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Interview with John Welshons author of "When Prayers Aren't Answered"

by Staff

Q: What inspired you to write When Prayers Aren’t Answered?

A: Well, that’s an interesting story. First of all, I think praying for something and not getting it is an experience nearly all human beings share. One of the most difficult questions for people of faith is, “If I am good, why aren’t my prayers being answered.” Even people who define themselves as atheists have probably prayed at some time for some thing, and – for many – their atheism may have arisen as a result of that prayer not being answered.

In recent years we’ve seen a resurgence of interest in the Power of Attraction, Creative Visualization, Positive Affirmation, etc. These paths all – essentially – use prayer and positive thinking as means of getting what we want. The current popularity of The Secret and the Abraham teachings is evidence of this resurgence. Both are concerned with cultivating “spiritual” tools and techniques for satisfying all our desires. The Secret has been presented as if it was some mysterious new revelation, but it really isn’t. The principles underlying the “secret” teachings are neither secret nor new. They are as old as human consciousness and have been taught for thousands of years. The bigger issue is, are those teachings the most helpful spiritual teachings that are available to us?

A few years ago, I was having a dialogue with a well-known teacher - someone who, many years ago, focused primarily on teaching people how to get everything they wanted. I said to him, “You know, I’m not sure teaching people how to satisfy every desire is the highest and purest spiritual teaching we can offer.” This teacher said, “Yes, I know. But those are the teachings people will buy.”

What he said was quite true. Books and workshops about how satisfy desire and how to make lots of money are big sellers. But we have to decide whether we are primarily concerned with making millions of dollars offering workshops and selling books, or we are primarily concerned with offering a teaching that is truly useful and uplifting, and really leads to happiness. You know, the truth is that – in most cases – the people who are teaching others how to make lots of money are generally the only ones who actually wind up making lots of money!

What we really need are teachings that can bring about a profound transformation in the human heart, and thus in our world. Our culture has focused almost entirely on creating and satisfying desires. That’s what keeps our economy running. The problem is, there are huge costs involved in perpetuating that syndrome, and the costs are cultural, political and spiritual.

The highest spiritual teachings have always been about cultivating love, compassion, and wisdom. They are about alleviating suffering. They are about treating other human beings as brothers and sisters. They are not about satisfying all our desires. They are about learning how – as an individual – to live in peace and harmony in this world where people and events don’t always behave the way we want them to. They are about learning how to be a presence in the world that contributes to the overall well being of everyone, not just “me.” That is why - from the spiritual point of view – it is not really helpful to offer teachings that just increase desire. Because those teachings do not, generally, cultivate compassion and generosity. They tend to do just the opposite. They perpetuate the world’s problems rather than alleviating them.

Q: What has happened for you – personally – that motivated you to write When Prayers Aren’t Answered?

Well, my life has been profoundly affected by many experiences of miraculously answered prayers – including a miraculous healing from polio in 1953 when I was three years old which was directly attributable to “the power of prayer.” The story is told in greater detail in the book. But I have also had many periods when no matter what I prayed for, none of my prayers seemed to be answered, and no matter what I “visualized,” none of my visualizations came to pass. Ironically, when I look back over the course of my entire life, I can see that the times when prayers weren’t answered – when I didn’t get what I wanted – turned out to be very fertile times of spiritual growth. So I wanted to explore that, and share with others the ways in which, sometimes, thwarted desire can actually lead us to a closer relationship with God, or the Creator, or the Divine. Of course, to a certain extent, it’s our choice as to whether or not we want to let it do that.

I have also worked for more than thirty years to help people who are dying and people who are grieving find ways to stay spiritually connected when their hopes are dashed and their hearts are broken. In some sense you could say that the grief work focuses almost entirely on prayers not being answered.

So, essentially, When Prayers Aren’t Answered offers a refocused vision of God and spirituality. I would like to help people know that they have not been abandoned – or that there is no God, or that God isn’t “all-powerful,” or that God is cruel just because what they prayed for didn’t come to pass. I also wanted to share a new vision of what our life experiences can offer us in terms of guiding us to deeper spiritual growth – even the experiences we don’t like. And I wanted to talk about what our responsibilities are on the road to happiness – the fact that we may actually have to do something to find it. Happiness doesn’t usually just fall in our laps. We have to do some work to find it within ourselves . . . it isn’t found outside. Ultimately the book is about how to stay connected to God, to the Spirit, to the Divine, to our Highest Consciousness, to The One – whatever you want to call it – and how to experience deeper and deeper levels of love and inner peace no matter what happens to you or to your loved ones.

The book is not about learning not to care. It is about learning how not to get overwhelmed by caring.

Q: Have you come to any conclusions about the effectiveness of prayer?

A: Well, simply this: that sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the response we get to our prayers isn’t always the one we were hoping for. Because you can certainly make the case that prayers are always answered, but sometimes we don’t like the answer.

There’s a wonderful quote from Wayne Dyer which I used at the opening of one of the chapters in When Prayers Aren’t Answered. He said, “The purpose of prayer . . . is not to influence God to grant you special favors, but rather to remind yourself that you are always connected to God.” That’s a VERY high statement! And that – ultimately – is the message of the book. The truth is, many, many individuals and spiritual teachings use answered prayers as a measure of one’s spiritual success or advancement . . . that is to say, if your prayers are answered, it means that God loves you and is pleased with you. But God loves everyone. No exceptions. And it is possible that – in many circumstances - an unanswered prayer is as great a gift as one that is answered.

Q: I think that may be a difficult concept for people to grasp. Many people think, “If God loves me then He will give me what I am asking for.”

A: Yes. Many people do think that way. And that is one of the primary reasons I wrote the book. You know, think about it . . . if your parents gave you everything you wanted when you were a child, you might have had some major problems. If my mother had given me all the ice cream and candy I wanted, I would have been diabetic and as big as a house! If she had let me drop out of school at the age of sixteen – which I wanted to do – I would have had a radically different life with much less freedom and opportunity than I have had. It was her compassion and wisdom that often caused her to say, “no.” It was her ability to see a bigger picture that I was able to see at the moment. It is entirely possible that the guiding forces in the universe can work the same way in terms of steering us around pitfalls which - with our limited vision - we can’t see.

The irony of it all is that – ultimately - happiness comes not from getting what we want, but from getting free of wanting. That’s really what Buddhism is all about. Buddha’s teaching is based on the Four Noble Truths: The first is that life inevitably involves suffering. If you have a physical body, you will experience physical pain. If you are a human being, you will experience emotional pain. If you don’t get what you want, you will suffer. It’s inevitable. But the thing we often forget is that even when you do get what you want, you will experience suffering because whatever you get is in time and space, and everything in time and space changes, decays, and ultimately dies. So you get the car of your dreams, but eventually it’s going to break down, the paint is going to fade, it’s going to get dented in parking lots, it’s going to get rusty, and it’s going to fall apart. You find the partner of your dreams, but eventually – inevitably – one of you is going to die. That’s not pessimistic – it’s realistic. It is honoring reality.

The second Noble Truth of Buddhism is that the root cause of suffering is desire – or clinging, or attachment. That is, if you didn’t desire to have something you don’t have, or you didn’t desire for things to be different than they are, or for people to be different than they are . . . you could be happy right now.

The basic principle is that happiness is our natural state . . . our “True Nature” or “Buddha Nature.” There are many names for it. In mystical Christianity, it is called “Christ Consciousness.” So what inhibits our ability to be happy is not external conditions, but all of the chatter in our minds - the desirous, analytical, fearful, judgmental thoughts that fill our minds throughout most of our waking life. We’re so busy judging, desiring, analyzing, and fearing, and wanting things to be different than they are, that there is no open space of clarity in our minds – no quietness.

