Let’s start with full disclosure: I pray for parking spaces. Maybe it’s the child in me, maybe it’s about believing in magic, but when I need something, when I want something, when I’m starting any kind of project, I pray. Some of my prayers could be called spiritually correct: I pray for deeper love. I pray for enlightenment, I pray for people in trouble. I pray for my actions to be of benefit to all and for an end to human suffering.
But I’ll also pray for a workshop to go well or for answers to a problem I can’t solve. And, when I’m circling a block in downtown San Francisco or New York City, I pray for a space to open up for me. At least half the time, it works.
Mostly though, I pray because it’s the most direct practice I know for communicating intimately with the Divine. Prayer creates a connection, sometimes with almost shocking immediacy, to presence, synchronicity, and, yes, grace. Moreover, prayer is ‘the ‘ great conveyer belt for spiritual development, a ladder that anyone, wherever they start from, can climb to a closer relationship with the power of divine nourishment, revelation, and inspiration. That’s why the teachings of the great prayer practitioners, like the Sufi poet Jalaluddin Rumi or the Catholic mystic Theresa of Avila, convey that it doesn’t matter what state you’re in, or even what your motive is when you begin prayer – as long as you’re willing to give it a go. “If you can’t pray sincerely, offer your dry, hypocritical prayer,” Rumi writes, “for God in his mercy accepts bad coin.” A student of mine, Janice, describes how this works: “I usually start out in a totally rote sort of way. But if I stick with it, there is a moment when I become intensely present in the prayer. It feels like plugging an electric cord into a socket. I can feel the energy change. There is total connectivity.”
That’s Rumi’s point. When it comes to prayer, it’s come as you are. You don’t have to be pious, you don’t have to be ‘good’. You don’t even have to believe your prayer will work. Just do it, hang in with it, and eventually, you’ll get connected.
Prayer – especially the kind of prayer where you ask God for favors – has a mixed reputation among yogis. Maybe it’s because we tend to associate prayer with organized religion and, as a student of mine said recently, “I love yoga because it ‘isn’t ‘ religious.” Some of us also suspect that prayer is useless, at best a sort of spiritual placebo. (Studies on healing prayer have yet to establish any sort of scientific correlation between prayer and healing, though there is ample anecdotal evidence in favor.)
Even if you’re willing to accept the efficacy of prayer, there’s the issue of who it is you’re addressing when you do it. Prayer implies a divine authority, and many of us have issues with authority. Often, we see God as a parental figure with attributes similar to our own parents, whether that be benevolent or uncaring. In 21st century America, we’re more likely to have a lot of baggage around the idea of God than to desire a closer connection. So, I think it’s no accident that Zen and Vipassana Buddhism, with their minimalist style and non-theistic approach to meditation, have been the spiritual paths of choice for so many modern and post-modern Western intellectuals, scientists, and artists.
So why would a yogi pray? For three reasons: First, because prayer softens the armor around your heart, and actually helps you receive grace. As you get the hang of establishing a connection in prayer, you’ll notice more and more how praying can shift your energy from hopeless to trusting, from defensive to protected, from anxious to calm, or at least calmer. Even a subtle inner shift will make a difference in how you handle the externals, and perhaps even in how things play out. Your external situation plays out – even if the difference itself is slight.
Second, prayer brings you into a relationship with the sacred. When you pray, you get to show up in sacred space in your most personal, human down-home way. You don’t have to be sophisticated, advanced, or particularly holy. Above all, you don’t have to act cool. You can speak your confusion, scream for help, express desires, say “Thank you,” or “Wow,” or even complain. Yes, you can be needy. Rumi actually recommends sheer neediness as the key to opening up the channel between yourself and God. “What is bounty without a beggar?” he writes, “What is generosity without a guest? Be a beggar, for beauty is seeking a mirror, water is crying for a thirsty man!”
