This spring I volunteered to become a prayer chaplain at Unity San Francisco. A year ago, I could not have imagined it. Meditation was the center of my spiritual practice, and prayer was something I did not really understand. Wanting to step out of my comfort zone, I decided to attend the introductory meeting that Errol, the prayer chaplain trainer conducted. There I realized that I have actually been praying on and off all along but not seeing it as such.
It was probably the mid 1970’s. Feeling depressed, lonely and restless one day, I went out for a walk up into a hilly park not far from where I lived. I have always felt a connection to trees. The park has some tall, straight-trunked, majestic trees, who drew me. Feeling needy, I decided to go up and hug one of the trees, imagining I might draw some strength and comfort from such a powerful living thing.
It was rather steep, climbing up to the tree that drew my attention. I felt both foolish and amused. Dave the tree hugger. I was glad no one was watching. I reached around and hugged the tree as best as I could–it was large and the ground was steeply sloped–and closed my eyes to turn inward, touching on that heart space I now recognize as touching the inner Divine. Something unexpected happened. As I was hugging it, seeking strength and healing from it, I felt instead a need calling to me. It seemed quite odd, yet intuitively I knew it was right. So I went with it, sending out warmth and healing rather than receiving it.
After several long minutes it felt enough. Letting go and stepping back, I was surprised how much better I was feeling even though I had “given” rather than “received.” After a brief bow to the tree and the experience, feeling curious, I climbed up around the tree to see it from the other side. There I saw what was not visible before. A major branch had broken off, leaving a gaping wound on the far side of the tree.
Did I heal the tree? I never went back to check. I was praying, seeking strength and healing. Open to the moment, I went along with that inner knowing to send rather than receive. Then I experienced the miracle if you will, of receiving through giving. Afterward, seeing the physical damage to the tree was an affirmation of what I had already felt. It was an affirmation of the universal connection between all being.
As I said, meditation has been my practice for many years, one based on emptying the mind, letting thoughts and feelings still themselves, to be fully present. It is a practice of getting the “I” or “me” out of the way, to clearly perceive what is in the moment. Sometimes insights occur. More often life becomes more peaceful and the mind more clear.
From a religious perspective, meditation and prayer are looked at slightly differently. Meditation is understood as seeking silence to better listen to the voice of God. Prayer, on the other hand, is speaking to God, sometimes seeking comfort, guidance and healing, yet also to express joy, celebration and gratitude. With the tree of my experience, I experienced both listening and being heard.
In the past I rarely consciously prayed as I doubted the existence of God. God the omnipotent, we were told cared for everyone. Yet at the same time he allowed all these terrible things to happen, often to the most innocent of people, including young children. This seemed pretty horrible for an allegedly all powerful, all present being. Rather than the claims of religion that people were made in the ‘image of God,’ the God of western religions seemed to have been made in the image of people, or more precisely a rather rigid old man, set in his ways. Even if he existed, why pray when he didn’t care enough to stop such atrocities?
I have come to see God in a different way. However, while it helps to believe in God or Spirit or the Universe, one does not actually have to believe to pray. Even without focusing on a god-image, people can benefit from positive prayers for guidance, healing or to express gratitude.
Through the prayer chaplain training and practice, prayer changed from something that would just happen at times in my life, to a daily practice. I see prayer as a way of sensing and benefiting from the deeper connections between all existence.
Does positive prayer change people or events? I think so, although without clear proof. There are scientific studies by Larry Dossey, MD, and others that show prayer has a measurable, helpful affect on healing outcomes. Prayer enhances me, by focusing on what I want and need, and by providing a way to give to others not dependent on demands or even outcomes. This is good enough for now.
I am still learning. I do not know how or where practicing positive prayer will lead. But I continue to explore this ancient way of relating to existence along with my fundamental meditation practice.
And what about you?