Q&A: Does Prayer Have a Place in the Practice of Yoga?
Does prayer have a place in the practice of yoga?
Yes. Prayer is a means of connecting your heart with the Divine, thereby allowing grace to flow and touch your heart. The heart is the seat of absolute transcendental truth. A prayer that truly comes from the heart transcends all boundaries and has the power to destroy all bondage.
The power of prayer is so immense that it has an unfailing effect on the mind and heart. Prayer changes intellectual dialogue into spiritual contemplation, transforming our normal emotions into devotion. Because it quiets our mental chatter and calms emotional turmoil, prayer creates the environment for the inward journey. One of the biggest problems that meditators face is preparing the proper mood. It is true that meditation makes the mind one-pointed and tranquil, but when we are already in a bad mood it is difficult to sit down and meditate. This is where prayer comes in.
Prayers can be repeated aloud, which does not require a great deal of concentration. The meaning of the prayer helps us organize our emotions, calm them, and turn our attention toward the Divine, the object of our prayer. Thus prayer is a technique for making the transition from mundane to divine awareness. But this is true only when the prayer comes from the heart. Prayers should not be said in a perfunctory manner. Prayer can be a complete path in and of itself, leading to the highest level of realization, provided it is genuine and not a mechanical regurgitation of some lines we have committed to memory.
Yet even the act of memorizing prayers and repeating them mechanically has some value if the prayers are authentic—prayers which were revealed to the saints and sages. Revealed prayers came directly from the Source and because of this, they retain the power to transform and heal. This power is further intensified when such a prayer has been used and passed down for a long period of time. For example, people have been using the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi for several centuries and because of this it has gathered immense energy. When you say this prayer from the heart, you are repeating words that have touched the lives of countless people and allowing yourself to become part of an ever-flowing stream that reaches its destination by its own virtue. A prayer composed by an ordinary mind may induce a pleasant feeling, but it will not have the same effect as the prayers of saints like Francis, Narada, and Tulsidasa.
When we repeat an authentic prayer our minds and hearts are purified, and eventually the higher virtues of love, devotion, and faith begin to unfold within us. When these prayers fill the deepest recesses of our heart, the mind automatically travels inward to enjoy their subtle vibrations, and meditation begins spontaneously. The spiritual history of both the East and the West is replete with examples of saints who had never heard of meditation but, due to their intense practice of prayer, were blessed with meditative minds.
When we repeat an authentic prayer our minds and hearts are purified, and eventually the higher virtues of love, devotion, and faith begin to unfold within us.
Does prayer have the power to heal? What is your opinion about “remote healing”?
Prayer has an immense power to heal. Through prayer we can both heal ourselves and others, but there is one condition: the prayer must be selfless.
Healing at a distance through what is called remote prayer is possible. The prayer acts in much the same way that a remote control device acts in operating a television set. We may not see the connection between the remote control and the television, but the energy being emitted from the source (the remote control device) is being received by the television. If the battery is dead, the remote control will not work. It is the same with remote prayer. Selflessness and unconditional love are the batteries. Without them, the prayer has no power.
According to the Yoga Sutra, the energy emitted from prayer is eternal and cannot be sent forth in vain. This is also the secret of a blessing. Both intense prayer and blessing are at work in the process of an authentic spiritual initiation. You may pick up a mantra from a book and practice it for a long time without seeing much result, but if you receive the same mantra through initiation you will perceive a distinct difference. Initiation must be accompanied by intense prayer and unconditional love. If either of these components are missing the initiation loses its power.
As meditation deepens, does the role of letting go and witnessing change?
The witnessing aspect remains the same, although the depth and complexity deepen as meditation deepens. However, the process of letting go does change somewhat. In the early stages of meditation when the mind is not yet well-trained, witnessing is a simple process of keeping your mind focused on your mantra or other object of meditation. When you notice another thought running in the back of your mind, simply let it go. If that thought becomes so overwhelming you cannot ignore it, then witness it without involving yourself with it: simply observe the undesirable thoughts passively.
Later on, when your meditation deepens, trivial thoughts no longer flash in your mind. Instead, thoughts, concerns, and issues that you never knew you had begin to surface from your unconscious. To deal with this deep-rooted unconscious material, you must develop a more profound and methodical practice of witnessing. You cannot just witness those unconscious contents; they are too powerful, and the deeper they have been stored in the unconscious, the more powerful they are. They forcibly capture your attention and stir your entire being, demanding resolution.
You must recognize the unconscious contents for what they are and use the power of nonattachment to disentangle yourself from them. If you are still bothered by them, then resort to the highest technique of all—surrender them to God. This whole process is called “witnessing.” It is a dynamic internal process in which the mind is actively involved with the object of meditation, with periodic interruptions for contemplation and prayer, and this makes it possible to surrender this powerful material to God. This is what the scriptures call the action of an inactive mind. As meditation deepens further, the process of witnessing is further refined.
In the highest stages of meditation you are witnessing the object of your meditation. There is no longer anything else to witness. You witness the object of your meditation effortlessly because it is already there. You simply allow yourself to be in the presence of your mantra: the mantra is there; you are also there. Because the process of witnessing the mantra is totally effortless, you are meditating and yet you are not meditating. In other words, you meditate in a manner in which you don’t exist any more as a meditator—rather, you become the process of meditation.
At some point the process of witnessing the object of your meditation becomes so profound and subtle that you are neither the meditator nor the process of meditation; rather, you are the object being meditated upon. By this time, the mind has transcended all its modifications and merged into Atman (pure consciousness). Consciousness stands behind the curtain of all thinking and knowing. The intrinsic functioning of the soul is witnessing. Atman is not the doer but the pure witness. It remains uninvolved, unentangled, untainted through birth, death, and all that occurs in between. By the time you reach the state of awareness where the witness alone is left, you have attained pure samadhi.