In 2005 (or 2006 – I don’t quite remember) I went to a retreat/conference for UU Buddhists. It was a wonderful gathering. John Daido Loori, who was the Abbot of the Zen Mountain Monastery, gave a talk in which he described this triad, or three legs to the stool of practice: great faith, great doubt, and great determination.
Being the Buddhist/Christian hybrid that I am, I think of these three a little differently than he did. And I would argue that these three are critical to a truly spiritual life, whatever one’s particular tradition.
For faith, I’ll just let Abraham Joshua Heschel speak for me:
Faith is sensitiveness to what transcends nature, knowledge, and will, awareness of the ultimate, alertness to the holy dimension of all reality… To have faith is not to infer the beyond from the wretched here, but to perceive the wonder that is here and to be stirred by the desire to integrate the self into the holy order of living. It is not a deduction but an intuition, not a form of knowledge, of being convinced without proof, but the attitude of mind toward ideas whose scope is wider than its own capacity to grasp.
Despair is a common emotion, and a very familiar one to me. It’s one of those strong ones – the ones that carry you away, in this case, downward into a place that feels impossible to get out of. Despair is an emotion that saps your energy and strength, and makes everything seem completely impossible.
Despair sometimes comes because of grief and loss. Sometimes it comes because we really are in a place of desperation – our life feels somehow unlivable. And sometimes, it just comes, for no good reason at all it seems, to visit with us.
The good news is that suffering because of despair is unnecessary. Yeah, I know – especially if you feel despair, that sentence seems completely… well, completely unbelievable. And there are many times when I would agree. But I do know differently.
Despair comes from the belief that nothing we can do will change how we feel, or the situation we’re in.
First, we can’t just change how we feel by force of will. That’s not how it works. How it works is that instead of plunging in, and being despair, we need to know the despair, and accept it for what it is. Don’t try to change it, or put it away, or fight it. Let it be what it is. Oddly, that is when the despair can shift.
There is always something we can do to change our situation, even though it might seem impossible. Sometimes, that thing is just to learn to be with the situation. Learn to not be averse to it, to not want it to change, also accept it for what it is. And sometimes, we need to change the situation – but getting distance from our despair is a necessary step.
And getting distance from despair requires practice – the practice of awareness, of noticing, and accepting what is.
So what about prayer? I happen not to believe in a micro-managing God. I don’t actually think that God is “looking down” at me, and is going to magically make things better (for me or for anyone else) if I pray about it. But that doesn’t take away from the power of prayer. The amazing, creative, compassionate, loving force called God moves us in the direction of our best, highest selves, and prayer is like oars or paddles for that stream. And like oars take you further down the stream in a real river, prayer transforms us, and takes us, and the people we love, further down the divine stream.