Quietness of mind is absolutely necessary for us to be able to feel our eternal “Buddha Nature,” or “Christ Consciousness.” Our true nature gets crowded out by our incessant thinking, desiring, analyzing, and judging. And when our desires are thwarted, our minds are usually full of outraged, frustrated, sad, victimized thoughts . . . many of which begin with the words, “If only . . .”

The truth is that happiness never comes from fulfillment of desire. It comes from unveiling the infinite love, peace, and joy within us – or, we might say, the God within us. Now, getting what you want may give you a little taste of that . . . a little rush . . . a “cheap” high, but it’s fleeting. It is going to pass. And then you’re going to get addicted to having your desires fulfilled because the only way you know to achieve happiness is to string together as many short-lived, cheap highs as you can, while trying desperately to avoid the inevitable “lows” in between.

Real happiness lasts. It comes through giving rather than getting. It flows from inside you rather than from external conditions. The fulfillment of desire merely tends to generate more desires. You get a new Toyota, and the next thing you know, you want a Lexus. Then a Mercedes. Then a Bentley. It’s endless. And it rarely occurs to you to give it away! You know, you say, “Well, we’re all One, but this is MY Bentley!” True happiness and fulfillment become ever more elusive because you keep desperately looking for happiness in external things and situations, and giving predominance to your own desires rather than the overall well-being of other human beings and the planet we live on.

You can never find happiness by being selfish. Selfishness fosters disconnection. And disconnection fosters selfishness. And you can never find happiness in external things. It just doesn’t work. I’m not talking about morality here. I’m talking about the Truth of our existence. You can’t find happiness in anything external, because happiness is a state of being within you. So when you look outside of yourself, you are looking in the wrong place. You are pursuing a perpetually elusive dream. It’s like a mirage in the distance that you think you can almost reach. That’s why it never feels like enough. No matter how much money you make, it never feels like enough. No matter how many possessions you have, you never feel like you have enough. There’s always some new trinket you simply have to have. Eventually, you become a wealthy person who has everything the culture believes is necessary for happiness, but – BIG SURPRISE – you find that you are still dissatisfied. That leads to a kind of bitterness, desperation, and existential despair. It’s what used to be called “The Elvis Syndrome.” You can see it clearly in the lives of today’s celebrities, too. We could call it the “Britney Syndrome,” or the “Lindsay Syndrome,” or name it after any of the dozens of other “stars” whose success and fame have engendered tormented lives . . . lives that are being decimated by self-destructive behavior. The odd thing is that these very unhappy people are the people who many in our culture envy and worship – especially our youth. Our young people are getting such distorted messages about what is important in life, that they actually wind up worshipping the people who are probably the most unhappy people in the culture.

The perennial problem is, you get everything the culture has to offer in terms of material wealth, fame, and power, and you find that it is all absolutely empty and unfulfilling and you are still miserable. What do you do then? Even at the level where people have enough wealth to have their own jet airplane – BIG SURPIRISE – they still want a bigger, better, more luxurious airplane. Eventually, it isn’t enough to have a “corporate” jet. Eventually they want their own airliner with bedrooms and butlers, a grand piano, a dance floor, an on-board movie theatre, a wine cellar, and five-star food. And when the thrill of that wears off, they have to go into space. You see? It never ends. As long as you feed desire, you just keep increasing its hold over you. Desire has a ravenous, insatiable appetite. As long as you feed it, it just keeps getting fatter and fatter and demanding more.

Now, superficially, there’s nothing wrong with that. You can say, “Oh, well I’m just enjoying all of the delightful enjoyments of the physical universe.” The question I would ask, though, is how much do you have to close your heart in order to be able to feel justified in leading that lifestyle? How many poor, starving people do you have to ignore in order to feel “happy” in your 200 million dollar airliner? How much suffering do you have to close your eyes to in order to feel happy in your own little bubble. Imagine giving most of that 200 million dollars to charity, and flying on a commercial airline instead. Would that be so bad? I mean, you could still fly first class! And you might find yourself feeling MUCH happier.

I used to carry around a full-page ad I cut out of one of the national magazines – I think it was Sports Illustrated. I would show it to all my audiences because it was such a clear statement of our predicament. It showed a photograph of two cars stopped at a traffic light in what was obviously Beverly Hills or Palm Beach, or one of those quintessential affluent communities – you know, big tall elegant palm trees lining a gracefully curving street with big elegant mansions. The car in the right lane was a brand new shiny $90,000 BMW. And the car in the left lane was a brand new shiny $350,000 Rolls Royce. And the man behind the wheel of the $90,000 BMW is looking longingly at the $350,000 Rolls Royce. The caption on the ad reads, “Rolls Royce: Quite Simply the Finest Motor Car in the World.” But I took a piece of adhesive tape, pasted it over that message and wrote, “IT’S NEVER ENOUGH!” That made everybody laugh, but I think they could see the Truth in it.

That’s a long-winded answer to your question, but that is why I think it’s very possible– from the spiritual point of view – that an unanswered prayer might just be a blessing in disguise.

Q: What about things what we pray for beyond material wealth – like the health of a loved one, or a healing in our own body?

A: Well, obviously, unanswered prayers don’t just involve material things that we desire, but they also involve the quest to avoid some of the overwhelmingly painful emotional experiences we can have as human beings. The book contains many stories of people dealing with such events. One is a story about a couple whose eleven year-old daughter was abducted, raped, and murdered. Now, surely, her parents had prayed for their daughter’s safety. All emotionally healthy parents just automatically pray for the safety and health of their children. They don’t even have to think about it. Again, even if they identify themselves as atheists, they’re still at least silently hoping for the safety and well being of their children. Their hopes and prayers are automatic. And the pain of a parent whose child dies is an unimaginable pain. In cases of unanswered prayer like these, it would be immensely cruel to suggest to the parent that their unanswered prayer is a gift, or that the child’s death will lead to a spiritual blessing. In all likelihood, they’re going to have to go through an intense period of sadness and disorientation. But – eventually – they’re going to have the opportunity to come up for air. And when they do, they will have one primary choice to make, and that choice is whether this event is going to ruin their life, or they’re going to find a way to use the pain to help themselves grow spiritually. Nothing will take away the pain. But, on the other hand, nothing takes away our inherent ability to experience love, peace, and joy. Love, peace, and joy are the essence of who we are. They are our True Nature. They can get obscured – temporarily - by sadness. But only temporarily. To the grieving parent, it can seem like forever. But – eventually - healing comes when the parent is able to see the pain of the child’s death as spiritual “fuel” that propels them more deeply into their own heart . . . into the love that resides in their own heart.

Q: What you are saying is a little scary. I pray for the safety and health of my children every night. Are you saying my prayers don’t do any good?

A: No. I’m not saying that at all. I pray for all of my loved ones as well. Every day. And I pray for everyone on Earth. And I pray for peace. What I am saying is that whatever we hope and pray for can only affect reality on this plane of existence to a certain extent . . . or for a certain period of time. For instance, no matter how many prayers for good health are “answered,” everyone still dies. Everyone. The death rate is 100 percent. There’s a point at which prayers for health just don’t work. A prayerful life would incorporate a full recognition of that reality.

You know, when I was a child and my mother was teaching us to pray, she always emphasized that we must end all our prayers with, “Not my will, but Thy will . . .” I didn’t really like that as a child, but my mother was very certain that it was a necessary ingredient of prayer. And I think it was a great thing to teach us.

