How to Pray

How We Prayed

The concept and practice of prayer was woven throughout my childhood in an evangelical fundamentalist Protestant Gospel tradition of Chapter Six in the book of Matthew. In addition to the doctrine of silent prayer — which I have for most of my life taken to mean to speak directly to God (only God) with my mind — we prayed out loud in groups such as families and congregations, and we recited the Lord’s Prayer in unison.

In Matthew Chapter Six, Jesus offers three critical lessons about prayer. First he describes general attitudes of prayer, which includes praying secretly and in silence. Then he gives us an outline of a prayer with the Lord’s Prayer (or Our Father). Finally he highlights the essential salvific primacy of forgiveness within the prayer.

Of course, prayers public and private were typically improvised and deviated wildly from Jesus’ prayer. Indeed, Gospel records of Jesus’ own prayers do not follow this format. Our church taught that forgiveness is necessary for prayer, to open a prayer by asking God’s forgiveness so that “He can hear us.” This also means that God only hears the prayers of the saved. But it’s just as common that forgiveness was omitted altogether — it’s convenient to forget about that part.

It was not unheard of for questions to be raised whether regular group recitation of the Lord’s Prayer was not itself “vain repetition” that Jesus warned against (Matthew 6:7-8). Nevertheless, traditional recitation continued on uninterrupted.

Why did we pray? In that tradition, it might be said that the focus of prayer is to build a personal relationship with God — a contemplative practice wherein one seeks God’s voice. However, we prayed for all manner of blessings. Blessings at every meal. Supplications for healing, for fortitude, and for other favorable outcomes. Something about earnest supplication seems futile in consideration of God’s will in all things. Often public prayers were spoken as messages to sway a group, which can be corrupt. I think, though, that I learned the essential aspect of prayer as communion with my Creator, to live and walk ever closer in His way.

In those days my silent prayer technique was to bow head, close eyes, fold hands together, to compose strings of verbalized thoughts intended for God. I opened by addressing God and asking for forgiveness, followed by whatever my concern was, and closed with the phrase, “In Jesus’ name, Amen.” I prayed often. And I listened for God’s voice.

How to Not Pray

In my late teens I experienced a hard break with the Christian faith of my youth — unable to align those teachings and traditions with certain evidence I perceived then as unassailable. In terms of prayer, I ceased for a long time. I concluded that I had never reliably heard or understood God’s “answers” to my prayers. While I wasn’t opposed to the notion of God the Creator, I had dispensed with the notion of a “personal God” who would receive my prayers, let alone answer them. However, the concept of prayer stayed with me, particularly questions such as does prayer serve a practical purpose, and does prayer affect outcomes?

Incidentally but not coincidentally, several of my early adult years were caught up in co-authoring a novel that started with my premise of a cult, a congregation whose evil prayers were answered.

Somewhere in the works of Carlos Castaneda (which were particularly significant to me in my late teens and early adulthood) the central character Don Juan states that God will crush a man who bows his head to pray. Decades later, having returned to the practice of prayer, I yet heed this warning — rather I look to Heaven. More importantly, through Castaneda’s works I first considered other modes of contemplative practice similar to prayer.

Castaneda described two essential practices. Foremost, he described the goal of “stopping the internal dialog,” and his books describe many ways of accomplishing this. Secondly, he offers a specific practice called “recapitulation” that has elements of visualization (of memories), meditation, and breath work meant to clean and restore one’s energy. For purpose of citing practical lineage, Castanda — whose critics strongly associate him with the New Age movement (and to which he objected) — claimed these teachings were transmitted to him through an ancient secret society of Toltec sorcerers. Castaneda’s critics also reject him as a fraud — which he was. It’s complicated.

Among other notable practices, Castaneda described “not doing,” something I believe I accomplished over the course of several years, but the complexity of that maneuver makes it impractical to write about here. Another is Tensegrity, a system of movement for health and whatever Castaneda was preaching about — infinity or something. I received first-hand Tensegrity instruction at two two-day seminars held by Castanda’s company Cleargreen in the years before his death.

Stopping the internal dialog is key to my discussion here. But briefly, recapitulation is a simple, practical technique that involves methodically recalling and reliving one’s memories along with a specific breath and head movement, the goal of which is to reclaim energy trapped in memories as emotion. I did not sustain any meaningful recapitulation discipline. To this day I wonder if it is a useful, if not essential, technique.

