Talking about prayer, like talking about G-d, involves some matters of definition; otherwise it is easy to be unclear. Often, when someone says they don’t believe in G-d, I ask them to tell me about the G-d they don’t believe in, and frequently I don’t believe in that one either. I think it is the same with prayer, so I will start with some definitions. We could divide the intention behind prayer into two types. One sort of intention is self-examination, as implied by the root of tefilah, peh lamed lamed, which is also the root of l’hitpalel, to judge oneself. In this aspect of prayer we might include positive thinking, affirmation, self-examination, and self improvement. Probably most people would agree that it is possible to improve one’s personal qualities through prayer as self-examination, as it is possible with most spiritual disciplines. Prayer gives us a chance to focus our minds, and to remember the qualities we are seeking to develop in ourselves. L’hitpalel does not only mean to judge oneself, however. It also means to intercede on someone’s behalf. And this is part of the other sort of intention behind prayer; that is what we might call “addressing the Beyond”, with prayer that is petitionary or intercessory, as well as prayers of praise and gratitude.
The Talmud [Megilah 18a] implies that our request to G-d “Sh’ma Koleinu–Hear Our Voice” is the essence of prayer. We might say the flip side of this is “Sh’ma Yisrael—Hear Yisrael”—G-d asking us “Shma Koli–Hear My voice” [R. David Wolfe-Blank, z”l]. Perhaps, on some level, prayer is about being heard, and about listening. Buber would say it is about the dialogic process—recognizing that there is a “Thou” out there—there is something more than the I—it relationship. In essence, then the act of faith required for prayer is that there is something beyond the individual small self, some awareness beyond one’s own brain. It is recognizing the validity of the desire to be heard.
A step beyond this would be a belief that G-d is hearing. This belief is so dependant on what we believe G-d is. If we believe G-d is an awareness within ourselves, certainly G-d hears prayer. If we believe G-d is the power that binds together the universe, how could we not believe G-d hears our prayers, when chaos theory teaches us that the fluttering of a butterfly’s wings can affect weather halfway around the world? Certainly then, the fluttering of our lips resonates in unimagined ways throughout the universe. Beyond this level, we can look at studies of the efficacy of healing prayer. Larry Dossey collected hundreds of controlled experiments on healing prayer, and in the majority of them, prayer showed statistically significant benefits. How we choose to explain that is up to us, but clearly prayer can “work”. Rupert Sheldrake, a biologist, has developed a theory of morphic fields. According to this theory, every system is part of an energy field that has patterns to it. Cells develop and connect in a certain way; so do stars and galaxies. Our minds also function in this way with mental fields. Our consciousness, then, is much larger than our brains—it expands out to anything we have ever been aware of, even people halfway around the world whose names we have been told, and who we pray for. Instead of all life being little unconnected mechanisms, it is something much more connected, and patterned. The self extends far beyond the body. And, just as the human body is a field that holds and is much more conscious and complex than an individual cell, so the universe is more complex and conscious than the individual. And even more so with G-d.
However, no matter how much we develop scientifically plausible theories, we come back to the basic question of human consciousness, which boils down to “can we trust our experience?” If not, then we have no reason to believe there is anything beyond the individual self. We have no reason, even, to believe that logic correlates with reality. If, however, we choose to trust our experience, everything else follows. In Jewish tradition, we are not asked to believe anything we haven’t experienced. We said “na’aseh v’nishmah—we will do and we will hear” when we received the Torah, partly because of this recognition that Judaism is about experience, and embodiment, not just theory. As a friend of mine says, “I don’t believe in G-d, I experience G-d”. As with any spiritual practice, Judaism, and prayer, look ridiculous from the outside. It is only on the inside that they make sense. So with davenning (prayer), there is no point in deciding if we “believe’ in it or not until we do it. So, here is a sort of “how-to” list for approaching the process. Clearly, different things work for different people, but I will tell you what has worked for me, and for some others I know.
