Prayer & Meditation
Prayer & Meditation: A Common Theme Across All Religions
Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the year in the Jewish calendar, a solemn occasion to reflect upon past behaviors and mindsets, atone for sins, and resolve oneself to be better in the future. As such, prayer is a huge component of the observance of this holiday.
Across all religions, the act of prayer instantly takes you out of your ego-bound self into a higher plane. When combined with meditation, the experience can be deeply rewarding. For, it takes you inward. It also brings about a certain surrender to forces higher than yourself. That combination of humility and quietness is a potent catalyst to receive.
Prayer forces one to bring together a distracted mind. Meditation helps us retreat from the external world into an inner sanctum, where breath becomes the only focus. The clarity of thought that is likely to emerge, over a period of time, after following a practice of meditation, is irrefutable. And the act of meditation can pervade every activity – it brings you to the present moment, it helps focus, and it empowers whatever it is that you are meditating on.
All faiths advocate prayer and meditation. Jews are meant to pray daily during morning, afternoon and evening. Muslims are required to pray (Salah) at five particular times each day as a very basic and mandatory obligation of upholding the faith. Christians, too, are required to pray, but according to less stringent guidelines in favor of personal responsibility and personal relationship with God.
Prayer for Baha’i, too, follows some guidelines but allows for flexibility and individuality. All these traditions also make some use of meditation, but meditation is associated more with Eastern traditions, particularly Hinduism and Buddhism. Hindu scriptures say that, more than studying the scriptures, and selfless giving, the practice of meditation carries you to the supreme God. There has long been a practice of retreating to remote mountains and staying in solitude to meditate. Physical posture and right intention are the leading lights for the practice.
Taoism, Hinduism, and Buddhism all make ample use of meditation and other
contemplative practices to observe the way our mental patterns dictate the way we see reality, and to plumb the deeper parts of the mind for insights into the bigger picture of reality beyond our cognitive and socialized illusions.
Meditation is increasingly being used to improve mental health. According to a study published in Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity, researchers found that 12 weeks of meditation slowed cellular aging. The program consisted of 90 minutes of yoga that included physical postures, breathing, and Meditation five days a week over 12 weeks. Researchers found indications of lower levels of inflammation and significantly decreased levels of cortisol. There are several other studies conducted at elite educational institutions confirming health benefits of regular meditation.
Whether you are someone who prays, meditates, or follows some other kind of similar contemplative practice, there is inestimable value in taking some time out of the day to be in solitude with our own minds and reflect on what truly matters in life.
“Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.”
—The New Testament (Mark 11:24), Christian text
“The correct execution of salat [daily prayer] depends on the following elements: (a) an intention to dedicate the prayer to God; (b) a prescribed sequence of gestures and words; (c) a physical condition of purity; and (d) proper attire.”
— Saba Mahmood, anthropologist
“The repeated practice of orienting all acts toward securing God's pleasure is a cumulative process, the net result of which is, on one level, the ability to pray regularly and, on another level, the creation of a pious self.”
— Saba Mahmood, anthropologist
“The most important Jewish prayer is known by its first word in Hebrew, Shema. That means ‘hear.’ The full prayer in English is: ‘Hear, oh, Israel, the Lord, our God, the Lord is one.’ This prayer is considered the watchword of the Jewish faith and reflects the belief begun by Abraham that there is only one God.”
—William P. Lazarus, writer
“When you pray, make your prayer not a routine but a plea for mercy and a supplication before the Holy One, blessed be He. R. Eliezer said: When a man makes his prayer a routine, it is not supplication. What is meant by [one whose prayer is a] routine? R. Jacob bar Idi said in the name of R. Hoshaia: Anyone whose prayer is to him nothing but a heavy burden.”
—Sefer Ha-Aggadah, collection of Jewish writings
“As to meditation: This also is a field in which the individual is free. There are no set forms of meditation prescribed in the teachings, no plan as such, for inner development. The friends are urged—nay enjoined—to pray, and they also should meditate, but the manner of doing the latter is left entirely to the individual.”
—Shoghi Effendi, Baha’i leader
“This faculty of meditation frees man from the animal nature, discerns the reality of things, puts man in touch with God. This faculty brings forth from the invisible plane the sciences and arts. Through the meditative faculty inventions are made possible, colossal undertakings are carried out; through it governments can run smoothly. Through this faculty man enters into the very Kingdom of God.”
—‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Baha’i leader
“Meditation here is not reflection or any other kind of discursive thinking. It is pure concentration: training the mind to dwell on an interior focus without wandering, until it becomes absorbed in the object of its contemplation. But absorption does not mean unconsciousness. The outside world may be forgotten, but meditation is a state of intense inner wakefulness.”
—Eknath Easwaran, spiritual teacher and translator
“Closing their eyes, steadying their breathing, and focusing their attention on the center of spiritual consciousness, the wise master their senses, mind, and intellect through meditation.”
—The Bhagavad Gita (5:27-28), Hindu text
“Don’t struggle, go with the flow and you will find yourself at one with the vastness of the void of Heaven.”
--The Book of Chuang Tzu, Daoist text
“My limbs are without feeling and my mind is without light. I have ignored my body and cast aside my wisdom. Thus I am united with the Tao. This is what sitting right down and forgetting is.”
--The Book of Chuang Tzu, Daoist text
"Whenever you have to attend to your daily affairs, or undertake any matter, always spend some time in meditation and everything will be alright.”
--Zhu Xi, Confucian scholar
“Enlightenment is not some good feeling or some particular state of mind. The state of mind that exists when you sit in the right posture is, itself, enlightenment. If you cannot be satisfied with the state of mind you have in zazen [meditation], it means your mind is still wandering about. Our body and mind should not be wobbling or wandering about. In this posture there is no need to talk about the right state of mind. You already have it. This is the conclusion of Buddhism.”
—Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Buddhist monk and teacher
“Your breathing should flow gracefully, like a river, like a watersnake crossing the water, and not like a chain of rugged mountains or the gallop of a horse…Each time we find ourselves dispersed and find it difficult to gain control of ourselves by different means, the method of watching the breath should always be used.”
—Thich Nhat Hanh, Buddhist monk and author