Like Oya, the Yoruba goddess, Iyanla Vanzant, 49, has ridden the winds of change and carried the sword that clears the way for new growth. She is at once a guru and girlfriend, talk-show advicemeister and best-selling author, whose first book evolved from an empowerment booklet she wrote for African-American women.
Iyanla, which means "great mother" in Yoruba, has intimate knowledge of life's dark painful side as well as its sparkling upside, and emphatically testifies for the latter.
Born Rhonda Harris in the back of a taxicab in Brooklyn, New York, she lost her mother to cancer at age 2, was raped by an uncle when only 9, had three children before she was 21, and fled a violent and abusive marriage.
She proved herself a feisty survivor, earning Bachelor and law degrees, and working in the public defender's office in Philadelphia for several years. Her real calling and success, however, came as an inspirational writer and speaker boosted into national prominence and best-sellerdom by appearances on Oprah.
Although industry observers say the prognosis for her new talk show, Iyanla! is not good, she has garnered her share of acclaim, being named one of the "100 Most Influential African Americans" by Ebony, one of "100 Leaders of the New Millennium" by Vibe, and one of the "Women of the New Century" by Newsweek.
Simon and Schuster recently published her 13th book, "Every Day I Pray," a collection of prayers culled from her prayer journal. She spoke with senior producer Anne Simpkinson about the nature and power of prayer.
On September 11 and the days after, thousands of families and friends prayed for the safety of their loved ones. Many of those people prayed in vain. How does a person keep a prayer life going when their prayers aren't answered.
The first thing you have to do is realize and understand the purpose of prayer. The purpose of prayer isn't a command. The purpose of prayer is to put you in alignment with the highest forces of the universe, whether that's God or the angels or the Goddess.
When you recognize the reason you're praying in the first place, it becomes easier to stay on track.
It's different for everybody. It's not a formula. You feel it. You absolutely feel it.
What does it feel like?
Like I know that there's nothing else for me to do. It's time for me to be.
So there's a kind of sense of peace and...
How do you feel about what some might call "selfish" prayers, requests for material things like finding a job, finding a house, getting a raise?
I don't think there's such a thing as a selfish prayer. Prayer puts you in communication so you can talk about whatever you want to talk about. We live in a society where people want cars and houses. I don't think that's selfish. I think that if you're taking the time to pray, what you're doing is purely "self full," which is very different from selfish.
What do you mean "self full"?
"Self full" means something that's good for you, something that's going to develop the self, that's going to support or assist the self in moving forward. Prayer is the access that fills the self.
In the introduction to your book, you talk about how prayer could be anything. Prayer is doing anything anywhere at any time. Do you have a regular prayer practice or do you express prayer in this more open fashion?
I don't know what you mean by "open fashion," but the prayers in my book are the result of my prayer practice. I write in a prayer journal; I pray all the time.
Talk about the value of keeping a prayer journal?
Well, you get an opportunity to get it out of your head. Sometimes we pray in our heads and we never get a real opportunity to solidify what it is that we're praying for or what we're praying about. So once you write it down it's like a flow. It comes out and you solidify the thought or the idea or the request.
Keeping a prayer journal would also give you a history of your prayer life.
Sure, absolutely. And when you look back, you really are surprised at how many of your prayers have actually been answered.
I don't think there's only one. When you pray for something, you recognize it when it shows up. Prayer doesn't have to be for things. Most people think prayer is about situations and things, and that's not it. Prayer is for you. It's to bring you into alignment so that you can experience a connection. You can experience a "onement" within yourself, so it doesn't really matter what you pray for.
Are you talking about prayer as developing an attitude, a prayerful attitude in or towards life?
Yes, absolutely. There are elements to a prayerful attitude that will give your prayers greater power.
Do you mean that the stronger the connection to the divine, the stronger your prayers are?
No. It's about your heart and about your consciousness. It's not about length of time you pray. Some of the most powerful prayers I've ever heard come from children, who can barely speak.
It's your heart. It's the purity in your heart. The willingness in your heart. And when I say willingness I mean your availability to the essence of God.
Some of us pray demands. Some of us pray complaints. Some of us pray knowing, and some of us pray not knowing. But prayer is the attitude that you hold in your heart.
Well, if I know that I'm a prayer whiner or a prayer complainer, how would I go about changing my heart?
Start with gratitude. Be grateful for everything--who you are, what you do, what you have, what you don't have. Even before you start complaining or whining, try to express a little more gratitude.
A number of scientific studies on the power of prayer show that there are benefits for the person praying but science hasn't been able to prove that the people who are prayed for are helped. Do you believe that praying can have an effect on someone else?
Absolutely. Prayer changes things and I don't need scientific evidence to prove that.
Have you had any experiences that make you believe that?
I've had hundreds of thousands of experiences that make me believe that. Prayer changed me. That's the first example.
It changed my life from a place of dysfunction and pain to a place of clarity and purpose. It changed me from angry and frightened to full and available. Prayer changed my life. Prayer has gotten me through situations, whatever it is, the bar exam. I mean I could give you countless lists. See, because prayer clears the mind of all of our human hysteria--that's what I call it.
When you really fill your heart and your mind with the words of a prayer, the hysteria subsides, and once the hysteria subsides, the mind is clear, and when the mind is clear, you send forth, positive energy into the universe or into the presence of life that's everywhere.
When the energy of a clear mind goes out and hits the actual living form or living substance, things shift, things are created, things are transformed, and you're able to see and accept it because you're praying.
You start your book describing your negative experience of prayer growing up in a Christian church. When did you or how did you develop the attitude towards prayer that you have now?
After years and years and years of doing it. After keeping a prayer journal. After choosing to make prayer a priority and not a last resort. It happens.
Do you know how all of a sudden you said, "This is what I'm going to do Prayer is the answer. Prayer is my spiritual weapon."?
So along with your vitamins, we need to be taking a spiritual vitamin.
Yes, absolutely. Prayer definitely is an immune booster.