- Don’t expect to get a deep experience by davvening only on Shabbat. When I started to davven regularly, I spent ½ hour every morning, going as slowly as I needed to in order to feel my way through each prayer. As I became familiar, and speeded up, I added prayers. Now, I can get through the main prayers of shacharit in about 20 minutes, still going at a pace where I can feel what I am doing. If I had only davvened once a week, and only at the fast pace of the congregation, I don’t think I would have ever been able to understand where each prayer was going.
- Don’t judge your experience until you have been doing it for a while. When I first started, I committed to davvening every morning for 3 months, and then evaluating. If I hadn’t decided that at the outset, it would have been easy to think it wasn’t working after the first week, or even after the first day.
- Study the prayers. Our tradition tells us that iyyun tefilah—prayer study—is as valuable as prayer itself. Study is certainly easier for many of us. When I started to davven, I looked up every root I didn’t know, so I could start out with at least a basic understanding of the meaning of the words. Clearly, the English translations we have are highly editorialized, and even at their best only get at one level of meaning. As one of my Hebrew students said, after learning the meaning of the words she was “davvening in color instead of black and white”. I also studied the structure of the service. As a child, I thought the service was just a mishmash of readings; understanding the structure allowed me to see the service as a guide for changing one’s consciousness. Much of our liturgy was written and put together by mystics. They clearly intended the liturgy to take us on journeys. Many of the prayers have repetitive beats and sounds that take us to a deeper level. Many of the prayers take us through different experiences. For example, the first blessing of the Amidah, the Avot, first grounds us in history, then takes us up by steps to the transcendent—HaKayl, Hagadol, Hagibor v’hanora,Kayl Eyon, G-d, the Great, the Powerful and the Awesome, Supernal G-d, and then down into the imminent—gomel hasadim tovim v’koneh hakol, doing acts of good lovingkindness and creating everything. The morning/shacharit service as a whole takes us through the four worlds of Jewish mysticism—physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual, or in kabbalistic terms, assiyah, yetzirah, briah, and atzilut. The morning blessings give us an awareness and gratitude for our bodies; the Pesukei d’Zimra, or Verses of Song, awaken our emotions with the chanting of psalms of praise; the Sh’ma and her blessings take us through the major thought constructs of Judaism—creation, revelation, redemption, and the creedal statement of the Sh’ma itself; and the Amidah, or standing prayer, is on the level of spirit—our one on one with the Hole One. Then, the closing portions of the service are what the mystics call “yeridat hashefa—the descent of the flow”, where we integrate our experience davvening into ourselves to take it into the world. Thus, for example, the universalist vision of world redemption in the Aleinu. Every level we look at –each letter, word, phrase, prayer, service—is there to take us on some journey. I also find reading spiritual commentaries on prayer to be very evocative; Chasidic texts in particular provide images and experiences that deepen the prayers.
- Memorize some of the more central prayers. The Baal Shem Tov says that when you are praying, and your mind is distracted, it is helpful to focus on the written words in order to focus awareness, but that if you are already focused, it is good to be able to close your eyes at times to go deeper. When I started davvening, I memorized one blessing of the weekday Amidah each Shabbat afternoon until I had the whole thing memorized. Gradually, most of the other central prayers became so familiar I could close my eyes and say them. This brings the siddur into our bodies in a way, and allows us to enter the flow of the prayer at a level where we don’t have to be worrying about details anymore.
- If you haven’t already developed any kind of meditation or visualization skills, it is helpful to do so. Spend some time with a daily focusing practice, such as breath awareness or candle gazing, in order to learn how to focus attention. If you like, do this immediately before davvening to prepare. If you try to develop this skill only while davvening, it can be a lot of things to be working on at once.
- Don’t judge the davvening by how you feel while you are doing it, but by how your life as a whole is affected. Davvening is not just about reaching some kind of peak experience in the midst of prayer. It is about realigning oneself with something bigger. And for some of us, it is also about being within the halachic system, which means touching a flow of the sacred. The rest of your day will be different if you davven regularly; so will the rest of your life.