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, all your wishes come true. That’s the mythical version. There’s another, more sophisticated way to read the tale, in which the wish-fulfilling tree is the grace-bestowing power of your own mind. In this version, your thoughts and your wishes have the power of true blessings. Though you don’t want to interpret this truth too simplistically—the way that magical thinking permeates many New Age teachings about the power of mind—the fact is that your greatest hidden resource is your capacity to channel grace.
You may have sensed that you have the power to bless others. Perhaps, though, you’ve doubted yourself. You may be afraid of appearing grandiose, of taking yourself too seriously, of inflating your own importance. In the early 1980s, during the first years after I took vows to live as a swami (monk) in the Siddha Yoga tradition, I would feel embarrassed when pious Indians asked for my blessings or tried to touch my feet. Wasn’t it egotistical for me—a New Jersey girl beneath my orange robes—to accept such deference? But after a while, I realized that they were not honoring me; rather, they were honoring an archetype of commitment to God. It was my hesitation that was egotistical, and the appropriate response was instead to get my personal self out of the way and allow blessings to flow through me; in other words, to be a channel for grace.
A young man wrote me recently to relate a similar experience. While on a pilgrimage to a sacred site in Mexico, he was shocked when a woman approached and asked him to bless her rosary. If he’d thought about her request, he would have protested, but he was feeling so connected to the sacred energy of the site that he took the beads, prayed over them, then handed them back. He later realized that when he felt connected to sacred energy, he could bless and, moreover, that his blessings mattered. When it comes to blessing, intention is what counts.
If you’re not quite sure what blessings are, here’s a working definition: You give blessings when you direct a focused, positive intention toward someone or something while feeling connected to the universal power of grace. The act of blessing has an ancient history, but it is still relevant today. According to Merriam-Webster’s, the word "blessing" comes from the Old English bletsian, to consecrate. Its root is the same as the Old English word for blood. Blood represents life force, the sacred energy that flows through a living body. It makes sense, then, that during ancient religious sacrifices, blood was commonly offered as a blessing.
When you offer your blessings, you are giving your own subtle life force in support of someone else. And that’s a big deal: It’s the truest act of consecration. So, when there’s nothing else you can do for someone, when your friend’s job or relationship or health has blown up in her face, when your country seems headed for destruction and you feel powerless to stop it, you can at least offer a blessing, trusting that by doing so you’re opening one more channel for the sacred force of grace to flow through.
Channel Your Grace
Blessings are a part of all types of spiritual lineages, including the yoga tradition. A verse in a 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 consciousness is to create bridges between the worlds and, specifically, to call heavenly power into the physical world. They did this through invocations and offerings, and they bracketed their practices and ceremonies with a mantra that we chant to this day—Lokaha samastaha sukhino bhavantu ("May all beings be happy"). And a core Sufi teaching says that the true purpose of human life is to become so aligned with the subtle force of grace that you can channel it into the physical world.
Let’s be clear: This kind of empowered blessing doesn’t have a lot to do with conven-tional, rote blessings offered out of social habit. A friend of mine grew up in a family whose women started every other sentence with "Bless your heart!" —often as the prelude to a particularly trenchant criticism such as "Bless your heart, you’re the messiest child!" As a result, she spent years tuning out the half-hearted or automatic blessings invoked at family dinners or even at the beginning of yoga classes.
When you begin to offer blessings as a serious spiritual practice, you 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 a positive mind-state in yourself, the lovingkindness practice that’s often presented as an antidote for your 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 cultures, including our own, certain people have been 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 maintain their right to bless by their righteous actions. Parents and grandparents earned it through life experience and service. Yogis and spiritual practitioners accumulated power through their intense practice. Their earned spiritual capital carried the mojo, if you will, 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 "ordinary" people can give effective blessings seems 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 past 30 years? —it also speaks to a couple of important truths.
First, grace is everywhere. Tantric sages such as Abhinava Gupta considered grace to be an intrinsic property of consciousness itself, a fundamental activity of the divine energy that pervades every atom of the universe. Your practice merely aligns you with it, allowing you to draw the grace particles out of the vibratory soup that is around you.
Second, the power in your blessings is linked to an emotional connection at your very core. In Hebrew, one of the words for blessing also means "deep well." A blessing must carry the grace of the divine source, the deep well of the heart. So, the most effective blessing is not only sincere and heartfelt but also comes from an internal connection with your source, the undying wellspring of Being. I find that the best way to make this connection is by centering yourself in the heart.
When a blessing connects, it is almost always because the person giving the blessing is connected to his or her own emotional center. A positive wish that comes simply from the intellectual level can be well intentioned, but, like any thought without feeling behind it, it has limited power.
