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Interview with John Welshons

Author of When Prayers Aren't Answered

by Edie Weinstein-Moser


Have you ever seen the movie entitled Bruce Almighty? The storyline describes a man who is dissatisfied with the job that God is doing with his life. Morgan Freeman who portrays the Divine, hands over the keys to the Kingdom, as it were. In one scene, Bruce, played by Jim Carrey is sitting at a computer, being deluged with prayers from people who want God to fix their lives. In one fell swoop, he answers everyone’s prayers with a resounding YES! Chaos ensues. Sometimes, as John Welshons, the author of the book When Prayers Aren’t Answered, has found, unanswered prayers bring with them the greatest gifts. His own journey has taken him to places both dark and bright and he has learned from both. Armed with those experiences, he offers presentations and workshops from a place of compassion as well as knowledge.

Wisdom: In the book, you speak of the concept of love vs. fear. How has that dichotomy shown up in your life?

John: It’s certainly a major factor in anyone’s mind. The human mind tends to gravitate toward fear. It’s a particular delusion that we need to be fearful in order to be safe. It doesn’t really work that way. In my own life, I remember any number of times where I was petrified that I was going to die and there were times when I was very close to dying. What I started to see was that the fear was creating this snowball effect of problems. There are physiological changes that happen when we are frightened. The blood pressure rises, our heart rate increases and adrenalin rushes through the system. As it turns out, they were helpful in a certain phase of evolution, but unfortunately, we are so addicted to fear, we tend to respond that way so often. It isn’t the clearest way for us to interact with the physical world. I mention in When Prayers Aren’t Answered, that one of the things I discovered later in life was that some of the martial arts like aikido and karate and also the Bhagavad Gita which is a great teaching in the Hindu tradition, express that it is not useful for us to respond to attack or perceived attack with fear and anger, because they cloud our minds. All of those physiological changes may give us a burst of strength at first, but they ultimately weaken us once they wear off. It’s like drinking coffee. It may give you a burst of energy at first, but then you are more tired than you would have been had you not had it. I saw fear as a very powerful teacher in my life. I see that whenever I start to get into a place of fear, it doesn’t help anything. It complicates things and makes us feel cut off from the Universe which is our essential problem as human beings. We feel disconnected from each other and from our Creator.

Wisdom: Is that part of the reason why people have such a challenge when their prayers aren’t answered the way they think they should be, that they feel this disconnect?

John: Absolutely. A lot of that is that people have been given a simplistic notion about what their relationship to God, the Creator or the Universe is. Many traditions have seized upon the statement in the New Testament that says “Ask and you shall receive.” Well, yeah, but maybe not today or maybe not next year or maybe not exactly what you were asking for. It’s much more complicated than thinking of God as a cosmic vending machine where we put in a prayer and get what we want. It doesn’t work that way. When people have been led to believe that this is how it is supposed to work, they feel embittered and disconnected from God and that God is punishing them or doesn’t exist.

Wisdom: How can we maintain conscious contact with God?

John: I’ve been practicing daily meditation for nearly 40 years and I highly recommend it. The distinction we could make is that prayer is talking to God and meditation is listening to God. There are many forms of prayer and meditation where the distinctions are blurry. Essentially, meditation is an opportunity to consciously connect to the source of our being on a daily basis which when you are asking for something, it is a different kind of relationship. We talk about different kinds of love. Pure, Divine love doesn’t seek for any kind of reward, doesn’t ask for anything in return. It just loves for the sake of loving. Most of us, at the human level of romantic love, want something in return and when we don’t get it, we can get punitive and angry. When you’re asking for something as a condition of your love, it diminishes the love you can give. When you are really connected to the Source, the Divine, the Creator, whatever you want to call it, you are fine tuning through the practice of meditation. Watch how your desire systems, the things you want to ask for, the things you want to pray for, get in the way of that clear connection with what is, with that ever-present infinite, eternal source of everything.