I recognized that stopping the internal dialog as a goal had elements in common with what I knew of other contemplative practices like Transcendental Meditation (TM) and Buddhist meditation. I never tried TM precisely, but I think many people who grew up in the 1970s were familiar with the mechanics and claims of the practice. I was told by my parents and other church people that such practices “empty the mind” and leave one vulnerable to demonic influence, although I don’t know their Biblical reference for this assertion.

Worthy of mention, as a college freshman strolling about our splendid mountain town campus, I was handed a business card with a chant and some instructions to get whatever I want. It may have been a TM variant. Back in my dorm room, I gave it a spin. My wildest dream instantly came true and set the devil afoot. It was catastrophic.

Over the course of the years I am referencing I tried at intervals various Buddhist meditations. I lose patience with mind-emptying meditations, which is to say I lose patience with myself. Often I can’t “let go” of my thoughts fast enough. Thoughts fly in like noise from all directions, layered with subroutines, monitors, and logical arguments. An exhausting cacophony.

As for Castaneda, whether or not I was ever cut out for the rough road of the Toltec sorcerer (let alone whether that’s even a good idea), I was impressed by the close relation that stopping the internal dialog had with the aim of meditation in Buddhism, and I still wonder if it might be a way to describe the legitimate and inevitable goal of many contemplative practices.

The New Age practice of visualization is very similar to the silent prayer of my formative years, except that instead of making requests to God, one imagines what one wishes with the intent to attract a desired outcome. I lost patience with visualization quickly due to lack of results — I did not recognize it as Satanic until later, after I updated my understanding of that designation. Likewise, I had no serious interest in ceremonial or ritual magic. It is said that such rites can be performed very if not most effectively internally, as visualizations, rather than physically. I recommend against all of that Satanic stuff.

I found more practical results with meditations associated with Taoism, such as one might find in books by Mantak Chia. These practices involve focused attention on parts of the body with the intent of circulating and cultivating chi, an activity that simultaneously shuts down the chaotic influence of the “inner dialog” and promotes a positive sense of health. Many of these practices involve a kind of abstract visualization — projecting mental images of energies as colors, motion, and temperature (among other properties) upon portions of one’s body. I don’t mean to advocate too strongly for Chia, who is surely as controversial as Castaneda. While his works seem to be endless volumes of esoteric and occult practices, I find the basic “Inner Smile” and the “Microscopic Orbit” most effective, followed by a handful of other “preliminary” exercises, such as “Bellows Breathing.”

Many Taoist practices are at once physical and contemplative. Tai chi chuan (taijiquan) is most well-known, while chi kung (qigong) has gained notoriety in the West, following the rising popularity of hatha yoga. In fact, Chia calls his system Taoist Yoga, and includes taijiquan and many qigong forms.

It is worth mentioning for clarity’s sake that I started doing daily hatha yoga routines on my own in my early 20s, shortly after I left Christianity, and continued on for many years. I had tried it on a whim and discovered that a well-rounded set of asanas (yoga postures), such as the Sun Salutation, relieved both chronic and acute pain, thereby somewhat easing my mind. In a way, I was addicted to hatha yoga. At my peak, before a spinal injury stopped me cold, I was doing full sets of Tensegrity, qigong, taijiquan, baguazhang,and hatha yoga every day before sunrise, a regimen I carried on for several years. (I eventually dropped Tensegrity altogether because I think it’s useless, if not a sham.) As a secular practice, hatha yoga for me was nothing more than a phenomenally effective set of stretches and alignment exercises. Although I combined some Taoist meditations with my sets of asanas, I did not delve into bhakti (devotional) yoga, pranyama, or other Hindu-related spiritual practice. In the decades now that have followed the injury, I have been in and out of such discipline for months at a time — and for the past few years, completely out.

How Not to Pray

A pivotal element in my discussion began in 1992 when I joined a martial arts school to learn about Shaolin kung fu, taijiquan, hsing i, and baguazhang. In terms of my life’s epochs, this period began in my mid-20s — until then I had not been praying at all for about eight years (contemplative practices aside, which are not prayer). The sifu of the school was also a road man of the Native American Church.

Following his invitation, for several years I attended sweat lodges and, eventually, tipi ceremonies. These activities are specifically prayer events. Prayers are sung. There are prayers to recite. Prayers are whispered, spoken, even shouted. Prayers can be silent. They can be long. Was this the type of “heathens'” prayer Jesus warns against in Matthew?

