The main difference between prayer and meditation is simple: Prayer is projecting out to "God" or your version of a Higher Power, asking, begging, longing to be heard. "Please save my child. . . Please don't let this be cancer. . . Please, God, hear me and grant me X." Prayer calls upon the highest entity we can imagine to intervene in our (or someone else's) life.
Prayers are focused outpourings of feeling, belief and emotion. They are driven by a deep need to communicate our perceived needs to the Universe. They can also be statements of deep gratitude, reverence and devotion.
Meditation, on the other hand, is the process of finding your way through the maze of your Mind to a space where you can listen, receive and accept what God, or the Universe, has to say to you. It's the art and science of merging your Self with your Soul and merging that with All That Is.
Prayers range from the sublime to the selfish. Meditation is totally selfish and sublime.
Meditation helps you find the peaceful, beautiful, magnificent You. My Teacher, Yogi Bhajan, put it this way: "How many times in your whole life have you meditated upon yourself as an angel, that your being is absolutely pure, and that you are here by the Will of God and not by your own individual will?"
Meditation and prayer are flip sides of the same coin. They both offer the opportunity to experience that sacred and serene place that lies at the heart of one's Being. Both can be very healing, and as such might be considered ancient tools for self-help.
Many people try meditation and become immediately frustrated because of the invasiveness of a thousand thoughts the minute you seek the silence. Getting through and beyond the mind is the practice. Wise men claim that only then can you hear what the Creator of the Universe has to say to you.
To meditate effectively usually requires some tricks of the trade to calm the incessant chattering of the mind. Thus meditations can include mantras (sounds), malas (beads), mudras (positions of the hands and fingers), breath and eye work—each tool enabling you to go deeper inside to a place where your consciousness is a clear, receptive pool. This is the place where you immerse yourself—and receive.
Praying can also bring deep peace and give great strength. Remember, however, the old adage, "Be careful what you wish for"? It applies to prayers, too. When you pray you must be willing to allow the universe to manifest that prayer in the most befitting way—for all concerned. In releasing the prayer, you must also release attachment to outcome.
This is the ultimate secret of both prayer and meditation: You have to let go of any attachment to outcome.
More often than not, prayers get answered in ways that are not immediately apparent. This is where meditation can be useful to people who find great comfort in prayer. As you learn to listen, accept and receive, answers to your prayers and petitions may be more easily understood.
There's been a lot of hubbub lately in the news about praying. The church vs. state conflict is raising its ugly head in a not-so-subtle way. I won't address it here, but it's not going to get any prettier with things as they are. I do think it's essential that each of us examine and understand clearly our personal relationship with God, religion, politics and self.
For example, when we pray for our sons and daughters in Iraq, do we also pray for the sons and daughters of the "enemy"? If not, why not?
One reason it's time to get clear inside ourselves on certain issues is the fact that the way we pray can interfere with the natural process of a situation. I learned as my mother was dying that I could help her by holding a space for her to have her own relationship with death rather than injecting all kinds of emotion and energy to keep her on earth.
There's a very strong, vibrational, energetic difference between "don't let him die" (or, as in the Terri Schiavo debacle, "please God let the government intervene and save her") and "please bring the highest good for all concerned."
It doesn't mean we lack empathy, compassion and mercy when we don't push our personal longings into a situation. But when we are not careful with our prayers (and meditations), we are failing to accept that there might be a bigger picture, a higher purpose, a better way than what we think should happen.
"May peace prevail. May mankind live in absolute joy, happiness and prosperity. And may we understand each other in trust and affection" (Yogi Bhajan) is an example of the kind of prayer which comes from one's highest consciousness and doesn't interfere. It creates a space of possibility.
But it seems easier to demand answers, or intervention, from God than to listen to, and accept, Her wisdom. Maybe living in the world of instant gratification, we cannot handle the concept of "not in our time, but in God's."
Maybe if we practiced meditation along with prayer, we might be able to hear more clearly the "not right now," "do this and it will help," "be patient" whispers from the Source. Maybe our prayers and meditations would both be more effective if we combined them.
Prayer is the best way to acknowledge that there is, in fact, a God or Goddess or Universe that you can communicate with. But meditation is the best way to practice being receptive and open to what that Source has to say to you!
Siri Dharma is a Desert Exposure columnist.