44 - The Value of Buddhist Prayer Part 2: Aid-Seeking If There’s No God
46 - Dogen’s Genjokoan Part 5: Birds Fly, Fish Swim, a Zen Master Waves a Fan

In this 3rd episode of three on Buddhist prayer, I talk about how prayer for personal transformation and change. I discuss why change is so hard, how both Buddhism and science suggest “executive control” is an illusion, and how prayer can be a skillful “end run” around our internal resistance.

Read/listen to Buddhist Prayer Part 1 or Part 2

 

 

Quicklinks to Transcript Content:
Change Is Hard
Who’s in Charge, Anyway? The View of Science
There’s No “You” In Charge: The View of Buddhism
Momentary Opportunities to Make a Different Choice
Buddhist Change: Inputs into a Complex System
The Shortcomings of Willpower
Prayer as an End Run Around Internal Resistance
How to Pray for Personal Transformation
Changing What We Will (or Most Want)

 

This is the third episode in my three-part series on Buddhist prayer. In the first episode I talked about prayer addressed to God, gods, or supernatural beings, and how such prayer fits in the Buddhist tradition even though it’s fundamentally nontheistic. I also discussed prayer that expresses gratitude for, or devotion to, what a Buddhist considers sacred – as a practice meant to positively affect the person offering the prayer, as opposed to an obligation to a greater power. In the second episode I talked about prayer for positive physical or external results.

This episode also deals with Buddhist prayer for positive results, but now I’m focusing on prayer for personal transformation. Before I get to our actual discussion of prayer, however, I want to talk about how challenging personal change can be, and how our assumption about our conscious, executive control of change is challenged by both science and Buddhism. Then I’ll discuss how prayer can help.

Change Is Hard

When you want to make a positive change in your own mind, body, or behavior, how do you go about making it happen? In order to overcome an addiction, eat better, exercise more, decrease anger, or be more mindful in daily life, what do you do?

It’s pretty typical for people to formulate an intention to change, and then employ their will in order force things in a new direction. At first, most of us just expect ourselves to make different decisions at critical moments. Then, recognizing how difficult that usually is, we come up with some kind of plan. Maybe we state our intentions publicly, commit to a class, get a counselor or life coach, use an app, or read self-help books.

The sheer number of different offerings out there for helping us change speaks to how difficult the process of personal transformation can be. Whether we’re struggling with a life-threatening addiction or just hoping to be more appreciative of our daily life, some kind of force often seems to resist our efforts. Kyogen Carlson, one of my Zen teachers, used to point out that Newton’s third law of physical motion is ‘for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction,’ and that for some reason the same law seems to apply to our efforts to change. As soon as you create an intention to change, something in you rises up in opposition to that change. It’s usually a toss-up which side will win, for-the-change, or against-the-change.

The internal experience of trying to change ourselves can be terribly frustrating and confusing. As far as we can tell, there’s an executive “I” who’s in charge. “I” decide on the best course of action, and then “I” direct my mind and body in order to fulfill that course of action. Then, like annoying children, parts of myself will refuse to cooperate with “Executive I,” or even flagrantly disobey orders. Even though I have vowed on my very life never to do “X” again, my body, habit patterns, emotions, and who-knows-what-else propel me along a familiar path until suddenly, there I am again, doing “X.” What the heck? Who’s in charge here, anyway? I may feel discouraged, powerless, confused, or angry.

In response to this surreal internal mutiny, I may vehemently re-identify with “Executive I,” and give my other parts an abusive in-house tongue-lashing. Like a desperate parent, my “Executive I” usually tries anything to get my subordinate parts under control: repeating orders, lecturing, encouraging, promising rewards, or threatening punishments. Then, as soon as “Executive I” turns her back, things go to hell again. Faced with such a scenario repeatedly, many of us give up on change, or accept that it will continue to be a more or less fruitless struggle.

Who’s in Charge, Anyway? The View of Science

Both modern science and Buddhism suggest more or less the same the reason the “Executive I” approach to change rarely works the way we want it to: It’s an illusion that the “Executive I” is in charge. First, the conclusions of science: In the November 2017 issue of Frontiers in Psychology, research psychologists David Oakley and Peter Halligan published a “hypothesis and theory” article called “Chasing the Rainbow: The Non-conscious Nature of Being.”[i]  The authors write:

“Despite the compelling subjective experience of executive self-control, we argue that ‘consciousness’ contains no top-down control processes and that ‘consciousness’ involves no executive, causal, or controlling relationship with any of the familiar psychological processes conventionally attributed to it.”

