Category Archives: Prayer

Praying for Difficult People

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There are some things that we are told when young that never stray very far from our thoughts. One of those things, for me, was this: “If you feel anger toward someone, or hatred, pray for their wellbeing. From that time forward, you will find it very difficult, if not impossible, to continue feeling angry toward them, or to continue hating them.”

Many years later, I read the Dalai Lama’s instructions regarding meditating on compassion. He instructed that one should envision those who we find difficult as if they were our mother—holding up a mother as a person that we are accustomed to loving unconditionally. (In reality, the mother image may not work for everyone—think wire coat hangers and “Mommy Dearest” for instance—but one can just as easily envision them as someone else that we love without reservation, just because.) If one is a Buddhist, then one knows that in the infinite lifetimes we have lived, each person was at some time our mother, our father, our sibling, our best friend, and therefore received that type of love from us before. I find with this practice—as I did with the advice I received growing up to pray for those toward whom I feel anger—that it changes your perspective. How can you envision someone as your dearly loved one and continue to hold their difficultness against them?

I discovered the same thing on a grander scale listening to Pema Chödrön talk about tonglen. The practice of breathing in the suffering of all living beings and sending out happiness and freedom from suffering to all living beings with your exhalation builds on your altruistic nature and orients you toward compassion for everyone. It is like taking that advice about praying for difficult people, or the Dalai Lama’s instructions, to the utmost level—developing a loving relationship with everyone at the same time. It helps to establish, I think, a natural inclination toward compassion and love in all of our encounters with fellow beings.

Why don’t you give one of these practices a try today? Think of someone who has felt like a thorn in your side and pray for his or her wellbeing, for his or her happiness and freedom from suffering, for the same things you wish for yourself. Or imagine that person as your dearest loved one and pour out toward him or her, in your mind, all the love and affection you would give him or her if they were your loved one. Or take 5 minutes sitting comfortably, in silence, focusing on your breathing, and imagine with each inhale that you are taking all the suffering of every being around the world into yourself, and with each exhale you are sending back to them happiness and joy and health and love.

Maybe it won’t make a difference the first time (many people tell me it does—it took me a few times). Don’t give up right away. Keep trying, and I promise it will make a difference in your life and your relationships. I’d love to hear how it turns out—drop me a note in the comment section below. Peace and love be yours.

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Are thinking and meditation incompatible?

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“It’s a very deep misconception that meditation is about making your mind blank, that it involves shutting off or pushing away things so that you can achieve some kind of deeper, more desirable state of clarity and calmness. It’s not that those deeper, more desirable states of clarity and calmness do not exist and cannot be cultivated—they can. But it is a kind of learning that in some ways is akin to falling asleep—although meditation is really about ‘falling awake.’ If you try too hard to sleep, chances are you are not going to fall asleep at all. … I like to describe the mind as being like the surface of the ocean—it’s just in the nature of water to wave. And it is part of the nature of our minds to wave as well. The mind waves virtually all the time. If you try to shut off the waves, it’s a bit like trying to put a glass plate over the ocean to stop it from being as it is. It’s not going to work very well.” ~ Jon Kabat-Zinn, The Power of Meditation and Prayer

I think I know exactly what Dr. Kabat-Zinn is talking about, from my own experience and from what I have heard from others who have experience both failure and success with meditation. Sometimes my meditation can leave me kind of agitated, rather than calm, if I try to fight the thoughts that arise, to stuff them down or block them out. You know, the moment you determine not to think about something, that’s all you can think about. Likewise, the moment you decide not to think at all, thoughts come streaming in from every direction! Only by accepting that thoughts arise and treating them—and myself—with compassion can I fully benefit from my meditation practice.

Pema Chodron suggests that when you notice your mind thinking thoughts, just say quietly, “Thinking,” and let the thought go. Don’t scold yourself for doing what comes naturally to your mind. I do this sometimes, and when I do I always hear the word “Thinking” in Pema’s voice, which never fails to make me smile. And smiling is the perfect medium for letting thoughts slide away easily and without labeling them as something “bad” or antithetical to proper meditation.