A number of years ago, I realized that the thought that God should protect us from anything bad ever happening to us is just wrong. God does protect us. He protects everyone. But the way He protects us is by giving us everything we need to handle anything that happens to us. You have Infinite Love in your own heart. Infinite. You may not realize that, but you do. That is the essence of your soul. That is your inherent, undiminished connection with God. And that love is enough to heal any loss or disappointment. That love is sufficient to help you bear whatever sadness and difficulty comes into your life. You just have to learn how to tap into it.

So our deepest prayer might be to ask that we – and our children - grow more and more aware of that extraordinary vastness of our own being . . . the unlimited nature of the spiritual resources we already - naturally – have within us. As Rabindranath Tagore said so eloquently, “Let us not pray to be protected from dangers, but to be fearless when facing them.”

Q: But don’t you think the rules should be different for children? Why should children have to suffer and die? I mean, they’re so innocent.

A: Why? Why should the rules be different? You see, that statement is a perfect example of the way we allow our minds to torture us. In that case it is your mind saying “the rules should be different for children.” Of course, we would all like that to be the case. But no one promised you that. Nothing in the universe says that. None of our spiritual teachings say that. That is your idea of how it should be. It isn’t how it is. But we’ll take an idea like that, turn it into a belief, and then get angry at God – or the Creator – because He isn’t running the universe the way we think it should be run. And then we lose our faith. Why? Because we decided that we have a better idea about how this universe should function that whoever or whatever created it. We don’t cultivate the wisdom to take life and the universe as they are. We don’t learn the lessons we could learn if we were to take it all as it is. We keep thinking we need to make it different . . . or that God should have made it different. I mean, how is a child going to learn to deal with life in this world if they are completely protected from suffering? I’m not saying “It’s good for children to suffer.” I am saying, it’s good for children to learn that suffering is a part of human life so they can learn how to deal with it.

Here’s another way to look at it. Jesus said we should become “like little children.” I don’t think that means “childish” . . . I think it means “child-like.” What does that mean? What does it mean to be “child-like?”

You know, there is one truth that is often difficult for people to hear, but I have seen it time and again. Most children who are sick and dying have a great deal more equanimity, wisdom, and inner peace than adults who are dying. Children have a great deal more trust in the universe. They are much less prone to feeling victimized. They are just naturally spiritual. In fact, they often wind up counseling their parents. You see, your question about the rules being different for children arises from the assumption that in order for a child’s life to be “complete,” they have to grow older and become an adult. If they don’t, we assume they’ve been cheated. But maybe that’s not the case. Maybe that’s just confused thinking on our part. Maybe some children truly are angels who come to help us out of the quagmire of confusion we’re caught in. And when their work here is done, they just leave. You know?

Like Mattie Stepanek who was such an extraordinarily saintly being. I believe he died at the age of twelve. And yet, he touched the lives and hearts of millions and millions of people. Would it have been better if he had lived to be an adult? His impact on the world came largely because he was a child who was dying and yet he was extraordinarily wise, compassionate, and loving. He got peoples’ attention, he opened peoples’ hearts . . . and then he left. What a gift he was!

Q: But still, his death must have been immensely painful for his parents.

A: Of course it was. I am not trying to diminish the heartbreak we feel when children get sick, or die, or get abused. Nor am I saying that we should be complacent about injustice, unkindness, and cruelty. I am merely saying that expecting those things not to happen in this world is foolish. I am also suggesting that our ideas that bigger is better and more is better are not necessarily always true . . . and that applies to the length of a human life, also.

Q: But how do we deal with the overwhelming sadness and heartbreak?

A: Actually, I would like to suggest something completely audacious. I would like to suggest that instead of trying to figure out how to escape from sadness and heartbreak, it would be good for us to learn how to allow ourselves to feel more heartbreak than we are usually willing to feel. Let us learn real empathy and real compassion. There are so many things that we customarily ignore – that we have to divert our eyes away from - in order to keep feeling justified living the lifestyle we live. For instance, are you aware that every five seconds, a child somewhere on earth dies of starvation? Every five seconds! Is that God’s fault? I mean, in the last five minutes while we’ve been sitting here having an intellectual discussion about whether or not it’s right for children to die, about sixty children have died on our Earth from a cause we could actually do something about. So the question arises, is that God’s fault? Or is it our fault because we don’t care enough to figure out how to share the abundance we have with the people who need it? We’re too busy getting what we want. We’re too busy being obsessed with nonsense. And actually, if we were to allow ourselves to really tune into those starving children, and their grieving, heartbroken mothers, we would actually have to do something about it. You see? If we allowed ourselves to recognize that they are all our children, and that their parents are all our brothers and sisters, we would have to do something. If we were to open our hearts to other people we would have to live our lives differently. We could actually use our heartbreak to motivate us to make the world a better place . . . to help our fellow human beings. And that sense of connection, that kind of loving care of others is what would really make us happy. Not worrying about who the next winner of American Idol is going to be, but caring about the billions of people on Earth who are suffering.

Q: One reviewer said he found your book confusing and, at times, even disturbing.

A: Well, when you’ve had your head buried in the sand, waking up to reality is often disturbing. You know, 9/11 was disturbing. The death of a loved one is disturbing. The death of a child is disturbing. Recognizing that you aren’t going to live forever is disturbing. The aftermath of a devastating storm or earthquake is disturbing. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t talk about those things. Unfortunately, many of the books that deal with these issues, and many of the counselors who counsel people struggling with these issues use the strategy of saying - essentially, “Oh, I see, you’ve had your head buried in the sand. Well, here’s some more sand. Bury it deeper. That will make you feel better.” But it won’t.

As for the issues that are “confusing” . . . in some sense it’s all confusing. The book is attempting to deal with questions that have no rational, absolute answers. It is exploring issues that have no logical explanation. Of course it’s confusing. I tried to convey that in the beginning of the book. It’s like a Zen koan. It ultimately asks some unanswerable questions . . . or, at least, questions whose answers require us to shift into another level of consciousness.

The book also deals with issues that are contradictory. Because sometimes things are true at one level of consciousness, but are not true at another level of consciousness.

When Prayers Aren’t Answered is an invitation to people to stretch their minds, to stretch their consciousness . . . to let go of their attachment to rational understanding so that they can experience Truth directly. It is inviting people to be comfortable with the possibility that there are no easy and absolute answers and that – ultimately - striving to find those answers will just exacerbate their suffering. Like that wonderful book by Pema Chodron called Comfortable With Uncertainty. Real happiness requires the ability to be comfortable with uncertainty and confusion. We don’t like that. But there’s really no way around it. The point the book keeps coming back to is that Love is what heals. Meher Baba used to say, “Understanding has no meaning. Love has meaning.”

And as one very astute interviewer said to me recently, “Understanding ‘why?’ is like getting the booby prize.” You know? So you understand. Or you think you understand. So what? Whatever it is that broke your heart still happened. Intellectual understanding isn’t going to change that. But intuitive, loving awareness might.

Q: Earlier you suggested that our culture is built on generating, perpetuating, and attempting to fulfill desire, and that there are costs to that approach to happiness. Can you elaborate a bit more?

A: From the cultural point of view, our perpetual desire keeps everyone yearning for some illusory happiness that – they’ve been taught – comes from wealth, fame, and possessions. I mean, just sit back for a while and look objectively at the extraordinary amount of advertising that we are bombarded with every day. It’s a constant barrage of images that keep telling us we need MORE . . . that what we already have couldn’t possibly be enough. We have to keep the economic engine revving at as high a speed as possible. Just keep people buying and consuming, buying and consuming.

