Meditation vs. Prayer: A Great Debate

I suspect a lot of the apparent distaste for prayer in some Pagan circles arises from the same roots that the distaste for "theology" does: it has been assumed that it's something that Christianity has made a necessity of in religion, and which Christianity has dominated in general religious discourse. Therefore, it is deemed "not appropriate" to Paganism to engage with it, when in fact prayer (and theology!) have been in ancient Pagan practices from their very start. There is a great deal that can be critiqued in Christianity, of course, but I don't think the practice of prayer is one such matter. Yes, sometimes prayer is abused and misunderstood by Christians, but the notion or the activity itself is not something that is in any manner flawed or inadequate.

When I look at prayer as opposed to meditation, I see that there are some obvious things about each that have important implications that are often not considered as strongly as they ought to be, no matter what religious context in which they might be occurring. If prayer is external and meditation is internal, this means that silent meditation is perfectly permissible, but silent prayer is not—if one is silently praying, then one is probably meditating in actuality. Why is this? The only way that a silent prayer can be effective is if the deity to whom it is directed is at least somewhat omniscient. One of the important—and, in my opinion, beautiful—features of polytheist theological conceptions is that most (if not all) deities aren't truly omniscient. Even those divine figures that are described as being nearly such, like Math in the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi, only know all that the wind can carry to their ears, which thus means that something which isn't said aloud cannot be known. This means that our gods leave us to our own devices more often than not, and allow us the privacy and the sanctuary of our own internal thoughts and desires; thus, there is no reason nor need to have any guilt about them. It also means that if we do want something, such a desire has to be voiced and stated, and preferably stated clearly. This can be a frightening prospect for many people, to actually say what one wants, because it involves having to know what one wants first; but, it can also be a profoundly powerful experience to speak one's desires in this fashion.

In a devotional polytheist context, prayer is quite necessary, therefore, because it allows us to connect to the gods, spirits, and ancestors, and to develop reciprocal relationships with them. But what about meditation? If meditation is a more internal and introverted activity, whom does it serve and what does it do? This is where I suspect the difference between some new age approaches and Paganism (and the often uncomfortable crossover between them that some may not realize exists) comes into sharper focus. If, for the most part, the gods are not "in our heads" and have no insight into our own thoughts, then most types of meditation are not the arenas in which the gods play. Meditation, therefore, is a tool for personal enrichment and development, and a potentially very useful tool for that purpose; but, it doesn't really do much for the gods. If the results of meditation are that one becomes better able to work for and serve the gods, then it is useful as a practice in devotional polytheism; but if it only leads to self-aggrandizing feelings, a lack of connection to reality, or any other results which make one more interested in and absorbed with self than with the cosmos and the other beings in it, and developing real connections to the cosmos and the other beings in it, then it is not useful.

One area of meditation I've had some success with over the past five years is with what one might call "mantras." (No, I'm not a Hindu practitioner, nor do I claim that Hinduism and Paganism are necessarily even connected, though I've been influenced by many Hindu notions, and have taken part in a number of Hindu spiritual activities in different contexts.) The repetition of a verbal formula—whether aloud or internally, whether an intelligible phrase or a series of syllables, whether a singular or a series of divine names or simply a concept—can be very useful as a meditative practice, and I found myself doing this without even quite realizing what I was doing a number of years ago. Because I cannot read (or write) while traveling on moving vehicles, but I have commuted by bus for the past five years from an hour to up to six hours a day when I'm working, I have a lot of time that can't really be devoted to anything else. So, what I tend to do is listen to music, and some of it is kirtans of various sorts, which are themselves quite beautiful and effective. I adjusted the words of many of these to my own devotional purposes, and so when I hear some of them, I simply substitute my own lyrics for the desired effect. I've recently started doing some exercises in a gym, and have taken this mantra/kirtan practice with me in that as well, so that when I'm doing 25 minutes on the exercise bike, I'm also doing 25 minutes of my mantras.

2/10/2012 5:00:00 AM
P. Sufenas Virius Lupus
About P. Sufenas Virius Lupus
P. Sufenas Virius Lupus is a metagender and a founding member of the Ekklesía Antínoou (a queer, Graeco-Roman-Egyptian syncretist reconstructionist polytheist religious group dedicated to Antinous, the deified lover of the Roman Emperor Hadrian and other related gods and divine figures). E is a contributing member of Neos Alexandria and a Celtic Reconstructionist pagan in the filidecht and gentlidecht traditions. Follow Lupus' work on the Aedicula Antinoi blog.