Continuing with the story of the sweat lodge, one of the elements that was very moving was the praying. As a person who doesn’t follow a Christian tradition, prayer has often seemed impossible for me to do. If I don’t have a god I believe in, how can I pray?
In the sweat lodge, I found that participants pray in many different ways. Some are Christian and pray to god, some pray to great spirit or creator, some pray to the spirits of the directions, or to the ancestors. The invitation is to pray, but there is no designated entity to whom we pray. For me this frees the act of prayer from its connection to Christianity, and allows the intention of the prayer to emerge more clearly. The act of praying opens one’s heart through having good wishes for the well-being of oneself or another.
In Buddhism, the practice of maitri or metta is similar; it is a prayer for oneself, others, and all beings to be happy and free from suffering. This type of practice is usually done in stages, beginning with oneself, and moving on to those we feel appreciation towards, friends and family, those we are neutral towards, those we find difficult, and then towards all beings.
In the sweat lodge, I didn’t consciously choose this progression of people to pray for, but found myself spontaneously praying for a friend who was dying of cancer, and then members of my family, people I had fasted with, and my spiritual teachers. I felt moved to be praying for people and expressing my caring for them in this way, but what was really astonishing was when I prayed for people that I had a problem with. By allowing myself to feel caring for the health and well-being of people whom I felt had hurt me, my heart opened in a new and surprising way. I felt myself to be much bigger than the small, hurt self I had taken myself to be in the interaction when I felt hurt. Instead, I was a more expansive being who was big enough to offer prayer for my teachers! And from this expansive place, forgiveness occurred. Later I noticed a shift in my feelings towards those I felt had hurt me; the reactive charge was gone.
This remarkable, unforeseen outcome of prayer was one of the many gifts I received in the sweat lodge.
Here is a prayer for at the end of life, or perhaps for when one faces the symbolic death of the vision fast:
when we face the sunset
when we come singing
the last song, may it be
without shame, singing
“It is finished in beauty,
it is finished in beauty!”
- Evelyn Eaton, I Send a Voice