Creating Ritual: Prayer
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass, how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields, which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done? ~Mary Oliver
I was not raised religious, or even spiritual. We did not say grace at our dinner table nor did we engage any type of regular practice or prayer. We celebrated Easter & Christmas as secular holidays and there was never any mention of God or the divine in my home, except perhaps as a topic that was worthy of certain suspicion and inquiry. There were many reasons for this, not the least being that I believe my Mother was quite sour on the topic of religion since she was raised Roman Catholic in a way that had more to do with toeing the line and doing what was expected rather than tapping into the heart of devotional practice. I don’t think this was an uncommon experience for children of her generation, children whose parents had lived through the horrors of the Second World War and who were no doubt grappling with their own suspicions about the existence of God, and I imagine that their parents (my great grandparents) also had their own doubts having lived through the First Great War of the 20th Century.
I am a child of potentially three generations of European Canadians that were not necessarily anchored in a deep relationship to the divine. This ambivalence towards religious practice actually offered me an opportunity to explore my own path. I have been fortunate enough to have been born at a time of great religious freedom, tolerance, and curiosity. I can choose to explore any spiritual path that interests me without fear of prosecution or familial disapproval. I realize not everyone is so fortunate and I am grateful for the fact that I have been able to question what type of relationship I personally want to cultivate with the divine- however I choose to define that concept for myself.
And yet the other side of having so much choice and freedom can also leave one feeling adrift without guidance. I think this is likely why so many people are drawn to religious traditions with strong rules and guidelines, as they are looking for a sense of surety in their spiritual practice. They want to be told what to do, how to do it, when to do it, and why to do it, as it is in many ways easier to follow along on a well-trodden path than to forge one’s own. But this can lead to a kind of blind faith that does not actually sustain us when the going gets tough. Our faith must be strong enough to include inquiry and questioning so that even within the guidelines and framework of our chosen spiritual tradition (if we work within one), we must still be able to find our own way. Once we can do that we are able to tap into a quality of faith that is bright, strong and true and that is not reliant on simple “belief”, for that will not take us very far (in my humble opinion).
I have always needed the proof of living experience to keep me going and I think that is why I have been drawn to spiritual traditions that are rooted in personal practice rather than those that simply demand belief. Certainly there is a quality of trust and faith that must be engaged when we begin our practices, we must have some sense that if it worked for our teachers then it will hopefully work for us as well, but not until we tap into something tangible, some result, do the practices truly become our own. This has been my experience with my practices of yoga and meditation, and with my relationship to personal prayer.
As a student of yoga & meditation, I have been taught to tap into the subtle current of awareness / consciousness that underlies my everyday waking reality, and I have felt gripped with an ecstatic joy that seems to arise from within independent of any specific cause. I have been taught various mantras and invocations, and I have spent many hundreds of hours studying various philosophies and points of view, some of which have completely altered the way I perceive myself and the world around me, liberating me from various kinds of suffering. But I have never been taught to pray. And a few years ago I found that prayer was what I was craving, prayer was what I felt was missing. So I began to read everything I could on the topic of prayer, I began to write prayers of my own, and I began to very shyly speak these prayers aloud when doing my personal practices. But it took a while for it to feel natural and to trust myself in creating this aspect of practice for myself.
What I have come to believe is that there are many ways to pray, just as there are many ways to engage in practices & rituals that bring us closer to ourselves and to the mystery of our lives.
For myself, I finally realized that I have had a long-standing relationship to prayer in and through my body. My practices of yoga asana and of running have always been a type of prayer. I also have a relationship to prayer through personal writing; my journals are full of my prayers- sometimes expressed as questioning, as a calling out for answers, many times expressed as gratitude, a heartfelt thank you for the gifts and challenges of my life. And I connect to the essence of prayer and reverence when walking in the woods, something I do daily. These things have always been there for me, but for the last few years, my prayers have also been spoken aloud each morning as part of my daily rituals, a simple and organic prayer that has meaning and resonance for me.
How I Pray
I will share my own practice here only because I have appreciated hearing how others outside of formal religious groups work with prayer, but I am not sharing this a prescription for how others should pray. I am quite sure we all must find our own way, our own words, and our own practices. I begin my morning prayers with an honoring of the Great Mother whom I relate to as the tangible reality of the natural world that surrounds me, and an acknowledgment of the Great Mystery, the power of Divine Consciousness that has many names and that I know I can never truly understand. I honour the Wise Guides whose unseen hands I have always felt at play in my life, and those ancestors of mine who support me on my journey. These ancestors may be part of my own family lineage, or may simply be human ancestors who have walked a similar path to my own and who offer a blessing force to me. Though I do not know their names I honour their presence.
I generally speak these words of prayer aloud with my hands on my heart, a gesture that both softens and grounds me. I ask for continued guidance and support so that I may walk my path with the qualities of heart that I strive to embody, and so another part of my prayer is a daily repetition of my personal Sankalpa or deep commitment. To me, a sankalpa is a personal vow, made at the level of the heart. It speaks to my Aim and my Intention. It is what anchors me and what I always come back to as the root inspiration for all that I do. I think we must have some kind of root intention or desire to guide us on our path of practice, and I believe it must be positive, something that acknowledges the qualities we wish to nourish & enliven in our lives – rather than something we want to change or fix.
I do not pray because I want to become a “more spiritual person”, I do not practice yoga because I want to “become fit”, I do not meditate because I want to “reduce stress”. All of these phrases somehow imply that I am less than. They imply that I am not spiritual enough, fit enough, or calm enough and that my practices will somehow “fix” these problems. This is not how I want to approach practice, this is not the relationship to practice I want to cultivate in my life. Rather I pray because it helps me to tap into the qualities of humility & wonder. I practice yoga because it supports me in cultivating a quality of Wholeness & Integration, and I practice meditation because it strengthens the qualities of awareness, sensitivity, compassion, & curiosity in my life, all qualities I want to continually expand. When I remind myself of this each and every day then it becomes less about what I do (in practice and in life), but how and shy I am doing it, which changes everything. Adding the ritual of a daily prayer that includes an honouring of my own relationship to the divine, and a statement of my own deep intent helps me to navigate my life with greater clarity and conviction. Prayer was the missing piece for me, and has now become one of my non-negotiable daily rituals without which I am much more likely to act in ways that are not sourced from the center of my being. And that is not how I want to live.
If you too want to explore bringing the ritual of prayer into your personal practices I suggest the following
- Give yourself permission to explore various types of prayer, be curious
- Investigate the prayers you were raised with and mine them for the words and phrases that have the most potency, make them yours
- Acknowledge the ways in which you already have a relationship to prayer in its many forms and use that to help shape your practice going forward
- Take some time to do some free writing about your relationship to prayer and all that it represents, let yourself speak without censorship and listen to what comes up
- Trust yourself and allow your practice to be natural, organic, and easy, let go the idea you must approach prayer in a stiff and formal way
- Cultivate a sense of pleasure and intimacy in regards to personal prayer and you may discover a practice that will support you in the most wonderful ways imaginable
I hope you found this article helpful or inspiring in some way and that your practices may be enriched as a result. From my heart to yours always.