Q: Are meditation and prayer different or are they essentially the same?
A: There is a big difference between meditation and prayer. The goal of meditation is to free the mind from its roaming tendencies. The majority of us have minds that are confused, scattered, or sluggish. Our mind is in the habit of running from one object of thought to another. This kind of mind is not focused. Although it will focus when pressed, it does so without much joy. It regards focusing as a task. As we all know, attending a task without love for it is tiresome and tiring.
Meditation is a process for training a confused, scattered, and sluggish mind. It begins with selecting an object and focusing on it. In the course of an enormous amount of research, yogis discovered that certain objects of meditation are beneficial while others are not. They also discovered that mentally holding those beneficial objects at specific chakras (centers of consciousness) within the body leads to a definite result. That is why both the selection of the object and the method of focusing it at a particular chakra are of utmost importance. Through continuous effort, we internalize that object. This allows the mind to free itself from unwanted thoughts and concerns. It turns inward and eventually begins to flow toward the center of consciousness, leading us to experience our core being—the source of ultimate freedom and fulfillment.
In prayer, the emphasis is not as much on focusing the mind as on channeling our thoughts, feelings, and emotions toward a higher reality. Unlike meditation, prayer is a faith-driven practice. We can practice meditation with or without faith in God, but the practice of prayer begins with an assumption that there is a higher reality, which we may call God, truth, consciousness, higher self, or Divine Being. Further, we recognize that along with all the great gifts that accompany human birth, we are also accompanied by certain weaknesses and follies. That is why we turn to prayer. As a practitioner of prayer, we believe that higher reality is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent. Its love and compassion are unconditional. In prayer, we try to connect ourselves with this omniscient, compassionate divinity. We reach out to the Divine Being not by shunning the mind’s roaming tendencies but rather by channeling them toward the divine. Thus devotion plays a crucial role in the practice of prayer.
In the yoga tradition, prayer is used to purify our heart, to help our mind cultivate humility and simplicity, and to help us find a sense of belonging. Just as the selection of the meditative object is extremely important, selecting the right kind of prayer is also important. All prayers are not equally potent. Like mantras, certain prayers are revealed. The sage who received the revelation wrote the prayer down, and the unbroken lineage of aspirants kept the shakti (power) of the prayer fully awakened. When we recite such prayers, their inherent power and profound feeling create a context similar to the context in which the prayer descended into the mind of the sage who received it. We are led to a state of consciousness where we find our connection with the omnipresent divinity. For this reason there is a significant difference between a revealed prayer and a prayer composed by a poet. One is transforming, the other merely inspiring. At the practical level, these two forms of prayers lead to quite different experiences.
Even though practicing one is not a prerequisite for practicing the other, when meditation and prayer are combined, the process of reaching our core and experiencing its eternal connection with the divine is accelerated. That is why traditionally, we practice meditation and prayer together.