From the political point of view, this perpetual desire keeps the United States in the position of needing to be the world’s bully . . . needing to exert control over smaller, less wealthy countries so that we can maintain our access to their natural resources – like oil, and cheap labor – which we need to satisfy the unending desires generated by our own lifestyle.

The oil situation is a wonderful example of how our HUGE desire systems create HUGE problems. For nearly thirty-five years we have known that our dependence on Middle Eastern oil is a problem. Thirty-five years! As I recall, it was 1973 when the first Arab Oil Embargo took place, and suddenly the cost of gasoline skyrocketed, and for a number of weeks we had to wait in line at the gas station – sometimes for four or five hours – just to get ten gallons of gas. Now, President Carter realized the problem and he immediately responded by lowering the speed limit on the highways to 55 miles per hour, and requiring our auto manufacturers to begin producing smaller, more fuel-efficient cars. But Carter was voted out of office and replaced by President Reagan who really didn’t understand the problem. I mean, he was a great president in many ways, but in other ways he was just oblivious to many long-term problems. My sense is that President Reagan felt it was just psychologically unhealthy and “un-American” for the United States to feel that we couldn’t just control everything and have everything we want. So he came into office and basically said, “never mind about slower speed limits and fuel-efficient cars. Never mind about the environment. Never mind about alternative sources of energy. We’re Americans! Bigger is better! Faster is best! So let’s just plow forward! Fuel the economy and everything will be beautiful!”

But that was not wise leadership. As soon as we realized the potential downside of our dependence on the Middle Eastern oil we should have begun a massive national campaign to wean ourselves off it. And, with the exception of Jimmy Carter, every president since Nixon has essentially ignored this glaring problem. I mean, the Middle East has always been a difficult and volatile region of the world. It is largely ruled by primitive tribal consciousness and ancient, irrational conflicts and hatreds that we can’t even begin to understand. To have our destiny tied to such an unstable, and chaotic region is not wise. And, you know, our country is amazingly resourceful when we want to be. During World War II we were able to invent something as scientifically complex as the atomic bomb within just a few years. In 1960, President Kennedy set a goal of sending men to the Moon within ten years, and we did it! Do you really think that in thirty-five years we couldn’t have come up with fuel-efficient cars that run on alternative sources of energy if we and our government had made it a national priority? Of course we could have.

If you’re wondering how this all relates to unanswered prayer, let me clarify the situation: If you are praying for world peace, and yet you participate in a cultural lifestyle which ignores the long-range effects of action, then you may be supporting a system that works in opposition to your prayer. It’s like praying for your own health, and then eating candy and ice cream and drinking beer all day instead of eating fruits, nuts, and vegetables. You know, prayer is much less likely to work if the other aspects of your life are working in opposition to it.

So the long-term view is that if we had been wise and made it our priority to be “energy self-sufficient,” we wouldn’t be entrenched in a war in Iraq right now, because we wouldn’t have had to be meddling in the affairs of the Middle East – making it our business to try to create stability in a part of the world where they don’t seem to want stability. And that’s why so many in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world don’t like us. We meddle in their affairs! We are seen as fat, greedy, arrogant interlopers who support corrupt regimes because we want the corrupt leaders to sell us their oil and other resources at a cheap price. We’ve become too lazy to figure out how to do something else. I mean, we were all buddy-buddy with Saddam Hussein when we believed it to be in our own best interests to do so. There was a time when we really didn’t care about his tyranny and the genocides and atrocities he committed. We just ignored them because we thought it was in our best interests to maintain a friendly relationship with him.

Think about this: Do Exxon and Mobil want us to have solar powered cars? Of course not! That would be a disaster for them. How are they going to charge us for sunlight? But because of the political power that can be bought by the enormous wealth the oil companies possess, here we are, some thirty-five years later with our pants down. And we still have no significant alternative fuel source for our vehicles. That is a national disgrace.

Now, we can say that our intent is to bring freedom and liberty to all the people of the world, but I am absolutely convinced that if we weren’t just desperate for oil, we wouldn’t care about stability or freedom and liberty in the Middle East. In fact, America probably wouldn’t care about the Middle East at all, because they wouldn’t have anything we want. In that case, our attitude generally is, “so what?” I mean, we don’t really care all that much about genocide in Darfur, or about the fact that the Tibetans have had their homeland stolen out from under them, do we? Dafur and Tibet don’t have anything we want. So we pay lip service to being horrified about what’s happening in places like that, but we don’t really care enough to do anything about it. Do we? Now . . . if Darfur or Tibet had oil . . . well that would be a different story.

There are many so-called religious leaders and theologians in our culture who would like to suggest that our involvement in these wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has immense religious import and comes as a fulfillment of Biblical prophecy. But that is just absolute nonsense. We are involved in these wars because we have been arrogant, greedy, and foolish, and we have been asleep at the switch - not just during the current administration, but for more than three decades. I’m not placing the blame on our government. Every one of us - each individual shares in the blame. We all share the blame. So if you want world peace, praying for it isn’t enough. You have to stop participating in actions that perpetuate oppression and conflict.

Here’s what the problem boils down to: When I believe that “I” am the center of the universe, and that the immediate satisfaction of “my” desires is the most important thing on Earth, then I feel justified in elbowing everyone else out of my way in order to get what “I” want. If we are a culture of individuals who are inclined to feel justified doing that to each other, then we automatically become a culture that has no qualms about doing it to the rest of the world, because we feel we are the most important country in the world. And we may be. But if we are, we are not using our position wisely.

Years ago, President Kennedy pointed out that our ability – as a nation - to be a leader in this world is rooted in the quality of our character, not in the vastness of our wealth and military might. He suggested that if our intention is to spread our economic system and our ideas about democracy throughout the world, then we have to be such a high example of wisdom, virtue, compassion, justice, and generosity that others around the world just naturally want to emulate us . . . to follow our example. But we’ve fallen quite short of Kennedy’s vision. We’ve been operating from self-centered arrogance, greed, fear, and righteousness rather than compassion and wisdom. We have fallen victim to the old notion that the end justifies the means.

Another prime example of our self-centeredness involves our consciousness about the number of deaths in the war in Iraq. We keep a daily running log of the number of U.S. soldiers who have been killed. The number is announced every day in our newspapers and on our radio and television stations. Right now, the number is approaching 4000. And that is a tragedy. But do we ever hear the number of innocent Iraqi people who have been killed since we began this adventure? No. The number of Iraqis who have died is – for all intents and purposes - never mentioned. Apparently, it is considered irrelevant. Is that because we don’t care? I mean, I have seen estimates running as high as 800,000 people dead as a result of our invasion. And it is estimated that 2 million Iraqi people have been displaced from their homes and their own country by our war. We don’t like to talk about those numbers. We don’t want to think about them. We don’t want to hear them. And I suspect that our government is doing its best to keep us “protected” from hearing or thinking about them. But the reality is, we may be responsible – either directly or indirectly – for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. And we are responsible for completely disrupting the lives of millions of people . . . and we really don’t want to acknowledge that. We focus on our own soldiers, and give no importance to the Iraqi citizens. They are equally important. How is a country like ours ever going to gain the respect and influence we would like to have if we are so profoundly indifferent to the welfare of others? And it is all because, as President Bush so ironically pointed out to us, “We are addicted to oil.”

Oddly enough, it all goes back to desire. When we live in desire, we don’t live in reality. And we certainly don’t live in compassion. But even if we could eliminate all of the cultural and geo-political problems caused by our unending desires, we would still have to face the personal crises that inevitably follow. Because, after all the desires are created and satisfied, the question that still remains is, “how do I find happiness?” So you learn how to get what you want. So what? What do you do then? It turns out that getting what you want isn’t the end of unhappiness. Sometimes, it’s just the beginning of unhappiness!

