The wish-fulfilling tree is a mythical flowering shrub, said to grow in one of the many Hindu and Buddhist heavens. When you sit underneath it, the story goes, all your wishes come true. That’s the mythic version. There’s another, more sophisticated way to read the tale, though: as a metaphor. In that version, the wish-fulfilling tree is consciousness itself. Our own mind is a wish-fulfilling tree, which can bestow blessings on ourselves and, especially, on others.
Like many people who do spiritual practice, I ‘knew’ about the power we have to bless others long before it occurred to me to act on it. It had actually taken a big shift for me, in my modernist-rationalist twenties, to admit that there is such a thing as blessing and that it is possible to summon it through prayer. Ironically, it took an equally big shift to recognize my own natural power to offer effective blessings. The switch–call it a paradigm shift–happened one afternoon in an outdoor cafe in Cambridge, Massachusetts. A homeless man had staked out a spot on the sidewalk, from which he was cheerleading the passers-by. When a woman walked past he would say, “Ah, pretty woman!” When a man walked by he’d say, “Strong man!” He said these words mostly to the older people, the plain-looking women, the slightly geeky guys. Moreover, he spoke with such sweetness and conviction that his words seemed to carry a real benediction. For an hour, I watched him, seeing how people reacted with little amused, pleased smiles (and, of course, the occasional five-dollar bill). Maybe it was a scam, a new twist on panhandling. But the effect on the people who passed him was palpably uplifting. You felt, literally, blessed by his regard.
Watching this man was a lesson for me in how one person’s blessing can completely shift the atmosphere around him. It’s something I’ve been working with ever since. When there’s nothing else you can do for someone, when your job or your relationship blows up in your face, or the world seems headed for destruction and you feel powerless to stop it, you can at least offer a blessing. On an immediate level, offering blessings helps us feel less powerless. But there’s also deeper aspect to it. When we offer blessings, we are actually aligning ourselves with the force of grace that runs through the universe. We become channels for the higher power, the cosmic energy, whatever you want to call it. And according to some of the mystical traditions, this is the hidden purpose of human life.
A core Sufi teaching says that one purpose for refining our consciousness through practice is to become so aligned with grace that we can channel it into the earth. A verse in the traditional Indian text, the Shiva Purana, reminds us, ‘This universe needs to be blessed.’ The Vedic sages, whose culture is the basis of the yoga tradition, believed that one special function of human was to create conscious bridges between earth and cosmos. They did this through invocations and offerings, and bracketed their practices and ceremonies with mantras we chant to this day–Lokaha samastah sukhino bhavantu–May all beings be happy.
Let me say here that there’s a big difference between an intentional blessing, and the conventional, proforma blessing that we might pronounce out of social habit. A friend of mine grew up in a family where the women started every other sentence with “Bless your heart!” She says that when her mother and aunts said “Bless your heart,” it was usually the prelude to some particularly trenchant criticism–as in “Bless her heart, Luanne is still drinking too much,” or “Bless your heart, you’re the messiest child!” As a result, she developed a knee-jerk suspicion of anyone who offered blessing.
Few of us are that obviously passive-aggressive with our blessings, but many of us spent years tuning out the half-hearted or automatic blessing invoked at family dinners or even at the beginning and end of some yoga classes. So when we begin to offer blessing as a serious spiritual practice, we may have to get past a kind of malaise about it. Do blessings do any good? Is a blessing–or for that matter, praying for the well being of one’s family, friends, and the earth itself–a form of fantasy, a way of convincing yourself that you’re ‘helping’ when you can’t or won’t do something concrete? Is giving blessings basically a way of kindling positive mind states in ourselves, as loving kindness practice is often presented as an antidote for our own negativity?
The answer to all these questions is the same: it depends on the energy and intention behind the blessing.
Who Gets to Give Blessings?
In most traditional cultures, including our own, certain people were ‘authorized’ to give blessings, usually because of their accumulated wisdom, practice, or life experience. Kings and priests supposedly had it by birth or ordination, though they had to uphold their right to bless by their righteous actions. Parents and grandparents had earned it through life experience and service. Yogis and spiritual practitioners accumulated power through their intense practice. Because these people had earned their power through their practice or life choices, they were said to have adhikara (qualification). Their adhikara carried the mojo that gave their blessing its ‘magic’–its ability to empower your life, remove difficulties, or connect you to the transmission of a particular spiritual lineage.
