The Power of Prayer

“So, if you don’t mind my asking, what religion do you practice?” she leaned in with curiosity. “Like, how comfortable would you be if I used phrases like a greater power?”

Religion and politics. Those are topics you are wise to stay away from if you want to maintain peace at gatherings of friends or family. But, let’s face it, religion and politics are the two main ways people come together, become one, support one another with passion, unite as US to fight THEM, and deeply feel love and hate.

The fighting is edges interacting. In religion and politics, those safely in the middle of the bubble feel stable and hopeful.

“My husband is an atheist and I’m agnostic.” I started habitually and continued explaining, “My family isn’t religious, but we lean Buddhist. I find it hard to believe with all my heart in anything. To be honest, I feel that there is something incredibly beautiful about all religions, until it is used to control people.”

She nodded.

I’ve always feared feeling too much. Love, hate, fear, anger, happiness, sadness… you name it, any feeling that can get extreme, I avoid. Religion brings out a lot of feelings. I tried one religion twice in junior high and at university. The group activities built a sense of community that I loved, feeling controlled made me recoil, believing that my loved ones were going to hell because they grew up in a different environment was frightening, the injustice of a baby born with original sin made me angry, singing with the choir gave me a high, and of course the cognitive dissonance of it all caused me existential depression. Fun times.

As is my way, I chose to escape it.

“As humans, I think we need to believe and have faith. But I dislike how the powerful manipulate that need, using it to gain money and control.”

She continued to give me a safe space to articulate my thoughts with a warm smile and encouraging nod.

When I was a child, we went to Buddhist temples. My Chinese birth-date falls on the day celebrated as the birthday of Guan Yin, or the Goddess of Mercy. So I was always told that I had yuan feng (rapport, destiny) with Guan Yin. The smoke of the thick sweet intense was not comforting to me, as I associated it with death. The chanting of the monks sounded more eerie rather than comforting. I just could not believe something that I didn’t understand.

The chanting and meditation were supposed to do good things, like help us pass exams or prevail over illnesses. In my youthful arrogance, these asks were just so… selfish and meaningless. Ling shi bao fo jiao was a phrase that often popped in my head: last-minute throwing oneself at the foot of Buddha, begging for help. It smacked of not doing your work and then asking to be taken care of. That was how I used to feel about prayer.

“The more I see, the more I realize that we need both faith and hope.”

She smiled and replied, “Yes, I agree completely.”

This conversation shed light on how much my ambivalence towards a greater power has robbed me of one of the most potent ways we get through difficult times. Knowing that we are never alone, that something or someone will ALWAYS be there to support you with love, that this something or someone has helped countless other people through dark times, that there is ALWAYS hope – – what a powerful feeling.

Faith is having trust in the existence of something without physical proof that it is there. Hope is having the trust that we will get there even though we aren’t there yet. Faith is saying it’s here. And hope is saying it’s there, and we may need to get through some tough times with hard work, but we will get there, together.

I once scoffed at faith, because it seemed so naïve. But now I realize that faith goes hand in hand with hope. While hope keeps us doing the hard work until we see results, faith keeps us going without the proof.

In this world of instant gratification, Google, and credit cards, many of us haven’t learned to excel in life by building all the small pieces that become the strong foundations of integrity, trust, compassion – in relation to ourselves or others. We no longer can hold that feeling of need or want without desiring it to be quenched and resolved right away. We are unable to stand that feeling of emptiness because it feels so hopeless. That is to say, the narrative in our heads is “here we go again” rather than “I know how I want to handle this one.”

Religion and politics give answers. Religion and politics give us rules, but also hope that other people are doing things to fix the bad stuff. The problem is that religion and politics are run by… human beings – and human beings… are not perfect. And therefore – while we will see wonderful things done by people in religion and politics, we will also see terrible things done by them.

With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil – that takes religion. Religion is an insult to human dignity. Without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things.

 Steven Weinberg

Being the critical thinkers we were taught to be (or rebellious beings as so many of us are), we often believe that the terrible part completely taints the whole, and we throw out the baby with the bath water.

My question is: Is it possible to extract only the positives involved with religion and politics without the negatives?

For me, that ignited a newfound desire to try to do that with the Heart Mantra associated with Guan Yin. I’ve always struggled with a bad memory and a fear of showing the world my secret flaw that has made everything I do so hard. I cannot use memorization to get anything important done.

But faith and hope encourage us to do things that are good for us even when it’s difficult. Like dealing with stress. Like changing bad coping mechanisms. Like quitting the addictive allure of a soothing but unhealthy activity or substance.

I burst out, “I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I don’t do drugs. I eat. It’s my drug, it’s my coping mechanism to deal with stress. It’s my addiction.”

“If you don’t mind, I’d like to suggest to you to pray for self-discipline.” She suggested in response.

