How Do I Start Praying?
June 29, 2010 8:01 AM   Subscribe

I am not a religious person, but I would like to begin praying and make prayer a part of my life. I have never prayed before. Any thoughts on how to begin?

A bit about myself: I am a woman in her early thirties, born and raised Jewish, but very secular (we celebrated the high holidays, but neither of my parents believed in God; I went to Hebrew school for a while, but never had a bat mitzvah).

I'm not sure what God is for me, or who I would be praying to -- if anyone! Yet the idea appeals to me and seems calming and just good, even if no one is at the receiving end of my prayers (who knows?).

When I think of praying, I think of people on their knees speaking to a certain God, and though this is not off-putting, I'm not sure if this is for me. And yet I don't need more talking to myself in my head -- I do enough of that; I would like praying to be something other than that.

I am wondering if anyone has experiences or can give advice to me -- to a person who would like to start praying, but doesn't know how. I am okay with feeling a bit silly or awkward at the beginning.

Do people find that praying at the same time every day helps? Any advice would be appreciated.
posted by PersonAndSalt to Religion & Philosophy (33 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
Are you sure that it's prayer that interests you specifically? Meditation might better serve your needs if you have no particular religious inclination.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 8:05 AM on June 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks, le morte. I wouldn't say I have no religious inclination. I am more agnostic than atheist. I am also interested in meditation and have been reading up about it, but it is prayer I am more deeply interested in. I'm not sure why yet.
posted by PersonAndSalt at 8:08 AM on June 29, 2010

You might look into meditation instead - in fact it sounds like that's exactly what you want. It's like praying without getting on your knees or having to talk to yourself or to a god you don't believe in. You don't have to be any particular religion to do it. And there are also alot of physical tangible benefits from doing it right.

I'm sorry for linking to a wikipedia article as it seems a little crass but it does seem like a good introduction to it.
posted by amethysts at 8:08 AM on June 29, 2010

On not previewing, I'm curious about what it is about prayer that you're interested in if you don't want to talk to god and you don't want to talk to yourself.
posted by amethysts at 8:09 AM on June 29, 2010 [2 favorites]

There are so many ways of tackling this one, even within the tradition of your birth. There are ritualistic prayers (reciting the words of others, passed along through time), which are not unlike certain forms of meditation (I'll see your hip Buddhist) prayer beads and raise you one grandmother clutching a rosary; there are freeform, talking-to-God/Christ/the Universe prayers.

I've heard it stated that prayer is talking to a higher power, meditation is listening to it. What do you feel like you want to say? Are you looking for a dialogue, a relationship, or simply to voice your thoughts? Maybe some journalling on this very question is a start to prayer.

I have found that, for free-form prayer, I do best in a beautiful, solitary nature spot. I'm also agnostic as to whether I have a listener but it doesn't always seem to matter.
posted by availablelight at 8:12 AM on June 29, 2010 [3 favorites]

I'm in a place similar to you, I think, though I have to admit to agnosticism in the truest sense of the word: I just don't know what to believe, if anything.

That said, I believe there are a few important things about prayer, be it a spiritual or purely secular exercise:

*It shouldn't be purely selfish (about me me me) -- e.g. I pray I get that high-income job I've been eyeing.

*It should be process-oriented -- e.g. Help give me the perseverance and insight to go about my job search wisely.

*It shouldn't be overly presumptuous -- e.g. I pray that the Taliban leaders realize the error of their ways and stops killing American troops.

*It should be loving and generous -- e.g. I pray that the Taliban leaders have their hearts and minds filled with compassion and wisdom, such that they can do what's best for them and their people.

*It shouldn't only be focused on major events or tragedies -- e.g. Help Sara get through her cancer.

*It should focus on small, simple things -- e.g. Please help me to have the attention and awareness to actively notice and affirm the small but important things my friends and family do for me.

*And most of all, I think it should be as filled with positivity and hope as possible.

