I was going to call this post “How to Pray,” but that seemed inappropriate. I can’t give you an exhaustive overview of prayer, or even tell you the best way to pray. I can only share what I’ve tried, and what I’ve found to be valuable.
I’ve mentioned that I grew up in a praying family. We weren’t outspoken, testifying, evangelical Christians, but there was never any doubt: Prayer was necessary, prayer was powerful, and prayer was the best way to build a right relationship with God. As I grew away from my religious beliefs, I hung onto prayer because it was so familiar. Maybe it was like those last mementos from childhood that you cart around with you in a box to every home you live in – never unpacking them, but never throwing them out. Except I did unpack prayer, and still consciously use it.
The first thing I discarded, however, was the idea that I had to close my eyes or bend my head or get on my knees. I understand where those ritual fragments come from – they’re remnants of the belief that God is so great, so huge, so overwhelming, that the believer must shield their eyes and prostrate themselves in God’s presence. And make no mistake – I do believe that relating to archetypal energy is like walking into a high voltage area. It can injure or even kill you if not respected and related to carefully. I also don’t necessarily think that prostration is a bad thing. To me it speaks of humility, of openness, and a willingness to allow for the existence (and importance) of something larger than the ego. But I don’t personally feel that God or Source or our larger self should be approached with fear.
I also discarded the idea that I had to use special words – church-like words – to pray. For several months when I was a university student, I became involved with a group of proselytizing students who were exuberant and joyful in their faith. Prayer sessions with them were like easy, casual, and conversational monologues. I even remember one of the leaders breaking into spontaneous praise while walking across campus, or in the middle of conversation. From all of this I learned that prayer could be personal and intimate – like hanging out with a best friend.
In fact, I’ve found that prayer doesn’t need words at all. Some of my favorite prayers have been wordless songs, or beautiful vistas, or delicious scents, or long walks, or kitchen dances. The simplest and most satisfying kind of prayer is often just plain presence.
While prayer can happen anytime, and any place, over the years I’ve come to cherish a regular prayer practice. It doesn’t happen every day – or even at the same time every day – but it has elements of ritual, and I look forward to it as a time apart from everyday living. I’ve found that if I treat prayer like a nourishing meal that I’m hungry for and look forward to, it feds me in a deeper way than scattered and happenstance random prayer.
When I pray, I stop. I get quiet, and turn inward. I set an intention to move closer in spirit and vibration to Source energy. I practice stepping aside from the crazy demands of my ego, and I ask, “What is the truest expression of this life I have been gifted with?” “Where does the energy want to go?” (I listen to my dreams for clues to this.) “What is the highest good?” “How can I serve life?”
Sometimes I read a poem, or listen to a song, or reflect on a work of art. Sometimes I contemplate a question, or a recent experience. Sometimes I hold up in my mind’s eye an image of someone I love – as well and as vibrant as they were born to be. Always I wait for a response – which could be a vision, or some words, or a feeling. (I realize this is wandering into pretty trippy territory, but I’ve decided to be completely honest here: I see visions. I hear voices and music inside my head. I sense energy patterns. I also get hunches and gut hits. I’ve learned to pay attention to all of them.) Sometimes the answer is no answer. “Ask again later,” as the Magic Eight Ball says.
I wish I could say that prayer was always calming, or centering, or always left me with a zen-like peace. It doesn’t. But like all ritual, it leaves me transformed. And whole, if I’m lucky. The best part is trying to carry some of that wholeness back into the rest of my life.
Do you pray? Have you ever reflected on your prayer practice? Does it nourish you? Do you long to fine-tune it?
If I’ve left you interested in prayer, but still feeling totally unsure what to do next, here are some suggested resources you might want to check out. Anything by Rumi is a delight to read, and a doorway to the ecstatic.
You dance inside my chest
where no one sees you
but sometimes I do,
and that sight becomes this art.
Every day I Pray by Iyanla Vanzant was my lifeline the first year I lived alone in Toronto – a city where I knew almost no-one.
Reading Opening to You: Zen-Inspired Translations of the Psalms by Norman Fischer is a way to make a prayer practice feel a bit more formal, a bit more legitimate. Neither of which are required, but sometimes a good place to begin.
Earth Prayers from Around the World and The Bridge of Stars are two books that I found in remainder bins, and consult often. Honestly though? Just explore. Find what feels good, and right. Make your own prayers. Play.