Blessings are Democratic
The idea that ‘regular’ people can give effective blessings is relatively modern, a sign of the growing democratization of spiritual culture, the stripping away of traditional hierarchical beliefs about what constitutes spiritual authority. Though this trend has its down side–how many half-baked yogis and shamans have been loosed into the culture in just the last 30 years? –it also speaks to a couple of important truths.
First, that grace is everywhere. Tantric sages like Abhinavagupta considered grace to be an intrinsic property of consciousness itself, a fundamental activity of the divine energy that pervades every atom of the universe. Grace, in other words, is always there. Our practice merely aligns us with it, allowing us to draw the grace-particles (as I often imagine them) out of the vibratory soup around us.
Second, that the power in our blessings is linked to our emotional connection and our our centering. Blessing is essentially heart- energy directed positively and intentionally towards others. The most effective blessing is not only sincere and deeply felt, it also comes from a conscious connection with your source, the underlying power of your being. And for most of us, the best way to make this connection is by centering ourselves in the heart.
It’s the heart connection that explains why some positive wishes connect, while others feel powerless. A positive wish that comes simply from the mental level can be well-intentioned, but like any thought without the energy of feeling behind it, it often doesn’t seem to carry much power. But when a blessing arises from the heart, or is offered after consciously connecting to the heart, it carries the heart-field’s strong magnetic resonance. On a physical level, the heart gives out powerful electromagnetic field, not only harmonizing and aligning the other organs in our bodies, but also harmonizing our energy with the energies around us. The heart’s magnetic field, far bigger and more powerful than the brain’s, actually extends many feet from the body, which is one reason why another person’s emotions and feelings can so powerfully affect us. Heart-cells can also bond with other heart cells. Normally a heart-cell taken from its mother-heart begins to fibrillate and die. When another heart cell–not even from the same heart–is placed near it, the dying cell comes back to life. And once that bond between the two cells is established, they go on supporting one another over distance.
From the perspective of the yoga- tantra, the subtle heart center is the seat of the intuitive level of thought–known as pasyanti, where impulses and intentions arise directly from the deepest inner source, and carry the power of that source. All of this boils down to a simple fact: when we center ourselves in the heart and offer good wishes from that center, people tend to feel it. If we have a particularly strong heart energy, they feel it strongly enough to know that they’ve received something. This, I believe, is the secret behind the experiences that people have in the presence of charismatic gurus like Ammachi. Her highly developed heart-energy, combined with an intention to bless, kindles feelings of tenderness and love in people who come in contact with her. It’s a power we can all cultivate, by cultivating the heart. The more we are aware of the inherent power of the inner heart, the more our wishes have power.
Last year, a friend of mine was part of a group that got together weekly to read and discuss a tantric text called the Spanda Karikas (Stanzas on Divine Vibration). One night, they were reading a verse that spoke about the special powers that can come to yogis, as a result of practice. Two people in the group had just finished discussing the troubles that members of their family were having, and the group spontaneously decided to meditate together and see if they could tap into the power of blessing. After a few minutes, my friend felt a strong tenderness in her heart, and she felt herself ‘connect’ to her cousin, who was going through a painful separation from his wife. The next day, her cousin happened to call, and my friend told him about her experience the night before. “What time was that?” her cousin asked. My friend told him. “Well, said her cousin, “it worked. My wife and I made love last night and we’ve decided not to separate.” Coincidence? Synchronicity? Maybe. Or maybe it was the power of her strong intent.
There are different ways to give blessings, of course. Sometimes just remembering someone lovingly is a way of sending blessings. A concrete prayer, or even a physical object can ‘hold’ the blessing. When a friend of mine lost her son, the members of her yoga community each sent her a bead that represented their wish for her well-being. The point is that the more specific, directed, and heart-connected the blessing, the greater its effect–and its power to liberate our own hearts from knots of negativity or grief.
This liberating quality of blessing makes it an especially powerful way to work with painful relationships, and with our own personal struggles and feelings of loss. I’ve learned that whenever I find myself struggling with someone, if I want to resolve the conflict I have to bless them. Giving a blessing doesn’t mean that I knuckle under to them. But it always helps me to the recognition that this other person is a reflection of myself, and that my own well-being can never be separated from the well-being of others in my life.
