It is better in prayer to have a heart without words
than words without a heart.
What is Prayer?
Prayers are an intensely personal communication with what anyone might consider a higher source of power. For some this power source is a vague notion of something greater than they, for others it is a specific idea or experience of a God or Creator, and for many it is a highly defined deity or saint. Despite what some people think, it is not necessary to believe in any specific deity for prayer to produce results. For the shaman, however, there are certain requirements for prayer to be effective and if they are not met, the prayer may go awry.
Prayers are concerned with all the most intense human experiences including entreaties for material benefits, supplications for blessings, requests for opportunities, honoring spirit, unburdening grief, releasing guilt, unloading affliction, worshipping, affirming desires, offering gratitude, wishing for escape from pain and suffering, and decreeing how it will be. While most organized religions include specific prayers in their form of worship, religion is not the sole proprietor of prayer. People the world over have always prayed regardless of whether they were religious or not. We know from anthropological studies that prayer is one of humankind’s oldest activities (even Neanderthals prayed) and today it is as prevalent as it ever was in human history. People of all races, genders, creeds, and cultures pray in many forms and styles.
Despite all that is written about prayer, many people still do not know that prayer is a science as well as an art. There are ways to pray that are more effective than others and some styles of prayer that are downright destructive as you shall see.
Bear in mind that for shamans and indigenous peoples prayer is more than words but rather a way of living life. They would be inclined to say that their life is a prayer from gathering and preparing herbs to cooking, from building a shelter to visiting relatives, all is done in the spirit of prayer. All the world’s great spiritual teachers and mystics have stated in one fashion or another that to pray unceasingly brings the greatest results. So there is a kind of universal agreement that prayer is something that can be lived, acted out, and spoken as well. In all truth prayer is a way of being, a perspective, a profoundly personal and sacred orientation to the world…….
Think of prayer as a one-way monologue to the creator, powerful prayers always end with listening. As I learned from Don Guadalupe, the listening part creates a dialogue or two-way stream of communication. This is one of the definitions of effective prayer. After listening and dialoguing with Spirit it is then imperative to put what ever was learned into action. That is Spirit in action.
Let us begin with some simple keys to praying for maximum benefit I arrived at over many years on the shamanic path. After all, if we are going to spend some of our lives praying, why not make the most of our time praying to have maximum effectiveness.
The Nine Keys to Successful Prayer
- Staying present: When stated in the present, as if the object of your focus were already true, your prayers have greater power.
- Praying from the heart: Prayers stated with emotional intensity provide the fuel that propels prayers and affirmations into reality. Sometimes the most powerful prayers are wordless
- Clear wording: When you pray with words, be clear. Prayers that are clear, unequivocal, concise, and focused produce the best results.
- Praying without doubt: When you choose to pray without giving any attention or energy to doubt, you are affirming your trust in Spirit, thereby sending affirmative energy to creating what your soul desires. A prayer or decree can leave no room for doubt.
- Praying with “I Am”: An effective prayer makes frequent use of the words “I Am” focusing on the source point in the heart.
- Praying with inspiration: Prayers that are inspirational, dramatic, and luminous are most powerful. Prayers that entrance us with rhyme, repetition, or rhythm have the deepest influence.
- Praying with intent and vision: When prayers are accompanied by firm intent and clear vision they magnetize the most powerful results.
- Listening: Prayers that end with quiet meditation, contemplation, or listening are highly effective. The listening part may result in a two-way conversation.
- Action: Prayers that are followed by some kind of action or application have the greatest possibility of bringing quick results.
Now that you know the nine keys to successful prayer, let us discuss the attitude that you bring to prayer, for this is immensely important in determining their outcome. Your attitude toward prayer betrays your beliefs about your life and about whom you believe God is. Here are the seven possible attitudes you can bring to prayer.
The Seven Levels of Prayer
Why can’t people agree more with each other’s philosophies when they pray? Why is prayer so controversial? Notice how uncomfortable it is to have someone lead a prayer in a way that contradicts your own values? Certainly I find it difficult to follow a leader who prays for deliverance from damnation to eternal fires or who prays for overcoming or destroying enemies because these violate my beliefs.
