A Spiritual Mystery: Does God Listen to Prayers? (Part III)


Editors Note: Read Part 1 and Part 2 of the series, “A Spiritual Mystery: Does God Listen to Prayers?"

It may sound odd at first, but there are ways to improve the chances that God will answer your prayer. In the first and second post in this series, we saw that the whole subject of prayer is filled with assumptions and preconceptions. Once they are cleared away, a prayer turns out to be a special kind of intention. Therefore, the rules that apply to intentions, which are rules about consciousness, apply. Your prayer will be answered, or not, depending on events happening out of sight - but not out of mind. The mind furnishes the mechanics of making any intention come true.

This quick summary will raise eyebrows if someone denies that the inner and outer worlds are connected. (See the first and second posts in this series for the reasoning behind the union of these two domains of reality.) The world's wisdom traditions don't run into this obstacle, which is peculiar to modern materialism. Yet in a way it's good to start with a blank slate. What makes any intention come true? Three vital elements are at work, as mentioned in the first post of this series:

  1. How deep into the mind is the intention coming from?
  2. How steady is your focus?
  3. How fluid is your intention?

When you perfect these three things, the power of intention becomes real and useful. This is the teaching of Samyama, as it is described in Sanskrit. Let me treat each element in the way Vedanta prescribes.

Depth of Awareness Is Samadhi

Like a river that runs fast on the surface but much more slowly near the bottom, the mind is conceived of as both active and still, even though it's the same mind. The stillness is present, for example, in the space between thoughts. When you are accustomed to experiencing your mind only through activity (i.e., sensations, images, feelings, and thoughts), the silent source of the mind has been missed. The whole point of Eastern meditation practices is to reacquaint a person with this source. The more often you dive into silent mind, the deeper your intentions are coming from when you aren't meditating.

What helps Samadhi:

  • Meditation
  • Calm, peaceful surroundings
  • Lack of mental agitation
  • Absence of stress
  • Minimal distractions
  • Self-acceptance
  • Self-awareness

What hurts Samadhi: the opposite of the above

Steady Mental Focus Is Dharana

Calling up an intention is natural to everyone's mind. The key is that the intention be one-pointed, that is, your desire doesn't conflict with other desires or get dissipated in mental restlessness. To be alert, sharp, and clear should be the goal. This isn't accomplished overnight, and yet there is nothing exotic to learn. We've all experienced moments of knowing exactly what we want and never losing focus as long as our desire holds our attention.

What helps Dharana:

  • Clear thinking
  • Acting purposefully
  • Not losing sight of the goal
  • Confidence
  • The ability to stick with a mental task
  • Follow-through
  • Diligence

What hurts Dharana:

  • Multi-tasking
  • Mental confusion
  • Conflicted desires
  • Lack of self-knowledge
  • Fantasy and daydreaming
  • Short attention span
  • A craving to escape the self

Fluid Awareness Is Dhyana

Although all the elements behind intention come naturally and are part of everyone's mental makeup, there is a seeming contradiction between holding a steady focus (Dharana) and being in a flexible, fluid state of mind (Dhyana). It's like asking water to be ice and liquid at the same time. But the mind isn't an object or substance. It exhibits complementary states that seem opposite but actually work together.

In this case, an open mind that can adapt to any response is compatible with steady focus. No better example exists than playing a video game, where the player is fiercely intent of scoring points but must be open to every surprising, unexpected event in order to reach a high score. In everyday life, a desire is one-pointed at its inception, but you let it go and await whatever response comes to you. There is a skill involved: Learning to view the world "out there" as responsive to the signals you send to it from "in here."

What helps Dhyana:

  • Being relaxed and easy
  • Mindfulness
  • Acceptance of things as they are
  • Putting a value on being
  • Trust
  • Believing in the wisdom of uncertainty
  • Allegiance to a higher level of intelligence that organizes reality

What hurts Dhyana:

  • Tension
  • Anticipation
  • Controlling yourself and others
  • Rigidity
  • Insistence on rules and routines
  • Obsession
  • Compulsive behavior
  • Inability to believe that the universe supports you

In these three elements, as you can see, lies a lifetime of potential unfolding into actuality. Every thought has the power of intention behind it. The only issue is how far you are willing to go to cooperate with this ability, to unearth its possibilities, and improve your skill at Samyama.

I've deviated from the Indian spiritual tradition by making the power of intention a natural aspect of the mind rather than an advanced, specialized ability that only yogis and swamis can attain. But this is in keeping with the spiritual principle I hold highest: All spiritual attainments are a birthright belonging to everyone. The greatest mysteries are answered by looking at ourselves, here and now.