Instead, Oakley and Halligan suggest, the contents of consciousness are generated by non-conscious brain systems, and result in a “self-referential personal narrative.” Neither the contents of consciousness nor our behavior are directed by the personal awareness that arises out of our narrative (what I’m calling “Executive I”). Personal awareness arises in the midst of all of this mental activity much like a rainbow appears in the sky due to particular physical conditions. Like a rainbow, personal awareness is a resultant phenomenon, not a force unto itself. Oakley and Halligan admit this awareness is useful in that it allows us to communicate our internal experience to other people, but it’s not in executive control the way we usually think it is.

Oakley and Halligan aren’t just speculating or philosophizing here; they cite tons of peer-reviewed research articles backing up their ideas. For example, the authors write,

“In the 1980’s powerful evidence emerged where it was shown that our intentions to act (deliberately make a motor movement) occurred later than the ongoing preparatory brain activity (readiness potentials) in motor systems of the brain (Libet et al., 1983). This implied that awareness of the decision to move and preparation of that movement was produced by prior non-conscious processes with the experience of conscious intention coming too late to be the initiator of the motor act.”

There’s No “You” In Charge: The View of Buddhism

I don’t know about you, but I find it pretty disconcerting to consider that my consciousness, or personal narrative, or “Executive I” – whatever you want to call it – is just an afterthought, while my mental processes, the contents of my consciousness, and my behavior are largely the result of non-conscious brain activity!

Fortunately, I have a framework for accepting and dealing with the idea that my executive control is an illusion, because Buddhism has challenged our idea of self from its beginnings. One of Shakyamuni Buddha’s main teachings was anatta, or not-self (I go into this teaching in detail in Episode 14 – The Three Marks and the Teaching of Not-Self (Anatta)). In brief, the Buddha taught that dukkha (stress, dissatisfaction, or suffering) is increased whenever we identify anything as “I, me, or mine.” Specifically, the practice of anatta, or not-self, means refraining from projecting any kind of inherent self-existence on anything, including all of the aspects of our being: body, sensations, perceptions, thoughts, feelings, volition, or consciousness.

Further, if you follow the Buddha’s teachings, you not only refrain from imputing self-nature to anything, you also refrain from speculating about the nature of self! (See Episode 14 for more on this.) In fact, there are a whole list of philosophical questions the Buddha recommends we completely put aside as “questions that do not tend to edification,” which are questions we’ll probably never figure out the answer to, and, in addition, aren’t worth our time and effort because even if we got the answers, they wouldn’t relieve our suffering or bring about happiness or spiritual growth. Questions that do not tend to edification include those that naturally arise as a result of our efforts to change, and the research on the illusion of executive control: Who’s in charge, here? Do we have free will at all? If our lives are the results of non-conscious brain activity, does personal change happen on its own or not at all, and there’s nothing we can do to affect the outcome?

Momentary Opportunities to Make a Different Choice

Rather than get lost in philosophical speculation, Buddhism encourages us to carefully observe our own, direct experience, and find our way to positive change, and even transformation. Through meditation and mindfulness, we start noticing what actions have positive effects, and which ones have negative effects. Instead of just trying to change in the same old ways that have failed us, we investigate: What actually seems to help? Where in our mental processes does it seem like we can insert influence, or make a different choice than we usually do?

With diligent practice, eventually we become much more conscious of, and sensitive to, the unfolding processes of our minds. It feels as if we manage to slow things down… to become conscious before we act (and in this sense an “action” can be physical or mental). A space seems to appear before the chain of causation continues – a moment of opportunity and choice, where something new can happen. In her book on the Buddhist precepts,[ii] Zen teacher Diane Rizzetto describes this moment of choice as a “dead spot,” which is how trapeze artists talk about the short pause at the top of the arc of a swing, just before the trapeze starts falling down again. Apparently, it’s right in that “dead spot” where trapeze artists do most of their tricks. Similarly, in the experience of Buddhist practitioners, when we can notice and take advantage of the “dead spots” in course of our activities, we have a chance to change.

It may seem strange, but according to Buddhism it really doesn’t matter who’s in charge in some absolute or objective sense. Maybe the dead spot, that moment of opportunity to make a fresh new choice, feels like free will, but it’s actually just a completely preconditioned unfolding of events. That may sound kind of depressing, but another way to look at is to see that preconditioned unfolding of events as a manifestation of our Buddha nature, or the Ineffable, or some greater order in the universe that leads us gradually away from suffering toward greater wisdom and happiness. Wherever the impetus to change ultimately arises, it does matter what we do.

Anyway, I kind of digress, but the whole question of free will is pretty fascinating, even if it is a question that doesn’t tend to edification.