The third reason to pray is simply that prayer is a ‘practice ‘, and a deep, multi-leveled one, which you can do at any level of spiritual development, and which will help you deepen your contact with Being itself. Prayer is one of the great methods for developing a practice of bhakti, or devotional yoga, because it can directly open you to your own feelings of emotional connection or devotion. As a category, prayer encompasses mantra repetition, chanting (the words we sing in kirtan are basically prayers of praise, not so different in content from a Pentecostal cry of “Praise the Lord!”), and the invocations sung at the beginning of a yoga class. (Try chanting’Om’ as a prayer, and notice how much more deeply it resonates!) In the Christian contemplative tradition, there’s a form of silent prayer where you center yourself in the heart and orient yourself towards the divine; this contemplative prayer is actually a practice of meditation.
Traditional prayer practice usually takes three forms: petition, confession, or praise. You can use them separately, or together. Often, prayer begins in a routine or rote way or from a place of separation and duality (where you view yourself as a small “me” addressing a great big “God” or “Universe”). With dedication over time – and often in a single session of prayer practice, your prayers may change, deepen, and even lead to an awakening – to a moment of communion when you recognize the intimate connection between yourself and the divine (called darshan in the yoga tradition). Finally, at the deepest level, you can pray with the feeling and conviction that the God you address in prayer is your own Self and that you are not separate from the universe.
Prayer as Petition
Most of us, let’s face it, pray when we want or need a favor. And ‘The Secret’ notwithstanding, we often feel kind of bad about praying for favors, especially the mundane ones, like a dating breakthrough or a better job. We shouldn’t. No less a yogic authority than the great Indian mystic Ramakrishna Paramahansa once scolded his disciple Swami Vivekananda for not asking God to help his family. The 17th-century poet-saint Tukaram Maharaj used to say that when we need something, the best person to ask is God.
Admittedly, these sages, being renunciants, probably wouldn’t get the point of the prayers of contemporary consumers asking for newer cars and serial daters praying to be asked out. Still, petitionary prayer, in some profound way, affirms the dignity of human needs and human desires, which is why ancient cultures – particularly the Vedic culture of India – always interspersed their hymns of praise with requests for food, protection, and prosperity. The Metta, or loving-kindness prayers which many of us are familiar with fall into this category of petitionary prayer – and if you’ve done a Metta practice, you probably know that the more genuine feeling goes into it, the more the prayer seems to bring actual results, at least in the form of a shift in your own state. I encourage students to pray to recognize the divine in themselves, to pray for grace and strength, or simply for a deeper opening to love.
At the most basic level, petitionary prayer sometimes comes out as a combination of wheedling, nagging, and bargaining, and often addresses some version of the parental God figure. In this style, your offering of prayer is part of a implicit deal (“I’ll acknowledge you by praying, you respond by taking care of me”), though we might also offer something more concrete – good behavior, maybe, or some kind of sacrifice, like “If I get into Yale, I’ll tutor inner city kids all summer.” In fact, making implicit or explicit deals in prayer is an old tradition, and there’s a kind of wisdom. In other words, when you ‘bargain’ in prayer, you are actually following one of the natural laws of the invisible world. I’m speaking of the law that is in crass language we could call the “No free lunch” rule, meaning that in order to receive and keep on receiving, it’s necessary to make room by giving something or letting go of something else – a recognition that was ignored by the petitioner in one of my favorite Sufi stories. The story goes like this: This guy has lost a valuable ring. He’s praying for its return, and he offers to give half the value of the ring to charity if he gets his ring back. Finishing the prayer, he opens his eyes and sees the ring in front of him. “Never mind, God,” he says, “I found it myself!”
You may run into another problem when practicing prayer-as-bargaining is that if you’re disappointed in the results, you may decide to give up on God. So, when you ask the universe for favors, it’s important to realize that there are times when the universe, so to speak, says “No.” I have a student who became completely alienated from God when her younger brother died; she’d prayed hard for him, but he’d died anyway, and to her, that meant God either didn’t exist or didn’t care.
In fact, if you’re serious about a prayer practice, a cosmic turndown can be a signal to take prayer a level deeper. A serious petitionary prayer practitioner brings ‘everything ‘ into his prayers, including anger, because he views the connection with the divine as a real relationship. “You never did me any good,” sang Tukaram, a saint of India. Says Tuka, “O hoodlum, you are nobody’s chum.” Teresa of Avila, after a series of mishaps, sicknesses, and accidents, prayed, “Lord, if this is how you treat your friends, it’s a wonder you have any left!”
