In the great meditative traditions of both East and West, meditation is viewed as a spiritual exercise, a means of attaining a special kind of awareness that many consider to be the highest state of consciousness of which humans are capable. This advanced state can only be arrived at, however, as part of a total way of life.
Typical procedures followed are an ascetic lifestyle, special physical exercises, diet and social arrangements, together with long hours of meditation each day. Even then, it may take a lifetime (some people believe it takes many lifetimes) to arrive at, or even approximate, this desired state.
The formal discipline of meditation originated in religious practice, and its use as a spiritual exercise still surpasses its use as a practical technique in most parts of the world. Hindu and Buddhist religions have developed meditation into fine art, but other religious traditions have developed their own highly effective meditative practices, as well.
Some Christian practices, loosely termed “meditation,” are actually forms of “contemplation.” Rather than evoking the “meditative mood,” a prolonged, deeply reflective state of mind, they create an atmosphere where the thought is directed, in a disciplined manner, to a specific theological issue or religious event, and strive to apply the religious idea contemplated to one’s own life.
Simple prayer is more commonly used by religious followers than meditation.
While intense prayer most likely cannot take place without entering a meditative mood, the mechanical repetition of standard common prayers to fulfill religious obligations does not require this special mood at all. The prayer, nonetheless, is a goal-directed activity to call upon a deity in some manner; to give praise or offer thanks, seek forgiveness, consolation or assistance; or enter into some other relationship with a deity.
In monasteries, repetition of words in praise of God has been widely used to evoke a special state in which the outer world is shut out and one is transported into an exalted sense of closeness with God. By this means, the mind is to become emptied of all thoughts, images, and passions.
The ‘Prayer of the Heart’ used by Russian monks and devout lay people in pre-revolutionary Russia is one example of this. The prayer was used to “purify the intellect” by means of a passive attitude and the repetition, on each successive out breath, of the phrase ‘Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.’
In that fashion, a Christian religious phrase was being used in the same manner as mantras are used in India.
Engaged as a form of silent inner communion, or coupled with a mantra-like repetition of religious words, prayer can be seen to blend subtly into meditation.
There have been many discussions over the usefulness of prayer and meditation.
But what’s the difference? Are there any similarities between the two?
Let’s look at the definitions to see if we find any similarities or differences:
To make a request in a humble manner; to address God or a god with adoration, confession, supplication, or thanksgiving
To engage in mental exercise (as concentration on one’s breathing or repetition of a mantra) for the purpose of reaching a heightened level of spiritual awareness
They both use the mind. They both are concentrated thoughts. But their goals are different.
In theory, there are 7 billion different types of prayer. There are also 7 billion different types of meditation.
Each person has a different goal for their session. Thousands of different prayers exist, as do thousands of meditations.
Both can be silent or spoken aloud.
It would be silly to try and generalize, saying that all prayers are a certain way, and all meditations are a certain way.
Alas, we’re not here to make friends. We’re here to state the facts. Call me silly and let’s do this.
Prayers are an integral part for monotheistic religions like Christianity, Judaism and Islam.
When people sit down to pray, it’s a time for sending thoughts to God (or Yahweh or Allah) and praising Him.
There are prayers for the sick and for those less fortunate than the one praying.
There are prayers for forgiveness. Most prayers, though, include a part or all of these components. In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus talks about praising God and asking for His blessing and safety.
Meditations are found all over the world, especially in Eastern religions. Most of these meditations come from Buddhism and its founder, Siddhartha Gautama, aka Buddha.
Rather than sending thoughts to one God and turning outward, most meditations focus within the person’s soul in order to reach a higher sense of spiritual awareness.
Meditations follow a certain formality; sit in silence and put certain thoughts (or no thoughts) in your mind.
Mindfulness meditation is the most popular meditation because it’s one of the easiest meditations to learn. You sit there and follow your breath.
These are just a few differences. What does science have to say about both?
Scientific studies on meditations are much more prevalent, possibly because meditations are secular in nature.
Prayers sometimes have a negative connotation, and the prayers for any religion will be different not just from religion to religion, but from denomination to denomination and congregation to congregation.
With the few studies we do have on prayer, here’s what they have to say about prayer:
- Prayer helps with self-control.
- Prayer helps with forgiveness.
- Prayer helps with stress.
Guess what the studies say about meditations?
- Meditation makes you less stressed out.
- Meditation helps with self-control.
- Meditation helps with empathy.
- Meditation helps us forgive ourselves and others.
At their core, meditations and prayers are the same. Both are ways for people to sit still and reflect. Both are used for good intentions – most of the time. And both meditations and prayers make you a better person.
But the results are not the main focus of either prayers or meditations.
They come about because we all are more aware of our surroundings. Our actions, not our thoughts alone, will change the world.
The best way to summarize the differences in one very short sentence is this: prayers look up, and meditations look in.
And no matter if you pray to a higher power or meditate with your soul for strength, it will change your life for the better.