How do you take practice into life? A better question, I think, is this: how do you make your life your practice? Perhaps that is the difference between exoteric and esoteric practice. Exoteric practice is about finding solace in the vicissitudes of life. Esoteric practice is about finding a different relationship with life itself—a peace that passeth understanding even in the worst conditions that life has to offer.

In either case, one of the most effective methods I have found is to say a little prayer.

In the Tibetan tradition, there is no shortage of prayers. There are philosophical, invocational, emotional, metaphorical, instructional, aspirational, confessional, laudatory, supplicatory, and dedicatory prayers, to name just a few types. I could probably write an encyclopedia with all the different kinds of prayers.

Where to start? First, find a prayer that speaks to you. Here’s one that I like:

Give me energy for my heart to turn to the spiritual.
Give me energy for the spiritual to become a way.
Give me energy for this way to dispel confusion.
Give me energy for confusion to arise as wisdom.

The Tibetan master Gampopa composed this prayer in the 12th century. It has withstood the test of time, which is always a good sign.

Then pay attention to the translation. I have often belatedly become aware of unwitting biases in my own and other people’s translations. For example, earlier I translated Gampopa’s prayer this way:

Let my heart turn to practice.
Let practice become a path.
Let this path dissolve confusion. Let confusion become wisdom.

This interpretation moves the prayer from supplication toward aspiration. Other translators have made the aspiration specific, as in “May my heart turn to practice.” There’s nothing wrong with that per se, but aspiration and supplication are different kinds of prayer. In my earlier translation, I was biased toward aspiration, but the prayer is really one of supplication.

The essence of prayer is reaching out. Supplication is a way to reach out, but many people are uncomfortable with it. To whom or to what are we directing the supplication? This, perhaps, is the difference between aspiration and supplication. Aspiration is one way to reach out—you reach out by expressing your yearning. Supplication goes further. It is an action taken on the basis of that yearning—you are asking for something, something you don’t have or don’t know.

In this kind of prayer, you go to the edge of the world as you know it and reach out. You reach out to what is beyond what you currently know. This reaching out is the first step in making a connection with what you yearn to know, but do not know. When you reach out, you step into the unknown, and you meet the hesitation, unwillingness, and raw fear that you encounter when you go beyond the confines of your conditioning. That’s where practice becomes real.

The next step is to learn what the prayer means and commit it to memory. Most of these prayers have multiple layers of meaning that reveal themselves over time and as your practice evolves. Still, one has to start somewhere.

***

Give me energy for my heart to turn to the spiritual.

This line is often translated as “May my mind turn to the dharma” and is usually interpreted as being about renunciation. Many years ago, in a conversation with Trungpa Rinpoche, I was a little surprised to learn that he had translated dharma as “spiritual,” but it made sense. The word dharma occupies a similar linguistic niche in Tibetan that the word spiritual occupies in English.

Next, is it about the mind or about the heart? The distinction is much sharper in modern English than it is in classical Tibetan. In Western culture, we tend to favor mind over heart, the rational over the emotional. Also, in today’s world it is hard not to be influenced by the brain-centric theories of modern neurology and cognition. When it comes to our own relationship with the spiritual, this line may be more about letting our hearts guide us rather than our minds. Finally, is it about renunciation or about a calling? Gampopa is describing a turning toward something, not a turning away. So: give me energy for my heart to turn to the spiritual.

Give me energy for the spiritual to become a way.

The spiritual becomes a way of life when it becomes part of you. It becomes part of you when you put your heart into it. Your head is not enough. When you put your heart into it, there is no turning back. You have started on a way. Over time, the spiritual becomes the way you live, and the question about how you take practice into your life is answered.

Give me energy for this way to dispel confusion.

Spiritual practice puts us in touch with anything and everything that creates confusion in our lives. As Trungpa Rinpoche once said, practice is one insult after another. If it isn’t, something is wrong. Then we have to face the next question. What do we do with all that confusion? Suzuki Roshi said it so well in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind: we use our very imperfections to find the basis for our firm, way-seeking mind. In other words, as we work through our imperfections, we gain a little clarity here, a little clarity there, and a way takes shape at our feet.

Give me energy for confusion to arise as wisdom.

At first, it is all about dispelling— clarity instead of confusion, bliss instead of pain, stillness instead of agitation, silence instead of noise, openness instead of occlusion, peace instead of disturbance, emptiness instead of everything else. Then out of the blue we discover that we can experience clarity in confusion, stillness in movement, silence in sound, and so on. How is that possible? It doesn’t make rational sense. But at another level it makes complete sense. Somehow we have stepped beyond the conceptual mind and found a peace that passeth understanding. We have found what it means to be free—a completely different way of experiencing life, the universe, everything. In that freedom, we find wisdom.

Finally, make the prayer a part of you and let it work its magic. Turn to it regularly, not only as a way to express your spiritual yearning and deepen your connection with what you yearn for, but also as a way to take you to the edge of what you know and step beyond.

Each of the shifts I describe here— turning to the spiritual, the spiritual becoming a way in life, that way dispelling confusion, and confusion arising as wisdom—comes about because at each stage we reached out to what was beyond what we currently know. Meditation builds the energy and opens possibilities. But the reaching out? That is more the domain of prayer. Through prayer, we reach out to what is beyond our control, to what is beyond our sense of self, to the mystery of life itself.

So—say a little prayer.

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