Doing that kind of prayer every day is, I believe, healthy exercise for anyone no matter what their beliefs.
posted by GnomeChompsky at 8:14 AM on June 29, 2010 [14 favorites]

Well, I've been reading about Mister Rogers (see this great article) lately, and his advice was to just take a moment every day to say "Thank you, God" as a prayer. I find a lot of grace and meaning in that.
posted by OLechat at 8:16 AM on June 29, 2010 [6 favorites]

Have you thought about talking with some religious leaders, or even just religious people? A friend of mine went through an experience a few years ago similar to what it sounds like you're going through (curiosity about prayer and god and faith that she had never had as a child), and she found it helpful to talk with some "experts." She spoke with a rabbi, a Catholic priest, some Mormons, and I think a few others, as well as with friends of hers who were actively religious. She ended up converting to Catholicism, but the point is that she wanted to ask a lot of questions of people who had different religious perspectives, and all of the religious leaders she spoke to were delighted to help.

I guess what I'm saying is that if you run in secular circles (and Metafilter tends toward a more secular crowd), you might get better advice by asking people who are "professionals" in the field of religion. And it'll probably be incredibly interesting, too, to learn about how different faiths view prayer.
posted by decathecting at 8:18 AM on June 29, 2010

You might enjoy reading Anne Lamott's book Traveling Mercies talking about her path towards spirituality and religion. She talks a lot about prayer and what and how she does it.
"She claims the two best prayers she knows are: "Help me, help me, help me" and "Thank you, thank you, thank you." She has a friend whose morning prayer each day is "Whatever," and whose evening prayer is "Oh, well." Anne thinks of Jesus as "Casper the friendly savior" and describes God as "one crafty mother.""
You might find something to latch on to there. Here is her talking more about her prayer routine.
posted by jessamyn at 8:18 AM on June 29, 2010 [4 favorites]

A very interesting question... how to pray...

Some people like to recite certain prayers (Holy Rosary, Hail Mary, Shabbat, etc...).
Some people treat prayer as a way to submit requests or desires.
Some people fall on the ground and speak in tongues when they pray.

I prefer to just express thing that are on my heart, in a personal way... and I rarely pray out loud - it is more of an internal thing.

But that is just me.

I know some need to follow certain traditions out of respect when they pray which is understood. But for me - I don't need much just a little time out of the day to give thanks.
posted by strongdad at 8:20 AM on June 29, 2010

I read a rather sweet thing about praying at with 5 fingers as a discipline at the end of each day and it stuck with me. The fingers bit is just to help you remember the steps and the order, starting with things you're grateful for, things you need forgiveness for, people you forgive, requests for others, requests for yourself. I think it's nice because you can do it whatever you do or don't believe, and psychologically it makes you feel good.
posted by Chrysalis at 8:22 AM on June 29, 2010 [6 favorites]

It's fine to pray to a putative God. "God" is a pretty flexible vessel. Personally, I'd call myself agnostic except for the fact that feels lonely to me; I don't like the idea we're an accident of physics, alone in the universe with no great big plan afoot.

I find it comforting to think/pretend there is or was an originating presence, the one commonly referred to as "God" in western culture. Did that God stick around? Is he/she/it/they still around? I have no idea, but we have semi-regular chats anyway. I actually find the AA model of a "higher power" to be useful in this dialogue. I'm very happy to accept, after all, that I am not the highest power in the universe, so that works for me. I do not require my internal spiritual worldview to work for anyone else.

Personally, I think any space that can focus your mind is a suitable space. I find spaces reserved for formal prayer to be the most readily suitable, possibly because I lack imagination. But I like churches and synagogues, the foot of statues and highrise viewpoints, and even quiet museums. Emergency rooms, falling elevators and turbulent planes also serve extremely well to focus my thoughts accordingly.
posted by DarlingBri at 8:27 AM on June 29, 2010 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I get this question a lot from the young people I work with in my ministry. Among the things I suggest:

- Pick a place for prayer; being there regularly will put your mind into a prayer mode.
- Pick a time for prayer; make it a part of your schedule; not just something you do whenever you find time.

