As a mindfulness meditation teacher with a personal practice based in Buddhist teachings, I’m often surprised and interested to hear Christians and other devotees of theistic religions equate mindfulness with prayer.
I suppose it depends on your definition of prayer.
If prayer involves communication to another being — natural or supernatural — or if it involves making a request, I would say they do not correlate. This is because mindfulness is presence and acceptance. There is no “ask.”
Mindfulness meditation is about being with things as they are right now, in a given moment. If you are asking for things to be different than they are right now — to win a coveted promotion, see a lover one last time before promising to stop, or just to put food on the table another day — you are not practicing mindfulness meditation.
This is not to say you are doing something lesser. You may be quite reasonably and beautifully hoping, aspiring, or interacting with a god or force or presence that answers or delivers. Mindfulness meditation practice can give rise to earnest feelings, because what’s in our hearts can become clear. But there is no agenda, nothing to be done or fixed in the moment.
However, if prayer is meant to get someone or something to pay attention to us, you might say mindfulness meditation is a corollary — as long as it’s okay that that someone is ourselves!
Paying attention to the present moment for a meditation sit illuminates how we relate to whatever is happening in our lives right now, largely internally. We feel sensations in the body, emotional pain or lightness, cluttered or spacious mindstate — whatever is present (and it can be a lot!).
In this way, mindfulness is a tool for getting to know ourselves better, which helps us relate to others with more understanding and kindness.
Modern mindfulness is derived from Buddhist practice, and while some Buddhists in some areas of the world also pray, the trajectory of secular Buddhism in the West has left many practices behind. One can argue this is appropriative (and they may very well be right), but for now the kind of mindfulness practice that is proliferating wildly is, by and large, a “shopping cart”-style system with only a few items in the cart from the well-stocked shelves.
One item in the cart right next to mindfulness is compassion, and it’s here, in the sister practice of compassion meditation, that the mindfulness movement helps practitioners access a sense of something larger than ourselves.
If prayer is meant to do that, here’s a match. In compassion practice, we start with ourselves, but eventually expand to all beings as we wish safety, freedom from suffering, and peace. But rather than “amen” at the end, it is “may it be so.”
When the question of whether meditation and prayer are the same recently arose, my mind was immediately full of all sorts of reasons why they are not.
However, after my mind settled, I returned to what a mindfulness student, a Christian woman who was incarcerated, told me. She said she was grateful for her meditation practice, which she now does every night before she prays, because learning to calm her mind through meditation made prayer possible for her again, after many years.
Her story of the powerful potential effects of meditation practice stopped me in my tracks. It also highlighted for me that while meditation and prayer may not be the same, they are certainly not mutually exclusive, and are complementary!
Indeed, my friend and colleague Paula Chaiken wrote a blog post about how meditation changed her relationship to her religious practice, particularly the quiet reflection of Yom Kippur.
Where she once dreaded the long period of doing nothing but gathering, sitting in silence, atoning (and not eating!), she now welcomes with deep gratitude the opportunity to feel into her hopes and prayers for her community.
According to Paula,
Sitting alone in silence at home trained me to savor the communal experience of prayer, to appreciate the rustle of a fellow congregant’s prayer book, a sneeze from the back row, my sons’ not so quiet whispers, the steady rhythm of Mrs. Fried’s oxygen concentrator. My practice opened me up to appreciate, to find beauty in, all of these moments of experience.
Indeed, mindfulness meditation and prayer may not be one in the same, but they can work together to put us in touch with the more subtle aspects of our nature.
And touching into what is most essential in a moment is wonderful training, and indeed the bedrock of living a fully engaged life.
Guest post by studio BE mindfulness teacher Sarah Jane Shangraw.
Sarah Jane Shangraw, M.S., E-RYT 500, YACEP, is a student of the buddhadharma who teaches mindfulness meditation and Insight Yoga in the Boston area and beyond. Using Buddhist, yogic, and western psychological approaches, she guides individuals and groups in alleviating stress and training in awareness for the greater good.
Find her at www.sarahjaneshangraw.com and @sarahjaneswell.
Feature photo by Good Studio/Adobe Stock