world as we become one with what is. We are powerless to change things and yet we must. We have no power and infinite power. We can’t make a single thing and yet we are involved in the making of the universe at every moment.

Here we leave the world as described by the meager efforts of uninitiated prayer and enter into a realm that it is hard to talk about. Zen practitioners call this filling up the well with snow. It is a hopeless task and the one that we were born to do, if only we can accept our human limitations and use our clear human sight. Let me add one more thing here. Perhaps this koan will give you another perspective on nondual prayer.

A koan is a device—a sort of teaching story—used in Zen Buddhism. It is not a teaching story in the sense that it gives a sort of moral or intellectual understanding the student can take forward into their lives. No. Instead, it is a sort of blockage to all of that and requires that the student struggle and in the process of struggle, clear their minds and hearts so that some new understanding and even revelation can reverberate through the student’s bodymindspirit in that moment and forever after, continuing to grow in light as the student is able to open up.

Here is the koan:

Yunyan asked Daowu, “How does the Bodhisattva Guanyin use those many hands and eyes?” Daowu answered, “It is like someone in the middle of the night reaching behind her head for the pillow.” Yunyan said, “I understand.” Daowu asked, “How do you understand it?” Yunyan said, “All over the body are hands and eyes.” Daowu said, “That is very well expressed, but it is only eight-tenths of the answer.” Yunyan said, “How would you say it, elder brother?” Daowu said, “Throughout the body are hands and eyes.”

Let me unwrap this a bit.

A bodhisattva is usually thought of as a being who puts all other beings first and lives to help. Nothing could be further from the truth!

A bodhisattva is someone who is at one with himself and his aims; at one with his failings and courage; at one with his learning and desperation. In short, a human being who is awakening.

As an awakening being who is at one with these things, he or she must be at one with all other beings because they are not different in any way than they are. The illusion of separateness-only has subsided. Yet, separateness and oneness still remain.

In this tale, Yunyan still sees the action of the bodhisattva in the world as something that accrues to the nature of the person, the way say, a skill accrues to an athlete who has practiced his skill a long time or a musician who can play the cello because she has studied for years. His brother, Daowu thinks this is a pretty good answer, but not yet all the way there. His correction is this: when describing a unified state of being, such as they bodhisattva has, nothing accrues. There are no “hands and eyes all over the body.” Instead, action and intent are held as a single thing. The entire being—all opposites such as perfection and imperfection, success and failure—are held together. “Hands and eyes throughout the body” because the bodhisattva is a single being who holds the totality of the self. Opposites are not antagonists from this point of view, but creation cohorts.

So: when we pray in illusion there are two things: what we want and what the world wants. When we pray in reality, there is only one. Though they may look like two things to the uninitiated—our desire and the obliviousness of the universe to our desire—they are really one, each creating the other, each meant to be each other’s companion.