Wisdom: How do deal with the ‘my God’s better than your God’ thinking that is present for many people?

John: One of the things I think happens in the physical universe, is that if we’re not paying attention to something, it just keeps getting worse. It happens in our physical bodies, in the sense that if we’re not taking care of ourselves and living our lives in a healthy way, and in a way that we feel spiritually connected, we can get sick and keep getting sicker and sicker, until we learn to listen. On a global scale, we can see vividly, the problem with thinking ‘my God is better than your God’. We have all these wars going on that are basically rooted in that. I’ve never been able to relate to that thought. To me, God is love and God is not judgement. To think that God would punish people for not subscribing to a certain form of religion....you get down to the point where the religions themselves can’t agree. There are different forms of Christianity, all thinking that they are the right form of Christianity and many forms of Islam thinking they are the right form of Islam. There’s no end to it.

Wisdom: How would you define good and evil?

John: If you look at the behaviors that are generally proscribed for being a good person, in most spiritual traditions, you will find things like kindness, generosity, honesty, concern for your neighbor and the planet we live on, being attentive to others, and being conscious of your interactions with others. Interestingly, those are all expressions of unity or one-ness. If I realize that you and I are one, it would be very hard for me to harm you, steal from you or lie to you. If I put you outside my heart and say that you are one of those people who doesn’t believe what I believe, then therefore, you’re wrong and evil, then ultimately, I can do anything to you because you’re not part of me. God is One, one primordial energy underlying the entire physical Universe. We can study it in quantum physics. Anything I put outside my heart or consciousness, is costing me how much happiness and joy I can have in life. If I put you out of my heart, I will fear you. What we classify as evil are really bad behaviors like stealing, lying, cheating, violence and killing, You generally only do those things to people that you have put outside your heart, or that your mind fears in some way.

Wisdom: Do you find that connecting with others heart to heart is a way of connecting with God.

John: Yes, absolutely. I have a friend named Dr. Edward Hallowell who is a psychiatry professor at Harvard, and has written a wonderful book named Connect. He was quoted in my book, because he was looking at that very dimension of human interact that is heart to heart communication. He drew the parallel to the line in the Bible that says “Whenever two or more are gathered in my name, I am present.” We could say that whenever two or more are gathered in the name of love, they are in the presence of God. You don’t have to define it as God, but there is that wonderful feeling that we all hopefully feel at least a few times in life, that you are so connected to another human being, that you are almost having the same thoughts. I’ve had conversations where we sometimes look at each other and ask “Did you say that or did I say that?”, because we are in that state of oneness that is exquisite. It’s the greatest joy a human being can have. Conversely, the worst suffering a human being can have is to feel disconnected from others. I studied with Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and one of the things she really stressed when she delineated the five stages of grief, and I have to say in her honor, that just a few years later, she was saying “I wish I had never published those damn five stages; everyone misunderstands them”, the first one was ‘denial and isolation’. It is the denial of the reality of the truth of life and feeling alone. Those two things feed each other. Mother Teresa said, that she felt the worst suffering for a human being is to feel alone.

Wisdom: How can we wrap our minds around the unfathomable, like why there is so much suffering or why a child dies?

John: There’s actually an entire chapterin the book on the question ‘why?’ and the problem it poses in achieving happiness in life. It is the characteristic conflict between mind and heart. To a large degree, religions have functioned to answer the question ‘why?’ at many different levels. I’ve had the grace of working through some of the worst suffering that human beings can go through and I say grace, because the gift in it is that it gets you clear about what’s really important. I’ve seen that there are no acceptable answers to the question why a loved one dies in a tragic accident or dies as a result of a long period of suffering or is murdered or goes off to war and dies or is in a flood or an earthquake. We can speculate and design all kinds of story lines that explain it away, but they don’t usually resonate in our hearts in terms of the fact that in the end, whatever happened, happened and we are still left with our loss or disappointment and our emotional reaction to it. It is why very often, I have heard from people that when they had a loss in their life and their minister or rabbi comes to the house to try and explain it in spiritual terms, most people don’t want to hear it and some want to throw their clergy person right out the door. What they really need in those moments is loving connection and the honesty to say neither one of knows why this happened, but I’m right here with you to hold your hand and cry with you and we are going to share this sadness together. That breeds connection. Intellectual theories about why it happened aren’t really that helpful.

