Meditation, Mantras, and Prayer
For the longest time I used to say that prayer and meditation were basically the same thing just having different names just like different religions. I was raised Catholic and at that time I considered myself a Catholic who had truly meditated. In reality I had dabbled in meditation as part of a college class on Buddhism and so I thought I knew what was up. The knowledge of the Buddha and his similarities to Jesus Christ inspired me to share my experiences when I returned home from school that year. The sad truth is that my new reverence for the Buddha was not well met and due largely to ridicule and rejection by my mother for what I had found, I chose to stop pursuing a deepening of knowledge for Buddhist ways and beliefs, meditation included. So after only a semester of study and trying to meditate just a handful of times I quit, to ease the pain of non-acceptance at home. It was in this place that I formed an agreement to a popular misconception about meditation and prayer being equivalent practices.
Fast forward about 8 or 9 years, and I am no longer living with my parents every summer waiting for school to start. I'm now married, an architect working in a marketing position, working out a few times a week, and religiously video gaming almost all of my spare time away. I was tired, frustrated, and feeling empty. I had spent so much time and energy fighting to become an architect to be stuck in a position that appeared to have no architectural design for me in the near future. I had been at this new job a little over a year and I was miserable. During that year I prayed often, about daily or weekly for a relief to my situation. I held conversations with god, I asked for what I needed, I recited the rosary or just said a prayer or two, like the Jabez Prayer. It felt as though nothing was happening and I realized it didn't seem that prayer was working for me.
I thought about the last time I was happy and felt whole and I realized it was that time during and just after studying Buddhism. So I began reading about it again and decided to start meditating. Somehow I came across and bought Jack Kornfield's Guided Meditations CD set. I began listening to them every morning. It was during one of those sessions that I realized architecture was not my calling. That I was never truly happy doing it. That it was a struggle and a fight because it wasn't me, it was just something I fell into because I wanted to make my parents proud. I saw the ugly and disorder in my thought pattern and it scared me to see that was a part of me and so I stopped listening to the CDs, again I stopped meditating. Yet the knowledge that I wasn't where I felt I should be kept nagging me. I started exploring different careers on topics of interest to me at the time and after a few false starts I realized it was yoga. In that training I learned how to meditate and how to instruct meditation and hold space for meditators. That experience got me started meditating again.
Fast forward another 6 years to the time of this writing. I am now a full time mom and a part time yoga teacher. I am doing the work I feel called to do and as a result I'm living with much more day to day ease, an ease that keeps growing with each passing day. Somewhere along the past 6 years I learned to not be afraid of the dark lurking within. Rather I learned to confront it, to look at and watch it, to decide as the witness if that line of thought served me well or not. I began to release those patterns which were not serving me. I began to see various abusive bullying relationships around me for what they were and thus eventually became able to free myself of them. I began the long work of forgiving myself for the regrets of past behaviors brought on by unhealthy habits and thinking. I began to experience peace, a connection with myself, a loving and committed feeling for finding and staying who I really am. I grew stronger in spirit. While I still have down times, worries, and all things human, I'm now more able to confront those times head on and navigate the tumultuous waters of life with a more stable boat. That boat is meditation.
What I came to realize in all this is the key difference between meditation and prayer. That difference is the mindset created within you. Generally when you pray you are asking an outside thing, usually a deity to come and help/bless/rescue you from a situation. While surrendering yourself to a higher power, the will of the universe, the situation, etc. can all be beneficial, the repetitive task of praying on or for something can be self-limiting. At its core prayer has you consciously repeating the thought pattern around a desire or misery as a conversation with a deity, or in conjunction with a prescribed text, or both. In doing this you are further entrenching that train of thought, in some cases to the level of obsession, which in the end may not be serving you at all.
This is fundamentally different from meditation. In meditation you are seeking to remove yourself from your thoughts and reside as a witness in the quiet space between them. It is from this space between the thoughts that true awareness and ability to see situations clearly comes from. Then from that clarity you can actively work towards solutions to your situations that really fit you. It allows you to realize you are not the train of thought, that those things you pray about are not necessarily even your true desires or miseries. It allows you to see who you really are.
While prayer can be a positive vehicle for change, and my perceived failure with it is what brought me to seek something else, it does not have the same power to help heal the inner world. The only world in which you truly exist. It is out of the quality of our thoughts and thought patterns that our contentment arises. Meditation is the vehicle to get you there.
Now you might ask, what about mantra meditation? Well, mantras are in essence another form of prayer. They can be recited several times, with or without a mala, or they can be used as a tool to help keep the train of thought quiet during meditation by reciting the mantra as long as it takes to quiet the train of thought. Mantra meditation doesn’t typically involve the recitation of your specific desire in the form of a conversation with the deity as prayer often does; yet like some forms of prayer (reciting the rosary), mantras can involve setting an intention at the beginning, reciting a scripted text for a given period, and then repeating the intention at the end. This can be helpful for some as a bridge between daily praying and daily meditating or during a difficult time to help keep your meditation practice going, when the thoughts are hard to witness or the fluctuations of thought are intense. It can be like a rock to lean back on in times of need.
Eventually though, I always find the mental recitation of a scripted text ends up leading me back to my train of thought. It may take a few sessions or a only a few recitations before I find myself back in the imaginings of worries and future planning. For me the noise of the constant chatter of reciting a prayer or mantra makes it difficult to witness the entrance of the chatter of the train of thought. Before I know it I'm away again, deeper into that ego driven space than I want to be. For me the only way to get free of that ego is to seek the internal silence of simple meditation. It is there in the space between the thoughts, prayers, and mantras that peace and clarity come to me, that I'm able to see when the train of thought starts up again. It is where I am able to sort of wave at the thoughts as they go by and just make a note of what is coming up, what things my mind is getting stuck on, whether the thoughts and emotions they are tied to are mine or simply past programming from childhood. Then when I leave the meditative space I can consciously choose to drop some of those things, to take action to eliminate or at least reduce patterns that don't serve and to reinforce patterns that do serve.
Meditation has changed my life for the better. I still pray and use mantra from time to time, they have their usefulness, but for me it is not as an everyday or even a monthly practice. More as a momentary reflexive action from my past (prayer) or because my ego is strongly resisting the meditation I am in (mantras). Meditation, on the other hand, I strive to do everyday without fail. Most days my husband and I meditate first thing in the morning, some days it's just before bed. It has transformed our relationship and family life for the better as well. There are times where I get busy and don't make it to sitting meditation, but after a few days of missing it, I notice I change/regress, and I go running back to my happy place, the space between the thoughts.
If you'd like to join me there and need help getting started check out these pages (coming soon): Meditation Practices for Beginners and Meditation Resources.
As always thanks for reading and namaste,