What’s the Difference Between Prayer and Meditation?


by Michael Maciel

In the Pagan traditions, it was almost easier to pray because the One God was divided up into separate attributes, each one governing different aspects of life. So you knew which God to pray to, depending on what you were praying for.
Now we have one God, which in some sense is a little overwhelming because He/She/It is kinda hard to relate to, being the All and Everything.
That’s partly why the Church fronted Jesus and Mary—to bridge the gap between the cosmically ineffable and the relatable personal. Only with time, Jesus and Mary became just as remote as the Father God, due to the human tendency to put all things holy up on an impossibly high pedestal.
The New Age came in with its own solution, which was to say, “Well, you’re actually praying to yourself, anyway, so you don’t have to humble yourself to anyone or anything.” There was some remote truth in that, but it left people more confused than ever. How do you pray to yourself when it’s you who has the need? That approach was a non-starter.
The one thing that the Pagans have that I find most helpful is their keen sense of protocol. There are ways to properly approach a deity that involve a certain level of respect and deference—a certain formality. You never just ask for something. You must first offer a gift. You use certain words and you approach them at designated times. You have to build a relationship with the deity before you start asking for favors.
There was also the sense that if you disrespected a deity, you would incur its wrath. Things would not go well for you. Today, for example, if you take something from the volcano on the Big Island of Hawaii, you had better leave a gift for Pele, the goddess of the mountain. If you don’t, she will punish you in some way.
Most of this was carried forward in Christianity right out of the Pagan playbook. The bread and the wine used in the Mass are the “offering.” And if by your sins you displease God, you will have hell to pay.
All of this simply underscores the primary assumption that prayer is the means by which we ask God for those things we either need or want. it assumes that there is a higher consciousness that is capable of delivering, that the universe is governed by a great, creative intelligence that exists within everything while at the same time is superior to it.
But the keyword is “consciousness,” which implies that when you speak to it, it HEARS you. So prayer, first and foremost, involves ways of communicating that ensure that your connection with the Infinite will be established in a way that something meaningful (and therefore powerful) can transpire between you and It.
Meditation is different. The primary purpose of meditation is to get information from the cosmic mind. This is why it’s never referred to as “worship,” whereas prayer is often synonymous with worship. Meditation is a technique, a mental skill, whereas prayer invokes the power of the heart. It’s the difference, basically, between going to church and going to the library.
Meditation should always start with a question. There is a Hindu ashram in Ceylon run by an American Hindu guru where they have an exercise that students are given at the intermediate level of their training. They pair up and one of them hides an object somewhere on campus and the other has to locate it by meditating on its whereabouts. The seeker has to demonstrate proficiency by getting up out of meditation and walking directly to where the object was hidden.
Obviously, this is a mental skill, but it’s a skill that is based on the reality that mind is universal—it does not originate in nor is it confined to the human skull.
The reason that you should always begin meditation with a question is that nature abhors a vacuum, and a question is a psychic vacuum—a space that needs to be filled. If you simply go in trying to quiet your mind, you will encounter difficulty, because you’re trying to force a vacuum, not create one naturally, which is what asking a question does. Of course, the question has to be genuine. You have to really want the answer. But…that’s not really correct, because wanting has very little to do with mind. Instead, you have to KNOW that the answer exists. If your question is real, the answer is real. All you have to do is let it come to you. That’s why meditation is sometimes referred to as “listening” to God.
One way to demonstrate this is to go to a place you are unfamiliar with and find a wall. Sit in front of the wall and ask the Universal Intelligence what’s on the other side of it. You know that something has to exist there because the wall isn’t the end of reality. Knowing this is actually the true meaning of “faith.” You don’t believe something is there—you KNOW it. It has to be, right? So what you want to know is what is there.
If you think about this, you can see that getting to the moon was a “wall.” Finding the cure for polio was a wall. Getting free of fossil fuels is a wall. Everyone knows that there’s an answer. They know it as much as they know anything. So they keep probing, which is to say, they keep asking the universe to yield up the necessary information, the missing links.
In the Temple at Jerusalem, there was a small room called the Holy of Holies. It held the most sacred objects of the people of Israel. No one could go in except the High Priest, and he could only go in once a year. The reason he went in was to seek guidance for his people. Now, there was no door to the Holy of Holies, only a veil—a heavy fabric curtain. Curtains keep us from seeing inside a room, but they cannot prevent us from hearing what’s being said within it.
The Holy of Holies is inside of us. It is that place where we have direct contact with the Divine, with God. The High Priest is also within us. He is that part of us that leads—the executive function of mind. He’s the one who says yes or no. By going in, he is saying “yes,” which is the expectation that we will receive the information we need. The “people” are all of the different aspects of our lives, both the inner and the outer. So, the information we get from our Holy of Holies should, by definition, benefit us entirely.
And the reason the High Priest only goes in once a year is that our contact with God is strengthened if we employ the cyclic powers of nature. The “year” period is only symbolic. What it really means is that the cycles we use have to be in sync with the cosmos, both the heavens and the Earth. All encounters with the Divine work better if they are an iterative event, not a one-off or sporadic or last-ditch plea. Meditation works best when we do it at the same time every day. When our timing is deliberate and consistent, we send a clearer (and therefore more powerful) message, and those who have the answers we seek will be more inclined to respond.
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