Prayer. That used to be a triggering word for me. I would flinch a tad because it seemed like such a futile activity. “Sending prayers and thoughts.” Or, You are imposing your beliefs on me by telling me that your God will answer your prayers to help me. But over time, I’ve come to the conclusion that we all have the right to label the power of intentional thoughts with whatever words work for us. I tried using “Sending you warm thoughts and healing hugs” which doesn’t quite comes across as well as prayers to a greater being, but it was what I was comfortable with.

But when she asked me to pray, I thought, Wait a minute, I have a prayer that is mine! It is my birth right. I just never wanted to memorize it because I couldn’t memorize a short mantra while kids from Taiwan used to memorize hundreds of history BOOKS. I felt shame and guilt about this. I tossed it aside because I didn’t believe in the power of the mantra, nor did I believe that I could do it. Which one was the real reason? No matter, they both contributed to my wanting to run away.

So, now, I am starting a new journey.

I have broken down the mantra into small pieces, four phrases a day (and if it takes me two days, I’ll be kind to myself and shift everything over by another day). I will memorize this mantra and use it as a prayer when I’m anxious. I will use it to pray for others. I will use it to pray for self-discipline when I want to overeat. I will use it to give me strength from a greater power. I will turn to my mantra to remember that I’m not alone and that I can do this.

Heart of Great Perfect Wisdom Sutra

Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva, when deeply practicing prajna paramita, clearly saw that all five aggregates are empty and thus relieved all suffering.

Shariputra, form does not differ from emptinessemptiness does not differ from form. Form itself is emptinessemptiness itself form. Sensations, perceptions, formations, and consciousness are also like this.

Shariputra, all dharmas are marked by emptiness; they neither arise nor cease, are neither defiled nor pure, neither increase nor decrease.

Therefore, given emptiness, there is no form, no sensation, no perception, no formation, no consciousness; no eyes, no ears, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind; no sight, no sound, no smell, no taste, no touch, no object of mind; no realm of sight … no realm of mind consciousness.

There is neither ignorance nor extinction of ignorance… neither old age and death, nor extinction of old age and death; no suffering, no cause, no cessation, no path; no knowledge and no attainment.

With nothing to attain, a bodhisattva relies on prajna paramita, and thus the mind is without hindrance. Without hindrance, there is no fear. Far beyond all inverted views, one realizes nirvana.

All buddhas of past, present, and future rely on prajna paramita and thereby attain unsurpassed, complete, perfect enlightenment.

Therefore, know the prajna paramita as the great miraculous mantra, the great bright mantra, the supreme mantra, the incomparable mantra, which removes all suffering and is true, not false.

Therefore we proclaim the prajna paramita mantra, the mantra that says: “Gate Gate Paragate Parasamgate Bodhi Svaha.

Sources: Translation by a team of translators who participated in the Soto Zen Translation Project, highlights and links from The Heart Sutra Part 1: Introduction to the Most Common Mahayana Text – The Zen Studies Podcast

What is your relationship with prayer?


Learning from Overwhelm

The past month has been incredibly challenging as the feeling of overwhelming stress crashed upon me. There were physical manifestations and mental lows.

Many of my friends seem to suffer from this especially during the fall. The days get shorter, the temperature chillier, and for those of us who do not love winter, the season of mush and sleet looms drearily ahead. Aches and pains get worse, fatigue sets in, and the day after a night where sleep is allusive, mini despair and spiraling start: I am tired. Why am I always tired? I didn’t get {such and such} done. I should have gotten it done. Why didn’t {so and so} do it? They don’t care about me. My back is sore. I want to nap. I really shouldn’t nap. I should doing {this and that}. Oh look at how together that person looks. I’m such a loser. I can’t make my life work. And so on.

The slide is a steep ride right down to: I don’t like this feeling. I don’t like where this is going. If I get any more anxious or depressed, I’m going to end up at that horrible moment at the (mental) cliff, the precipice, that line I really, really don’t want to cross.

So we try all sorts of things:

  • meditation (can’t because brain is chaotically in madness and won’t quiet down)
  • distraction (helps a bit, but is only temporary)
  • eating (helps a lot, but also temporary and has side effects that have to be undone at a later date)
  • yelling (sort of a distraction and valve to let off steam, but temporary too and hurts relationships)

The only way past it is through it. I hear that a lot, but didn’t really know what it meant. So many things just start sounding like clichés and sound bites. But today, I had an ah ha moment. Through it means feeling it, not running away from it. Through it means listening to it, not ignoring it. Through it means experiencing it to learn from it.

Okay then. I asked myself: What does my stress tell me? What are my feelings trying to tell me?

Emotions are what we feel after we compare our Expectations with the Reality. If the outcome is good, we feel positive. If the outcome is bad, we sad or mad.

Then I wondered: WHY do I think my emotions are trying to tell me something? And who is it exactly that is using my emotions to talk to me? Is it their language?