The great irony is that only when we surrender our attachment to desire can we begin to touch a place of natural peace and happiness inside. When we’re not consumed with desire, inner peace and wisdom just naturally arise. They are always there – inside us – but we usually can’t feel them because we are so caught in our minds.

Q: Do you think healing through prayer is possible?

A: Oh, absolutely! I have seen SO MANY examples of “miraculous” healings that could only have come from the power of prayer. I have seen it in my own life and my own body. But, as I said earlier, it doesn’t always happen. And I don’t think a healing that has been prayed for which doesn’t actually come to pass is – in any sense – a reliable indicator of that person’s worthiness in the eyes, and in the heart of God. Many, many people actually get closer to God when they go through an illness, or an injury, or a devastating loss.

I have also seen many healings that weren’t – in fact – being prayed for. That is, when an individual has “surrendered” to the fact that their medical condition makes it appear that they are going to leave their body, and they just resolve to spend their final days surrounded with love, peace, equanimity, and a sprit of sanctity . . . and then – all of a sudden – their body starts to heal, and their disease goes into remission. And the only healing modality they had practiced was love, acceptance, and surrender. It’s fascinating.

On the other hand, I have many times seen people work toward healing through paths that emphasize the mind as the source of all disease and all healing. In those circumstances, if the path appears to work for some, but not for others, the despair for those who have not found success in healing can get dramatically amplified because now they have the additional burden of having to say, “Oh my God, now I understand that my own thoughts are creating my disease and I am powerless to do anything about it. I must be a really horrible person.” So, in the process of ostensibly helping the person to heal physically, those spiritual paths can actually wind up fostering an increased sense of failure and self-hatred.

Q: Are there different kinds of prayers?

A: Many, many different kinds. The most common form is prayer of “petition” or “supplication” in which we are asking God for something we want, or asking not to have something we don’t want. These can run the gamut from an athlete praying that he makes the big score, or wins his event - something which I’ve never been convinced our Creator really cares about – to praying for a healing, to praying for safety, to praying for the healing of our planet, to praying for world peace.

There are also prayers of praise, in which we just spontaneously offer our love, our joy, and our sense of awe about the beauty of nature, or the vastness of the universe, or the extraordinary beauty and wonder of love. Prayers of praise can be intentional, or spontaneous, and some of the highest teachers I’ve encountered refer to spontaneous praise of God as the “highest” form of prayer. You know, those moments when pure, unadulterated love, joy, and awe just burst forth out of your heart, and you just want to fall on your knees and thank God for all of the magnificence in life, in the physical universe, and in your own consciousness.

Then there are prayers we might call prayers of attention . . . or connection . . . prayers used to constantly remind ourselves of our connection with God. That is where prayer crosses over into being a form of meditation . . . or meditation becomes a form of prayer. In addition there are many other forms of prayer: Singing holy songs can be a form of prayer, chanting mantras can be a form of prayer, singing in the Indian style known as “kirtan” is a form of prayer. Physical disciplines like yoga and tai chi can be forms of prayer. Even dance can be a form of prayer - like the dances connected with the Sufi tradition and the dances of the whirling dervishes. These are means of using the body as a vehicle for prayer, and thus – in essence – consecrating or sanctifying the physical body. Simultaneously, when performed purely, these physical disciplines can induce profound experiences of higher consciousness.

When you get right down to it, a truly “spiritual” life involves, as Brother Lawrence said, “Praying without ceasing.” That is to say that everything you do becomes a form of prayer. You consecrate every act. Just as we sometimes offer a blessing and a “thank you” before we eat in order to consecrate the food, we can offer a blessing prior to every act we undertake. We offer our thoughts, our words, our deeds . . . all to God. That is what in India is called “karma yoga.” Whatever you do, from washing the dishes, to taking out the garbage, to being president of a corporation, or president of an entire country, is given as an offering to God. When we can do that we have learned how to “pray without ceasing.”

Q: What kind of prayer do you practice in your own life?

A: The main form of prayer I use is intimately connected with the Buddhist practice called “metta” or “loving-kindness.” Each morning and each evening I sit in meditation. At the end of each period of silent sitting practice, I consciously offer to the whole world whatever benefits I’ve gained in terms of deepening love, developing equanimity, and cultivating the qualities of compassion and forgiveness. I send a blessing of love, light, healing, joy, and gratitude to my teachers, to the people I am close to, to the people I am aware of who are suffering, and to the people with whom I have experienced some conflict or discord. Then I send out the same blessing to the people who run our government and the people who run all the other governments around the world. I send love to people in prison. I send love to the people who are plotting to destroy the United States. I send love to everyone who is caught in the “prison” of the human mind - people who are so filled with fear and anger that they believe the best thing they can do with their lives is to cause suffering for other people. Every day I send a blessing to President Bush and to Osama bin Laden. I send a blessing to all those who believe that violence and hatred are a route to happiness . . . or to God. I send love to religious leaders who preach self-righteous judgment and hatred in the name of God. I don’t send love out with the intent to change anybody other than myself. My prayers might generally be characterized as “active” prayers. I am seeking to find the ability – within myself – to be a vehicle for healing in the world. One of my favorite lines from Mahatma Gandhi was, “We must be the change we wish to see in the world.” My prayer is to be that change.

Q: What is the relationship between prayer and meditation?

A: Well, we’ve already touched on that somewhat. But another way to characterize the difference is by saying that prayer is “talking to God,” and meditation is “listening to God.” One is active and the other is passive. In meditation, generally, we are seeking to quiet our minds. And in prayer we are generally thinking something. Meditations can involve thinking and prayer can involve quieting. There are no hard and fast rules. Each can blend into the other. They are like the two sides of the same coin . . . or two hands working differently, but harmoniously on the same project.

Q: How do you reconcile the concept that God is “all-loving” and “all-powerful” with the existence of evil in the world?

A: In some sense, you could say that “God,” in “Its’” highest state – in the formlessness that exists beyond the physical universe – is neither good nor evil. It just “is.” That’s a difficult concept for many westerners to accept, because in the Judeo-Christian tradition, we’re very attached to the concept that God is “all-good.” It might be too scary to think otherwise. But in Oneness, there is just Oneness. In Light there is just Light. “Good” and “evil” imply “two” or “two-ness,” or what is sometimes referred to as “duality” or “the world of duality.” The universe of form is a universe of physical laws related to formlessness made manifest in form. It is a universe that functions according to what we sometimes call “scientific” principles. Basic Newtonian physics state that “every action has an equal and opposite reaction.” There are also “spiritual” laws which parallel the scientific laws. For instance, the law of karma, which in the Christian Bible is expressed, “As you sow, so shall you reap.”

The simple answer to the question is that in the world of form, if we’re going to have “good” then we are inevitably going to have “evil.” Did God create evil? Well, in a sense, yes – because God created everything. However, in “It’s” formless state beyond good and evil, God doesn’t intentionally create evil . . . God just creates. Creation involves duality, and duality involves good and evil. So, in some sense, you might say that God created good and evil – in equal measure – but not necessarily intentionally. That is to say, it all may be an unintended result of the original act of creation, just as a stone thrown into water creates waves that flow out from the point of impact in ever-expanding circular orbs. Does the stone intend to create the waves? Probably not. You could, instead, see the waves as an “unintended result.” And that is one way to look at the appearance of evil in the world of form - as an “unintended result” of the act of Creation. I go into all this in much greater depth in When Prayers Aren’t Answered.