I sometimes suggest the ACTS template for prayer. It's fairly non-denominational, and it works well as a guide for people who aren't sure how to start:

A - Adoration. Tell God (or whomever) how great he is. This helps us to be humble.

C - Confession. Tell God (or whomever) the things you've done wrong and ask forgiveness. This helps us to be aware that we're flawed and the we need his help.

T - Thanksgiving. Tell God (or whomever) how grateful you are for those things in your love that you treasure (friends, family, a roof over your head, food to eat, etc.)

S - Supplication. Ask God for help with your life, and for help in the lives of others.

It's an easy template to remember. It's not the -only- way to pray, and other ways are certainly valid, but I have found that people asking questions similar to your own have success with this approach.

...and I'll pray for you as well. :)
posted by DWRoelands at 8:28 AM on June 29, 2010 [5 favorites]

Do people find that praying at the same time every day helps?

Well, it's not like the birth control pill, and I don't think God is only answering your call during that exact time of the day! However, some people are deeply ritualistic and doing things at the same time every day is therapeutic.

I would think about why you want to pray. Are you trying to reach someone? Are you trying to get these thoughts or confessions out of your head, and you can't tell anyone else? It is the calmness of practicing something which interests you? If "praying" turns out not to be right for you, there are many other things you can do. Meditation (as others have mentioned), writing, whether in a journal or creatively, exercise, etc.

If you settle on prayer, I don't think there's a "right" way to pray. I know some folks who just lay in bed, say what they want to say, and then roll over and go to sleep. Others go to church when they want to pray.

A lot of agnostics think there is something "out there", but they haven't figured it out yet. Hell, maybe ALIENS will hear your prayers! It probably wouldn't really matter (and it shouldn't) who you are talking to, but just that you are getting it out there.

Just do whatever feels right for you, and you'll figure it out from there.
posted by two lights above the sea at 8:28 AM on June 29, 2010

I'm an almost total nonbeliever, but after discovering Sacred Harp Singing, I've been singing praise songs almost weekly for the last year and a half. Look into the music and if it appeals to you, find a group in your area that sings it.
posted by The White Hat at 8:37 AM on June 29, 2010

An excerpt from Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet on the subject of prayer, which I've always found to be comforting:
You pray in your distress and in your need; would that you might pray also in the fullness of your joy and in your days of abundance.

For what is prayer but the expansion of yourself into the living ether?
And if it is your comfort to pour your darkness into space, it is for your delight to pour forth the dawning of your heart.
And if you cannot but weep when your soul summons you to prayer, she should spur you again and yet again, though weeping, until you shall come laughing.
When you pray you rise to meet in the air those who are praying at that very hour, and whom save in prayer you may not meet.
Therefore let your visit to that temple invisible be for naught but ecstasy and sweet communion.
For if you should enter the temple for no other purpose than asking you shall not receive:
And if you should enter into it to humble yourself you shall not be lifted:
Or even if you should enter into it to beg for the good of others you shall not be heard.
It is enough that you enter the temple invisible.

I cannot teach you how to pray in words.
God listens not to your words save when He Himself utters them through your lips.
And I cannot teach you the prayer of the seas and the forests and the mountains.
But you who are born of the mountains and the forests and the seas can find their prayer in your heart,
And if you but listen in the stillness of the night you shall hear them saying in silence,
"Our God, who art our winged self, it is thy will in us that willeth.
It is thy desire in us that desireth.
It is thy urge in us that would turn our nights, which are thine, into days which are thine also.
We cannot ask thee for aught, for thou knowest our needs before they are born in us:
Thou art our need; and in giving us more of thyself thou givest us all."
posted by hermitosis at 8:41 AM on June 29, 2010 [4 favorites]

It's tempting to tell you that what you're looking for is meditation, not prayer (and now on preview I see that several people have already jumped in with that) but the label isn't that important; there's a lot of overlap between the two -- the only real distinction between them, at least in my mind, is whether your attention is aimed outward or inward.

