(This article was originally written for Wanderlust.com)
A few weeks ago, while poring over another medical study showing that mindfulness improves cardiovascular health, I came across something in the details. According to the data, a lot of us are praying. Yet an extensive survey recently found that the American public is becoming less religious.
Dr. John Younge and the rest of the study’s researchers made the uncommon decision to include ‘prayer’ as a mindfulness practice. Not only that, but they chose “only to include prayer that was not part of a group religion”—so as not to have the positive social aspect of group religion influence the results.
Of the 15,000 respondents who qualified as having a mindfulness practice, almost half said that this non-religious prayer was their activity. It wasn’t many in total—a little more than 1 percent of people surveyed in fact—but extrapolate that across the world’s non-religious population, and it could well end up being tens of millions of people. And if tens of millions of non-religious people are talking to their version of God as a daily practice, why are we not talking more about this? Do we believe that praying is only for the religious? Are we worried that we will be co-opted by a religion if we pray? This occurred to me last year, when my 97-year-old grandma—who has no patience for religion, but who has also never given a jot what people think of her—whispered to me over a cup of tea: “Don’t tell anyone… But I pray.”
“Prayer purifies, elevates, and transforms us. It awakens our souls.” – Michael Berg
Personally, I don’t consider myself part of a religion, but I am a pray-er. Since I was young, much to my atheist parents’ dismay, I just loved speaking to God. I had no idea who God was, or that “God” has religious connotations. Indeed, I had no idea what religion or “connotations” meant—I was only seven. But I felt “God’s” existence, and, given that God was apparently not at my house, or my school, prayer seemed the only means to be in touch.
“Dear God, I’m very thankful for this lovely family you gave me, but please can you come down from the sky and get me now?” was the nightly prayer I recited with my nose pressed against the bedroom window. And before falling asleep I would imagine myself curling up in the arms of one of the many images I had of God in my mind—An owl, the ocean, a faerie mermaid, the Kraken, a star, a giant egg, and three towering men with heads as made of cities.
Who are we praying to?
Over the years, when it became apparent that God was not sending a spaceship to collect me, I had to make the journey to her/him/it/them/us myself. And so the God of my prayers has changed names as I have studied and practiced my way through mystical and spiritual teachings. I’ve prayed to the Divine, the Universe, Oneness, the Great Mystery, the Mother, the I Am That I Am, Shiva, Krishna, Buddha, Jesus, Mary, Spirit, Allah, Source, and God again… Each one possesses different qualities for me but ultimately are all bridges that lead me to the same place.
Why do we pray?
Author Michael Berg says the reasons aren’t important. “Rather, realize that prayer is an immensely worthwhile end in itself: a spiritual tool for opening channels of Light… Prayer purifies, elevates, and transforms us. It awakens our souls,” he says in his book on Kabbalistic wisdom, The Way.
Prayer awakens my soul. While I cherish meditation for the expansion and peace that it brings me, prayer is the only practice I know of that allows me to express the vast love inside me that claws at my chest, yearning to get out. It is like my namaste on rocket fuel—an uncontrollable urge in me to bow down and say to the Universe, and to all who live in it: “Thank you, I love you, I love you, I love you….”
What are we praying for?
Brené Brown says she prays for love and light. Mark Nepo says he asks what use and bridge he can be. Gabby Bernstein encourages praying for guidance. Michael says to pray for others. And Meister Eckhart? According to this philosopher: “If the only prayer you said in your whole life was, ‘thank you,’ that would suffice.”
I’ve had my concerns about prayer. Does praying to God somehow mean we are placing this divinity outside of ourselves? Separating ourselves from the “source” in the way that religions do? I wrote to Deepak Chopra once to ask his opinion, and he assured me it was perfectly OK. “If one has a natural disposition for reverence and devotion, then it makes much more sense to be devoted to the Divine as an object rather than devotion to one’s divine self,” he said. Essentially, we should pray the way that suits us best.
Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, an 18th century scholar and mystic, goes as far as to say that prayer is actually how we discover that the presence of the Divine is inside of us—by endowing us with the power of prayer, God gives us the opportunity to experience His presence in the most intimate way. We discover this presence is not somewhere up in the sky when we look out from our window, but actually within ourselves.
If that is the case, then why wouldn’t we pray? It’s not only healthy for our hearts, it’s good for our souls.
How do we pray?
Over the years the expression of my prayers has evolved. During my time learning yoga, my prayers emerged as a sensual dance for Shiva. In my study of Sufism, my prayers expressed themselves as amateur guitar songs. Immersed in paganism, I planted my prayers in the form of flowers. Throughout Buddhism, the paintbrush was my medium. For Krishna, I have always chanted.
Palms together, kneeling down, in silence, out loud, singing, dancing, painting, chanting—while serving others, writing, gardening, in meditation, or upside down in headstand—it’s all a prayer if we intend it to be. Whatever we do to honor our hearts, and to find connection with whatever it is we believe in, is always—without exception—the perfect way to pray.