My theory: My body is host to so many ecosystems that make it possible for me to function. And when I feel overwhelmed, it is because what I want to get done is more than what is possible to get done with the systems in place and the resources needed. So the systems start shutting down or slowing down to rest. And the systems that haven’t done so start to bear the burden even more and then they start to shut down or slow down. As different ones respond at different times, different feelings emerge – they are the symptoms of what is happening.

My conscious mind is governed by thoughts that I try to control. And it will say things like: Suck it up. Don’t be such a baby. Just do it. You can do this. Don’t be lazy. You can’t afford to stop.

My subconscious mind is the one who is listening to the systems and making sense of it all. It knows when it’s time to stop, secure and start. It can sense when a system is breaking down. It can see when a system is slowing down.

If I listen carefully when I’m overwhelmed, I think I hear:

  • Rest and retreat
  • Recover and repair
  • Reflect and remember
  • Restart

It certainly feels a bit counterintuitive to slow down when everything in my conscious mind is screaming DO MORE! GET IT DONE! HURRY UP! But, when I do, I realize that my subconscious has been working on a solution that may be more creative, efficient or enjoyable. Or it’s trying to warn me of potential roadblocks ahead that need to be considered.

In any case, I’m learning not to panic now when I feel overwhelmed. I’m learning to just stop and let the chaos run its course, come apart and then come together again. It’s very hard and I’ve only tried this a couple of times, but inevitably after I emerge from the overwhelm with some energy or headspace to productively handle something that has been bothering me.


“For Real Life! I Have Monsters in My Head!”

“Mommy, adults are so silly.  They say things like ‘monsters don’t exist…’ How would they know?  Just because they can’t see the monsters doesn’t mean they don’t exist in my head!  I have monsters in my head.  For real life!”

How insightful and how true!  How can I tell my son that monsters don’t exist, that they aren’t real when he’s the one who has to deal with the realities of said monster in this head.  The fear is real, the heart-pounding is real, the stress and the pain… it’s all real.

So what next?  The monster may not be a real, physical being that I can handcuff and throw in jail to make my son feel safer.  But… telling him that the monster is not real is not helpful.  What I need to do is to listen, lean in and help him deal with his truth.  What he needs from me is not judgment, but the guidance to figure out how to deal with his realities, his challenges.

So this is what we do:

  1. Identify the problem. There is a monster in my head. I’m too scared to fall asleep.
  2. Explore our options. Would it help to keep the lights on? the door open? Mommy lying next to me?
  3. Evaluate the pros and cons of the options. My brother can’t sleep with the lights on or the door open.  But he would love to have Mommy stay for a bit too.
  4. Pick a plan of action. Mommy will lie down with boys for a few minutes.
  5. Implement it.  Together. There will be days when Mommy can do this, but not every night.  Will we be okay on the nights Mommy can’t do this?
  6. Assess the outcome. This seems to work…
  7. Apply any lessons. Even though it feels better when Mommy stays with us, we seem to be okay on the nights Mommy can’t do it.  Sometimes my brother has to compromise and allow the night light or the door to be open. 
  8. Celebrate the win! Hey, we can compromise and there may be more than one solution!
  9.  Show the love. Mommy loves you, no matter what, and we will figure it out, no matter what.

That last one seems to be super important to my monster-fearing little one.


I Am Where I Should Be

We cannot control the past.

We cannot control other people.

As Aaron Burr sang in “Wait for It” (Hamilton, the Musical, with which I am absolutely obsessed), “I am the one thing in life I can control.” Since I don’t have any control over how I got here, the only thing I can do is to make this moment count. That is… two year from now, I want to look back at this phase of my life and say, wow, that was the best thing that happened to me.

If I’m here, I’m going to make this the best here I can make it.

Here is a result of past situations, choices, interactions… Here is where I am now.

My feelings are symptoms.. Discomfort means that my goals are more difficult than I’m capable of, so I need to adjust my expectations or I need to up my game by working harder and smarter. Anger means that I feel like someone has hurt me. Fear means that from experience, something like this has caused me pain in the past. Sadness means that I don’t think this is good for me. These are all symptoms.

When I’m frustrated with my kids, more often than not, they are acting in the way that I believe they ‘should not’ and in a way that I ‘did not’. However, upon more deeply reflecting, it’s that feeling of parental helplessness – 1) finding it difficult to solve their problems and to end their pain or 2) believing that this is a reflection of their inevitable future failure due to my failings as a parent. This often leads to anger and anxiously trying to control the situation. Or it could go the other direction, more like helplessness and depression.

If I focus on the relationship here and now, then my communication becomes more about listening and potentially hearing a solution they already have. Or maybe they just want to be understood in this moment. If I focus on learning from this and preventing this in the future, we can work together to make our future better… together. If I can accept that this moment is exactly where I am supposed to be, then I can stop and look for the opportunity to pause, listen, communicate and collaborate.