What If Prayer Doesn’t Work?

Misty Winslow DSC04484What if prayer doesn’t seem to work? What if our desire is not fulfilled? Here is what I have found in my life. Sometimes, not always, something is awry inside my own heart. Maybe I begin to realize that I haven’t really discovered my deepest desire, and prayer helps me to find my true center. Maybe I discover I was afraid to take action on my own behalf. By opening our hearts to the movement of desire, of risk, of imagination, of action, we release great energy. In this way, the work of prayer fosters transformation in us that may go beyond our initial desire.

But sometimes, if our prayer is not fulfilled, it is just that there is no match out there corresponding to our desire. There was another time when I was praying for housing in Jamaica Plain, and it took four months before I found something. During those months, I’d often imagine a particular solution, and something amazing would show up, but then it wouldn’t be quite right.

I remember one day I did an errand on St. John’s Road, and thought, this would be a nice street to live on. Then later that day, a person came into the bookstore where I worked, and told me about an apartment there. I followed the lead with excitement, but found out it was too expensive.

Four months went by with such near misses and close calls. I wondered sometimes if the universe was playing games with my hopes and needs, but eventually I decided to blame a tough housing market. Prayers can’t work to find housing for all who need it, without our taking some collective action to create more affordable housing.

Sometimes, when we release our desire into the universe, the answer comes in ways we didn’t believe we wanted. I think about my last year at my previous church. I had been the Associate Minister there for several years, and then the Senior Minister decided to move on to a new church. When that happens at Unitarian Universalist churches, it is extremely rare that an Associate Minister can remain, or be promoted to the Senior Ministry position. But what I felt in my heart at that time was a deep desire to stay in that place, and grow my ministry there. So I pursued that possibility, and prayed for that possibility, even as I did the necessary work to explore other options.

When it didn’t work out for me to stay, I felt very sad about it, but then I interviewed for my current church, and was chosen to be their minister.  I believe that pursuing the desire of my heart as I understood it then, created a certain strength in me that enabled me to come to this new place and start a new ministry which was an even better fit for me.  I sent that arrow into the universe, and it landed in exactly the right place, even though it was a different place from what I imagined. It felt like my prayer was answered.

We are human beings limited in our ability to understand or control our lives, even though we’d like to sometimes. Prayer is our experience of yielding to the larger reality, the larger kindness, the larger goodness, in which we have our truest being. We can only pray what is in our heart. All the emotions, all the suffering, all the hunger, all the turmoil, all the joy. As Elizabeth Cunningham says, we must pray our “heart into the great quiet hands that can hold it like the small bird it is.”

In the end, it reminds me of the power of being heard. The best listener is not the person who tries to solve our problems or fix our dilemmas. The best listener is the one who cherishes us just the way we are. Who lets us talk and feel and sort something out by being present to us in compassion. So it is with the best prayer as well. We open our hearts, and we feel heard, we feel held, we feel cherished by this great quiet kindness. I hope that it may be so for you.

Advertisements

Does prayer work?

First of all, what does it mean to ask if prayer works? Usually, by that we mean that our appeal for help is answered in a way that we get what we need or want. But sometimes, prayer works because it connects us to the larger Mystery, and we feel the deep peace of that connection. We feel seen and understood. When that happens the specifics may start to become unimportant.

However, sometimes prayer also works on a very practical level. To take away pain, to heal, to find something we need. Once, I placed my hands on the head of my friend, and her headache disappeared. I was curious. Why does that happen sometimes and not other times? Are there ways to pray that make prayer more likely to work?

When I look back at my experience, I see that there have been certain qualities that were often a part of such prayer with tangible results. The most powerful prayers in my life included the experience of becoming aware of the deep desires and yearnings in my heart. I would even say that desire or yearning or felt need are the root of the power in prayer, the source of its energy.

It may take a great deal of introspection to know what we truly desire. Some of us have learned to pay so much attention to the needs and desires of others, that we don’t know how to imagine our own. Or we have been misled by advertising, which manipulates our desires toward the pursuit of consumer products and stuff. Some of us may feel we don’t deserve what we desire. Others of us may have felt that religion asked us to give up our own desires. But I believe our deep desires come from a sacred place. We are all sacred beings and worthy of receiving good things from this world. In prayer, we must welcome our true desire, our yearning, our need.

Drawing by Benjamin Crowell, Creative Commons

Drawing by Benjamin Crowell, Creative Commons

And then, in these most powerful prayers, comes the experience of sending that yearning or that desire out into the universe. I imagine it like shooting an arrow from a bow. A big part of shooting an arrow is letting go of the arrow. Letting go of our desire does not mean abandoning it, or giving up on it. Letting go means not clinging to the need. An arrow can’t reach its mark if we hang on to it. We must trust that if we send out the arrow, it will have an effect.