What should be comforting to us, though, is that – based on the laws of Newtonian physics - there must be just as much good as evil in the world. That means, for every Osama bin Laden, there must also be a Mother Teresa. It’s that simple. And it’s a law.

The other comforting thing is that Love is the most efficient route back into the essential Oneness of God. That is to say, the more you love, the closer you get to God. In simple terms, the more people you see as “family,” the wider your universe becomes, and the greater degree of happiness you feel. So “love,” which we might define as the ultimate “good” – is the route back to God. And the behaviors we define as “good” – kindness, generosity, honesty, etc. – are all behaviors that support the expansion of love, and thus enhance our connection with God. Behaviors we consider evil – unkindness, selfishness, cruelty, and violence – are all expressions of disconnection and division. In other words, we can’t harm someone we truly love. We just can’t do it. No matter how many country and western songs say, “we always hurt the ones we love,” in terms of real spiritual love - we just can’t do it.

Q: So, if our prayers are pure, and inspired by love, why doesn’t God answer them by eliminating suffering?

A: Well, I’m sorry to have to say this, but it is just unrealistic to believe that there is some way for us to live in this world completely protected from evil and completely free from suffering. We certainly can have much better lives and we certainly can enjoy our lives much more by simply by changing our thought patterns and cultivating a much more positive perspective. You know, as my good friend, Wayne Dyer says, “Change your Thoughts – Change Your Life.” Changing your thought patterns can affect many of the experiences that come your way. However, I have known some of the greatest “positive thinkers” of our time, and I can assure you that not one of them has a life that is completely free of suffering. And most people can acknowledge that the times of suffering have eventually turned out to be times of growth. While we wouldn’t necessarily wish for suffering, it turns out that suffering can be an extraordinary pathway to cultivating wisdom and compassion.

The other important ingredient in this discussion is the recognition that we are often praying out of fear. We are praying that something we fear doesn’t happen. Or we’re praying that something we want does happen because we fear what our life and our world will be like if it doesn’t happen.

The times when desires are thwarted offer us extraordinary opportunities to confront . . . and then let go of our fear. That is a blessing, because fear is the greatest impediment standing between us and happiness . . . or between us and God. The challenge is for us to learn to love that which we fear – to learn to love that which we define as “evil.” The spiritual path is about going back to our original nature, back to The One. Anything or anyone that we can’t accept, anything or anyone our minds place outside The One, anything or anyone that we feel is undeserving of love is showing us the places in ourselves where we are not yet ready to go back to The One. Our judgment and our fear cost us. In a sense, everything we dislike or fear, or identify as “evil” is another brick in the stone wall of fear and disconnection that so often surrounds our hearts . . . that keeps us disconnected from the Love within us. Again, that doesn’t mean that we should be complacent about injustice, dishonesty, and violence. We do our best to stop them. But hating the perpetrators just perpetuates suffering, because we are still putting hatred out into the atmosphere. Loving them does not justify or condone their unconscious behavior. Loving them just allows us to be happy . . . and free. Loving them allows us to stop participating in the perpetuation of conflict. And it offers to them the optimum opportunity to heal their own hearts. I mean, when you hate someone who is already angry and paranoid, they just become more angry and paranoid. But when you offer them love, you offer them a precious opportunity to get free.

I would add, however, that love does not necessarily require blind submission to dysfunction and injustice. I think people sometimes mistake enabling for love. I have seen many sick, manipulative, unconscious people just get worse and worse and worse because everyone around them thinks that “loving” means just letting them get away with anything – with whatever they want to do. Sometimes when someone is asleep, you have to shout a bit to wake them up. The trick is to shout without closing your heart.

That’s one of the basic principles taught in The Bhagavad Gita, perhaps the most beloved holy book in India: That, spiritually, there is a point at which complacency and tolerance can become – in essence – “anti-spiritual.” You can begin to let sick and depraved people take more and more power, because you keep saying, “well, just love them and everything will be fine.” That isn’t going to help the world at all. Many people in prisons and addiction treatment centers are there because they have had so many people surrounding them with a kind of unwise form of forgiveness. I mean, forgiveness is always useful. There is no reason to not forgive anyone for anything. But forgiveness and tolerating injustice and cruelty are two different things.

There are some people in this world who belong in prison because – otherwise - they’re going to harm others. So, lovingly put them in prison, forgive them, and love them. No need to torture them . . . just remove their opportunities to harm others.

Q: What is “spiritual freedom?”

A: When the great Tibetan master, Chogyam Trungpa Rimpoche was asked what “enlightenment” meant, he said, “absolute fearlessness.” I think that is the same as “spiritual freedom.”

Q: Can you imagine living in a state of “absolute fearlessness? Is that possible?”

A: Yes it is possible. In fact, right now – at this very instant – there is a place of absolute fearlessness in you. But you can’t access it when your mind is full of fear. There is a place of consciousness – beyond thought – that is absolutely peaceful, loving, and content. And that place is also eternal. You see, the reason you don’t love everyone is because of fear. You fear those you don’t love. And you tend to not love those you fear. You may experience your fear as anger, but it is very useful to recognize that – beneath the surface – anger is always an expression of fear . . . and sadness.

Q: Why do we go through all this?

A: In some sense, you could say that we come to Earth specifically because of the range of experiences it offers. There are great lessons to be learned from these experiences. For instance, there are great lessons to be learned from seeing how our fear inhibits our ability to love. There are also great lessons to be learned from our mortality . . . from the fact that we and everyone we know and love are going to die, and we don’t know when or how. If we keep ourselves aware of that, we pay much closer attention to our lives and to our relationships. We live fully every day. We love fully every day. We become “spiritually awake and alive”

There are also great lessons to be learned from the fact that these bodies we live in tend to age – if they have the chance - before they die. I mean, each gray hair and each wrinkle can be a reminder to stay alert . . . to stay alive . . . to stay loving. Each can be a reminder that the sand in our hourglass is running out, but we can’t see how much sand is left. I mean, this very day – any day - could very well be our last day on Earth . . . or the last for someone we love. We would live our lives much differently if we kept ourselves aware of that. But rather than reflect on all the lessons gray hair and wrinkles are trying to teach us, rather than using them as the “reminders” they can be, many of us would rather color our hair and run off to the plastic surgeon. So we don’t learn the lessons that nature is offering to us because we don’t like to think about these things. They frighten us. If we can get beyond our fear, a whole new universe of spiritual experience opens up before us.

Q: Why do bad things happen to good people?

A: In When Prayers Aren’t Answered, I recounted the story of a man named Mogalanna, who was Buddha’s closest disciple. He was an absolutely pure, high being, who had attained a level of consciousness in which he was able to cure people, and to do all kinds of miraculous things. But he, himself, was ultimately murdered – beaten to death by a group of what were known in India as “highwaymen.” Highwaymen were sort of like our modern concept of “gangs.” So Mogalanna was brutally murdered after a life of intense spiritual practice, purity and generosity. Now, when you think of it, the same thing happened to Jesus, and Gandhi. It happened to Martin Luther King, Yitzak Rabin, and John Lennon. It would appear that, in this world, being a proponent of peace and love can be hazardous to your health.

It is also clear that there are many ruthless, self-absorbed, cruel, and dishonest people who appear to prosper in this world. And there are many honest, kind-hearted, generous, ethical people who experience financial ruin. There are many wonderful parents whose children die. And there are many unconscious, uncaring people who raise unpleasant children who seem to flourish and prosper in their own right.