What you’ll notice about prayers like Teresa’s – or about the even more radical ‘prayer’ of Hassidic master Rabbi Levi Isaac of Berdichev, who once declared that he was bringing God to trial for allowing injustice and suffering – is that they “come out of a profound sense of relationship”. Prayer, in short, is addressed to a Higher Power whom the practitioners feel they ‘know ‘. You don’t scream at God if you don’t feel that God is real, or unless you have a genuine, fully felt emotional connection.
There’s a sweet story about a devotee of Krishna’s who used to worship and pray in front of a statue every day, waving incense and offering flowers. But whatever she was praying for never materialized, and one day she got fed up. She took Krishna down, put him in the corner and replaced him with a statue of Rama.
The next day, as she was offering incense to her Rama statue, she noticed smoke drifting towards the corner where she’d stashed Krishna. Furious, she ran to the corner and stuffed the nostrils of the Krishna statue with cotton. “Not one whiff of incense do you get from me!” she cried.
At that moment, the Krishna statue seemed to come alive. “My dear,” said a voice, “what can I do for you?”
The woman gaped. “But I’ve been praying to you for years! Why are you granting boons now?”
There was an invisible chuckle. “When you stuffed cotton in the nose of the statue, that was the first time in all these years that you treated me as real. So, of course, I had to answer your prayer.”
So, this deeper level of prayer signals an intimate relationship, not just with a “˜specific’ God, but with a sense of sacredness that can be found anywhere you tune in to it. At this level, it often stops being petitionary and becomes a conversation, a way of holding oneself in the presence of a beloved deity or simply in sacred spaciousness. Prayer at this level often becomes more appreciative.
Prayer as Appreciation
Appreciative prayer includes every moment when you say thank you for the beauty in nature, or for the blessings in your life. It also includes formal traditional prayer, from the Book of Psalms to the thousand names of Allah to the Rig Veda, as well as the highly creative practice of the monk Brother Lawrence, who simply spent the whole day talking to God.
Prayers of praise, appreciation, and gratitude feel good. They invite you into sacred feeling states and can inject something ecstatic into even a downer moment. Try walking around with the prayer that a Bengali saint used, “Thank you, Mother, for becoming all this!” or say “thank you” when you see something beautiful, when you’re able to be of service, or just because you woke up this morning. As your appreciation prayer becomes habitual, you will begin to feel more and more intimate with your life and the people in it. Your friends and partners will open up when they feel appreciated. So does the universe, in ways you can’t know until you see it happening.
Prayers of Contrition
Less joyful, but equally profound as a means of connecting to the sacred, is the prayer of remorse and confession. Of course, every religious tradition has a formula for saying “I blew it. I’m sorry. Please forgive me and help me make amends.” Formal confessional prayers like these can be a sheer ritual and a distracted one at that.
Yet again, it’s a matter of connection. If you can fully enter into it, that moment of confession and contrition can be deeply life-changing. Current yoga culture tends to overlook the spiritual power of remorse, perhaps because it’s a reminder of the sin-and-repentance, self-castigating mold of our Puritan ancestors. For a contemporary Westerner with self-esteem issues, even the word “˜confession’ tends to bring up emotions like shame and guilt, which can feel anything but prayerful. Yet praying your remorse remains one of the great sacred technologies for dissolving the shadows that keep you from feeling like you deserve your spiritual gifts. Admitting a mistake – when it comes from a place of real feeling, – is a kind of purificatory fire that melts obstructions, known and unknown, so that even when you start off feeling small and stuck and uncomfortable with yourself, you emerge feeling transparent and reunited with your best self.
Confession doesn’t have to be about what you’ve done wrong. You can confess your feelings of separation, or even practice what I call petitionary confession, as in “Please take away this fear, this cruelty, this feeling of unworthiness!” A confessional prayer is a form of housecleaning, a way of freeing up our inner space by letting go of the tendrils of regret and negative thinking.
