When I was a little girl we prayed every night. My mom would tuck us in, me and my sister, and we would begin a litany of prayers in a sing-song rhythm, with a bit of pomp as my mother fluffed up our comforters and then padded us in like peas in a pod.
Our Father who art in heaven…
Hail Mary full of grace…
Now I lay me down to sleep I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
… if I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.
This last one always scared me whenever I stopped to think about it later. Could I die in my sleep? Grandma Kee did and I supposed any of us might never wake up. That made me sad and I would cry some nights. Having lived many decades now, I find comfort in the idea of a quiet passing (someday). But back then we would finish the rounds with barely a pause, “God bless Mommy, Daddy, Tara, Tina” … all our family, friends, our dogs, alive and deceased. We also included our stuffed animals and baby dolls who were tucked in along with us. We always ended with a German phrase: Schlaf gut, und träum süß (Sleep well and sweet dreams).
All told, this ritual was rather inclusive for a child’s mind. (We covered the starving children around the world with grace at dinnertime.)
Eventually, I outgrew the evening blessings. Yet, prayer has always wound its way back to me in some form or another. A nightly ritual with my young girls included the required reading of Goodnight Moon or The Runaway Bunny, along with the grand German tuck-in and a sweet dreams. In recent years, I’ve practiced loving-kindness meditation, which is a blessing of sorts. It has all the components of my childhood ritual of repetition of well wishing. With loving-kindness phrases I direct blessings toward myself, my loved ones, a benefactor, people outside my tiny tribe, those who are difficult (or with whom I struggle), and the rest of humanity. A large circle of caring. Music can also serve as this kind of expansive blessing. Just listen to Mary Gauthier’s heart opener Mercy Now. The difference is that I now dwell in the comfort of being part of a divine source, a universal alchemy of love, rather than praying to a separate god.
My mom, Omi, now in her 80s, will not let me forget about Jesus. As if I ever could—or would even want to. A few weeks ago I was on a 7-day silent retreat at Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts. I am not Buddhist, but I appreciate Buddhist psychology and mindfulness practices. These teachings are an important part of my orientation toward life and the healing arts. During the retreat I gave up my iPhone. I was able to forgo my birthday and mother’s day. But just before I Ieft home my mother sent me a small gift, lest I forget my upbringing: A silver keychain, engraved with “Find Peace in His Presence.” It was, of course, blessed by her local priest. She added a sticky note with a reminder to attach it to my car keys.
This is very much like my mother. Earlier, when she could comfortably drive long distances and visit us, many tokens would appear: small bottles of holy water next to the toothpaste holder, medals of Mother Mary or St. Christopher in our coat pockets, prayer cards of various saints left at my children’s bedsides, and an assortment of angel ornaments and glow-in-the-dark rosaries.
To her credit she slowly became more tolerant of my “diversity” in spiritual thinking. In my home office, I have a small antique chest, an altar of sorts, as well as a fireplace mantle. On it are statues of the Virgin Mary, Nepali Goddess Tara, and a Buddhist bodhisattva Kuan Yin (all feminine deities of compassion and wisdom), along with a Buddha and a Christian cross. When she read my book, The Kindness Cure, she hoped that I would have included the word of God. The quotes from Father Gregory Boyle, Mother Teresa, or St. Francis didn’t quite cut it for her. That’s ok. She has an unwavering faith, perhaps even for my conversion back to family tradition.
Faith, it so happened, was a theme of the silent retreat. One of the guiding teachers, Kamala Masters, offered a beautiful evening talk. These dharma talks are like bedtime stories. She described faith as a kind of “coming back” home. She was raised Catholic, too. When she was in her 50s she trained as a Buddhist nun in Burma for a year when her grown children had left home. It was a promise to herself to go deeper. Rather than look for strength outside herself, she began to look for strength from within, for an experience of compassion that was not just about sacrifice and caring for others but about inner connection and self-compassion. I found her to be incredibly brave. When I was in her presence I thought, “Mom would like her.”
During the retreat we had been on a schedule of repetitions: walking, sitting, walking, sitting. Day after day, 5:30am to 9:30pm. My body was in pain by midweek, my butt bones bruised and my back muscles flared in spasms from an old injury. I found myself standing rather than sitting for a good part of the the week. These were moments that drew my focus to pain, a litany of complaints, stories of all sorts, and mental suffering. My attention was hijacked by an internal chaos that I’m usually too busy in real life to notice. (And my friends thought I would be having a relaxing week.)
There was some external relief during that retreat of virtual silence. Every afternoon a different guiding teacher taught an element of a loving-kindness meditation. It came at a tender part in the day, in the late afternoon, when I was on the brink of exhaustion or boredom.
Kamala Masters described a loving kindness meditation “like a gentle rain that falls on everyone, without exception.” I found great comfort in this. Whether I was immersed in my own dramas, or frustrated with people or situations in my life, or in the nation and world, seeing love like the spring rain outside of the hall melted away the physical and mental pain. At least for a few moments. Going through the rough part of this mindfulness practice—or life for that matter—is where we grow. When we direct kind attention or a loving awareness to all of our experiences we gain inner strengths and open our hearts. We bow to what’s difficult, as my teacher Jack Kornfield would say—to vulnerability, pain, oppression, anger, and all the uncomfortable emotions. We also open up to the beautiful emotions—gratitude, forgiveness, joy, pride, awe, love. Until the discomfort inevitably arises. And then? We begin again. And again. Coming back to the rhythm of breath or cadence of a heart beat or sound of rain.
Or, like the reassuring orbit of a moon.
Kamala Masters read a poem by one of my favorite living poets, David Whyte. I felt in that moment, a great gift was shared. Maybe it was the simplicity of dwelling in a poem after such extensive quiet time. It felt so rich and then it was gone.
I want to write about faith,
about the way the moon rises
over cold snow, night after night,
faithful even as it fades from fullness,
slowly becoming that last curving and impossible
sliver of light before the final darkness.
But I have no faith myself
I refuse it even the smallest entry.
Let this then, my small poem,
like a new moon, slender and barely open,
be the first prayer that opens me to faith.
⁓ David Whyte
After the reading I thought I could bear a few more rounds of walking and sitting. As the week unfolded, the bearing part melted away and tentatively transformed to bearing witness to my own experience. There happened to be a beautiful rising moon during that week in May. One clear evening, instead of the slow walking, I stood staring up for a long, long time. I thought of my girls when they were little. I thought of me and my sister.
I remembered then the rote prayers of my childhood. And of faith and love, patience and kindness. My mother’s mementos. All the rough patches. And how much of prayer is about faith or how faith is a kind of prayer—a common yearning for love, caring, hope, ease and peace—deep human needs that belong to us all.
Then it was time to tuck myself in.
Bring some self-compassion into your day: 21 Days of Kindness
Check out: The Little Deck of Kindfulness, a 57 day soul-care kit.
Photos: Tara Cousineau 2019