There are two primary fallacies which distort our perceptions about all this. The first is that having our prayers answered the way we want them to be is a measure of God’s love for us, or a measure of our spiritual success or advancement. It isn’t. Then second is that this world is fair . . . or that God should make it BE fair. It isn’t fair. At the purely human level of perception, this world of form is absolutely not set up to be fair.

Now, you can conclude that the fairness which is missing in the world of form is ultimately Divinely interjected through the law of karma, or through eternal damnation or eternal salvation, or through whatever philosophical or theological scenario you want to project onto the world of form . . . but, the fact still remains that there is no mechanism, no arbiter of what we call “fairness” in the world of form. And trying to perceive one, or railing against the fact that there isn’t fairness in human terms is a very good way to stay unhappy throughout most of your life.

It is an example of what Byron Katie calls our “arguments with reality.” That is to say, we want to argue with the absence of absolute fairness in the world. But the world just isn’t fair. That’s all there is to it. End of story. Why beat your head against a brick wall?

Q: What do you feel about The Law of Attraction?

A: Well, it’s obviously a law - both in the science of physics, and in our mental, spiritual, and emotional lives. But it isn’t the totality of the story. That is to say, our thoughts, predispositions and emotional states set up what Deepak calls a “matrix of thought,” and they “attract” to us – at both the individual level and at the collective level - the very things we focus on. But there are also other forces at work – forces beyond our own personal thoughts.

In the Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna says to Arjuna, “Whatever you focus on you will draw to yourself.” He goes on to point out that we can draw experiences to ourselves through love or through fear . . . or even through hate. That is to say, whatever we love, we draw to ourselves through the power of attraction. But whatever we fear, whatever we dislike, and whatever we hate we also draw to ourselves. Whatever we put a lot of time and psychic energy into thinking about, we draw toward ourselves.

I had a friend who used to say, “Worrying is praying for something you don’t want.” That’s really a statement of the law of attraction.

The only problem with the teachings that focus solely on the power of attraction is that – in constantly affirming to people that they can have whatever they want, they tend to just keep the wheels of desire spinning faster and faster. And, for those who are not successful in applying the principles, there can be a painful diminishment of self-worth. The notion that the fulfillment of desire is the pinnacle of human accomplishment is just wrong. As we’ve already seen, real and lasting happiness comes only from getting free of the stranglehold desire usually has over us. The great Indian spiritual master, Meher Baba, used to refer to the attempts to control one’s thought processes in order to become adept at changing the conditions of one’s life and body as the effort to exchange one illusion for another. That is to say – for instance - that from the spiritual point of view, any identity the ego holds is an illusion. Identifying oneself as a “rich” person is just as big an illusion, and just as big an impediment to enlightenment as identifying oneself as a “poor” person. Identifying oneself as being “unhealthy” is an illusion, but so is identifying oneself as “healthy.” Each is in time and space, each is destined to pass away, and each can be – ultimately - a hindrance to the effort to evolve spiritually.

Q: Is it possible to have whatever we want?

A: Well, in a very real sense, yes . . . but perhaps not in this lifetime. In the Vedas it is said that we must live out all our desires. And it is said that we will have the opportunity to do so. But that may mean that every desire you have could result in another incarnation. If you see spiritual awakening or enlightenment as the process of getting free of desire, you might want to focus on practices that will help you do that, rather than practices that just keep the carousel of desire going ‘round and ‘round.

Q: Is unanswered prayer an indication that we are being punished by God?

A: Absolutely not. As we’ve discussed previously, it may be an indication that God is doing you a favor. I don’t want to make light of the issue, or offer simplistic rationalizations. I think if you read When Prayers Aren’t Answered, you’ll see that there are no easy explanations or answers to these questions. There are, however, simple, clear, concise things we can do to enhance our connection to God even in life’s difficult moments. Again, that is the ultimate message of the book – that no matter what happens, we never lose our connection with the Divine.

Q: Are there are certain forms of prayer that are more effective than others?

A: Yes. Clearly using positive imagery, and visualizing the results you are seeking are both extraordinarily helpful. When I am dealing with a health issue, I visualize my body as healthy, and I meditate to access the inner place of pure awareness where disease is a non-issue. I also try to avoid telling people about it, because I don’t want a lot of minds worrying and seeing me as “unhealthy.” You know, that’s just not helpful. Again, I think the term “matrix of thought” which Deepak uses is extremely descriptive. You don’t want to create a matrix of negative thought around you when you are trying to heal. Very few people can keep their consciousness free of fear and agitation. And fear and agitation are the last things you need when you are working toward healing.

I also work with whatever is happening on other levels, through exercise, diet, nutritional supplements, and Chinese medicinal herbal teas. I use various forms of healing meditations, I use affirmative prayer, and I sometimes work with Tibetan mandalas and yantras. I think you go with as many positive elements and influences as you can. You know, like that essential concept in the Bhagavad Gita – “Do your best and leave the results to God.” And when you’re healing, try to stay away from negative, fearful, angry people.

Q: Are there specific teachers or traditions that have served to shape your ideas about healing?

A: Yes. My personal approach to healing has been most profoundly influenced by the teachings of the Sufi master, Hazrat Inayat Khan. I have also been deeply influenced by Emmet Fox, Mary Baker Eddy, and Yeshe Donden who was for many years the personal physician to The Dalai Lama. On the other hand, I also remember Ramakrishna saying the best thing to do for your health is just not to worry about it . . . not to obsess about your body.

Q: What role does prayer play in creating a happy life?

A: Well, that depends on what you are praying for and how you are praying for it.

There is a section in the book in which I relate a dialogue Ram Dass and I had at his home on Maui last year. One of the issues we explored was whether it is possible to – in a sense – send conflicting messages in our prayers. That is to say, if what we truly want in our heart of hearts, in the deepest levels of our being, is enlightenment – or God – then the universe will align itself to give us that. And if in the middle of that process, we suddenly say, “I want a million dollars,” we probably won’t get it because the likelihood is that it would be a distraction from what we really want . . . which is God. It’s really just a further amplification of one of the essential core conflicts of being a human being, and that is that we have all kinds of conflicting desires and motivations.

It’s like that wonderful statement which says, “Most of us don’t want God. Most of us want to want God.” There are a lot of people around who want to have God . . . AND be wealthy. That is possible . . . but not likely. In another section of the book I explore stories of people who became wealthy thinking that it was the route to happiness, and to God, and they wound up absolutely miserable. Now, there are a few people who are both rich - and happy - and feel wonderfully connected to God. But do you know what they are doing? If you ask them what makes them happy, they never say “it’s my mansions,” or “it’s my huge investment portfolio,” or “it’s my jet airplane,” or “it’s my exotic cars.”

They always say, “It’s giving my money away, and helping other people.” Isn’t that remarkable?!

You see? Ultimately, our prayers are most effective in leading us to happiness when they are in alignment with what we really want, and when we are clear and focused about what we really want. What we all really want is love and happiness. And love and happiness come from a quiet mind and an open heart . . . not, necessarily, from getting what we want. Again, I’ll refer to Wayne Dyer’s statement that prayer isn’t about asking God for special favors, but about reminding us that we are always connected to God. I mean, that – really – is the ultimate source of happiness . . . just to be constantly aware of our connection with God . . . through all of the difficult times and disappointments – to be constantly aware of our connection with God. That connection is easiest to recognize when we aren’t ensnared in passionate desires for things to be different than they are, but when we are quietly attentive to what is . . . in this moment . . . and this moment . . . and this moment.

Also, I feel that prayer – in order to be effective, and in order to increase our happiness – must not involve any motivations that would do harm to others.

Q: What are the conditions under which prayer is most likely to work?

