When I was in seminary we used to say that “prayer is for talking to God and meditation is for listening to God.”
The word “pray” didn’t used to be used only for religion. If you recall Shakespeare, his characters were often saying “I pray thee…” to each other when they wanted something.
So to pray in the traditional sense is to ask for something, to make a request, to express a desire or need or want or lack and ask for it to be filled, and, in a religious setting, we ask the divine to fill our request.
More and more people are using another form… , which they call “affirmative prayer,” or “gratitudes.” These prayers are not requests for something to happen but are expressions of appreciation that a desire has already been answered—and may be said whether the fulfillment has been experienced or not, as an act of faith that where the desire is, the fulfillment is also.
True prayer, however is a state of consciousness in which there is no asking or requesting, not even gratitude. Instead, there is a union of the individual mind with the divine Mind; the individual heart with the divine Love. In that state of being, there is no lack to be filled.
There’s as many ways to get to that state of consciousness as there are cultures and spiritual paths. My book Uncommon Prayer describes a few and provides resources. Briefly, though, all the words and rituals we know are designed to get us there.
Meditation may be one of them.
Meditation is a term that covers several kinds of activities.
- Mind-filling meditations use imagery or focus on an object or on breathing a certain way or the repetition of a word or phrase (in Sanskrit, mantra) to keep the mind focused and not wandering, free of the usual “chatter” or “internal dialogue” that flows through most of our minds most of the time.
- Mind-emptying meditations deliberately withdraw awareness from the senses, from the skin, from the body, from the thought, into nothingness: empty fullness.
- In the Christian tradition, one may meditate on the life of a saint or on the words of a prayer, like the Our Father, taking it line by line and following all the lines of thought that go with each word or phrase, filling one’s mind and heart with the richness of the ideas (this is more accurately called contemplation).
- The Sufis and many indigenous people use movement, e.g., harvest dances or “whirling dervishes” to facilitate meditative states.
Charles Fillmore used to encourage people to spend 30 minutes a day “listening expectantly” for some input from the divine. His own experience after the first year was that he hadn’t heard a thing, but his body felt better and his dreams (he did it last thing at night) were filled with inspirations for his business and relationships. Transcendental meditation instructors recommend 20 minutes of sitting and reciting a mantra morning and evening.
The goal of all these forms of meditation is to end one’s normal, egoic thought pattern so that a more beneficial pattern may operate in the mind, instead. Daily practice of meditation can lead to a cessation of negative thoughts and a deep, abiding peace of mind—as well as lowered blood pressure, more regular heart beat, and more harmonious interaction among various organs and hormones. (The book I co-authored with Robert Bruce Newman, Calm Healing, Methods for a New Era of Medicine, details the results of studies of the effects of meditation and provides some scripts for mind-filling meditations.)