The word for the supreme being is Wakan Tanka, and prayers are traditionally offered to this one. Disregarding dogmas pronounced or nuanced, I saw this as being the same God, the source of all, as recognized from before the days of Abraham.

The name of Jesus was also often called out, invoked, at such ceremonies.

Once the leader of a sweat lodge encouraged us to pray in a way that we were most accustomed. He said pray to Jesus if that is your way.

“Jesus saves,” said someone else.

“Yes,” laughed the leader, “Jesus has to save me every day!”

That moment of laughter stayed with me. Was it the moment when commenced my long turning back toward God? And I began, infrequently, desperately, pettily, and in Jesus’ name, to pray again.

One Way to Pray

Why should I have had to go down this very idiotic fool’s errand, sorting through lies for years just to find hot steaming garbage? Stupidity, probably. But perhaps it’s just the story God wants me to tell: even retards like me can get saved.

The Native American Church seems to favor extreme measures to provoke the Spirit’s voice. I could see somewhere down that way, down that red road, the Sun Dance.

I wanted no part of that.

Nevertheless, I learned much by that fireplace. Pertinent to this piece, some in a lodge ask how they should pray, or the leader might offer guidance. More than once I heard the statement, “We can ask how we should pray.” Ask how, and the Spirit will answer.

I have taken that with me on my journey back to Christianity and, ultimately, to being born again of the Father.

But the blatant fact is that the answer to this question has already been answered by Jesus, as recorded in Matthew Chapter Six, and of course the reader will recall I opened with this reference.

My return to prayer was at first gradual. But in the last several years I have made quite a regular practice. For over a year I prayed nightly for God’s forgiveness, to forgive myself, and to forgive others. I incorporated prayer for my family in my daily yoga sessions (when I was still doing that). All of this prayer is done silently, as I described at the beginning of this article — conversing directly with God. But I did not know how to hear God’s answers. I yet saw no evidence of a personal God. I’m not fond of the term agnostic, since I never doubted the divine origin of all phenomena. For a time I must have had an idea of prayer closer to a visualization practice, trying to send my heart’s yearnings to the source, to the Spirit, for blessings.

In 2019 I was profoundly moved by the street preacher activist ministry of Bevelyn Beatty, by her enthusiastic and unwavering Christian testimony streamed and documented on YouTube. She’s an imperfect woman, I know. But I was convinced by her. When I listened to her I recognized something from deep inside my memories, Biblical tales and modern tales of courage and passion for spreading the Gospel by word and by deed. She is alive with God’s purpose. I wished I could have passion for something like that.

I thought about this for days. I prayed about it. Somehow one day I knew the answer.

I can have passion like that.

There is only one way.

Since my return to Christianity, and since being born again, my approach to and understanding of prayer has evolved. Until most recently, I would verbalize my prayers, again my one-sided conversations with God — much attention given over to forgiveness, but appeals for guidance, blessings, and healing. Although receiving no confirmation of a type that satisfies the worldly mind, I held forth in faith that He knows me and loves me — confidence in a personal God restored.

It eventually dawned upon me that pleading with God for blessings like a beggar on the street was at best a waste of prayer. I’m not sure exactly how I realized this, but it wasn’t entirely a foreign notion — there are hints in my Christian upbringing, but also in Castaneda — and since then I have heard Jesse Lee Peterson confirm it.

I think there are appropriate moments when one seeks God’s hand. Jesus at Gethsemane prayed earnestly for an outcome that was ultimately denied to him. I don’t know exactly what that lesson teaches, but it seems like such prayers can shore up resolve to accept God’s will in all things.

Seeking better prayer, I turned to the text and the tradition of the Lord’s Prayer. After all, Jesus says this is how to do it. As a litany we recited the King James Version (KJV) in the halting cadence of congregational unison. After a lifetime of repetitions it has a hypnotic effect, it becomes a wordless incantation serving some other purpose than the words Jesus spoke. It’s all thy and thine, which art, and daily bread. What does it even mean? Indeed, other Bible translations and versions try to demystify the prayer, but who says it their way? Is it indeed vain repetition?

