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March 21, 2023

Prayer for Postmoderns: Part 2

Prayer, if you remember to do it, will kindle your sense of the sacred, the sense of being held or taken care of by the universe.

by Sally Kempton

Prayer, as anyone who does it regularly knows, is a path in and of itself. What we saw last week is that the great prayer masters didn’t really care how you pray. The main thing is that you feel connected when you’re praying. Prayer, if you remember to do it, will kindle your sense of the sacred, the sense of being held or taken care of by the universe.

Last week, we talked at length about the Asking Prayer, the prayer of petition. This week, we’ll look at two other forms of prayer, and at the most inward form of prayer. Then we’ll put it all together.

Prayer as Appreciation

Appreciative prayer includes every moment when we say thank you for the beauty in nature, or for the blessings in our life. It also includes every formal traditional prayer, from the Book of Psalms to the thousand names of Allah to the Rig Veda, as well as the highly creative practice of the monk Brother Lawrence, who simply spent the whole day talking to God.

Prayers of praise, appreciation, and gratitude feel good. They invite you into sacred feeling states, and can inject something ecstatic into even a downer moment. Try walking around with the prayer that a Bengali saint used, “Thank you, Mother, for becoming all this!” or just saying “Thank you” when you see something beautiful. Try saying “Thank you” when you’re able to be of service, or just because you woke up this morning. As your appreciation prayer becomes habitual, you begin to feel more and more intimate with your life and the people in it. Your friends and partners will open up when they feel appreciated. So does the universe, in ways you can’t know until you see it happening.

Prayers of Contrition

Less joyful, but equally profound as a means of connecting to the sacred, is the prayer of remorse and confession. Of course, every religious tradition has a formula for saying “I blew it. I’m sorry. Please forgive me and help me make amends.” And formal confessional prayer can be sheer ritual, and a distracted one at that.

Yet again, it’s a matter of connection. If you can fully enter into it, that moment of confession and contrition can be deeply life changing. Current yoga culture tends to overlook the spiritual power of remorse, perhaps because it’s a reminder of the sin-and-repentance, self-castigating mold of our Puritan ancestors. For a contemporary Westerner with self-esteem issues, even the word ‘confession’ tends to bring up emotions like shame and guilt, which can feel anything but prayerful. Yet praying your remorse remains one of the great sacred technologies for dissolving the shadows that keep you from feeling like you deserve your spiritual gifts. Admitting a mistake—when it comes from a place of real feeling—is a kind of purifying fire that melts obstructions, known and unknown, so that even when you start off feeling small and stuck and uncomfortable with yourself, you emerge feeling transparent, re-united with your best self.

Confession doesn’t have to be about what you’ve done wrong. You can confess your feelings of separation, or even practice what I call petitionary confession, as in “Please take away this fear, this cruelty, this feeling of unworthiness!” Confessional prayer is a form of housecleaning, a way of freeing up our inner space by letting go of the tendrils of regret and negative thinking.

In fact, in Hebrew, the word for ‘confess’ literally means revealing your inner state. So a confessional prayer might start by saying, “Here I am! I think I’ve been pretty loving today. I’ve done my best, and I’m opening my heart to grace!”

Deep Prayer

Through any of these forms of prayer, we can move from feeling the divine as separate, to feeling communion or close relationship, to the experience of merging into the object of prayer. This is when prayer becomes a form of worshipful meditation.

In the deepest states of prayer, the prayer-states that the mystics describe, the sense of separation melts away altogether, and you find yourself immersed in the heart. Any prayer can lead you to that state. The key is to allow the prayer to unfold, to let extraneous thoughts go as soon as you realize you’re being distracted, and to cultivate the felt sense that you’ll begin to recognize when you pray.

Prayer is, in the deepest sense, a practice of relationship. More than getting what you ‘want’, more than improving your emotional state, the practice of prayer can show you how deeply and fully you are being taken care of, protected, and loved. At its best, prayer can reveal love as the ground of your life.

Putting All This Together

You can use any one of these three forms of prayer alone. But most of the great prayer traditions recommend combining them, moving through them as ‘stages’ or steps, and then moving beyond them.

Get Quiet. Begin prayer by sitting in a posture as for meditation. If you like, you can fold your hands in anjali mudra, the posture of prayer. It’s not necessary to kneel. Breathe into the heart, and connect your energy to the energy of the heart. The heart center is both the ‘seat’ of your subtle sense of existence, and also the traditional center for communion with the Presence.

As you place your awareness in the heart, don’t worry about whether your heart feels soft or open. One of the purposes of prayer is to help you move deeper into the heart. So start from where you are.

