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Why Meditation Has Not Enhanced My Praying

“Has your meditation exercise enhanced your prayers?”

I recently returned to Johns Hopkins University after an eight-year hiatus and I am taking a class on mindfulness and meditation. My professor, a gifted educator, skilled at drawing out each student’s unique perspective, challenged me the other day to see a correlation between the daily meditating I am doing for the course and my daily prayers.

To the surprise of my professor and classmates, I responded in the negative. I did not see any improvement in my prayers despite a consistent regiment of meditation. The truth is, I was surprised myself. I experienced a number of tangible benefits from my meditating; I learned that my jaw – normally hidden behind my beard – is clenched tight, and meditating has helped me relax this anxious posture. I have also been more cognizant of my emotions, finding myself able to watch them from the outside and not get swept up in their power. Both of those changes I can directly correlate with meditating. However, when it comes to prayer, an experience which is intrinsically deeply meditative, I have not found that meditating helps me pray.

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There are two fascinating insights into the nature of Jewish prayer that can be found in the saga of Avraham and Sarah. The first is Avraham’s prayer for the cities of Sedom (next week’s parsha). After much give and take, his prayer is ultimately rejected; God will not save the inhabitants of Sedom despite Avraham’s heartfelt pleas. Now this is not just any prayer, this is the first full and possibly only time we find Avraham praying and yet, the response from God is no. If the purpose of prayer is to receive help from God, this is a terrible introduction to its powers as Avraham’s prayers were flatly rejected. Clearly then, prayer has another role.

What that role is can be found in a Talmudic teaching (Yevamos, 46a) explaining a consistent theme in the life of our matriarchs; Sarah, Rivkah, and Rachel all experienced infertility. Our Sages pick up on this strange coincidence and suggest something radical; “God desires the prayers of the righteous.” In other words, God made these women infertile so that they would pray. Meaning, prayer is not what remedied their suffering, it’s what caused it in the first place! And while this does not seem very fair to these righteous women, it does tell us something important about prayer; prayer is not about getting something for ourselves, nor is it about alleviating our suffering. Prayer is so much deeper; it’s about a primary need in the fabric of creation for humans to reach out, from the depth of their being, and touch the Divine with their deepest yearnings.

Contrast that with the purpose of meditating, as stated by Buddha: The first principle in life is that man suffers. The purpose of meditation is to transcend that suffering. In other words, the goal of meditation is to alleviate suffering, through insight, and ultimately through transcendence.

While meditating likely helped my concentration, the energy of prayer, or at least that of Jewish prayer, is not found in healing, be it by Divine intervention or the psychological impact of mindfulness. The power of prayer is found in connecting to God, of allowing our soul to communicate with her Creator. The many psychological and physiological benefits of meditation that have been documented are certainly relevant to prayer as well. I can tell you from personal experience how freeing and anxiety-reducing prayer can be. However, these benefits are not the goal. Many are frustrated by prayers that are left unanswered, others find the experience to be somewhat stale. Perhaps if we were to recognize that the goals we have for prayer are not what it offers, we would be less disappointed. Perhaps if we were to recognize that the benefit of prayer is mostly mystical, a union between soul and God, an experience that may or may not be felt, we would find services more meaningful.

This understanding of prayer sheds light on one final Talmudic passage (Bava Kamma, 92a). We are taught from Avraham that one who prays for others is answered before one who prays for themselves. If the goal of prayer, like meditation, is to alleviate suffering this is incomprehensible. But if we understand that the goal of Jewish prayer is about connection then the less it is about ourselves, the purer our prayers will be. The more we are able to transcend our personal and self-serving needs the more authentic the connection between us and God.

The past two weeks, I have received so many messages from all of you about the many prayers on my behalf. Those prayers, prayers on behalf of another, were so much more powerful than prayers said for one’s own sake – and I felt it. I was beyond touched by all the calls, emails, and texts, thank you! Knowing that you were praying for me was heartwarming and the fact that I am able to write this message demonstrates that it was effective too!

While I will continue to meditate, as I do see many benefits from this practice, I am not sure if it will help me pray. I struggle to describe the impact that prayer has on me, but I feel it in my bones, or perhaps more accurately, in my soul. May we continue to pray for one another – we all need each other’s prayers now more than ever, and may God hear our prayers.

With much love, wishing you all a Shabbat Shalom,

Yisrael Motzen