In the original post, I talked about some of the historical answers Jews have given to this basic question about prayer. Over the centuries, Jewish prayer has been understood as a replacement for the Temple sacrifices, a way of expressing personal attachment to God, the fulfillment of a commandment, an act of mystical unification of the godhead, and a way of creating a shared social experience among Jews.
At the end of the post, I also mentioned another answer to the "why pray" question—the answer that means the most to me and that, I believe, is the emerging answer for Judaism in the twenty-first century. Prayer is a spiritual discipline that helps us discover our inner life, develop a sense of equanimity and peace, and deepen our joy in living.
I would like to explore some of the nuts-and-bolts aspects of that idea more deeply by sharing some of my own personal prayer practices. This is my answer to the related question: “How to pray?” Ideally, I would like you to join the conversation by leaving comments with your own experiences, observations and hopes from your prayer life.
I pray every day, but my prayer does not always take the same form. For me, the variation of different types of prayer experiences is part of what makes the practice fulfilling. It makes prayer feel like an ongoing experiment in which I am collecting spiritual data about how different types of prayer make me feel.
On most days, I pray using the liturgy of the siddur, although I do not often use the full traditional service. Sometimes I pray in the morning standing and wearing a talit (and sometimes tefilin, too). Just as often, I pray as part of a seated meditation. I love to be outdoors, so sometimes I pray while going for a walk around my neighborhood, in a park, or wherever I happen to be. Over the years, I've written a bunch of different "short versions" of the morning service, and I freely switch around the ones I use.
When I pray with the words of the prayerbook, I pray only in Hebrew. That works for me because I understand the words of the traditional Hebrew liturgy and I find that they are difficult to translate. When I call God, "melech," for example, that conveys a different feeling for me than I get from the English words "king" or "sovereign." In similar ways, "kadosh" means something different to me than "holy" or "sacred," and "Yisrael" has a spiritual meaning that goes beyond "Israel" or "the Jewish people."
I recognize that the special character of prayer in Hebrew is not available or apparent to everyone. For those who want to pray in English, I recommend looking for a translation that speaks to you. Not all translations are created equal.
What have I discovered in my varied and eclectic prayer life?
First, I find that the commitment to praying daily is most important. As with jogging or practicing an instrument, it would be foolish to expect much reward from praying if it is only a “once in a while” experience. The benefit of prayer comes from repetition, familiarity and a deepening practice.
Second, I believe that prayer is best for me when I am able to suspend (or, at least, quiet) the rational, analytical part of my brain. Prayer is more about feeling than thinking; it is more like poetry than prose. My most meaningful experiences of prayer are those in which I enter into the world of the prayer and allow it to open me, rather than me trying to open the prayer with “left brain” thinking.
Third, I have found that, for me, prayer works. I don’t mean that I always feel peaceful or insightful after praying—on the contrary, sometimes it is aggravating. I certainly do not mean that I regularly feel “touched by God” in prayer. Rather, I have found that after practicing prayer regularly for a long time, I feel that I have become a less anxious person and better able to deal with life’s ups and downs. I feel more in touch with myself and with what makes me truly happy. There are times for me when prayer is ecstatic and intensely joyful, and I am grateful for such moments. However, for me, the long-term change in the way I feel in my own skin has been more valuable to me than any particular moment of transcendence.
Do you have comparable experiences with prayer? An entirely different experiences? What works and what does not work for you?
I know that several of my readers are also bloggers. Let me encourage you to write about your own prayer experiences and include links to your writings about prayer in the comments.
Other posts on this topic:
Learning About Jewish Prayer from Yoga