I decided to try my own paraphrase, to try to internalize the prayer in a way that when I prayed I might truly speak that prayer to God. It goes something like this:

Heavenly Father
Whose name is sacred and unknown
This is your kingdom
Let your will be done here as in Heaven
Give me what I will need for today
Forgive my sins
As I forgive those who have sinned against me
Don’t lead me to temptation
Deliver me from evil
For this is your kingdom
Your power
Your glory

I yet find the approach of language altogether burdensome. Continually I cross-reference my personalized version against the ingrained KJV, to make sure I didn’t forget anything. Then I’m back to the trance of “thy” and “thine” and the cadence of meaningless words and I have to start all over. It works better, I began to discover, when I am able to identify a unit of meaning apart from any words used to describe it — abstracting wordless sensation from the abstraction of the words — and then move to the next unit of meaning, like moving through rooms in a house instead of along strings of text. By definition, there is no true way for me to define for you these wordless spaces with words, but I might offer, as an example, something like my notion of our Heavenly Father as a central, ineffable golden light above, crowned, as they say, in glory. Thus I tend to pray a non-verbal version of the Lord’s Prayer, which seems most appropriate.

A New Way to Pray

As I considered and worked on my non-verbal approach to the Lord’s Prayer, I also started listening to Jesse Lee Peterson, and soon I learned about his “Silent Prayer.” The fundamental principle of the Silent Prayer directly relates to his assertion that “all thoughts are all lies all the time about anything.”

“Doubt all thoughts,” he says, they are evil. He goes so far as to say that “our thoughts are not our own — they don’t come from us.” And he will say that all thoughts are spun by the devil to trap us.

The Silent Prayer is a practical way to listen for God’s voice by being still within.

Peterson will say God’s voice is a voiceless voice, that the way to hear Him is to become silent within and listen. The Silent Prayer, described as a technique, is very simple and quite familiar. It involves relaxing with closed eyes, progressive body relaxation, and a process of letting thoughts go without engagement and without judgment, listening for God in the silent breach. “Do the Silent Prayer,” Peterson says, “every morning and every night.”

With a few critical differences, this silent prayer very closely resembles “mindfulness” practice as I remember it spoken of by Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn on a cassette recording of his lecture (given to me over twenty years ago by a Zen monk), and later read in other Buddhist materials, such as Chogyam Trungpa’s Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior. Perhaps I read about it first in Siddhartha by Herman Hesse. This is the very famous description of thoughts as water in a river — one stands in the river merely watching thoughts flow on by.

Peterson elaborates further on his assertion that our thoughts are not our own, stating that what passes for our own thoughts have a diabolical origin. He says our enemy — the devil Satan — floods human minds with a tempestuous torrent of thoughts, forever engaging our attention with imaginary nonsense and lies that only make us angry, so that we are never still, never quiet, always mad, and thus unable to hear God’s voiceless voice. It is central to this point that we have established God’s voice as voiceless. This is that type of knowledge that pride won’t admit: it can be known and it can be lived, but it can’t be spoken.

For many years I worked on the idea that language itself is humanity’s first problem, that our minds are imprisoned by the same awesome trick that advances “technology.” But it has taken some adjustment for me to internalize Peterson’s statement that all thoughts come from another source than one’s own mind, a source that is evil. Ideas like these were rarely spoken in the sermons of my childhood religion. It reminds me, though, of certain passages in Castaneda, especially in his later work. And I can’t help also but be reminded of Castaneda’s essential concept of stopping the internal dialog to achieve inner silence.

Unlike Castaneda, however, the goal is not to gain personal power and “freedom” to infinity with a piggyback ride on an “inorganic being.” And unlike Buddhism, the goal is not to achieve transcendental emptiness. As I understand it, the aim of the Silent Prayer is to receive and be fulfilled by the love of God.

I think Peterson is right about the practicality of the Silent Prayer.

Although Peterson assures us it gets “easier and easier,” it hasn’t been that smooth for me. But I’m just a beginner. As I mentioned earlier in this post, sitting down and not thinking is not my strong suit. I file through layers upon layers of thoughts, identify them without judgment, and release them to oblivion. It takes me a long time just to calm it all down, let alone dispel my transfixed attention. But when I do, yes God is there.

As I observe and recognize thoughts as not my own and disengage my attention from them, I can access a non-verbal, non-lingual mind-state whereby I am able to perceive the voiceless voice of God within my heart. It’s not something I visualize, nor is it a vision. I can only say it is God’s presence in my life.