If a thought is persistent, then maybe I ought to pay attention to it. If I am routinely feeling a pain in my tooth, shouldn’t I go to the dentist and have it looked at? The pain may be a signal that there is a physical ailment that requires attention. If a thought keeps popping up during meditation—even when I treat it kindly, imagine Pema saying “Thinking,” and let it go—then perhaps it is something that requires attention. Why not let the thought run its course naturally and see where it leads? Following the thought to its resolution may be the only way to keep it from coming back.

As with most things, expectations play a role in meditation. If we expect to achieve an out-of-body experience, we are likely to be disappointed. If we enter meditation, though, with the expectation that thoughts will arise, with acceptance that thoughts arising is totally normal, then we can more fully benefit from our meditation practice. In my opinion, the goal of meditation is not to experience balance and peace during meditation, but rather to experience balance and peace in our lives away from the cushion. Accept that your mind may be noisy sometimes during meditation and you are more likely to reap the benefits of meditation—a life that is more mindful, peaceful and, yes, less noisy.

Dharma Digest, Vol. 1, No. 3

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Some items recently posted to the Dharma Beginner page on Facebook, www.facebook.com/dharmabegin.

Love Thine Enemy

“Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into friend.” ~ Martin Luther King, Jr.

“I destroy my enemies when I make them my friends.” ~ Abraham Lincoln

I’d like to pass along one of the most valuable pieces of advice I’ve ever received: If you are angry at someone, if you think of them as your enemy, pray for them. You cannot remain angry at someone you pray for; someone you pray for… cannot long be considered your enemy. my own experience has borne this out.

Somewhere along the line I learned to practice putting myself in the shoes of those who would hurt me or make me their enemy. I usually need to let the hurt subside first, but when it has I can ask, “Why would they do this thing to me? What suffering must they be enduring that leads them to act in this manner?” Then I remember that everyone wishes to be free of suffering, friends and foes alike, and I pray that they will be free of suffering.

Sometimes I can manage to say those prayers with the sincerity of someone praying for a loved one or dear friend. Other times it takes a little more time, a little more distance from the pain. But once I pray sincerely for them, the hurt and anger melt away, and all that’s left is compassion.

How Do People Perceive Me?

“I don’t really care how I am remembered as long as I bring happiness and joy to people.” ~ Eddie Albert

I can be really hung up on how people view me now, as well what kind of mark on will leave on the world when I inevitably pass from this life. It amazes me that I still sometimes hesitate to do what is right because of thoughts about what “people” will think. Family, friends, coworkers, people… I wouldn’t know if I tripped over them – dear lord, what will they think? [insert dramatic shudder here]

In retrospect, it makes me laugh. There really should be some LOLs here. It seems so silly. Why should I care what it says on my tombstone? I’ll be dead. But in that moment, it still brings me up short. I think it’s right to take seriously what kind of world I leave behind, but not because of how I’ll be remembered for it. Because I believe it is my responsibility to leave behind as much love as I found when I entered it, and hopefully more.

Some Things I Hope We Can Agree On

“It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no God.” – Thomas Jefferson

God, deity, higher power, energy, universal interconnectedness, angels, protectors, anti-gremlins (okay, I made that one up) – it doesn’t matter to me what you call it. Or if you don’t call it anything. Or if you don’t even believe in “it.” I don’t care, because I believe we don’t need any particular religion to connect and to agree on a few things:

1. We respect and care for others and ourselves
2. We show love and compassion to all
3. We seek to be happy, free from suffering
4. We are committed to growing ethically, spiritually, emotionally, etc.

I’m certain the list could be longer. But if you and I can agree on just one of those, that’s a great place to start building a friendship. I’d like to think that I could build such a friendship with each and every one of you.

