This is a story about giving up on Spirit, and then realising it had never given up on me.
I went on pilgrimage last year, a week that would be one of the most astonishingly painful in my short life. It seemed like all of the pain and sadness over many years would collect into this one spiritual journey—a pilgrimage to the heart-center of the Buddhist world, Bodhgaya, where the Buddha attained enlightenment. I could only cry even more than I already was for the irony.
I didn’t believe anymore. There I was at Buddha’s holiest, most awakened place on earth and I didn’t believe anymore. Thousands of people thronged the site, thousands more prayers whispered around the sacred tree. But I stood there, peering through the gaps in the protective fence around the tree and feeling like it was nothing but bark.
How is it, I wondered, that I was here in the throbbing, chanting, enlightened field of Buddha’s heart and I felt like he wasn’t there? How is it, that after so many years of thinking myself a daughter of Buddha, I felt like he had pretty much gotten up off his seat under that tree and left even before I showed up?
The loss, dropping away, of anything should make you lighter, shouldn’t it? But realising that I had lost almost all my faith—in the Buddhas, in daily goodness, in the truths I’d so ardently believed in—was an unbearable stone-cold, stone-heavy weight.
I found myself here in one of the world’s most worshipped places and I did not know anymore what it meant to pray.
I didn’t know what to pray for.
Nor did I believe that Buddha even listened anymore, or that anyone did.
But here I was on a holy trip, in holy place so I tried, one last time, to just wish for something, anything. I exhaled out the only thing I could muster up from whatever tiny vestige of faith I still had, to whoever or whatever might have been listening:
“Please let things be okay.”
I didn’t have the energy or the tears left to wish for anything more than those five words.
At every new site we visited, where the Buddha did this, or that; where this miracle happened or that story would arise to inspire the faith of millions of seekers, I would try to buoy myself above that sinking heavy loss of faith by just repeating those words, again and again and again:
“Please just let things be okay.”
When I came home, I stopped praying. I could only look at my many Buddha statues and think, “Come on guys, how did you let it come to this?”
I began to think maybe none of them were really there after all; they’d all gotten up off their seats and left. I put my Buddhas into boxes and gave them all away.
That was a year ago.
Since then, since giving up a life-long heart connection with Buddha, I scrambled together whatever courage I had and chose to leave behind other painful things too. I lived with a nothing-faith for a year, like I was starting life all over again.
In a way I was. I started everything from scratch—friends, family, love, work, how to breathe and move and sleep. I didn’t wish for anything anymore, I didn’t pray. I just went from one day to another, putting one jenga block atop another and hoping they wouldn’t topple.
A few nights ago, as if in a sort of masochistic anniversary celebration, I remembered sitting in front of Buddha’s tree on that pilgrimage and seeing it as nothing but an empty, gnarled pillar of soil and bark. As I did, I also saw with a little surprise how big my own renewed tower of jenga blocks had become now. I’d rebuilt and rebuilt and rebuilt and here I was, almost myself again.
I realised, with a start, that things were okay after all, just as I’d wished for.
So I guess maybe Buddha, or someone, heard me through all that clutter and disbelief and the momentary anger. I guess he hadn’t left that spot tucked under the tree after all. I guess maybe he’d seen me through the gaps in the fence as I stared in at that empty seat, as I struggled and lost myself over and over again.
Spirit had always been there, even if Buddha wasn’t (or they are the same being really, aren’t they?). Even if I hadn’t believed in any of them anymore, even if I was just plain angry at them, even if I didn’t even know how to articulate anything anymore, Spirit was still there. At least enough to have just heard me ask for things to be okay.
So I realise now that prayer doesn’t have to be something grand and enormous. It doesn’t have to be about enlightenment or life-shattering realisations. It can be the very simplest of wishes.
For me, standing there in front of the Bodhi tree a year ago, the greatest, most profound thing I could come up with was to ask for “things to be okay”, not even knowing what “okay” would feel like.
In just asking for things to be okay, in this tiny request, I saw Spirit again, one year later; I saw that Buddha had never stopped listening.
It was the only thing I could have hoped for and, looking back on the last year, it was the biggest, most truthful prayer I’d ever made.
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Editor: Bryonie Wise
Photo: Author’s own