I'm no expert, I'm sure other people will come along who are much better schooled in the names for the various traditions, but I can tell you what works for me; it sounds like we're from pretty similar backgrounds, so maybe something like it will work for you too.

What I do is find ten minutes in a quiet room, in a comfortable chair, sit, and breathe slowly. I don't actively try to shut down the constantly running internal monologue -- the trick is to not actively try to do anything -- but I don't feed it with new thoughts either.

If I do this regularly enough -- which I honestly don't do, it's one of those things like exercise or eating a healthy breakfast, that I know makes me happier in the long run but still somehow manage to put off for weeks at a time -- then most of those ten minutes consists of just being instead of doing or thinking. Which sounds kind of meaningless I know but it's a positive experience, I find I sleep better and work better and am just generally happier.

If as more often happens I fall out of practice and just do it once in a while, the monologue never stops, but at least I spend some time observing that monologue, and often end up learning some things about what I'm concerned about or worried about or dealing with at the time. Which isn't a bad thing at all.

Anyway, I guess my main point is don't get too hung up on the distinction between meditation and prayer. I know some believers whose "prayer" sounds awfully similar to what I do, and some non-theists whose daily rituals are basically identical to the ACTS template DWRoelands describes.
posted by ook at 8:45 AM on June 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

Mary Kerr tells a great story about learning to pray in her memoir Lit, which is both the story of her recovery from alcoholism and of her conversion to Catholicism. She did get down on her knees, on the advice of a spiritual advisor, for about a microsecond morning and evening, during which she would say, "Please help me stay sober," and "Thanks for helping me stay sober." It's funny when she tells it.

When I was new to Quakerism, I met a man who'd seriously considered a religious vocation as a Catholic monk. He led a workshop on monastic practices for a group of Quakers. Toward the end of the workshop, somebody expressed curiosity about his rosary, and he got it out to show us. For some crazy reason, I was fascinated and I wanted one.

I ended up making my own out of some beads--I didn't want the crucifix. And, weirdly, I went on to pray the rosary every day for awhile, except I didn't say the Apostles' Creed, I didn't say "a sinner," and there was something else in one of the prayers I couldn't bring myself to say. It was kind of an insane thing to do because I didn't even believe in God, let alone the divinity of Christ. But it was this impulse that I followed, and ultimately fruitfully, though it was a practice I laid down a long time ago. For me, a set structured prayer was a useful step to more spontaneous kinds of prayers.

Which is to say, I guess, that people pray all kinds of ways. Silently, out loud, alone, in groups, as something that looks more like meditation, with beads and without, in certain postures or just sitting in an easy chair with the morning coffee. So one way for you to start is to find a practice you feel drawn to.
posted by not that girl at 8:48 AM on June 29, 2010

Seconding Chrysalis, but I use a freeform, non-god-centered prayer where I walk through my day expressing gratitude for blessings and challenges, being thankful for every day previous and any days to come and anything else that takes my fancy (my community, environment, family, friends, etc). I frequently don't make it past that stage before I fall asleep.

But if I'm still awake I move on to confessing things done and left undone that I regret. And ask for strength to be a better person, often trying to visualize the ways in which I can do that. It's sort of a hybrid between meditation and prayer, and I got there through trial and error. I recommend that you, too, take some of the good suggestions above and find some structure that works for you.
posted by ldthomps at 8:48 AM on June 29, 2010 [2 favorites]

My background is like yours but without the Hebrew School. One thing I like about Judaism is that there are prayers for specific times and things. For example, Shabbat. Lighting candles and having this routine few sentences you say to switch from the week to the weekend is beautiful, imho. Or the traveler's prayer - I love the idea of asking for peace and protection from harm on a journey. I'm a complete and total Atheist, so the "God" part of these prayers is just words to me. It's more the tradition and the overall meaning that I like.