Prayer is not the same thing as worry. Worry is a kind of hanging on, imagining the worst future, rather than being open to the possibility of something good. We are finding a balance between feeling our desire, and letting it go into the universe as it will. So we send it out and let go.

All desire, all need, all prayer, has a risk attached to it. If we let ourselves feel desire, we risk the pain of its not being fulfilled. That becomes easier when we understand that our desire is holy whether it is fulfilled or not. Desire is only unholy if it harms other people, or disregards their freedom. We must hold a deep respect for all beings. Prayer is not coercive. For example, if a person is romantically attracted to someone, they can honor that desire as holy. But they can’t force the other person to be attracted back. Letting go of the arrow honors the powers beyond us, as well as the powers within us. We are joining forces with the universe, not trying to force the universe to do our bidding.

Sending out the arrow is a symbol of asking for help from the larger reality. Here again, the arrow is just an image. There might be other images to help make it real. We can send forth our desire into the hands of God, or imagine it being received by an all-encompassing Love. We may imagine it entering like one small channel into a great river of life. We can also send forth our prayers into the care of our friends. We can tell other people what we desire and need. When we join our power with the power of others, it grows stronger.

Letting Go of Old Feelings

When we encounter old unfinished feelings within our hearts, we may be tempted to try to sweep them up and move them along, to push them out of the way. But unfortunately, this doesn’t really work. I have found two methods that do help me to let go of old feelings.

Creek DSC01248The first is a devotional practice. I turn over my troubles to the larger Mystery of which I am a part. Sometimes I imagine it with the image of a river—I place my feelings in the flowing river and let them float away. By turning them over, I am relinquishing my control over them. I place them in the hands of something larger, in whom I feel trust.

A second method that works for me is related to a form of meditation. I cultivate an awareness of what is going on within my mind and body, including whatever may be troubling me. I let myself breathe with it, and experience it in a state called mindfulness. I give it my attention, without attempting to change it in anyway. I just keep breathing into the feelings, as they are. I let go of my attachment to pushing the feelings away. Eventually, feelings will change and move of their own accord, if we give them this mindful attention.

There is no way to finish with emotions, just as there is no way to finish our house projects once and for all. As long as we are alive, new emotions keep happening. In the journey into emptiness, I am trying to move from doing something about emotions, to doing nothing, to merely being with the emotions. By the practice of being with my inner clutter, rather than doing something about it, I am getting closer to emptiness. 

The Inner Clutter of Old Emotions

Patterns DSC02538The second step on my journey into emptiness was getting to my inner clutter. When I had longer spells of unplanned time, I found myself feeling a little depressed—sometimes sad or cranky. One day, I found myself writing a long letter to one of my conservative sisters. Two years before, she had refused to let me stay with her family, because she didn’t want her children to be exposed to a different perspective on the world. I had never been able to respond to her letter. I needed to let her know how deeply she had hurt me. I couldn’t pretend everything was fine between us, except for this small matter of not being allowed to have a relationship with my nieces. The empty time gave me space to feel and grieve and name the reality between us, and write my own letter back to her.

When we take time for emptiness, old feelings emerge, all the unresolved emotions that we haven’t attended to. Perhaps that is one reason we like to keep busy. If you had a long period of silence, (and you had already completed a list of all your unfinished projects,) you might start to remember some of your own unfinished emotional business, the inner clutter you carry in your heart. Perhaps a friend or relative you haven’t talked to in a while. An unresolved conflict. Guilt, pain, anxiety, anger, loneliness. By calling it clutter, I do not mean to imply that the feelings are unimportant, but rather that the feelings are stuck.

As my own unfinished emotions emerged that summer, I wrote in my journal: Remember the difference between grief and hunger. If I can recognize grief, that will make room for hunger. Keep them separate to keep hope alive. Here is what I meant: Grief involves a process of letting go. Hunger is a kind of reaching for something. In our emotions, if our grief becomes fused to our hungers, we become too attached to our feelings, rather than letting them go. If we do not let go, by grieving whatever is filling our soul with sadness, we will not have any room to draw to ourselves that for which we hunger.

One example of this is unrequited love. If we hold on to loving someone who does not love us in return, we barricade our hearts from the possibility of finding a mutual love. Just as I had to clear away the books I wasn’t using to make room for the books I was, so I had to clear away old unfinished emotions, had to clear away my attachment to situations that I could not change, to make room for something new.

 

Unfinished Projects and Clutter

At the beginning of my intentional journey into emptiness, I wrote in my journal: So much of life’s activities seem to be preparation for something else, a kind of infrastructure. We need to fix the bulkhead on our house, prune the vegetation in the yard, make a will to protect each other when we die, do the dishes and the laundry, and so on. I wrote down a whole list of unfinished projects. I am sure if you had five minutes of silence, and a pad of paper, you could fill in your own current list of unfinished projects. 

