The Liberating Art of Making Aspirations and Prayers
What is aspiration and prayer?
The word “aspiration” means to dream, to wish, to consider. When we make an aspiration we set ourselves in motion in the direction of our intentions. It’s like riding a bicycle--wherever we gaze, the bike tends to steer in that direction. Like that, by consciously making an aspiration we steer our life and efforts in the direction of our dreams, our wishes; in other words, our aspirations help us bring our actions and our deepest intentions into harmony.
Aspirations are similar to prayers but there is a small difference between the two. When we pray there is a sense of asking, while an aspiration has to do with stating our vision and commitment to something. When we pray, we don’t necessarily have to know who we are praying to. Our prayer may just be a recognition that we are part of a system of interdependent relationships, acknowledging that none of us act alone in life; we acknowledge that we need others, and sometimes we need help from the world. Prayer is a humble and intelligent way of asking for support for our aspirations and recognizing that we are not in total command of our world. Prayer, asking for help, is also a recognition that life is rich with resources for the aid of achieving our aspirations.
Aspirations have many functions. One function of aspiration is to habituate the mind in a positive direction. For instance, we might feel stuck and indifferent and want to change the way we see our life and relate to others. So we just put our aspiration out there: “I aspire to be less reactive and more loving.” We might not even know how to make that happen. Our heart may still feel like a dry seed even after making the aspiration. But if we think about it, just the longing to open the heart and connect with others is something noble. We can let ourselves feel touched by that very noble longing. Then, when we slip up and get reactive, as we sometimes do (don’t worry!), we will be reminded of our aspiration, our longing for how we want to change. If we continue making our aspiration, at some point we will become so aware of our habit of being reactive and how painful it is that the next time the opportunity arises, we will go against our habitual momentum of reactivity and make the effort to be less reactive and more loving than we have been in the past; as a result, our habitual mind of reactivity will begin to decrease so that our positive qualities can naturally blossom, without effort.
We may also want to combine aspiration and prayer and make aspirations and prayers for others welfare. This practice is particularly useful when we encounter something painful that we wish we could change but the situation seems so overwhelming we don’t even know where to begin. For example, the other day I was driving from Crestone to Boulder and passed three trucks full of livestock. Two of them carried cows and the other sheep. The walls of the trucks were not solid but had round holes so the air could get in and the animals wouldn’t suffocate. They were squeezed tightly together but you could see parts of them: their tense muscles struggling to find balance with the movement of the truck, a tuft of their beautiful thick hair, their eyes so full of fear.
As in this situation, sometimes the only thing we can do is bear witness to the suffering of others and, in that moment, make aspirations and prayers: “May these cows and sheep find ease, may they find solace in some way, may their situation change for the better in this life or the next.” To simply notice and care for others, to be willing to feel the pain of others and make prayers and aspirations on their behalf is a tremendous contribution to our world where it is so easy to pass by the suffering of others, particularly the suffering of animals, and not let it touch us.
As I continued to drive through the expansive mountain valley, I also saw animals frolicking in open pastures; they were full of unselfconscious joy. I made another aspiration: “May all animals find themselves in open green pastures where they don’t have to worry about food and don’t fear for their lives.”
When we make such aspirations we might recognize a spark of warmth in ourselves, a little goodness while making such an aspiration—a little opening which is a crack in our ordinary indifferent mode of being. Through this crack a bit of light shines through. There is movement out of our ordinary indifferent mindset, which sets us in a positive direction. This is because our actions followed the movement of our intentions to be more open, less reactive.
How to craft an aspiration?
Let’s consider how to craft an aspiration or prayer. Often, when people send in prayer requests or aspirations to our group practices, it is phrased like this: “Please pray for my friend who has terminal cancer” or “Please pray for all those beings who are struggling with addiction.” A way of phrasing an aspiration is by beginning it with “may”. Here is an example of an aspiration I recently wrote:
May all fragile things be protected.
May delicate insects and plants find refuge from destructive forces and be nourished with supportive elements.
May living beings on the edge of extinction thrive and find safe and hospitable refuges.
May the wisdom-holders of indigenous cultures be protected and may their wisdom lineages flourish.
May all children, the elderly, and the physically infirm, find loving and respectful caretakers.
When I look at anyone—regardless of their race, gender, color, religion, or belief systems—may I regard them with kindness and respect.
May I be the keeper of my brother and sister living beings and cherish and protect them in any way I can.
It is helpful to be both specific and inclusive. For instance, if you know someone who is in prison and suffering from depression you can (but don’t have to) mention their name, how they are suffering, and also include all those who are suffering in prison to likewise become free of their depression and suffering. You may notice that to describe a situation just a bit will help you and others connect on a deeper level to the prayer. For instance, you may write: “I saw an old man sitting in a cafe and he looked so lonely. Please pray that he finds some care and companionship! May all elders find security and love!”
An opportunity to make a prayer request
Twice a year the practitioners of the Samten Ling Retreat Center (the retreat place of Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche in Crestone) will enter into a period of intensive group practice and prayer. During our practice sessions we traditionally collect and include prayer requests, which we read aloud each day and take into our hearts and practice. These can be individual requests (for instance, for a family member who is ill, for someone who has passed away, or for someone who simply needs support), or they can be requests for the wellbeing of the town in which you live or the world at large. If the request concerns an individual it is stronger to have a name. However, if the situation is personal, it is fine to keep the request anonymous.
Keep an eye out for announcements of the intensive practice programs. Announcements are usually made thorough email and on social media.