Stage 1: Invoking through Praise or Gratitude. Spend a moment or two setting the stage with a prayer of invocation, praise, or an offering of gratitude. You can take one from a traditional prayer, or make one up on the spot. The invocation can be as simple as “God, my maker and source,” or “I offer my salutations to the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.” Or you can deeply contemplate the qualities of Universal Presence, of Consciousness, of God, and ‘name’ the ones that arise for you at this moment. The more personal you can make your prayers, the better.

Stage 2: Confession. Acknowledge your interior truth for this moment. “I’m longing for connection,” or “I’m having a really tough day,” or (this is my favorite) “I’m stuck and need some guidance,” or “I saw something in myself that I’m not happy about.”

Stage 3: Plug In. After that, take a moment to ‘plug in,’ to connect to the heart, or simply to feel your aspiration for connection.

Stage 4: Make a Request. Once you sense connection—even a little connection—make your request. The real secret of petitionary prayer lies in making sure you ask from a place of connection. With practice, you’ll learn to recognize those moments when you’re plugged in, and those moments when you’re not. You’ll also discover that the more you work with prayer, the easier it becomes to plug in.

Make your request clearly, without shame. Don’t be afraid to mix up ‘great’ requests with small personal ones. Just make sure that you stay connected. And when you’ve completed your request, say thank you.

Stage 5: Let Go. Take a couple of minutes to let go of the words, let go of the ‘wanting,’ and allow yourself to simply be present in the feeling state that has arisen. Whatever it is. This is the moment when you open yourself to intimacy with Presence, Essence, Spirit—when your feeling of being separate and disconnected can melt. Christian contemplatives call this ‘communion.’ For me, getting to this point is sometimes like tuning a radio: you move the dial this way and that, until there’s a moment when the band clicks in, and you’re suddenly getting reception. You ‘know’ that your communication has gotten through. You’ve been, in some way, met.

A friend told me, “This moment of connection is what makes me feel my prayer has been ‘answered.’ I reach a certain intensity of feeling, and that’s the fruit of the prayer.” In other words, at this point there’s not really any question of praying ‘for’ anything. You’re simply resting in prayer, as you might rest ‘in’ meditation, or rest in asana.

Deep Prayer. At this point, if you let yourself sit for a while, you may find yourself segueing into what I call deep prayer, prayer as immersion in the sacred, prayer as silence. At this level, you stop striving, and enter a state where words merge into feeling.

All the spoken forms of prayer—negotiation or petition, praise, and confession—can lead you to that inner state of connection. The secret is to be willing and ready to go there, to track the signals that it’s time to let go of words, and let yourself be in stillness.

Sally Kempton, formerly known as Swami Durgananda, is recognized as a powerful meditation guide and as a spiritual teacher who integrates yogic philosophy with daily life. She is the author of the best-selling book Meditation for the Love of It, and writes the popular Wisdom column for Yoga Journal. She is a teacher in the tantric tradition of Kashmir Shaivism, conducts workshops and retreats on its applied philosophy, and is also a core founder and faculty of iEvolve: Center for World Spirituality. You can find Sally’s personal website at www.SallyKempton.com


Center for World Spirituality presents…

In partnership with Awakening the Bay and Bay Area Integral

We live in a context where many of us have outgrown traditional forms of religion. This means that pre-modern, ethnocentric versions of our world’s traditions no longer have the capacity to meet our modern and postmodern needs. The integrative space of a World Spirituality allows our great religious traditions to evolve from ethnocentric to world-centric, and even to kosmocentric consciousness. World Spirituality allows us all to move forward together, beyond the limitations of traditional religion, while still embracing all of the valuable insights and gifts of the past.

That’s why we are delighted to invite you to World Spirituality Annual Practice Retreat of Love and Activism – Evolutionary Integral Relationships with Dr. Marc Gafni, Sally Kempton, Terry Patten, Warren Farrell, Mariana Caplan, Decker Cunov, Dustin DiPerna, & Marcy Baruch, July 17th – 24th in Berkeley, California.

Our annual practice retreat of love and activism is itself an example of World Spirituality practice: it is designed to engage you cognitively, inter-personally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. We will employ a balance of theoretical and experiential, as well as individual and group, learning sessions—all woven together into a vital, comprehensive, and balanced awareness.

We will also focus on helping you develop and strengthen your own World Spirituality practice. Each day will consist of deep engagement in dharma (spiritual teachings), practice, and experiential and relational exercises, including:

  • Meditation
  • Prayer Reloaded
  • Chant & Kirtan
  • Yoga, Psyche, & Movement
  • Sacred Text Study: An Integral Approach
  • Practice of Enacting a “Higher We”

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  1. Thanks for such a wonderful article. Both part I & II. I have lately been looking at my prayers and the different types of it. You have summarized them very well. Thank you!
    I like your articles on yoga journal too.

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