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Should I Pray For Others?

[An email response to a question from a community member in India, exploring the role of prayer.]

Namaste Nipun-bhai, I attended Sunday's prayer circle. It was so nourishing to listen and experience prayers from different religions and countries.

But I have been holding a question about prayer for a very long time, and I wanted to ask your thoughts about it. When we are unwell, aren't we reaping the fruits of actions of this or past life? (I am sorry to say this out loud, because I know it sounds insensitive.) In that case, how do my praying for an unwell person, help them. Isn't their illness/health issue predestined? Can my prayers change someone's fate?

My mother aged 72 yrs was Covid positive on April 3 [...] Through all her health issues I, my immediate family, cousins, aunts, friends, neighbors were praying for her. I understand when I pray it brings me lots of peace. It felt very soothing when everyone was praying for my mother, but does that peace and wellness reach the ill person?

I have had this query for a very long time. It has strongly popped now and I wondered how do you think about this?
Thanks for your note and your thoughtful reflections. I'm sorry to hear of your mother, but I'm glad that she's doing better.

Like you, I also appreciate the framework of karma -- that past causes create conditions for current effects. However, every effect usually has innumerable causes, and we multiply suffering when we draw simplified lines of causation -- "this happened because of that." If we smoke, we might get lung cancer -- but how much of that cancer is due to smoking? That's hard to say. We tend to do glossy approximations, but actually, we don't know precisely why things manifest the way they do. In fact, Buddha made it quite clear that even enlightened people can't know (let alone control) all the causes for a particular effect.

Our view of prayer often mirrors our awareness of karma. If we feel that we are sole creators of our reality, we will pray to solve problems for others or seek prayers to rid our lives of suffering. On the other hand, if we feel that we are just instruments of a larger set of forces, there is no doer left to pray, receive prayers, or direct the prayers. Of course, that choice isn't binary. There are countless spots on the spectrum of ego and selflessness, and it changes moment by moment, based on the kind of mind we awaken. For example, in this moment, if I am in a state of 10% ego and 90% heart, I will pray in alignment with that; or if I'm 80% ego and 20% heart, I'll have a different experience of prayer. If there is a "solid" Nipun praying, I will find a similarly "solid" Nipun to pray for, with an assumption about cause and effect; if there is a more "fluid" Nipun praying, the prayers will flow by a different organizing principle.

Few years ago, my brother was diagnosed with a kind of cancer -- and he still hasn't recovered. Is that his karma? Sure. Does that mean I know the cause of it? No. Do I want him to suffer? No. Can I control the direction of his karma? No. Does his reality intersect with mine? Yes. How much of his current experience subtly intersects with mine? I don't know, but it certainly does because otherwise he wouldn't be my brother. When I'm in a heart of prayer, does it affect him? Yes. Conversely, if I am callous towards his pain and ignore it, does that affect him? Yes. Should I pray for him to get better? It depends on how much ego or selflessness I'm holding in that moment. If I pray for him specifically, I'm likely rooted in my ego -- and that's also okay, except that the prayer will help me more than it helps him. :) If I don't pray for him, but instead just enter a heart of prayer, who will it help? I would trust in the universe to direct it -- that if my goodwill needs to reach my neighbor's brother before my brother, then so it is. Does that mean that selfless people would never direct their prayers? They might, but it wouldn't be a product of a self-centered worry, thought or concern.

In my experience, I can say that I've never felt deeply moved to pray for my brother (and he's very close to my heart) or his physical well-being. It'll definitely be very rough for me if he passes before me, but that will be the same whether it is at the age of 37 or 73 -- so having a personal desire to extend his life doesn't solve much for me. Having said that, I have found myself praying for specific people -- because their pain somehow hits home for me. Sometimes, I'll do that even for a homeless person on the streets. Many times, it's almost effortless. When I do this kind of prayer, I'm mindful that my feeling may not be purely compassionate -- it might be partly empathy and sympathy, or even based on unknown karmic ties in the past. In that awareness, I still pray but I also smile in knowing that I'm receiving as much from the prayer as I think the other person might be. With a humble state of not-knowing, my heart typically gets filled with grace and my inquiries feel insignificant.

All in all, I would say that we should always pray. If in a particular moment, it helps us to have a specific, "solid" recipient, then flow with that. If not, then flow with the fluidity of impermanence. In that sense, prayer is less about what is happening but more about who we are becoming. As we cultivate this, we naturally arrive at a deep faith, a faith that a Zen teacher describes as "withholding conclusion so we allow what-is to arise." Then, we don't know who is praying, or what we are praying for, or even what is a preferred destination. All that remains is prayer. Then, our faith transcends an outcome, a person, or a belief; it simply -- and firmly -- abides in reality as it is. The elegance of that position is that it, then, doesn't matter whether you believe in karma or not.

A revered Benedictine monk once wrote me a postcard that still sits on my desk, and it reads, "Whatever happens, whatever what-is is, is what I want. Nothing else, but this." I sense that is the most expansive heart of prayer we are capable of.

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