I Didn’t Seek It, But I’ll Take It

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About a year ago I began this blog as one way to actively think about the path I was walking. For over 40 years I had walked a spiritually fulfilling path as a Christian, until realizing a couple of years ago that, somewhere along the line, I had stopped being a Christian and had become a Buddhist. Now I was walking an even more spiritually fulfilling path, though one far less familiar to me.

A lot of questions presented themselves to me and it seemed at times like I was feeling my way around in the dark. So I started blogging as part of my attempt to seek answers. It also occurred to me that I was probably not the only person seeking to answer those same questions. There might be a few people out there who would benefit from reading what I’m thinking, and it would be great to connect with those people and walk the path together.

Not long afterwards, I decided to create a page on Facebook with the same name, Dharma Beginner, as an extension of the blog and, primarily, to publicize its availability. My intention had been to post notices when new material was available on the blog, and perhaps the occasional quotation or link to a relevant online article. What happened next was wholly unexpected.

As of today, the Dharma Beginner page has 18,592 likes. That’s roughly 18,500 more likes that I would have predicted. So, an error of just 20109 percent, or slightly better than the accuracy of my NCAA basketball bracket.

This was not what I bargained for. This page has taken on a life of its own. In fact, I have been blogging only about once a month on average, but I am posting just about every day on the Facebook page. The regular visitors to the page seem to enjoy my blog but are obviously returning for other reasons given the infrequency of my blogging.

The regular visitors formed a beautiful little community right under my nose and without me noticing at first. Our virtual sangha, as I like to call it, has the same cast of characters as any in-person community. There are the gurus, as I think of them, the really experienced and knowledgeable people who can always be counted on to offer the perfectly apt quotation or to answer a baffling question. Thank goodness someone at the page knows something, because it’s not me!

There are the wallflowers who keep coming back but lurk in the corners, soaking up the experience while they shyly remain silent except for the occasional peep. Keep coming guys and gals and don’t feel pressured to speak up if you don’t want to. Just be there, because I love knowing that the page feeds you.

There are the hurt, those whose past experiences with organized religion have left them scarred and hypersensitive. My heart breaks for them and my compassion kicks into overdrive. I hope that they find some solace when they visit the page and are helped to recognize that happiness is within their grasp.

There are the debaters, ready to pounce on a point and beat it to a bloody pulp. I don’t know what I’d do without them, because they remind me that mine is not the only point of view and, quite often, their knowledge and passion puts me back in my place.

What there are, more than anything, are myriad people grateful for what they find at the page—which is amazing to me because I feel grateful for their presence. I am enriched by their many different voices and their common search for peace and happiness. I can’t imagine what my life would be like without them.

And this brought me up short recently. It began to dawn on me that I had a responsibility to the visitors to the page. I had been continuing my very low-key, minimally-responsible approach, posting the occasional quotation or article. But what happens when I go away, or simply am too busy to post? It doesn’t go unnoticed. People get worried about me. More importantly, people come looking for inspiration, a good word or two, encouragement, and see nothing new. I have given them a reason to expect such things, and sometimes I don’t deliver. Maybe they go away disappointed and never come back. Gosh, I hope not.

It occurs to me that, even though I can’t see the members of this community, it is a community nonetheless. One that I created and, therefore, am responsible for and to. If taking the Bodhisattva vows means that I have dedicated my life to aiding others in their search for enlightenment (and it does), then this is clearly one of the ways I have chosen to do so. Do I feel like I am upholding my vow in this regard? Not so much.

The issue has to do with much more than providing for new posts while I’m away on business or vacation, though. It has to do with taking risks, putting myself out there, and opening myself up to whatever may come. Just posting quotations and links to articles incurs very little risk. (Though, every time I refer to Chogyam Trungpa or Mother Theresa I set off a maelstrom! Can you say “polarizing individuals”?). My approach has been quite safe from criticism, quite safe from someone disagreeing or saying that I’m flat out wrong, quite safe from steering someone wrong and living with the consequences.

