Traditional prayer practice usually takes three forms: petition, confession, or praise. Any of these can be deployed separately, or together. Moreover, any one of them can be practiced in a routine or rote way, or in a deeply connected way. Any one can even lead to a deep awakening, to the experience of communion with the divine that in the yoga tradition is called darshan, or to a moment when you genuinely melt into oneness.
As with every practice, we can pray from a place of total separation, or duality—a small 'me' addressing a great big 'God' or 'Universe'. But we can also pray from a space of communion, recognizing the intimate connection between ourselves and the divine. And finally at the highest level, we can pray with the feeling and conviction that the God we address in prayer is our own Self, and that we 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 Ramakrishna Paramahansa once scolded his disciple Swami Vivekananda for not asking God to help his family. The renunciant 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 quite approve of the prayers of contemporary consumerists and serial daters. 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. As a practitioner, 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.
There are 'levels' of petitionary prayer. At the most basic level, this kind of prayer tends to be a combination of wheedling, nagging, and bargaining, and usually addresses some version of the parental God figure.
In Level One Petitionary Prayer, the offering of prayer is your part of the deal ("I'll acknowledge you by praying, you respond by taking care of me"), though you might also offer something more concrete—good behavior, maybe, or some kind of sacrifice—"If I get into Yale, I'll tutor inner city kids all summer." In fact, making 'deals' in prayer is an old tradition—think of the offerings made in temples. When you bargain with God by making offerings, you intuitively recognize one of the laws of nature, which is that we can't receive without giving or letting go of something.
There are two common problems here. One comes when you approach your prayers like a haggler in a Middle Eastern market, or like the man in my favorite story about prayer. He loses a valuable ring and prays for its return, offering 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!"
The other problem with 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 deeper. And that doesn't necessarily mean going belly up and murmuring "Your will be done." A serious petitionary prayer practitioner brings everything into his prayers, and can turn even anger at the universe into a prayerful attitude. "Why do they call you benevolent, Lord?" sang a saint of India. "What have you ever done for your devotees but bring hardship?" 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 is that they are come out of a profound sense of relationship. They are addressed to a Higher Power whom the practitioners feel they know, with whom they have a relationship. You don't scream at God if you don't feel that God is real, nor unless you have a genuine, fully felt, emotional connection.
So, prayer at Level Two is prayer as 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.
At this point, our prayer practice will often become less petitionary, and more appreciative.
And about this, more next week!