Many prayers are simply not of the same mold and the differences are profound even though almost all human beings pray regularly in some fashion or another. Prayers are so fundamentally different that historically people have killed one another over the form, style, and content of prayers. Millions of people were burned at the stake because their prayers were not acceptable to the authorities of the time. From a shamanic point of view, although there are many contributing factors to these disputes, political, racial, and cultural, the primary cause of friction over prayer is perception, the way a person sees their world. There are seven states of perception that lead to different forms of prayers and these are at times antagonistic to each other. These different states of perception account for vastly different beliefs about reality and you will find people in every culture of the world who adhere to one or another of them. The latter ones are usually ascribed to mystics and are more difficult for the average person to understand. At the risk of vastly oversimplifying let us look at the seven states of perception and their corresponding levels of prayer. Again, I arrived at understanding these seven states after much study of mystical traditions and from my own observations.
Now let us examine each one of these approaches in more detail. As we go along you may find yourself identifying with several of them because you can hold different perceptions at the same time. This is because each one of us is made up of a complex of sub-personalities that each clamor for attention and gratification. It is up to you to determine which one suits you best overall.
Kill my enemies; make me strong over them.
When I was a child in grade school, there were several bullies who regularly made my life miserable by threatening to hurt me. They would taunt me, steal my books, take my bicycle, and generally make my life miserable. I prayed to the Saints and God for help to protect me from them and I must admit, to make them pay for what they were doing to me. Little did I know that my prayers were primitive, infantile, and would do me more harm than good. I was affirming my helplessness and praying for harm to my enemies.
The first and most primitive form of prayer coincides with a basic survival orientation. “I want to survive at all costs and I need help from the gods to be strong and smite my enemies.” This kind of prayer is the prayer of war and it is found all throughout the Old-Testament. Prayer of this sort is self-centered and shamanically speaking has little power to effect change or make a difference. Here everyone thinks that the gods are on their side helping them to slaughter the others. This form of prayer is based in terror, separation, and total distrust of others. People praying in this fashion are usually deeply superstitious, fearful, and can even be dangerous to deal with.
Another variation of this type of prayer would be prayers to Satan, malevolent spirits, and dark forces to overcome enemies.
Please don’t punish me! I’ve been bad. Save me!
As a child in school I often believed what my teachers told me, that I was sinful and would go to hell unless I went to confession and said many prayers of restitution. I would beg God to forgive me and ask for mercy over and over thinking that if I whined enough, I might be spared the everlasting fires of damnation.
The second level of prayer coincides with the perception of a toddler, that of a child to a parent. Please don’t punish me for being bad and breaking the rules. Take care of me, save me from badness, evil, and satanic forces or demons that I am helpless to fight off unless you protect me. This style of prayer is usually in the form of pleading, whining, and begging like a toddler might. The person usually refers to the creator as a father or a powerful and angry God that metes out punishment like the bumper sticker jokes, “God is coming and is he ever angry.”
Make me rich! Give me, give me, give me. You are great as long as you give me what I want.
Throughout my childhood, at Christmas time, I would always include prayers to ask God to bring me wonderful toys and presents. Later I would pray to ask God to help me do well in a baseball game or track meet. I even remember praying for God to help me get a date with a particular girl. I would promise God all kinds of sacrifices if He would just answer my prayers. I became good at bargaining with God.
The third level of prayer is that of a child about ten years old wheedling the parents for more toys or cookies. This approach to prayer treats God as a kind of Santa Claus who is supposed to deliver an endless supply of goods and riches. At this level, if one becomes rich then it means God has favored them and they deserve more, even at other people’s expense. If one is poor then God has not favored them and no one need help or support them. According to this belief the poor have only themselves to blame for their travails.
