What is the relationship between meditation and prayer?
It’s a question that comes up a lot in contemporary spiritual circles, especially now, as yoga and other Eastern meditative practices become more mainstream in the West. Recently, I have been conducting a little comparative study through my own practice, and I wanted to share some of my initial findings and insights.
What is the relationship between prayer and meditation?
For a long time, I wondered about the relationship between prayer and meditation. My own practice developed in an eastern context, through spending 13 years living in an ashram, studying and practicing meditation in the tradition of Advaita Vedanta.
In meditation, I discovered a part of myself that was limitless, sacred and invincible. It was a part of me that couldn’t be tarnished by the world of time and experience. It was silent, whole and inherently peaceful. In that place, I wanted nothing at all. Through meditation, I found what I understood to be God, a place of perfect contentment within.
After this discovery, I struggled with the idea of prayer. If God is infinite and resides in the deepest part of me, to whom or what would I pray? Am I praying to myself? That seems kind of weird. Or, is there some lofty and mysterious patriarch on high that I am petitioning through prayer? That seems kind of old. Given my own understanding and discoveries through Advaita Vedanta, I just couldn’t relate to the Judeo/Christian notion of a God outside of myself.
Discovering The Three Faces of God
But then I discovered the work of philosopher Ken Wilber, and his very insightful Integral Theory. In Ken’s work, he provides us with three valid ways to relate to God or Spirit via three different perspectives. As author Karen Kelly describes it in her Unity Magazine article, Three Faces of God, “These perspectives determine whether we address God in the first, second, or third person:
- First Person: God as Ground of Being is the First Face of God. It is the experiential “I”—God within us, or God immanent.
- Second Person: God as an entity to whom we relate and pray to is the Second Face. It is God as “Thou” or “You”.
- Third Person: God present in the manifest world as the Web of Life, as Nature, as All That Is, is the Third Face. It is the ‘He/She/It’ and is understood through our senses.”
Ken has written about the Three Faces of God extensively in his book, Integral Spirituality. If you want a short audio primer on it, I recommend you look up Ken Wilber on Spotify and listen to his interview with Tami Simon on “The 1-2-3 of God.”
The Power of Prayer to Deepen Meditation
What Ken’s insight helped me to find was a valid way to relate to prayer as just another way to access spirit. How could 2.1 billion Christians and 1.5 billions Muslims, be wrong? So recently, I started praying before meditation to explore that modality of spiritual practice and see if it bore fruit.
My basic approach is simple. It’s modeled after the Jewish practice of Hitbodedut, a kind of informal, spontaneous, and personal conversation with God.
I can’t say enough about how powerful this practice is. Before I meditate, I sit down alone in a quiet place on my cushion, and I just talk out loud to God. I share my aspirations, my goals, and my concerns. I ask God to watch out over my loved ones, and I share what’s on my mind. Sometimes, I just talk to God about God and express my gratitude for being healthy and alive. It’s a lot like talking to my best friend.
And what I found is that doing this before meditation has deepened my practice significantly. In a way, talking to God leaves me empty. After Hitbodedut, it is easier to let go of everything and free-fall into infinite space.
My initial findings from this metaphysical field study, in addition to the helpful insights from Wilber’s Integral Theory, have started to clear up my confusion. Meditation and prayer are not mutually exclusive. Clearly, these two modes of spiritual practice serve different functions, but both feel important, enriching, and mutually supportive.
Here are a few ways that I observe the prayer influencing my meditation practice and daily life:
Mindfulness: Throughout the day, I am more attentive to the still quiet place I discover in meditation. I am more mindful.
Selflessness: I find myself more concerned about others and aware of their problems, as much as my own.
Love: I think about love. What is it? Am I expressing enough of it?
Meditation: Meditation is deeper, richer, and I drop into formless awareness faster.
Connection: I feel less alone. I’m not so much aware of God as other but more God as wing man. A partner in crime who is seeing what I see, thinking what I think, knowing what I know, but with a billion times more nuance and subtlety than me. (I am obviously the wing man in this equation, but you get the drift.)
Now, I look back to the views I held about prayer from just a few weeks ago, and they seem kind of small and a little silly to me. Sure, I love my own tradition, but what a difference it makes to cut a new groove and embrace a new perspective.
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