Buddhist Change: Inputs into a Complex System

The main point here is that, according to Buddhism, we can change. A lot. In fact, much more than most of us even dream of changing. But, at the same time, it’s not helpful to imagine there’s an “Executive I” in charge of our lives, and identify it as “self.” How are we supposed to change, if not through sheer force of will (will administered, of course, by “Executive I”)?

Buddhism offers a whole host of tools for change – meditation, mindfulness, studying teachings, participating in community, making vows, doing rituals, etc. – and most of them are what I’d call “back door” approaches to change. In other words, they aren’t about the “Executive I” deciding how things should be and imposing that decision on our body and mind. Instead, Buddhist practices are about influencing our whole stream of causation in fairly gradual and subtle ways, until everything shifts: Our bodies, emotions, desires, the typical content of our minds, the pace and nature of our mental processes, our background assumptions about life, our habit energies, our sense of ourselves, etc.

You might think of the Buddhist approach to change this way: Each of us is a complicated biophysical system. As modern research is pointing out, much of our functioning is non-conscious. We’re affected by an infinite number of things outside of our control, including our genetics, upbringing, culture, past experiences, the weather, the biochemistry of our brain, and other people. However, there are significant, if relatively small and few, places for fresh and deliberate input into the system. There are moments throughout every day where we have a chance to make a conscious choice to move things in a new direction. Everything we do has some effect, even if it’s very small, so everything we do matters.

The Shortcomings of Willpower

This is where Buddhist prayer for personal transformation comes in. Such prayer can be a powerfully effective way to bring about positive change without getting trapped in the delusion of executive control. Prayer can provide beneficial input into our complex biophysical system even when – or especially when – the “I” we assume is in charge seems utterly powerless.

To understand how prayer affects us, it’s helpful to further examine the matter of willpower. If you can bring about change through sheer force of will, that’s great – go ahead and use that approach. It tends to be the quickest and most direct method. However, if will isn’t enough, or if it stops working after a while, it’s generally because you have conflicting desires. You may strongly identify with the part of you that is determined to improve your diet (“I” want to eat better), but the part of you that craves another big piece of cake may win out with surprising regularity. Part of us aspires to concentrate during meditation in order to awaken to our life, but obviously another part prefers to think about stuff, even if it’s just rehashing the plot of a TV show we saw last night. Part of us wants more than anything to end the cycle of anger in our relationships, but some volatile part of us is no less quick to rage than it ever was.

German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer famously wrote, “Man can do what he wills but he cannot will what he wills.” If we truly want to do something, there’s no stopping us. We can make incredible efforts and remarkable sacrifices. But if we have conflicting desires, no matter how determined the righteous part of us is, it often seems powerless to change the parts that are caught up in the throes of craving, aversion, or delusion. In other words, through sheer force of will, one part of us rarely seems able to change what another part wills. From a Buddhist point of view this makes sense, because neither part is – in any inherently real, independent sense – you. Your volition belongs just as much to your unruly parts as to your righteous parts, so your effort to change can be like a war being fought within, employing a single army. The struggle is doomed to be a standoff.

Prayer as an End Run Around Internal Resistance

The good news is the wiser parts of ourselves – the parts that sincerely aspire toward things like wisdom, balance, health, or compassion – can still guide us, just not as directly and quickly as we might hope. Rather than getting caught up in the usually-futile internal struggle to change, we can look around for gentler, subtler, indirect ways to influence what’s going on. In Buddhism, this is called using “skillful means,” or upaya. Instead of dwelling on what theoretically should work, we honestly assess what’s actually going to work. Sometimes we get so fixated on our cultural narrative about the nobility and power of executive control and personal will, we refuse to consider any other approaches. If we really, truly want to change, we may need to consider an “end run” around our internal resistance.

One way to influence our lives without creating too much internal conflict is through prayer. Whenever we sincerely pray for personal change, we provide a little positive input to the complex biophysical system that we are, and then see what happens over time. In my own experience, this approach can start shifting aspects of ourselves that have seemed impervious to change for a long time.

Praying for positive personal change is an important aspect Alcoholic Anonymous, where participants start with an acknowledgement they are powerless over their relationship to alcohol. Of course, what they mean by this is that trying to change by relying on executive control or force of will does not work well for them with respect to alcohol, and they aren’t going to count on that approach anymore. However, someone in AA is obviously hopeful they can change, or they wouldn’t be in the program. Instead of relying on sheer willpower, they employ other skillful means to help – including reliance on a “higher power.” For some people, this is God, but it’s possible to engage this step in AA without conceiving of a self-existent, wish-granting higher power. What matters is the orientation away from belief in executive self-control, while actively seeking to awaken, strengthen, maintain, and remember one’s desire for sobriety.

