Prayer Methods

Praying MonkPrayer is not prayer is not prayer.  When someone says they are praying, we really have no idea what that person is doing in their heads.  In Christianity, there are many forms of prayer — as I listed below.  Let me know if you can think of others.

These prayer categories are not mutually exclusive. A person’s prayers may contain mixes of these:

  • Supplication

    • Miracle Prayer:  Supplicating God for healing, protection, success and miracles for self or others
    • Guidance & Self-Corrective Prayer: requesting insight into difficulties or changes in temperament or perspectives.  Prayers for understanding of others or self
    • Endurance Prayer: requesting strength
  • Confessional Prayer: Penitence and repentance.  Telling God the wrongs you have done and asking for forgiveness and intercession
  • Worship & Praise:  Admiration, praise, adoration
  • Thanksgiving Prayer: thankfulness and appreciation
  • Social Prayer:  Prayer directed ostensibly at the deity but meant to bond the group in action or attitude.
  • Meditative or Mystical Prayer
    • Contemplative Prayer:  contemplating on some spiritual topic or emotion
    • Absorptive Prayer:  simply abiding in the presence of God

Even if there is no god listening to these many sorts of prayer (yet alone responding to them), nonetheless, spending time in these mental activities will have an effect on a person.  In this sense, prayer “works” — it changes the mind of the person praying.

One cannot underestimate this brain-on-brain affect.  That is, even if there is no god-on-world, or god-on-brain affect, our activities affect us.  Just as you are what you eat, your are what you think.  Prayer is a way of thinking.  But since all prayer is not the same, these effects differ.  Each different type of prayer will have a different effect on a believer’s mind.  And using the wrong type of prayer for the wrong type of person may have unwanted consequences.  Prayer styles should be chosen carefully.

When I speak of prayer, I am not speaking of causal polite meal prayers and perfunctory church prayers, but those of Christians who make prayer a significant, conscious part of their lives.  Chapter 5 of Oliver Sacks book “Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain” is entitles Brainworms, Sticky Music, and Catchy Tunes.  It explores how certain music can haunt us — pleasantly and unpleasantly.  One of my brain worms is the game WeiQi — when I speak with people, I can sometimes see pattern emerging in my mind that try to distract me from conversation.  But I also have a pleasant meditation mindworm — a reminder to breath, pay attention and relax.  It comes to remind me often — it is a pleasant uninvited guest.  Prayer mindworms would would the same for diligent prayer practitioners — coming into their mind during the normal day’s activities to remind the believer of what they have chosen to value.  So if these practice are going to flavor our days, it is wise to choose a practice carefully.

In some contemplative Christian traditions, a mentor will guide a novice to practice sacred contemplative practices on subject matters that suit their personality type.  For example, you don’t want a depressed person contemplating God’s wrath, nor, perhaps, a manic person focusing on miracles.   Instead you want a prayer to strengthen a person’s deficient mental areas and/or weaken their undesirable mental patterns.  So when helping a friend within their own tradition, it may be useful to guide them to prayer styles useful within their own faith that best match their minds.

In the Buddhist tradition, especially in Tibetan Mahayana practice, meditation techniques are likewise geared to match to temperament of the practitioner in a prescriptive, curative manner.  Students, thus, are encouraged to be most careful in choosing their meditation teacher to guide one’s spiritual development.

Questions for readers:

  • In your Christian days (past or present), do feel prayer affected your mind?  What styles do/did you use?
  • If you are an Atheist, can you see the benefit of encouraging a Christian to pursuing one type of prayer over another?  Or is it all bunk to you and all thus a total waste of time?


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

19 responses to “Prayer Methods

  1. monarc7

    Looking forward.

  2. Ed

    I like this post. I am surprised that more people didn’t comment. Prayer is something about religion in general and Christianity specifically that bothers me. Although I agree with your categories above, in my non-scientific estimation,most prayer is simply begging god, or demanding of god that he/she/it manipulate reality to suit our whims, needs and greed. When I was a christian, both first as a Roman Catholic and later as an evangelical, when somebody said they were praying, a reasonable reply might have been “oh, what are you asking god for?” So, in my experience, although I acknowledge other types of prayer, most of the time it is just begging for Reality to be other than it actually is. Now, I am sure this is a very common activity in and out of religions. We all want it our way. But let’s call it what it is.

  3. @ Monarc7 : Thanx, I hope to put up something soon.

    @ Ed: Many thanks. I too wished others responded but my blog tends to offend atheists as much as theists. Smile.
    I know that you enjoy Kirtan – which I done in the past too. And hymns and such are a form of prayer, I think. How do you use Kirtan? What part of mind can they work on favorably (depending on attitude)? And do you think Christians can do the same with their hymns or chants?

  4. Ed

    Hi Sabio… Yes, I enjoy kirtan, but not as a sort of prayer I don’t think. I do not have a deity in mind when I chant. And I do kirtan in Sanskrit, Sikh, English, Latin and Spanish. I do it with religious people such as the Hare’ Krishnas and secular chanters that view themselves as atheists. I have also chanted with Krishna Das (the “rock star of Kirtan) many times and he, as I understand him, uses dualistic symbols to indicate different universal energies that are all aspects of “The All That Is”.
    So, like Krishna Das, I chant for the sake of chanting… like watching a sunset or skiing. There really is no point. Do you think I am praying? I don’t think so… but maybe. Now I am curious what you think about this.
    For me and my atheist friends and folks that have a similar attitude to KD I do not see kirtan as a form of petitionary prayer…. Nor is it to any deity… although deities can be used to help us understand certain principles or forces, without believing they are “people”…
    Christians can certainly use kirtan as a form of taking to god. Gregorian Chant comes to mind… say in the Greek “Lord Have Mercy, Christ Have Mercy” of the Roman Catholic Latin Mass pre 1962.
    My experience is that kirtan is a call and response form of music/singing that touches people in the way they see Life… But it can reach anybody, no matter what their cosmic outlook.