I don't actually pray - though I do have a little traveler's prayer scroll hanging from my rear-view mirror;-) But I lived for a while with people who did the Friday night thing, and the little prayer before the plane took off, and similar things. And that was very nice. So if I was going to start praying, that would be what I'd do.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 8:51 AM on June 29, 2010

Best answer: How I started was pretty simple, in the morning I ask for positive direction and guidance and a positive attitude throughout my day. At night I say thank you. I have since added to that and have begun praying on my knees. Sometimes if I am having a rough day I think of 5 things I am grateful for and say thank you and it turns my day around. Keeping it very simple works wonders for me because my mind tends to overcomplicate.
posted by heatherly at 9:03 AM on June 29, 2010

Your desire to pray is a great gift!

When I teach about prayer in my faith tradition, my first goal is to get the folks to lower their standards. Whenever you say "prayer should be like..." or "this is/is not real prayer" you erect barriers to a robust prayer life. The idea is to get accustomed to seeing the limitless opportunities for prayer in everyday life.

One tip is to find types of prayer that will fit into the rhythm of your life. The idea is not to end up with a prayer life and then a regular life, but to integrate the two. Of course, consecrated times for practice are necessary for learning, but the goal is to "pray without ceasing," which means your everyday life becomes elevated by awareness, appreciation, and gratitiude fueled by a prayerful consciousness.

Finding a type of prayer that fits you means trying many types of prayer. And there are a lot out there. Start close to what you already know.

Much prayer is, obviously, directed at God. But if you abstract what is happening in prayer, think about focusing your intention on an "Other" and setting your own ego aside for a while. You are not trying to kill your ego or conquer it, but to get it accustomed to the idea that it should not be the center of everything you do.

Prayer cultivates, hopefully, a mind that can maintain awareness apart from the demands of your ego. Sometimes this is by submitting your ego to the will of a God. Sometimes this is submitting your ego for the practice of it, because you realize that fulfilment in life cannot be reached by simply allowing your ego to always have the steering wheel. Maybe you want to practice focusing on something larger than you, like maybe the well being of the Others in your life.

In the Christian world, "contemplation" is the analogue to meditation. Sounds like maybe comtemplative prayer or meditation might be a helpful place to start, at least until you settle in on a tradition that speaks to you. There are so many techniques out there. I'd start simple and follow your instincts about what to try.

The most important thing to remember is that trying to pray is praying. You cannot "fail" at prayer if prayer is your intent. The only way to fail is not to try.
posted by cross_impact at 9:04 AM on June 29, 2010 [3 favorites]

This might seem off track, but you might want to check out Sylvia Boorstein's Happiness is an Inside Job - Just finished it and it seems to me she covers "prayer' in a fresh way.
posted by nnk at 9:11 AM on June 29, 2010

and his advice was to just take a moment every day to say "Thank you, God" as a prayer

And even if one is agnostic or uninterested in a deity, one can express similar gratitude for one's good fortune and ability to appreciate it, compassion for others and hope that they experience less suffering, and an aspiration to develop a more thoughtful relationship with the vast interdependent system of the universe of which you're just one part. (Which is a sentiment I find in Buddhism but which I think overlaps with other spiritual practices.)
posted by aught at 9:12 AM on June 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

Praying at a specific time is very helpful, but even the most limited discipline can be hard to maintain without the support of others. Whatever you decide to do, make sure to start small: I recommend saying your prayers in the few minutes before bed, in whatever position feels natural to you. In Judaism, standing and facing East is typical, but you should sit or kneel if you prefer.

It sounds like you'd like to skip the "talking to God" part of prayer, but it might be a helpful stepping stone for you. Giving thanks and asking for help with difficulties in your life is a great way to start. You might also like to remember people you know who are suffering or in difficulty, asking God to comfort and guide them or just imagining them in God's light. You can also pray for problems or disasters in the world (like the oil spill). This is called intercessory prayer.

Once you're used to this dialoguing kind of prayer, you can try praying without words by practicing God's presence. Spend time with God. Make God your Friend.