In Tantric philosophy, the subtle heart center is the seat of the intuitive level of thought, known as pasyanti. Words and intentions rooted in that center arise directly from the deepest inner source and carry the power of that source. So, when you center yourself in the heart and offer good wishes, people tend to feel it. If you have particularly strong heart energy, they feel it palpably enough to know that they’ve received something. This, I believe, is one secret behind charismatic spiritual leaders such as the "hugging guru," Ammachi, who travels around the world offering devotional hugs to throngs of people who line up and wait for hours. Her highly developed heart energy, combined with an intention to bless, kindles feelings of tenderness and love in people who come into contact with her. It’s a power that we can all develop by cultivating the heart. The more you are aware of the inherent power of the inner heart, the more your wishes have power.
See and Be Seen
A blessing can be spoken or silent, given in words or by touch. Yet, often, the most powerful blessing you can offer to someone is simply your view of them—to regard them with a loving eye and see beyond the surface to their hidden radiance.
A few years ago, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I watched a surprising demonstration of the power of positive regard. A homeless man had staked out a spot on the sidewalk, from which he was cheerleading the passersby. When a woman walked past, he would say, "Ah, pretty woman!" When a man walked by, he would say, "Strong man!" He said these words mostly to the older people, the plain-looking women, the slightly geeky guys—people whom nobody else would have noticed, much less complimented. 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 $5 bill). Maybe it was just a scam, a twist on panhandling. Whatever. What I observed was that everyone he spoke to came away smiling, walking straighter, and looking, well, blessed.
The hour I spent watching this man convinced me forever of the power of one person’s grace-bestowing intention. He wasn’t giving formal blessings. His blessing was implicit—he offered each person a kinder way of seeing themselves. In some traditions, it’s said that a mother gives a child her first blessing by seeing the beauty in the newborn’s face. You give this same blessing every time you decide to look for the radiance, instead of the shortcomings, in another.
Lessons in Letting Go
This innately transformative quality of blessing makes it an especially powerful practice for liberating knotty situations. I’ve learned that, whenever I find myself struggling with someone, I have to find a way to bless them in order to truly resolve the conflict.
We all have people in our lives whom we’ve subtly refused to bless. They are often people who have wounded us. But sometimes, if you’re honest, you can see that your refusal to bless comes simply from an inner contraction, from irritation, jealousy, or some other form of withholding. It is helpful to make the effort to offer blessings even to people for whom you have negative feelings. Each intentional act of blessing strengthens your ability to offer your best, until eventually you find that the inclination to bless has brought power to your good wishes and made them effective in ways you could not have imagined.
Last year was a bad one for my friend Tom. A popular teacher in a private high school, he had a disagreement with a parent over her child’s test results and became the center of a controversy that rocked the entire community. Before he even realized that he was in trouble, Tom was informed that the school was not going to renew his contract.
Angry and shocked by the animosity directed at him, he spent hours sitting in front of the TV, alternately rageful, grieving, and numb. He picked up a virus and spent weeks wallowing in bed. Eventually, a friend suggested that Tom try practicing forgiveness. "I can’t do that," he said. His friend thought for a minute and then made another suggestion. "Suppose you try sending them good wishes?"
Tom rolled his eyes but, a few days later, decided to try it. For the next week or so, when he noticed himself thinking resentfully or sadly about the school, the parent who had accused him, or the colleagues who had failed to support him, he would offer a blessing.
At first, his blessings were along the lines of "May you see the truth about what really happened." But as he sat with the prayer, he began to contemplate the people with genuine curiosity. What did they really want for their kids? Were they narrow-minded, or had they been trying in their own way to make things better?
As the practice of blessing softened his heart, he could recognize that perhaps there was another side to the story, that perhaps his "enemies" had a point of view. The form of his blessings began to change: "May we recognize the humanity in each other. May your highest intentions be fulfilled. May you find your heart’s desire."
When you let blessings cook within you, as Tom was doing, they pass beyond the level of words and become a powerful, generalized feeling-tone. Blessings, in other words, become part of your inner atmosphere. Then, when you think about others, your thoughts carry a natural energy of blessing.
A few weeks after he began his program, Tom met the parent who had started all his troubles. So powerful was the field of blessing he’d been directing toward her that, when he saw her, he felt the affection that he would have felt for a friend. Only when he waved cheerily and saw the startled expression on her face did he realize what a profound shift he’d made.
"At that moment, I saw how someone like Nelson Mandela could reconcile with the people who’d hurt him," he said. "Without even trying, I’d let go of my animosity to the whole situation."
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 only 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.
There’s a telling passage in the Old Testament, in which 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 be a metaphor for our painful memories, our intense karmas, the people who’ve let us down, the boss who fired us, the friend who betrayed us, or any sort of situation 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 when we can genuinely bless the situations and the people involved, the knots inside and outside begin to untie themselves. If the mind is truly the wish-fulfilling tree, the power in our blessings makes that tree bear the sweetest fruit.