A: When what we are asking for is in the way of things . . . when it is in harmony with the unfolding of love on the planet, and when it is in harmony with the greatest good for the largest number of people.

My healing from polio at the age of three came on the heels of my father putting out an appeal to all of his family, friends, business associates, and acquaintances to pray for me in whatever tradition they belonged to. Within a few days, prayers were being said by hundreds of people in dozens of Protestant churches, Catholic churches, and Jewish synagogues. Then my father had a vision of Jesus standing next to my hospital bed, and he knew I would be healed. And I was. But one of the effects of that healing is that I have always known that I owe my life to God. In fact, I think the circumstances fostered a very interesting quality in my life, because I have many times been reminded that my path is a fairly narrow and specific one, and that if I stray from it, I may die. It’s sort of like I was told, when I was healed at the age of three, “Okay. You can stay on earth. But don’t screw around, or you’ll have to leave.”

Earlier, I mentioned Mattie Stepanek. What an extraordinary being! Does the fact that he died at the age of twelve and I have lived to be nearly fifty-seven years old mean that I am better than him, or more important, or that my parents were better, or holier? Absolutely not! My parents were rascals. Lovely, loving rascals, but rascals nonetheless. And I am probably a “dull normal” while Mattie was a wizard! He just graduated much faster. Mattie’s impact on the unfolding of love on our planet was powerful and profound largely because he was so young, and so sick, and so noble, and so wise. His fearlessness, and lack of resentment about his impending death made an extraordinary impression on millions of people. Now, if he was your child, you would want him to live no matter what. But his impact on the planet came largely because he died so young. He opened peoples’ hearts.

Recently, a woman called me whose husband had died suddenly in middle age. He had had a serious back problem for many years, and he had often been in chronic, debilitating pain. After his death his wife realized that she had been praying for years for her husband to get free from his pain. Then, suddenly he died. So he did get free from his pain. But not exactly the way she had hoped. Was her prayer answered, or not?

It’s tricky, because I could hear the place in her mind that was beginning to lean toward self-doubt and self-judgment. You know, like, “Oh my God! I wasn’t praying correctly! I didn’t specify that I wanted him alive when his pain went away! I caused his death with my unskillful prayers.” You know, we can just torture ourselves and destroy ourselves with self-doubt and self-judgment.

I don’t think that a prayer offered with love and compassion can lead to anything wrong happening. If your primary motivation is love, compassion, and the ultimate well-being of others, then you can rest assured that whatever the ultimate tangible outcome of your prayer is, the highest good has been served. You know, people die because their soul has finished its work here. That’s all there is to it. If the soul isn’t finished, there is no way for an individual to die. And if the soul is finished, there is no way for them to stay alive. It really doesn’t have anything to do with the length of someone’s life. The real issue is what work did their soul come to earth to do.

In the midst of overwhelming grief, that can be difficult to perceive. But it is – I believe – an inviolable truth of our existence here.

Q: Is this primarily a “Christian” book?

A: No, it is primarily a “God” book. Or, you could say it is primarily a “Love” book. For me, the concept of “God” is interchangeable with “Love.” But, I have to say, I see God– ultimately – as inconceivable. I don’t think “It” is capable of intellectual understanding. Intuitive understanding, perhaps. But not intellectual understanding. So I think you can use the word “God” interchangeably with “Love,” “Light,” “awareness,” “consciousness,” whatever feels right to you.

My own understanding is that God is not relegated to any particular religion or path. God is everywhere and in everything. And also beyond everywhere and beyond everything. Whatever path we follow is the one that is appropriate for us at any given point in our spiritual unfolding. But all paths are just like fingers pointing at the moon. The moon is what we’re seeking. But we have a tendency to get attached to the particular fingers that are guiding us at any given moment. I tend to look toward paths that focus on Love and inner connection with God rather than those which foster self-righteousness and divisiveness - you know, the “My way is the ONLY way” mentality. I mean, after all, nearly every religion I’ve ever studied thinks it is the ONLY way. That would be a humorous aspect of the human mind . . . if it weren’t so dangerous.

I mean, right now we are witnessing a showdown in our world between fundamentalist Christianity and fundamentalist Islam. And fundamentalist Judaism is thrown into the mix, too. And everybody is shouting all this nonsense at each other, which basically boils down to hate. I, personally, don’t believe that any valid spiritual path fosters hatred, or division.

That’s why my own path has always been influenced by the Buddhist perspective on things. You know, Buddhism has often been characterized as an atheistic religion. But it really isn’t. Buddha just recognized the malevolent direction religion can take when it is centered around an intellectual explanation of something which – ultimately – can’t be explained or understood. Buddha said, essentially, if there is a God, then whatever it is is SO big and SO vast that our human minds could never possibly understand it. And then he said, look what happens when we try. Before long, we start fighting and arguing over whose concept of God is “right,” and eventually we’ll start killing each other because – obviously – the people who don’t believe what we believe are evil. That is about the most distorted, and deluded, perspective I can imagine emerging out of the quest for spiritual awakening. That’s more like spiritual sleeping – in a fog . . . and believing that the nightmares in your own head are the essence of reality.

Buddha suggested that rather than confuse ourselves, we would be better to not even try to understand God. Just delve into the full experience of being alive, awake, and aware . . . and see what follows. Cultivate wisdom, compassion, kindness, and equanimity, and see what happens. If God exists, then experience Him, or Her, or It. Don’t just think about It. Experience It directly.

It’s an interesting path, because you can be a Christian Buddhist, or a Jewish Buddhist, or a Hindu Buddhist . . . you know . . . it’s all open to interpretation. Because Buddhism isn’t about being “right” or “holy.” It is about being kind, and loving, and peaceful.

When Prayers Aren’t Answered is a book with a “universal” perspective. It draws on all of the great religious and spiritual traditions, and attempts to mine the wisdom and compassion running through all of them, rather than the divisiveness that so often becomes the focal point.

Q: So what do you suggest we do when our prayers aren’t answered?

A: Well, first of all, try to be patient. The effects of your prayer may appear slowly . . . over the course of years, or decades. So just try to be patient. And don’t be so anxious to understand “why?” There is an entire chapter devoted to the suffering created in our minds by the question, “why?” Our human minds habitually want to ask that question and have it answered. But – in many, many cases – there really are no answers. I mean, we can make up answers. We can construct all kinds of theological, philosophical, and psychological scenarios intended to imbue our sadness and disappointment with some profound meaning. But – ultimately – in the end, there is just our experience, and our reaction to it. Because, how do we know what God – or the universe – intends? How do we know that there even is an “intention” which our minds could possibly comprehend. I mean, this universe we live in is infinite. Infinite. How can I understand why I didn’t get what I wanted in an Infinite universe?

The more helpful question is, “How do I use this experience to go deeper into love. How do I use this experience to be a better person. How do I use it to become a more loving and peaceful presence in the world.” Love is the greatest healer. Love is how we heal our heartbreak. And Love is how we connect with God. The deeper and purer our Love, the deeper and purer our connection with God.

No matter what happens to us, no matter what losses and disappointments befall us, there is no way for us to ever be disconnected from Love . . . and therefore no way to be disconnected from God. Real happiness lies in expanding the Love in our hearts to the point that our individual thoughts of “I,” “my,” “me,” and “mine” just fall away . . . and we begin to focus our awareness more on “us,” and “we,” . . . on the bigger picture . . . the larger universe.

Again, that universe is infinite. And Love is Infinite. So we ultimately Love ourselves right out of our selfishness and egocentricity. We Love ourselves back into the Oneness . . . back into the unified field of Light from which we all came.

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