You might also like to add traditional prayers to your discipline. If you would like to draw on the Jewish tradition, look in a siddur or the psalms section of a bible. Don't worry if you don't know Hebrew -- the Talmud tells us that it's fine to pray in any language you understand. If you want to explore other traditions, you might consider the Lord's Prayer. The Oxford Book of Prayer includes a nice selection of prayers from many other traditions as well.

Feel free to memail me if I can be of any further assistance.
posted by lucy.verdad at 9:18 AM on June 29, 2010

Best answer: What prayer is is talking to God. The first thing you need to settle is who you are talking to because otherwise you are just saying words. Prayer is communication.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 10:47 AM on June 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

Doesn't God (or Whoever it is) listen whatever you might call It/Him/Her? Seems to me that God must if God is omniscient (i.e. all-knowing).
posted by GnomeChompsky at 11:01 AM on June 29, 2010

These are all such good responses.... well, maybe except for Gnome.

My humble contribution is to pick up the Psalms and Proverbs and read them. To me, they give a sense of sense of mankind's humility with respect to the infinite beyond and at the same time lets us approach the infinite beyond in dialogue. I think that, even if there is no supernatural component to them, there is still a lot of wisdom in them.
posted by Doohickie at 11:08 AM on June 29, 2010

Jewish morning prayers are quite lovely and practical, expressing gratitude for waking up healthy, praising beauty around you, etc. You might find some connection to some specific individual prayers (the psalms are particularly poetic) and create your own ritual around those rather than try to connect to an entire service. There are a lot of good resources online about contemporary interpretations of prayer in the Jewish tradition. You might also find Vanessa Ochs' books helpful - Words on Fire and Inventing Jewish Ritual.
posted by judith at 11:47 AM on June 29, 2010

My hubby and I both had the same response, The Year of Living Biblically. In his attempt to live a "biblical" life, Jacobs tackles prayer, doing it at the appointed times, even though he doesn't necessarily believe in it. From the Christian perspective, too, praying the Divine Hours or some other schedule like that can help.

Then again, my tradition is pretty much as far from that idea as you can get. I'm much more of a "conversationalist" with God, though I'm currently trying to get a little more disciplined in my prayer life. I think the main thing is to just do it, just reach out to God and say something, anything, whether it was written by someone else or is off the top of your head.
posted by wallaby at 1:20 PM on June 29, 2010

Though I attend Shabbat services regularly and even weekday services occasionally I never really "got" prayer in any personal way until very recently. Now it's a two pronged thing that I find enriches my life.

1) Prayer has become an acknowledgment of the good in life that has happened to me, I have participated in and witnessed.

Rabbi Rachel Cowan said “Jews have a tradition of saying 100 blessings a day. And what’s a blessing? It’s noticing a moment. Thanking God for giving us life, sustaining us in life and bringing us to this moment.”

Yes, that.

2) More importantly though prayer has become a way for me to figure out what is important to me and what I want to be/do. When I pray for something I don't think (or even hope necessarily) God is going to magically make it happen, instead it's me saying "if I could make this thing I'm praying for happen, I would." It then makes me figure out is there anything I can do to help make whatever I'm praying for happen?

I feel silly praying without structure so I do like attending services however sometimes I do the service prayers (minha, etc) at home alone. It's the structure that helps me.
posted by mjones at 7:25 AM on June 30, 2010

What prayer is is talking to God. The first thing you need to settle is who you are talking to because otherwise you are just saying words. Prayer is communication.

I'm just going to say in a friendly way that this was not at all my experience, and if I'd had to believe in God to start praying, I wouldn't have. I started out in Quaker worship, which is silent except when people are led to speak. Many Quakers are non-theists, and I started out just liking the quiet. God showed up for me awhile later; some people never experience anything they'd call "God" but still get enough out of it to be life-long Friends.

Likewise, if I'd had to believe first, I could never have begun my crazy rosary experiment.
posted by not that girl at 10:15 AM on June 30, 2010

Response by poster: I thank you all for your wise and sensitive answers.
posted by PersonAndSalt at 5:04 AM on July 2, 2010

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