But more and more I find people reaching out for help publicly on the page and directly to me in private. Am I not responsible for helping them find an answer? I believe that, as the creator and maintainer of the page, I am. It is not a responsibility I sought, but I find that I am grateful for it and willing to embrace it.

I once heard one of my personal heroes and mentors, Bishop Walter Dennis, address a group of layreaders—people who read the Bible lessons to the congregation during church services. He emphasized the importance of preparation and taking the task of the layreader seriously by saying, “When you read the lessons, it may be the first time that someone has ever heard the scriptures, or it may be the last time they ever hear them because they will enter heaven before attending church again.” What an awesome responsibility! When it comes to this Facebook page, is it really any different? It could be the first time a visitor has ever read the Dharma or it could be the last time. Do I not owe it to them to provide something worthy of such occasions? I believe I do.

The denizens of Dharma Beginner may have noticed recently that my offering of quotations has come with some additional thoughts attached. That is me putting myself out there, expressing what the quotation says to me. That is me taking a little risk by exposing what I know and—more often—what I don’t know, opening myself up to disagreement, to the possibility that I will offend, to the chance that someone will read what I wrote and “unlike” the page, never to return. That would pain me indescribably, but I believe the potential gain, for the visitors and for me, to be far greater.

For a time now, I have been talking with my therapist about feeling called to do something different with my life, to set aside what I do now professionally in order to pursue a career helping other people spiritually. It’s a scary proposition: I’m very good at what I do now (as a researcher and author on government finance), I’m respected and well-known nationally within my particular industry, and I make a decent living. I have no idea if I’d be any good at being an author and speaker on spiritual matters, or whether I could support myself and my family doing so. So I’ve decided to take a small step in that direction, a toe dipped in the water, and the Dharma Beginner page is the base of operations from which I’m going to start doing that. I’ve been using the Twitter account associated with the page (@dharmabeginner) more often. I’m thinking about writing some things to submit to other web pages and magazines. I hope you’ll stick with me and continue to lend me your thoughts and opinions and support and friendship. Because it means so very much to me, and because I am so very grateful for it. Thank you.

Happy Lent!

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Happy Lent!

Granted, it’s not the happiest of times in the Christian calendar. The Lenten tunes in the Episcopal hymnal are singularly dirge-like. “Forty days and forty nights, thou wast fasting in the wild…” Zzzzzzzzzz…

But growing up, I learned to actually “celebrate” the season, much as I would celebrate Christmas or Easter, though with obviously different undertones. Whereas one might celebrate the latter two seasons joyously, Lent is perhaps more appropriate celebrated quietly, piously. It is a time, nonetheless, for celebrating life and the divine spark that inhabits it. There are different aspects of our spirituality, of our relationship with our higher power, but all are worthy of being celebrated and experienced to their fullest.

I was taught that, when giving something up for Lent, one should choose something that is truly a sacrifice. For instance, I would never have the slightest problem giving up cauliflower. Giving up sweets or television, though, truly felt sacrificial (at least from my admittedly middle-class, suburban perspective). Eating fish on Fridays felt like the cruelest form of torture (especially if the fish were in a form other than sticks!).

I am grateful for the parish priest who challenged us to make our sacrifice permanent—to consider Lent not a temporary exercise, but the beginning of a lifelong habit. Even more importantly, in my mind, I learned to take something on during Lent, in addition to or instead of giving something up. One might institute a new healthy practice, like walking or meditating, incorporating it into their daily life during Lent and then continuing well beyond Easter morning.

Toward the middle of the Easter Vigil, the church service that takes place on the eve of Easter Sunday, it is traditional for worshippers to ring bells during the singing of the Gloria. It is a part of celebrating the resurrection of Jesus, signaling that moment in the proceedings as the transition from Lenten sobriety to Easter gaiety. (Hooray, we can sing “alleluia” again!) It is tempting to view the raucousness of the ringing bells and booming organ as a celebration of the end of dreary Lent but, in fact, it is a celebration of Christ’s victory over death and the beginning of new life.

