I recently had a nice, civil conversation with a Christian friend of mine and he mentioned that he prays regularly and that he saw no difference between meditation and prayer. As a mindfulness practitioner, I felt I had to correct him, but it got me thinking how many people also believe this?
The conversation began when we were discussing the mass shootings that have plagued the US in the last few years and how I thought that “thoughts and prayers” had become more of a meme than a serious call to action. He disagreed, of course, saying that it is perfectly reasonable to pray for guidance and for the souls of those who were slain unnecessarily. I disagreed and didn’t do so humbly.
Prayer, by my definition, is an appeal to a supernatural force to intervene. Oftentimes, prayer is an appeal for some sort of advantage to yourself, like praying for health of a loved one or to win a sports contest. Even the idea of “praying for strength” to cope with some hardship is a long distance call to a supernatural being from the supplicant. It’s purely a plea to something (or someone) external.
Meditation is different. To meditate, you are not attempting to garner the attention of some mythical being in order to improve yourself or your situation. The idea of meditation is to look inward, and to muster your own capacity for overcoming suffering by summoning compassion and equanimity. The goal of meditation is to learn how to be a part of the experiences that transpire around you and to accept that you have a role. You are really reaching deep within to find a way to handle the misfortunes of a chaotic world by being mindful.
What is mindfulness then? It is simply being present – in the now. The benefit of that is that you are able to assess the present through fresh eyes by ceasing ruminations of the past and eliminating any compulsion to predict the future. Let’s face it, we simply have no control over what has happened already and what may or may not happen in the future. The only thing we can control is what is happening now, specifically how we react to our happenstance, for better or for worse.
Whether you pray or meditate during a crisis, such as a relative or loved one becoming afflicted with a serious illness, neither method will actually cure the sickness. I think both a pray-er and a meditator know that, although, some televangelists would likely tell you otherwise. Prayer summons the power of a god and that god can heal all afflictions, they say, but I don’t believe this is what the majority of religious people believe. The difference would be that there is a sort of hypocrisy about prayer that makes is shallow. If you believe in a god, you most likely believe that god has a “plan”, that he “works in mysterious ways” and that he “only gives us what we can handle”. If that’s so, then your god most likely gave your loved one a deadly illness that you are asking him to undo through kneeling down and showing him that you love him (and trust him). Reversing his decision by healing your loved one would make him either fallible or a sadist. That is a problem for the pious.
Meditators accept their fates and prepare for it by living a life of compassion and understanding. A meditator would be bedside, recounting memories, reading a book, listening to music or whatever makes their loved one comfortable in the moment. There would be no thought or expression of pain to come. Even if the moment comes where their loved one dies, the meditator accepts the impermanence of this life and doesn’t mourn for the end of it, but, instead, celebrates the end of suffering.
I can’t think of a better way to deal with life’s twists and turns, to be honest. I don’t want to worry about what my afterlife will bring since I don’t really have any idea that it actually exists, but I do want to effectively cope with each moment that I know that I am alive – I can see, touch, smell. taste and hear. I can do good not my wishing for some celestial being to intercede, but by practicing a life of mindfulness, compassion and appreciation of the well-being of myself and others.
Also, when I find the strength to overcome suffering, I kinda want to take credit for it myself.