In fact, in Hebrew, the word for ‘confess’ literally means revealing your inner state. So a confessional prayer might start by saying, “Here I am! I think I’ve been pretty loving today. I’ve done my best, and I’m opening my heart to grace!”
Through any of these forms of prayer, you can move from feeling the divine as separate to feeling communion or close relationship, to the experience of merging into the object of prayer. This is when prayer becomes a form of worshipful meditation.
In the deepest states of prayer, the prayer-states that the mystics describe, the sense of separation melts away altogether, and you find yourself immersed in the heart. Any prayer can lead you to that state. The key is to allow the prayer to unfold, to let extraneous thoughts go as soon as you realize you’re being distracted, and to cultivate a feeling state that is hard to describe but which we begin to recognize as open and prayerful.
Prayer is, in the deepest sense, a practice of relationship. More than getting what you “˜want’, more than improving your emotional state, the practice of prayer can show you how deeply and fully you are being taken care of, protected, and loved. At its best, prayer can reveal love as the ground of your life.
Putting It Together
You can use any one of these three forms of prayer alone. But most of the great prayer traditions recommend combining them, moving through them as stages and then moving beyond them.
1) Get Quiet
Begin prayer by sitting in a posture as for meditation. If you like, you can fold your hands in Anjali Mudra, the posture of prayer. It is not necessary to kneel.
Breathe into the heart, and connect your energy to the energy of the heart. The heart center is both the ‘seat’ of your subtle sense of existence and also the traditional center for communion with the divine.
As you place your awareness in the heart, don’t worry about whether your heart feels soft or open. One of the purposes of prayer is to help you move deeper into the heart. So start from where you are.
2) Greet and Offer Praise
Spend a moment or two setting the stage with a prayer of invocation, praise, or an offering of gratitude. You can take one from a traditional prayer, or make one up on the spot. The invocation can be as simple as “God, my maker, and source,” or “I offer my salutations to the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.” Or you can deeply contemplate the qualities of Universal Presence, of Consciousness, of God, and ‘name’ the ones that arise for you at this moment. The more personal you can make your prayers, the better.
3) Speak your truth
Acknowledge your interior truth for this moment. “I’m longing for connection.” Or “I’m having a really tough day,” or (this is my favorite) “I’m stuck and need some guidance.” Or “I saw something in myself that I’m not happy about.”
After that, take a moment to “‘plugin,’ or simply feel your aspiration for connection.
5) Make a Request
Once you sense a connection – even a little connection – make your request. The real secret of petitionary prayer lies in making sure you ask from a place of connection. With practice, you’ll learn to recognize those moments when you’re plugged in, and those moments when you’re not. You’ll also discover that the more you work with prayer, the easier it becomes to plug in.
Make your request clearly, without shame. Don’t be afraid to mix up ‘great’ requests with small personal ones. Just make sure that you stay connected. And when you’ve completed your request, say thank you.
6) Let Go
Take a couple of minutes to let go of the words, let go of the wanting, and allow yourself to simply be present in the feeling state that has arisen , whatever it is. This is the moment when you open yourself to intimacy with Presence, Essence, Spirit – when your feeling of being separate and disconnected from the universe and wanting can melt. Christian contemplatives call this ‘communion’. For me, getting to this point is sometimes like tuning a radio: you move the dial this way and that, until there’s a moment when the band clicks in, and you’re suddenly getting reception. You know that your communication has gotten through. You’ve been, in some way, met.
A friend told me, “This moment of connection is what makes me feel my prayer has been answered. I reach a certain intensity of feeling, and that’s the fruit of the prayer.” In other words, at this point there’s not really any question of praying for anything. You’re simply resting in prayer, as you might rest in meditation or in an asana.
7) Immerse yourself in the sacred
At this point, if you let yourself sit for a while, you may find yourself segueing into what I call deep prayer, prayer as immersion in the sacred, prayer as silence. At this level, you stop striving, and enter a state where words merge into feeling.
All the spoken forms of prayer – petition, praise, and confession – can lead you to that inner state of connection. The secret is to be willing and ready to go there, to track the signals that it’s time to let go of words, and to allow yourself be in stillness.