Each of us has people in our lives whom we’ve subtly refused to bless. Yes, they are often people who have wounded us, and we may need to do some other kinds of inner work before we can honestly extend blessings to them. Yet just as often, if we’re honest, we see that our refusal to bless comes simply from an inner contraction, from irritation, jealousy, or some other form of withholding. I find it helpful to do a periodic scan of all my relationships, past and present, to notice where I withhold blessings, and then to make an effort to offer them. Sometimes, the scan reveals that I’m holding negative feelings that I need to clear. Yet, even when I’m ambhivilent to begin with, the act of consciously extending a blessing always shifts something within me, and within the relationship itself. Each intentional act of blessing strengthens our ability to offer our best, until eventually we find that the inclination to bless has become a deep tendency within us, just through practice.
Last year, I watched this happening to Britte, a student of mine, during a classic bad breakup. For some time, her boyfriend had been pulling away, telling her he loved her and wanted to marry her, then disappearing for weeks on end.
Every time a friend suggested that it might be time for her to give up on the relationship, Britta would respond by saying that she knew they were meant to be together, and that she couldn’t bear to think that he wouldn’t be with her.
At one point, I suggested that every time she found herself falling into longing, anger, and grief, she try consciously blessing him. Perhaps she could begin by making a ceremony of it, and that after that, whenever she thought of him, she could send the blessing.
Britte made up a little prayer, “May your life be beautiful, may you find everything you’re looking for, may you always feel love.” As she practiced it, the prayer became more and more elaborate: “May you be protected by the universe! May you be free of suffering! May you be happy! May everything you do be blessed!” Unconsciously (or perhaps consciously), she was beginning to echo the words of the Buddhist metta, or loving kindness prayers, always a powerful formula for blessing. After some time, she began to extend the blessing to herself as well
Almost immediately, Britta’s practice of blessing her ex-boyfriend subtly affected her own heart. She began to feel less angry, less grief-stricken, and above all, less powerless. In the end, Britta was able to accept the fact that the relationship was ending. Her practice of blessing had actually helped her become emotionally free enough to truly let him go.
Being willing to bless our own past, our lost friends and opportunities, the jobs that give us up, the people who hurt us, is paradoxically, the best way to free ourselves from being haunted by them. It’s a fact of life that whatever we try to push away seems to stick to us harder, while when we’re willing to bless a person, or a situation, or even one of our own less-than-appealing qualities, the very act of blessing seems to create space for change. There’s a telling passage in the Old Testament, when the patriarch Jacob grabs hold of an angel, and says to him, “I will not let thee go until thou bless me.” In the story, Jacob could stand for our difficult relationships, our intense karmas, the people who’ve failed us or let us down, the boss who fired us, the betraying friend, the situations with which we’re currently struggling. The painful situations in our lives don’t stop affecting us just because we want to be free of them. But if we can genuinely bless the people involved, honor them, wish them well, it’s astonishing how often things resolve themselves, how quickly they shift. All this is living, experiential proof of Jung’s principle of synchronicity, of the findings of chaos theory, and, of course, of yoga’s core recognition that a change in the inner world is always reflected in the world outside.
Giving Blessings -Practices to Try
1. Today, bless everyone and everything you see, and every person who comes into your mind. Start by blessing yourself, then bless the people you see every day, the ones you pass on the street, and the ones you meet through the TV news.
2. When you’re walking down the street, trying noticing the people you tend to dismiss or judge. When you feel that inner contraction, say to them: I bless you, or “May you be happy.”
3. For a week -or forever! -choose a particular time of day when you’ll do a ceremony of blessing. Sit down, light a candle, and stay with the breath. Breathe in, feeling that the flame of the candle enters your heart. Breathe out, feeling that the flame moves out into the world, showering grace and blessings. For the next 10 or fifteen minutes, bring to mind people in your life and imagine that the light from the heart flows to them as blessing. (Make sure to include people whom you don’t particularly like!) Create a simple phrase, “May they be blessed” “May they have health, joy, and peace!” “May their lives be free from sorrow!” Or you can use the Buddhist loving kindness prayer, the Vedic prayer mentioned above, or make up one of your own.
4. Following this, bring to mind people, singly or en masse, from different parts of the world. Hungry people, angry people, grieving people, suffering people, and whomever else you’d like to bless. Feel that the blessings that flow from your heart touch all of them with the gentle light from the heart.
5. Finally, bless yourself – all your so-called ‘good’ qualities, and also the qualities in yourself that you wish were different.
6. Sit for a few minutes in the climate of blessing that you’ve created.