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May 28, 2023

Prayer for Postmoderns: Part 1

So why would a postmodern yogi pray? For at least three reasons: One, because prayer softens the armor around your heart, and actually helps you receive grace…

by Sally Kempton

Let’s start with full disclosure: I pray for parking spaces. In fact, I pray for a lot of things. Some of my prayers could be called spiritually correct. I pray for deeper love; I pray for enlightenment; I pray for people in trouble. I pray for my actions to be of benefit to all and for an end to human suffering.

But I’ll also pray for a workshop to go well or for answers to a problem I can’t solve. Sometimes I pray for the fun of it, or because I feel bad about something I’ve done and am hoping the universe will extend forgiveness. And, when I’m circling a block in downtown San Francisco or New York City, I pray for a space to open up for me. A lot of the time, it works.

Mostly though, I pray because it’s the most direct practice I know for communicating intimately with the divine. Prayer creates connection, sometimes with almost shocking immediacy, to the grace-flow of the universe. That’s why the great prayer practitioners, like Rumi or Teresa of Avila, tell us that it doesn’t matter what state we’re in, or even what our motive is when we begin prayer—as long as we’re willing to give it a go. “If you can’t pray sincerely, offer your dry, hypocritical prayer,” Rumi writes, “for God in his mercy accepts bad coin.”

That’s Rumi’s point. When it comes to prayer, it’s come as you are. You don’t have to be pious; you don’t have to be ‘good’. You don’t even have to believe your prayer will work. Just do it, hang in with it, and eventually you’ll get connected.

Prayer—especially the kind of prayer where you ask God for favors—has a mixed reputation in my world, where many people tend to be postmodern, skeptical yoga practitioners or Buddhist meditators. For some of my yogi-friends and students, it simply feels too religious. Some of us also suspect that prayer is useless, at best a sort of spiritual placebo. (Studies on healing prayer have yet to establish any sort of scientific correlation between prayer and healing, though there is ample anecdotal evidence in favor.)

But mostly the issue is who or what we’re addressing when we pray. Prayer implies a divine authority, and a lot of us have issues with authority, not to mention issues with God. We come to the relationship with God still carrying baggage from our relationships with our parents as well as from their attitudes about religion.

I’ve noticed that students whose parents came across as punishing or judgmental, will tend to have a visceral belief that God is also judgmental. If our parents were uncaring, or if we felt abandoned by them, we’ll probably have a hard time feeling that we can trust the universe. If they were indulgent, we’re likely to think of God as a benign cosmic uncle, and expect the universe to be constantly doing us favors. And if, like me, you were brought up and educated by modernists who assumed that evolutionary theory disposed of God way back in the 19th century, you might prefer to leave God out. It’s no accident that Zen, with its minimalist style and non-theistic approach to meditation, has been the spiritual path of choice for so many modern and postmodern Western intellectuals, scientists, and artists.

So why would a postmodern yogi pray? For at least three reasons: One, because prayer softens the armor around your heart, and actually helps you receive grace. As you get the hang of establishing connection in prayer, you’ll notice more and more how praying shifts your energy. Maybe you feel less hopeless, or less defensive, or more protected, or just calmer. Chances are that even that subtle shift will also make a difference in how your external situation plays out, even if the difference is very subtle.

Second, because prayer brings you into relationship with the sacred. When you pray, you get to show up in sacred space in your most personal, human, down-home way. You don’t have to be sophisticated, advanced, or particularly holy. Above all, you don’t have to act cool. You can speak your confusion, scream for help, express desires, say thank you, go “Wow,” or even complain. Above all, you can be needy. Rumi actually recommends sheer neediness as the key to opening up the channel between yourself and God. “What is bounty without a beggar?” he writes. “What is generosity without a guest? Be a beggar, for beauty is seeking a mirror, water is crying for a thirsty man!”

Another reason to pray is simply because prayer is a practice, and a deep, multi-leveled one, which you can do at any level of spiritual development. As a category, prayer takes in mantra repetition, chanting (the words we sing in kirtan are basically prayers of praise, not so different in content from a Pentecostal cry of “Praise the Lord!”), and the invocations sung at the beginning of a yoga class. (Try chanting ‘Om’ as a prayer, and notice how much more deeply it resonates!) In the Christian contemplative tradition, there’s a form of silent prayer where you center yourself in the heart and orient yourself toward the divine; this contemplative prayer is actually a practice of meditation.

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 soon!

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


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. Dear Sally,
    I’ve enjoyed your article immensely. I am with you when you describe prayer as that intimate relationship with God and noticing the sacredness of that relationship wherever and whenever you tune in. That’s a beautiful way to describe it.

    It is good for me to acknowledge when I petition that it isn’t always a “yes” or the way I want the end to go. Often it is a “no” as you say but if it always was a “yes” would we grow? Would we get to experience our Dark Night of the Soul? I think not. I myself struggled against those Dark Nights but have learned so much through them.

    I have to disagree with your statement, “Studies on healing prayer have yet to establish any sort of scientific correlation between prayer and healing though there is ample anecdotal evidence in favor.” I’ve been reading “Healing Words” by Larry Dossey, MD, who has cited many scientific studies on the healing effects of prayer, not only on humans but on fungus, rats, bacteria. Those are most compelling since obviously fungus, rats and bacteria cannot control the placebo effect with any kind of thought, positive or negative.

    Dossey also goes into a nice explanation of why there are the “yes” and “no” answers to those petitionary prayers. It’s a must read for anyone interested in prayer and praying.

    Wishing you the very best,

  2. thank you Sally for this and part II on prayer. For some reason after years of sadhana, I was not praying regularly. But after reading your articles, I have noticed that I am enjoying prayer, which is mostly gratitude, but also a context for clarifying what I really want.

    The other thing is that I am having a divine dialog with my self – whisperings of love, especially when the mind wants to judge. This is truly marvelous!

    Happy New Year!

  3. oh, and I love the praying for parking spaces – it really took the edge off praying right, if you know what I mean! Many years ago, a close friend told me about Sister Mary Frances, a catholic nun deity who is particularly tuned in to parking spaces (there’s a story but I don’t remember the details) – I picked this practice of praying to Sister Mary Frances back up after reading your article and it is without fail!

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