This article is based on a talk I gave at a retreat for people of diverse but mostly non-devotional practices. It is intended as an overview of some (not all) of the ways prayer can be understood, particularly aimed at people who are not in a theistic tradition or may not be familiar with or comfortable with prayer as part of a contemplative wisdom practice.
Most people are generally familiar with Christian prayer: formal or informal words spoken to God, asking for things or giving thanks for things. But prayer is a very layered and interesting spiritual practice that can go beyond rote recitations or a transactional relationship with God.
1. Prayer as intention
One very basic useful function of prayer is to state intention. Clear statements of intention are powerful, and are a very neglected part of many people's practice - indeed they are often missing even from the practice of beginners within theistic traditions! Institutional religions often help people along by giving them common formulas: the prayer before meals, the bedtime prayer, the group prayers offered in church or Bible study class. Even if one says ones own words in these prayers, they are still quite often formulaic.
To really use prayer with intention, it is necessary to think a bit. In practice directed towards enlightenment, there is a large intention implied: one wants to wake up! That is why one is practicing. So at the very least, one can make that a spoken intention each time one practices. Why spoken? Because words make a big difference. When we think things through and come up with a clear statement of intention we are no longer muddling around in our thoughts, which might well be mixed up with a lot of doubts, fears, hopes and worries, but instead we extract a single sentence: "I am sitting in order to awaken!" It may feel difficult. If it does that is a good sign that one is not really buying into ones own intention. Doubts make one think "Oh, but that's stupid. It sounds cheesy. I know inside I want to wake up, I don't need to say it." No! That's exactly why saying it is powerful - because like a tentative football team cheering themselves on with "We will win!" confidently saying what you want brings strength to your intention.
Another place where people wobble when it comes to intention is in realizing that everything can be met this way. Imagine you are having difficulty with fear during sits. You may not be clear on the fact that you are avoiding sitting because you are afraid the fear might return. You could start by expressing the intention "Let me overcome this aversion and find the motivation to sit!" You may eventually recognize that it is fear that is causing the aversion, and then you can state the intention "Let me be courageous and recognize that fear is just a thought and can't hurt me!" Again, articulating your intention gives it strength. It motivates and it clarifies what is going on, rather than leaving things muddling around in your head, unspoken.
In the above examples, the statements of intention do not have to be addressed to God. They can be stated as in the examples, or they can be addressed to a saint, guru, or other figure who represents enlightenment for you. It is generally not ideal to address them to a figure who is meaningless to you - the power in addressing them to someone specific is in your love for or at least respect for that someone.
2. Prayer as aspiration
Another interesting way prayer works in practice is in offering aspirations that transform to affirmations as we ourselves are transformed. Take for instance the use of a simple prayer like "Lord, have mercy!" In this phrase one is expressing a desire for God to offer mercy to oneself or another person, probably someone who is suffering. Yet one of the insights that will arise in a Christian framework is that God is infinitely merciful - mercy already is freely offered, in every moment, and a request is not needed to make it so. So the practice of the prayer can over time lead to a change in relationship to it: from an appeal to find something that seems absent (God's mercy), to a recognition and affirmation of that which has always been present (the same).
In this sense prayer can be similar to koan work, where at first the koan being chewed on seems untrue or confusing, but over time reveals new levels of meaning. A similar effect can be found in chewing on a phrase from a sacred text or poem, or a teaching pointer. The Christian term for chewing on excerpts of Scripture is Lectio Divina, and is a form of contemplative prayer. The basic technique is to slowly read the text, and to find a phrase that jumps out at you or bothers you. Then take that phrase and use it as a chew toy, letting it drift around your head, sitting with it, coming back to it throughout the day, and letting it work on you. The text may be sat with for days, even weeks. In time new meaning is revealed, and the text will resonate in new ways as insight arises. Over longer time, the phrase may come around again and reveal yet deeper levels of meaning or new resonance.
3. Prayer as participation
Prayer can have a participatory function on several levels. One is in participation in a group. Just as meditating with others can have a very different (and often deeper) feel than meditating alone, praying together can offer that sense of depth and connection. Traditions in which standard prayers are said in unison offer a good opportunity to experience this. Mantra chanting, singing hymns, Gregorian chant, group recitations of the Divine Office or rosary and similar practices create a unique atmosphere and shared experience that can be quite moving.
What is sometimes overlooked is the timelessness of such practices. Many of these prayers have been recited for millenia - even before they were written down - and as one participates in the recitation one is joining ones voice with all the millions of people through the ages who have also said those words. This can offer a sense of deep connection to ones own ancestry, culture or tradition that goes beyond the here and now. The timelessness of that shared experience can be quite powerful.
4. Prayer as just being
Finally, prayer can be understood as something beyond mere words. Prayer tends to start out as a transactional or outcome-driven practice - expressing what one wants, giving thanks for things one likes, and articulating ones unhappiness when one is in difficulty. Even when prayer has moved beyond "Let me stay awake while I meditate" to a broader surrender practice like "Let my every thought, word and deed be an expression of your divine will," it is still fundamentally outcome-driven. There is nothing wrong with this - in fact, it is part of good practice.
But times come when we can indeed allow things to be as they are and there is "just this." It is not necessary to ask for anything if nothing is needed; not necessary to surrender when there is no longer any separation between "self" and "other". The above forms of prayer - even if still done as part of ones daily routine - come to be superseded by "just being," which is itself a kind of deep, ongoing prayer. When one is in union with God, the function of and relationship to prayer is no longer "for" anything, nor directed "to" anyone. This seems much like the way other traditions may talk about the dropping of distinction between meditation and non-meditation, or "practice" being something one does simply for its own sake.
(Image: Caravaggio [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)