How to Pray for Personal Transformation

So, how do we go about Buddhist prayer for personal transformation? First, we conceive of what it is we deeply desire. It might be health, peace of mind, spiritual insight, equanimity, intimacy, or freedom from addiction. We call what we desire to mind, perhaps even imagining what it might look or feel like if that desire was fulfilled, and connect with the part of us that sincerely longs for that outcome.

Then we acknowledge our wish while admitting to ourselves we are limited in our ability to directly bring it about through force of will. Typically, in Buddhist prayer, we say something (silently or out loud), starting with the words, “May I.” For example, “May I be free from fear or anxiety.” Or, “May I be mindful and appreciative of my life.” Humble but determined, we open up to the mystery of our lives and trust our prayer to have some effect. We ask for something to happen. Who are we asking? Is there anyone, or anything, outside of us, with the power to respond to our prayer? It doesn’t matter. It’s our internal attitude that counts. In a sense, we’re asking ourselves – and what a refreshing and compassionate way to relate to the different parts of ourselves, instead of waging internal battles!

Prayer is about a direction we want to go, so it’s important to pray for something positive and inspiring, even ambitious or ideal. If the subject of our prayer is too concrete, limited, self-centered, or mundane, it’s more likely to trigger goal-seeking and expectation, and not have much positive effect. For example, let’s say you’re one of the many people who want to lose some weight. It might help to pray that you’ll be able to do that, but it will probably be more effective if you identify the deeper aspirations that lie behind the desire to lose weight. Maybe you want to take care of your health so you can live long enough to see your grandkids grow up, or to complete a creative project. Maybe you want to have a more respectful and caring relationship with your body, instead of burdening it with calories it doesn’t need.

The kind of prayer I’m talking about here needs to be about what you have the potential to influence through your own choices. In other words, this is about improving the chances you’ll be able to recognize and take advantage of those moments I discussed earlier: Those “dead spots,” where there’s an opening in the flow of events and reactions, and we’re presented with an opportunity to do things differently. Therefore, rather than praying to recover from an illness (hoping for a physical effect largely out of our control), we pray to find strength, equanimity, and joy in the midst of our illness (which may, of course, allow us to recover more quickly). Rather than praying for someone else to stop acting in ways that upset us, we might pray to strengthen our connection to our own sense of self-sufficiency and worth so we aren’t so vulnerable to the opinions of others. (This isn’t to say it’s wrong to pray for physical or external results as a Buddhist, as I discussed in the last two episodes on prayer, it’s just not the kind of prayer I’m talking about here.)

Changing What We Will (or Most Want)

Each moment we spend in touch with our desire for change strengthens it and makes it a bigger part of our life. We end up thinking of our aspiration more often. We build up a habit of operating from a place of openness and sincerity, rather taking either a punitive, righteous stance, or a resistant, self-indulgent one.

For example, in my own life, I have struggled with attachment to thinking. Even in meditation I’ll often just be thinking about podcast episodes or other projects. Willing myself to let go of thinking, even for a little while, rarely helps. Instead, lately, whenever I find myself caught up in thought when I aspire to be sitting zazen or practicing mindfulness, I’ve been praying, “In order to receive the gift of this moment, may I abandon all aimless thinking.” I recall what it’s like to be present for what’s going in each moment of my life – feeling my breathing, hearing bird song, being aware I’m alive. I value that way of being, and want to spend more of my time operating like that.

In my prayer, I connect with my sincere desire to let go of thinking and be receptive: May it happen. But then I have to be very careful not to make my prayer into a tool wielded by my “Executive I” in order to get its way. As soon as I start doing that – as soon as impatience and will start creeping in, as soon as I’m prayer in order to discipline my unruly mind – the prayer feels dead and ineffective. I have to back off and emphasize the “asking” part of prayer. Strangely, the asking doesn’t feel passive – it just feels more realistic.

Prayer isn’t the only way to affect personal transformation or change, but I like to think it’s one constructive response to the conundrum, “Man can do what he wills but he cannot will what he wills.” With practice, we may not be able to change what it is we will with our will – that is, we may not manage to get one conflicting desire to win out over another one through exerting our (illusory) executive control – but we can change what we will, gradually, through a practice like prayer.


[i] Oakley David A., Halligan Peter W. Chasing the Rainbow: The Non-conscious Nature of Being. Frontiers in Psychology: Volume 8. 2017. https://www.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01924

[ii] Rizzetto, Diane Eshin. Waking up to What You Do: A Zen Practice for Meeting Every Situation with Intelligence and Compassion. Boston, Massachusetts: Shambala Publications, 2005.

 

44 - The Value of Buddhist Prayer Part 2: Aid-Seeking If There’s No God
46 - Dogen’s Genjokoan Part 5: Birds Fly, Fish Swim, a Zen Master Waves a Fan
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