This is Part II of a two-part series. To read Part 1 – click here
When we are suffering and turn to prayer, no matter what the apparent reasons for our pain, the basic cause is always the same: we feel separate and alone. Our reaching out is a way of relieving ourselves of this pain of isolation. Yet the bodhisattva’s aspiration for awakening compassion radically deepens the meaning of prayer by guiding us to also turn inward. We discover the full purity and power of prayer by listening deeply to the suffering that gives rise to it. Like a great tree, such prayer sinks its roots into the dark depths in order to reach up fully to the light. This is what I call praying from presence, or mindful prayer: We open wakefully to our suffering and allow ourselves to reach out in our longing for connection. Irish poet and priest John O’Donohue writes: “Prayer is the voice of longing; it reaches outwards and inwards to unearth our ancient belonging.” The more fully we touch our pain and longing, the more fully we are released into boundless, compassionate presence.
Praying from presence awakens us from the imprisoning story of a suffering self. Resisting pain only serves to solidify the notion that “I” am suffering. When we perceive pain simply as pain, rather than “my pain,” and hold it tenderly; we are no longer the beleaguered, suffering self. The fear, shame, grief and longing no longer feel like a mistake or an oppressive burden. We can begin to see their universal nature: this is not my grief, it is not my fear, it is not my longing. It is part of the human experience and being willing to hold it tenderly is the doorway to compassion.
A beautiful Sufi teaching shows us how our pain is not personal, it is an intrinsic part of being alive:
Overcome any bitterness that may have come
because you were not up to the magnitude of the pain
that was entrusted to you. Like the Mother of the World,
who carries the pain of the world in her heart, each one of us is part of her heart,
and therefore endowed
with a certain measure of cosmic pain.
Our sadness, fear and longing are universal expressions of suffering that are “entrusted to us,” and they can be prayerfully dedicated to the awakening and freedom of our hearts: “Please…may this suffering awaken compassion. May this suffering awaken compassion.” As we meet our pain with kindness instead of bitterness or resistance, our prayer is answered. Our hearts become an edgeless sea of loving awareness with room not only for our own hurts and fears, but also for the pain of others. Like the Mother of the World, we become the compassionate presence that can hold, with tenderness, the rising and passing waves of suffering.
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Photo Credit: Shell Fischer