The following excerpt is from Parmahansa Jagadish’s Worldwide “Prayer Project” 3 Minutes 3 Times A Day To Change the World (3×3).
Many of us turn the very idea of prayer into something so complicated, so ethereal, so mystical, that we can never hope to master it. I think before we begin to pray we must first understand it, so here is my very simple definition for making prayer a part of your daily life: Prayer, in its most fundamental sense, is a communication between a person and the Supreme Being.
All people, of all cultures, have a natural inclination to prayer; it is a human yearning that comes from deep within the soul. Prayer is the expression of a person’s spirituality—the profound awareness that there is an entity greater and more transcendent than the self and the order of things in the universe.
Gandhi had this to say about prayer: “Prayer is the very core of man’s life.”
There are two kinds of prayer: Prayer is either Petitional (i.e. you “petition” or ask for something, such as health or world peace), or in its wider sense, prayer is communication. In either case, the ultimate result is the same. Even when prayer is Petitional, the petition can be for the cleansing and purification of the soul, for freeing it from the layers of ignorance, suffering and darkness that envelops it.
Now that you know what prayer is, here is what prayer isn’t: Prayer is no mere exercise of words or of the ears; it is no mere repetition of empty formula. Do not enter into prayer by rote, merely reciting the same words over and over again without yearning to understand them; without yearning to feel them.
When it comes to prayer, it is said that, “It is better to have a heart without words than words without a heart.” In other words, genuine prayer must be in clear response to the spirit which hungers for it.
Prayer is also an effective means of bringing orderliness, peace and repose into our daily acts. When we pray, it’s an act of centring ourselves, of pulling ourselves out of our heads and back into our hearts. This central act of prayer, in turn, allows us to see the world through our hearts in a fresh, new and loving way; a world that’s now more peaceful and conscious. Take care of the vital things, it is said, and the other things will take care of themselves.
Since the earliest records of history, all cultures all over the world have used religion and prayer to express their spirituality. The concept of a Supreme Being may differ from one religion to another, but all religions hold that the Supreme Being is merciful and compassionate and the most capable of love. All ascribe to the Supreme Being’s all-knowingness and all power over humanity and nature, over health and disease. Different cultures have given different names to this Supreme Being, with God being the most prevalent in the West.
Prayer is the most common spiritual ritual and is practiced by billions of people all over the world. All cultures offer up prayers in one form or another, especially in periods of trials and tribulations and as life nears its end. Even Buddhism, which does not posit a “person God” as creator, makes prayer a core practice in its spiritual traditions.
Motivations for prayer
Why do people pray? What motivates us to bend a knee or move our lips in prayer? The reasons are many, but universal. In the Bhagavad Gita (7:16), Krishna says (as a manifestation of the Supreme Being) that there are four different types of people who turn their minds to God. Notice these are not listed in any particular order, nor is one necessarily placed higher in importance than the next:
1. The seeker of solace from distress
2. The seeker of knowledge
3. The seeker of wealth
4. The wise
Which are you? Most feel there is no wrong reason to pray! Here are six of the most common types of prayer:
Petitional prayer – To petition the Supreme Being for a specific request, in many cases for personal healing.
Intercessory prayer – To intercede with the Supreme Being on behalf of others.
Adoration prayer – To praise and glorify the Supreme Being.
Ritual prayer – To participate in communal rites to honour the Supreme Being.
Meditative prayer – To contemplate the divine and to experience unity with the Supreme Being.
Colloquial prayer – To converse with the Supreme Being as if talking with a friend.
Any reason for engaging in prayer is valid. The Supreme Being can accommodate any motivation for prayer. The important thing is that a person turns his or her mind to God, The Great Spirit, the enlightened mind.
Prayer costs nothing and it’s risk-free; prayer is simple, fruitful and beneficial. Prayer is the most readily accessible spiritual path in humanity’s search for meaning and in the effort to make sense of a world that sometimes (if not often) seems incredibly cruel, senseless and unjust.
People turn to prayer in their deep hunger for the spiritual. Many people feel spiritually starved and are searching for something to feed them and end this gnawing hunger.
Finding our true self through prayer
The more enlightened reason for prayer is that the person seeks to please God and/or desires to attain purification and a relationship with the Divine, the enlightened mind, or true nature—thereby achieving the realization of his or her own enlightened nature.
Most spiritual traditions believe a person is covered by layers of impurities, which represent the false images of self that one has grown up with and the false satisfactions one develops to achieve happiness.
Too often, we grow up with the impression that to be lovable we must possess something other people will admire—success, achievements, wealth, and so forth. This is the false self that we grow up with, and this is the false Self that we need to identify in order to liberate ourselves from it.
Much of our current state of unhappiness and stress can be linked to this false image of self; this constant racing around in search of an identity that is not our own, that was never intended for us.
The false self stands on the premise that we are not lovable in ourselves, but rather for the things we do or achieve. The result is that we live in the manner that we think will please others; we work to fill out the image we have created in others, even when it may feel contrary to our own beliefs or innermost emotions. This belief is contrary to the concept that man is made in the image of God, or even the idea that “God does not make junk.”
If we could only realize that we are totally loved by God simply for the reason that we are, then we would not have to set up false images of ourselves to present to others in the futile effort to convince them of our worth. Most of us have not acquired such freedom from the false self, and instead spend endless days trying to make up—or even cover up—for this un-integrated, hollow part of ourselves.
This false self can be dismantled so that the true self can come out and live in fullness. The process of dismantling this false self is the object of the purification that we seek in prayer; the process of liberating the true self is what we hope to attain in self-realization and union with the enlightened mind. The death of this false self is the meaning of the Christian gospel passage that says, “Anyone who wants to save his life will lose it; but anyone who loses his life for my sake will save it.” (Mark 8:35)
In his book The New Man, Thomas Merton says, “Self -realization is less an awareness of ourselves than it is an awareness of the God to whom we are drawn in the depths of our own being.” Merton says we are able to experience our real selves only when we are able, through prayer, to transcend ourselves and centre our soul upon the God who is the source of life.
The more profound reason for praying, then, is to seek the assistance of the Divine to help us fully realize our true selves, to help us stop being identified with the false self, which God did not create, and to help the true self, which God did create, break free from the shackles of such limited self-consciousness and identification.
In this profound yearning for the true self, we realize that we no longer pray for our own benefit; rather, we pray for the benefit of all others, our brothers and sisters in creation.
In seeking our true selves, we transcend the individual self and unite with the Supreme Being, who transcends all creation. Through prayer, we are set on the spiritual path to Illumination, to purification of all selfishness, greed for material things, anger and fear and the tendency to do harm to others.
From individual purification and self-realization, it is a small step to also pray that all others may also be purified and attain self-realization. We may pray especially that this divine gift of illumination be received by those who hold any sort of power in their hands—political, financial, religious, and spiritual power, for example.
This is why The Prayer Project is so vital in our world right now. The worship of the false self has never been greater, in my estimation; we worship celebrities over politicians; cherish outer beauty over inner beauty; ignore scandal and reward bad behaviour. When prayer is used for purification and self-realization, it truly does hold the power for world change.
What are your thoughts about prayer? If you pray, what kind of prayer do you prefer?
image: man praying via Shutterstock