What's the difference between prayer and meditation?
Prayer as movement from the mind to the heart
Jayd Henricks, instructor and associate director of the School of Faith, St. Lawrence Catholic Center, 1631 Crescent Road:
It seems the older one gets, the greater one's awareness becomes of the need to take time out, reflect on one's life and find peace in its deeper meaning. No doubt if more people did this, life would be better for everyone.
Admittedly, this is an oversimplification of what is generally meant by meditation, but it is a fair characterization of the common understanding and purpose of meditation. It is a lofty and dignified activity.
Christian prayer, like meditation, can take many forms, and, in fact, can itself be a form of meditation. There are, however, two fundamental differences between humanistic meditation and Christian prayer.
First, the object in Christian prayer is not oneself, nor one's environment, but God. Christian prayer engages the mind to meditate on the life of Christ and everything related to him.
Second, Christian prayer does not end in simply thinking about God; it should arouse the affections to imitate the self-sacrificing love of Christ. Authentic prayer does not end in the mind but moves the heart to love that which Christ loves. The meditation within prayer is simply a preparation for the arousal of love. Without this movement of the heart, prayer does not differ from simple meditation.
It is this Christocentric character of prayer that separates it from meditation. Of course, other faiths have their own distinctive characteristics, but for the Christian, prayer is the movement from the mind to the heart rooted in love of Christ. When the soul bursts with acts of love, an intimate connection is established between the soul and God, and it is then that the soul can truly be said to be praying.
- Send e-mail to Jayd Henricks at firstname.lastname@example.org
Differences aside, the important thing is application
Judy Roitman, guiding teacher of the Kansas Zen Center, 1423 N.Y.:
Prayer usually involves addressing another being. Meditation usually involves some form of observation or contemplation. Sometimes this is expressed by saying that prayer is talking and meditation is listening. But this is a little too pat and tends to blur at the margins.
Yes, meditation can be completely nontheistic, focusing on the breath, or on the body, or on the processes of mind, or on the universe as it presents itself, or on any one of myriad other focal points, or on any combination thereof.
But in theistic religions, recommended forms of meditation may focus on particular prayers, or aspects of God, and so on. So where does prayer end and meditation begin?
And in nontheistic religions, people can address various beings in a fashion that looks a lot like prayer and incorporate prayerlike chants, mantras and mandalas into their meditation practice. So where does meditation end and prayer begin?
Prayer and meditation can reinforce each other directly (for example, if the object of meditation is a particular prayer). Nontheistic meditation can help support prayer in any tradition by encouraging clarity and focus. And prayer, especially prayer that relieves us of our mental and spiritual burdens, can support the clarity of our meditation.
What's important isn't to distinguish between the two, but to find a spiritual practice that you can commit to right here and now. Some of us will come out more on the prayer end of the continuum, others more on the meditation end. Others will do both, and others will blend the two so much that it's hard to tell which is which.
It really doesn't matter. Call it prayer, call it meditation - the important thing is that you do it.
- E-mail Judy Roitman at email@example.com.