My journal continued: If “everything else” was done—the whole list of infrastructure projects—what would I like to be finally doing then? What are we preparing for? What is at the center? Sometimes I meditate, to feel centered for the rest of the day. But then that also seems to become so much preparation for something else. What is the something else? Is there something at the center? What is worth paying attention to? The yard right now reminds me of my life because it is being taken over by invasive species. When I look at it, I feel a sense of clutter there, too. I feel clutter within, and clutter without.

So, the first step on my journey into emptiness was an attempt to clear out some of the outside clutter. When I woke in the morning, I would gravitate in the direction of some cleaning project or another. I cleaned out my office at home. I moved books I wasn’t using from the bookshelves into the basement, to make room for the books I was using, that were stacked all over the floor. I cleared the surfaces of my dresser, of the desk, of the floor, sorting and putting away paper. Another day, I worked in the yard, to try to clear out some of the bittersweet, wild roses, and raspberry bushes that had formed an entanglement over our leach field.

But after a while, I realized that I could spend my whole vacation just working in the yard, or just doing various house projects. It wasn’t even possible that I would get to the end of the list. Even if I did, I wouldn’t find what I was looking for. But I needed to do some of it. If there was too much outside clutter, I couldn’t find the space within for what was most important.

Do you feel your life is full of outside clutter, surfaces that are full of paper or books, projects that you can’t get to?  Part of a journey into emptiness might to clear out some of that clutter.  Try taking one area and see what happens if you clear out the clutter there.

Photo by Margy Dowzer

Photo by Margy Dowzer

A Journey Into Emptiness

Become totally empty
Quiet the restlessness of the mind
Only then will you witness everything unfolding from emptiness
                                           Lao Tse

In order to enter the consciousness of now, we must quiet the activity of the left brain mind. This is not easy. Most of us keep very busy with left brain activities. The United States is a country of work, projects, and keeping busy. We are a country of doing. Did you know that Americans take less time on vacation than all the rest of the industrialized nations of the world? Workers outside the U.S. enjoy as much as three times more vacation than their American counterparts. And often when we do take a vacation, we fill our days with so many activities, we are as busy as when we are working.

I know that has happened for me. I can become so accustomed to a pattern of filling up my days that even my time off is soon filled with more projects. Even spiritual practice can become a project. But when I get too busy, even with work that I love—when I fill my days with more and more activity—I start to feel that something is missing. In the midst of my busyness, I can’t even tell exactly what it is I am missing, but I feel some sort of undefined emptiness within. And so I have learned that for me, it is essential to find a time for not doing anything, so that I can remember that lost something, and find being again.

I entered this process in an intentional way several summers ago. I decided to use my vacation time not in travel or some other highly scheduled activity, but for a different kind of journey. It is interesting to note that the word vacation comes from a Latin root, vacare, meaning, to be empty. I wanted to journey into the emptiness, into the interior of my life. I wanted to find the center.

solar_eclipse_1024x768

I hope to share with you some of what I experienced in my next few blog posts.

All the Water Is One Water

Earth_high_def_1024Earth is a water planet. …Between earth and earth’s atmosphere, the amount of water remains constant; there is never a drop more, never a drop less. This is a story of circular infinity, of a planet birthing itself.
                                                                                                   Linda Hogan

It is a tradition in my congregation that every September we gather ourselves together with a water ritual. We bring water from the places we love, the places we may have traveled, to pour into one container. At the end, each person takes some of the water, and we bring it home with us.

One summer, I attended a similar ritual with Starhawk, at the beginning of an Earth Activist Training. Starhawk began collecting water many years ago. She brought water back from her travels around the world, and asked her friends to bring back water when they went to far off places. They poured all these waters into one big container. Over time, people brought water from the sacred Ganges River in India, and from the great Nile River in Egypt; even melted ice from Antarctica. After a while, they had waters from every continent.

When you pour it in one container, all of the water mixes together, and every drop has some of the molecules of water from every place. So if you take a small bottle of water out, you have the waters from many places in one bottle. Each time you have a water ritual, you add some water from the bottle you saved from the previous ritual. In that way, each ritual, each small bottle, contain the waters from all over the world.

Why would we want to have a small bottle of waters from everywhere in the world? For me, it is a reminder that water is sacred–without water there would be no life at all. It is also a reminder that we need to take care of the waters of the world. All water is connected, and the same water recycles itself through the whole earth. All the waters on earth are really one water. So even if we get water from our kitchen tap, that water has been around the world on its journey

Linda Hogan reminds us,

It has lived beneath the lights of fireflies in bayous at night when mist laid itself around cypress trunks. It has held sea turtles in its rocking arms. …It reminds us that we are water people. Our salt bodies, like the great round of ocean, are pulled and held by the moon. We are creatures that belong here. This world is in our blood and bones, and our blood and bones are the earth.

Linda Hogan quotes are from Dwellings: A Spiritual History of the Living Worldpp. 99, 106, 108.