Wisdom: It sounds like it’s about living in the Mystery.

John: Pema Chodran ( American Buddhist nun), has this wonderful phrase: “Comfortable with uncertainty.”

Wisdom: How we become fully human and fully Divine?

John: One way has been to observe people who I perceive having done that. Some of them are great saints and masters, certainly the one most known in our culture is Jesus, but there are many others. Sometimes it’s just observing contemporary people like Mother Teresa or some of the great spiritual teachers that have come over from India or whose teachings have come from India. In human history, we have seen many examples of spiritual traditions that have encouraged us to deny our humanity in order to get to God. The concept that you can fully honor your humanity and at the same time, fully honor your connection with Divinity, is very profound. On a simple level, it reminds me of the notion that I first learned through Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. It is that our culture, more than any on Earth, wants to be happy all time. We don’t want anything sad to happen. We don’t want anything to bring us down. We want to always be on a high. Consequently, we have one of the highest rates of alcoholism, drug addiction and prescribed pharmaceuticals for depression and so on of any culture in the world. You can’t deny aspects of existence and expect to be happy. You can’t turn off the emotions on one side of the ledger. If you try to turn off your feelings of sadness, you inevitably turn off your feelings of joy. That recognition that being a full human being, requires the willingness to feel sadness and suffering when they are appropriate. You start to realize that there is a balance in life and a balance in the Universe. When you are open to one, you will get the other. Sometimes there is part of us that feels disconnected and the Divine part of us is always present and is clearly connected with everyone. You see it in simple ways. You see another human being crying and tears come to your eyes. You see another person ecstatically happy and you get happy. We’ve all seen statues of the Buddha meditating and there is always a very subtle smile on his face. It is known as ‘the smile of unbearable compassion’. It arises out of his teaching when he became enlightened. He realized that he had a choice to make; whether to stay in the bliss of formlessness, but then he would open his eyes and saw people suffering. He concluded that it wasn’t appropriate to stay in the bliss. He took what is called the Bodhisattva vow, which is taken by many practitioners of Buddhism. It is: so long as there is anyone on Earth suffering, it is incumbent upon me to do what I can to help alleviate their suffering. The Buddha said that in order to do that, not only do you not have to give up your joy, you must not give up your joy. If you gave it up, what would you have to offer to others who are suffering?

When I work with people who are dying and who are grieving and others hear about that, they say “It must be so depressing. How do you do it without being depressed all the time?” The answer I give, is “How would I do it if I weren’t joyful? What would I have to offer to others?” That requires that we not walk into a room and say “Come on, put on a happy face. Smile.” When someone is suffering, they don’t want to hear that. They want love and connection. Love and connection sometimes requires that we cry together. I find that sometimes when we cry together, we can end up laughing together..

Wisdom: The forward of your book was written by Richard Carlson (Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff) and I wasn’t aware until I read it, that he had died last year. I’m sorry for the loss of such a dear friend.

John: Everybody who knows him and loves him felt him so powerfully around them, especially in the weeks right afterward. I have never experienced anything like that with someone I hadn’t identified as a guru. Richard was one of those people who was working on being 100% human and 100% Divine. He was such a simple guy who never saw himself as a celebrity. What it boiled down to was that he wanted to love and go to God.

For more information about John’s work, including upcoming opportunities to hear him speak, go to www.openheartseminars.com

Edie Weinstein-Moser is a journalist, speaker, interfaith minister and energy worker. She can be reached via her website ww.liveinjoy.com


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