The Five Aspects of Effective Prayer
God is omniscient. He knows all the thoughts that run through our minds — the yearnings of our heart, the little “tapes” of wanting this or wanting that. He is closer to our consciousness than we ourselves are because He is our consciousness. So the question naturally arises: Why should we pray if God already knows everything?
Praying to God helps us to open our consciousness to the flow of God’s grace. By praying, we make a conscious connection with God that otherwise wouldn’t be there, and thereby attune ourselves more fully to Him.
God’s grace is like the sunlight
Thirty five years ago or so, Swami Kriyananda and a few others of us from Ananda Village went to India where we were able to spend time with the great saint Ananda Moyi Ma. We had brought with us a number of malas and other treasured items that people wanted Ma to bless. When we presented these things to her, she said, “Why do you ask this body to bless these things? God’s grace is like the sunlight: it’s always shining down. Don’t you see that?”
We said, “Yes, we know Ma, but, please, could you bless them anyway?” And she very kindly did so. She was teasing us a bit but the point she was making was very important. God’s grace is always shining down; it is always with us. But we don’t often connect with it consciously.
Ananda Moyi Ma’s use of the image of sunlight was very appropriate. When the sunlight comes into a room through the windows, we can read without electric lights. But if we want to experience more of that sunlight, we have to make a conscious decision to go outdoors and expose ourselves to the sun.
In the same way, if we want our perception of God to be more than a dim reflection, we have to expose ourselves to His grace and draw upon it consciously. Prayer helps us focus our spiritual intentions through a request to God. By praying we draw more of God’s grace than we otherwise would.
What we should not pray for
When we pray, there is the question of what we should pray for. There are some things not to pray for. For one, if we are undergoing a challenging test, we should not pray that the test be taken away. Is God even likely to answer that kind of prayer? Is He likely to say, “All right, I’ll just remove the test so that you don’t have to learn to be kind; you don’t have to learn to be unattached?” Of course not.
Secondly, we should never pray that our tests be easier, yet we do it so often. We ask that our tests be made easier, so that we don’t have to give up our attachments, so that we don’t have to offer up all the delusions that are holding us back spiritually.
One of the main attitudes that keeps us bound to ego is the thought that our physical possessions, our talents, our ideas and other gifts are our own — that they don’t truly come from God. And it’s because of that delusion that we need to offer up everything to God repeatedly, until we finally realize that everything is God’s alone, that we have nothing outside of what He has given us, and that the sole purpose of our lives is to learn to become perfect channels for His will.
Why two highest prayers?
Paramhansa Yogananda gave us two prayers, both of which he said are the highest prayers one can pray. One might ask: why two prayers? Wouldn’t it be easier to have only one prayer? But Yogananda said his path was a combination of meditation and service. The first prayer, “Father give me Thyself so I may give Thee to all,” is a prayer for deep meditation. To counter any tendency in the person praying to seek that grace egoically, the prayer ends with: “so I may give Thee to all.”
The second prayer is for proper activity or service: “I will reason, I will will, I will act but guide Thou my reason, will and activity to the right path in everything.” The message of that prayer is: “Guide me so that I always act and think in attunement with You.” A devotee should always pray for deeper attunement – to want only what God wants for him – and nothing else.
Similarly, in praying for others, usually it’s better not to pray for a specific result – God knows their needs better than we do. Pray instead that God’s will and blessings flow through that person. When we pray deeply in that way, God will answer the prayer.
There must be a personal relationship
Swami Kriyananda has said that the most important line of the beautiful Lord’s Prayer is at the very beginning: Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name. And within this line, the most words important are: “Our Father.”
What Kriyananda is showing us through this illustration is that in prayer, there must be a personal relationship. When we pray, we must feel that we are God’s children, not insignificant beggars. We must feel that He wants the best for us and knows what that is better than we do.
The remaining words in the first line of the Lord’s Prayer –“hallowed be Thy name” – are also very important. These words honor God. It’s very important to honor God, not because God needs to be honored, but because we need to experience our relationship with God in an uplifted way. God’s real name is AUM, the vibration by which He manifests creation. By recognizing and honoring that vibration, and making a conscious connection with it, we become open to His grace.
Paramhansa Yogananda once said to Dr. Lewis, “Doctor, you’re not praying correctly. You are praying to God; you should pray in God.” God is our own Self, but as long as we have an ego it’s easier to pray to God as if He were other than ourselves. As we go deeper in our spiritual life and begin to break down the hypnosis of separation from God, we can begin to pray from a sense of unity with God. Dr. Lewis was ready to pray from a sense of unity, which is a deeper form of prayer. However, until we overcome the delusion of separation, it’s more natural to pray as if God were outside ourselves.
A simple way to remember
We’d like to offer a summation and a simple way of remembering the basic aspects of prayer. For each of the five fingers we will give one of the five aspects of prayer, each of which is very important.
The first finger is familiarity. The Lord’s Prayer starts with “Our Father.” We start virtually all our public Ananda prayers with “Heavenly Father, Divine Mother, Friend, Beloved God.” Always pray to God as your own parent, your deepest friend, your own beloved. Make familiarity the beginning of your prayer.
The second finger is faith. We have to pray believing that God will answer our prayers, assuming they are righteous requests. Pray believing in the goodness of God, and in His eager willingness to fulfill our true needs, including our need for proper sustenance and right livelihood. Jesus expressed it beautifully in the Lord’s Prayer: “Give us this day our daily bread.” God will sustain us in every aspect of life, but to draw His grace, we need faith.
The third finger is frequency. We can’t just pray once in the morning and assume it’s good enough for all day. At Ananda Village we pray before every meeting, and before meals.
Use every excuse to make a connection with God, either in formal prayer or in silent informal prayer. Feel that God is your companion and that you are sharing your life with Him. If you have a little heartache, share that with Him. If you are having trouble with someone, share that with Him. If you have a desire for something, tell Him about it. Don’t hold anything back. These kinds of “prayers” are going on in your mind anyway, so use them to make a connection with God by involving Him in them.
The fourth finger stands for fervor. Hearing a recording of Paramhansa Yogananda praying dispels any delusion that saints are always soft and sweet. His voice thunders with power. Yogananda emphasized that prayers should be prayer-demands, with the emphasis on demands, and that’s what we hear when he prays. Wimpy prayers do not take us very far: “Oh God I guess I want to be good today, help me out – okay?”
Try to make your prayers powerful. Pray with real fervor. The stronger the energy, the more magnetic your prayer, and the stronger the response will be.
5. Follow the will of God
Finally, the last finger, the thumb, stands for following the will of God in everything. The deepest prayer of our hearts should be to know and follow God’s will in every thought, word, and deed. Our true fulfillment lies in attuning ourselves to the will of God for nothing else will really make us happy.
From an October 30, 2011 Sunday Service at Ananda Village.
Nayaswamis Jyotish and Devi are the Spiritual Directors of Ananda Worldwide. Other Clarity articles by Nayaswamis Jyotish and Devi are listed under “Jyotish and Devi Novak.
Related reading: Whispers from Eternity by Paramhansa Yogananda, edited by his disciple Swami Kriyananda. See especially Yogananda’s introduction on how to use the prayer-poems in the book.