I recently prayed – after not praying for more than sixteen years (here’s that post if you’d like to read it).

At the time, I was sicker than I ever have been, so thoroughly overcome by rushes of pain that I couldn’t speak or even cry while I was in their grips. I was nervously awaiting the results of the tests my doctor had run, the kind that had the potential to change my life and my future. And none of my loved ones or closest friends were even in the same state at the time. I was suffering and scared and alone.

So I prayed.

It was awkward. And shocking. And confusing. And, yes, still lonely. I’ve been a student of Buddhism for a decade now, and I never thought I would pray again.

What I’ve been thinking about since that moment of prayer is what an act of hypocrisy it was for me. Not because of the act itself; Buddhism and prayer are not necessarily mutually exclusive. It’s the why that’s been nagging at me. Why did I pray? I didn’t have an epiphany or find faith in Western ideals of God; I prayed out of suffering and fear and desperation. I prayed because I couldn’t meditate at the time. I prayed because, in that moment, I felt I had nothing else. I prayed because it was the only crutch in reaching distance. And that’s the wrong reason to pray.

Don’t get me wrong, I do believe each of us should embrace whatever it is that makes us feel better when things are bad, whether it’s prayer, meditation, an hour with a psychologist or an ice cream sundae. But resorting to religion only during times of trial isn’t being religious; it’s scrambling for a foothold.

If prayer worked for me, it wouldn’t take debilitating illness for me to embrace it; I’d also be praying in times of joy and gratitude, wouldn’t I? Religion – any religion - isn’t meant to be used piecemeal. Religion is meant to be braided throughout the weave of who we are, every day: our thoughts, actions, values and lifestyle should be a reflection of that very place in which we find our strength and faith.

The answer, then, doesn’t lie in where we go during times of trial – because, when pushed, when desperate, we’ll go anywhere. The answer lies in where we’re willing to go when things are good, when we’re in the throes of love and celebration. In that place is where we’ll find our personal truth, where we’ll find the religion that speaks to us and gets us wanting to speak back.

Religion should be a conscious choice. Not a fling. Not an insurance policy. And most definitely not a crutch.

There is an old saying that hospitals hear more prayers than churches. I’m sure it’s true. I’m proof that it’s true. But the prayers said from pillows in the calm of morning, the prayers said before family dinners, the prayers said over first kisses and California sunsets and clinking champagne glasses – those are the ones that bring truth and guidance to our lives.

My form of prayer is usually meditation. I meditate when I’m nervous or confused or angry, yes. But I meditate most often out of joy, out of breathtaking gratitude for loved ones and the beauty of the world and the brilliant mechanics of this body of mine, taking in and letting out breath after breath so my heart can beat on, and love more, and create more. That’s my truth, and it’s not a crutch.

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