  5. Ed

    PS… The part of the mind, or part of the person kirtan works on is, I believe, unknown. It sometimes does not seem to be doing anything… then a calmness sets in… an “OKness” with what is… no matter what. A deist might experience “god”… an atheist, clarity and someone else, a sense of peace….

  6. monarc7

    I like that you finally gave God whiskers i.e. inverted commas. One thing is for sure, people are equating God with religion, no, they put God in religion. Unfortunately, this is misplaced at best.

    Religion is part of culture but what a spiritualist does is a Life. Whole systems are founded on several but distinct belief systems. Those ‘religions’ as they are called are actually more extensive than is made believe. From the dilution and summarisation of religion, such things like petitionary prayers come about to be staples at the dinner of religion.

    Actually, religion itself cannot be part of spirituality for spirituality is the cube of sugar not the solution that is religion. As a result, one notes differences between the monk and the laity but they’re supposed to be same. All because the lay has lain self between the orchard and the street while the monk sits, no, buries self at the centre of the orchard.

    Looking forward to a reply (or refutation)…hee hee…

  7. @ Ed
    I think Kirtans, like swirling/rocking during prayer can be used in an absorptive manner for a shift of awareness. I agree with you. For some, music, for others dance, for others mathematics — there are many ways to enter an absorptive state.

    Do you have a website? You seem to have a lot to say. Your paragraphs are pregnant with terse allusions which are not filled out and easy to read past without understanding. Why not put up some posts with your positions and feelings and we can come see what you are trying to say. Thanx for visiting.

  8. Ian

    How about prayers of thanksgiving, and prayers of worship (the latter maybe what you mean by contemplative). There’s also prayers for psychological change “Oh God, please make me calm when I see my boss tomorrow.” And I don’t think you should be so quick to dismiss social prayers they might not be particularly zen, but they do have effects on social structures and practice, and as such could be useful (or dangerous, as for all these things). Then finally, although you might say this is under guidance, it is common to pray for understanding, particularly in the context of bible study. This, I think, is mainly counter-productive, since it primes prayers to think uncritically about what they are about to read.

  9. Andrew

    “do feel prayer affects/ed your mind?”

    First thing to pop up in my mind was Diane Benscoter’s idea of a ‘viral memetic infection’. []

    In terms of your categories, all those who pray/meditate/concentrate must balance the danger with the reward. Not all prayer leads to heaven, not all meditation leads to enlightenment. And not all concentration leads to useful insights. Indeed as you point out, the teacher/guidance is potentially as important as the practice.

    “can you see the benefit of encouraging a Christian to pursuing one type of prayer over another?”

    There are those who would say all ‘religious practice’ (in theistic traditions, I guess) are just attempts at gaining influence (or power) over the deity, as the ‘begging god’ comment from above would suggest. So atheists may indeed say ‘scrap it all’, although atheists don’t have all the best answers either. I would personally suggest the prescription should best fit the mental problem or goal the person is struggling with. If a person is always blaming an external source for their problems, or always asking for an external salvation, I would suggest ways for them to start looking within. Just an example…

    “my blog tends to offend atheists as much as theists. Smile.”

    Both need to be shaken and rattled as much as the rest of us. 🙂 It must certainly be a sign you are on some sort of Golden Path….

  10. monarc7

    Sorry, sorry, I get carried away and get too poetic, sorry. I have a blog, monarc7.wordpress; though, not much spirituality is there, ostensibly, for meaning lies in the eyes of the beholder.

    You’ve visited it before, you know.

  11. monarc7

    An addition: I’m waiting to meet the person who can settle for perdition though still in love with his deity. Now, that will be interesting.

  12. @ Monarc7
    Interesting site — you are a poet. Your last comment is again an example of poetry. My site is very analytic (well, I wax mystical at times). But in general we try to be more clear on our thoughts so as to engage dialogue. Otherwise, you may find not many people responding to vague poetry or allusive allusions.
    But I am learning to enjoy poetry of late — I am so happy I have begun to enjoy.

  13. @ Ian
    You are absolutely right, thanks. I am going to enlarge the post — thank you kindly.

  14. monarc7

    Heard, well taken, will try. It’s not easy to avoid the allusions for me. They come naturally. I’ve tried even in my blog to be straight but it still sways poetic. Even writing this was hard without the metaphors.

  15. monarc7

    What I was trying to say is the religions or the traditions are disparate from the concepts themselves. Though, I mentioned the monks, these are folk who aren’t even well-accomplished practitioners, still, they are far advanced and mentor the lay.

    It was just in reaction to the other readers who were speaking of the emphasis of the traditions on changing status quo. And I’m trying to say that it is a less intense and minimised version that is in use in the traditions which unfortunately is far from the concepts; ‘religion is part of a culture…’.

    It is understood that these prayers are there but with the other forms mentioned they are used as apt.

  16. Pingback: Contemplation « – Think Free

  17. Pingback: Contemplation «

  18. Yesterday, an atheist friend told me he does “secular” prayer. I find that quite intriguing, “secular” prayer. I wonder if you have thoughts on that. My friend and I are engaged in what he means by that. So far, he is saying his “prayer” is a kind of believing in “positive” outcomes, accomplishments, and the like without appeal to a god or supernatural. I’m not sure I’d call this “prayer”, but he does. I’ll have to find out more from him what he means.

    I enjoyed your article here were you unpack prayer. I look forward to reading your posts always.

  19. @ Scott,
    Cool, thanks for sharing. I agree.
    Actually, here is a post I did about the secular prayer my family uses when we sit down to eat a meal: “Thankfulness

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