The notion of Lent as a time to improve upon our spirituality is one that we can seek to emulate, regardless of spiritual or religious affiliation. This is a good time for all of us to consider doing something new, or something more, or something differently, with an eye toward making a permanent change for the better in our lives. Ring your bells, toll out the news that you are rejuvenated and ready to pick up the pace as you walk the spiritual path.

Happily Heathen

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Heathens. Godless ones. Terms that didn’t so much scare me when I was a Christian but saddened me. My God was such an important, constant presence in my life that I could not imagine how one could live without God, any god. I knew that God was always with me, beside me, inside me. I could speak with God any time I wished. I could listen for God speaking to me. Wouldn’t people who didn’t believe in God be completely lost, alone, forsaken?

When I stopped going to church several years ago, and even after I recognized that I had become Buddhist, that sense of Presence didn’t just go away. Though I wasn’t quite sure what it was anymore, I still felt it, and was glad, comforted, safe. I had ceased praying to this lifetime companion—well, let me rephrase that. Intercessory prayer, seeking the intervention of that Presence in my life and others, had ceased. But I was still enjoying it, benefiting from having the Presence around me. In other ways, I was still speaking to it, still praying as I understood it, which was a vastly more multifaceted form of communication than simply asking for things. And I was still offering prayers for those in needs, for guidance in my own life, though I no longer had any idea who I was sending those prayers to.

I can’t say for certain that I’ve figured out what is going on with me in this regard, but I have had a hunch lately. I think that what I am sensing, what I previously referred to as God, is the universal interconnectedness of all beings. The constant Presence is the sense of my connection with everyone, of being one with all and leaving me and them behind. I believe that when I am feeling down, solitary, that I am slipping into dualism and sensing a disconnection from the universal whole. And the prayers that I offer now are not seeking an omnipotent being to swoop in on a fiery chariot and act on my behalf or for another’s sake. They are a sharing of concern, of need, of a particular kind of energy that resonates with the universal whole and calls on it to heal, aid, support its constituent parts.

Clearly, I have a lot more thinking and meditating to do on this subject, but I put these newborn thoughts out there in the hope that it will help lead me further along the path. Thanks for reading and walking with me for the past few minutes. Peace and love and wholeness be yours.

P.S. If “trading in” god for the new-agey universe thingy makes me a heathen, then light a bonfire so I can strip down and start dancing. I embrace it.

Buddhists Do Pray!

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Not long before posting a recent blog entry that asked the question, “Do Buddhists Pray?” I purchased a book called 863 Buddhist Ways to Conquer Life’s Little Challenges, by Barbara Ann Kipfer. The universe was definitely guiding my hand that day; I love when that happens. But I guess I wasn’t listening, until today.

In the interim, I received some terrific feedback here and on my Facebook page, for which I am extremely grateful. The conundrum of how prayer fit into my life as a Buddhist was a thorny matter for me, and the advice you shared with me really made a difference. Thank you.

Back to the book. When I finally got around to opening it, this is what I saw on the first page:

Situation: While you believe in many ideals of Buddhism, you also believe in the power of prayer. From your upbringing and background as a Christian, prayer has always been important in your life. You want that to continue.

Wisdom: Embrace the adage that “prayer is speaking and meditation is listening.”

This is what I saw on the second page:

Situation: Sometimes it feels as if your prayers go unanswered. Is there any point to praying?

Wisdom: A good way to pray is to ask that the person you are praying for receive what he or she needs most at this time. You can pray in this way for yourself, too.

No doubt, I was not only meant to buy this book, but to wait to read it until after I had written the blog. There may have been people who needed to read it. I may have needed (no, I definitely needed) to hear what others had to say, to know that I wasn’t alone. If I had read the book right away, I might not have written the blog, and none of that would have happened.

I’m glad that the universe was still speaking, even if I wasn’t listening yet.

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