At this third level God is a force that will punish those who believe differently. “We are right and saved, you are wrong and damned” meaning that God is not going to deliver toys to your house but will deliver plenty of them to mine. From a shamans point of view this form of prayer is still weak because it divides up the world into good and bad people and emphasizes toys as the main focus. A person may succeed in actually acquiring these toys but the toys are impermanent and not ultimately satisfying. Sometimes the toys turn into a big problem, giving rise to the admonition, “Be careful what you pray for, you might just get it.” This third level of prayer is likewise based on the fear of not having enough.
Life is so hard! Help me, give me strength, help my loved ones. You have the power to help. I am so confused! I know You are there but why don’t You help me, damn it?
When I was a teenager I would often get so frustrated praying to God without results that I would rail against Him and feel totally martyred that “He” seemed to help other people but not me. I would list the extra things I did that would make me more deserving but to no avail. God seemed silent and distant, perhaps not there at all. I was reduced to a sniveling whiner that resented God when my prayers remained unanswered.
The fourth level of prayer corresponds to an adolescent theme. Life is hard and complicated and certainly filled with suffering. Even though one has wealth, they may not have peace of mind, serenity, or tranquility. There are so many questions and there is so much stress at this level. Compassion and understanding are awakening but life can be so very confusing at times. Prayer at this level is a mix of pleading one minute, despair and disbelief in another, and angry railing at God at other times. It is as if the person is saying, “Where are You? I know You are there. Why don’t You help me? Why did You make this world with so much suffering? Why do bad things happen to good people? Why do bad guys seem to have all the luck? Well if You aren’t going to help me, at least You can help my family and loved ones.”
Again, from a shaman’s point of view there is not much power in this form of prayer unless one is truly focusing on an area without internal conflict, such as help for others. There is much distress and fear in this style of prayer and these emotions can rob it of its effectiveness and contribute greatly to limitation and negativity. The results can be downright disagreeable because of the resentment involved.
Thank you for providing for me. I love you! You are wonderful!
As I grew older, occasionally I would break through my resentment and feel genuine gratitude for the chances and opportunities coming my way in life just as I had as a small child. My heart opened and I would realize that indeed I had been blessed to be here. I saw that my life was an extraordinary gift of opportunity.
From the shamanic perspective the fifth level of prayer is the beginning of real power and corresponds to the maturity of young adulthood. The fog of confusion and anger begins to clear and it dawns on the person that being alive is an extraordinary gift. The person recognizes that they did not create themselves but they were dreamed up, created, and given the opportunity to be awake, aware, and conscious. This is an extraordinary miracle for which one gives thanks over and over in a state of awe and wonderment. The heart begins to open and love pours out to the great provider and creator of the whole universe. Rather than being like a small child begging, manipulating, demanding, and whining, the young adult is sophisticated enough to acknowledge the gifts that have already been given. There is now not such a gulf between the one praying and the one prayed to.
Thank you for making me out of yourself. Allow me to know You more and more. I am an expression of you. Thy will be done
Only recently in my life have I become reacquainted with the powerful God experiences of my early childhood, the miracle of awareness of being alive and conscious moment by moment. Spirit has shown me that in my heart I can find the source point for the life force and the doorway to all potential and all creation.
To a shaman, the sixth level of prayer is truly powerful. This level is associated with real maturity, the perception of an older adult who has experience and is a veteran of much life experience. This level is also characterized by gratitude and a recognition that the source of the life force is inside the heart. The creator is distributed into every particle of the body and is the life force that provides consciousness and awareness to everyone. God is not out there but in here and therefore there is no separation from the creator and provider of everything. Now, an eagerness to know God more and more begins to take over and there is an acceleration of awareness of the presence of God everywhere. Prayer is about acknowledging the connection, the communication within, the actualization of the energy of source into everyday living. For the shaman prayer is about decreeing how it is.
At this level the person realizes that they are supplied by God moment by moment; that God is dreaming them up thousands of times a second and that they are truly made of God stuff. They are God’s eyes and ears, a reflection of source, a projection of a tiny part of God into the physical world, there to explore and create in God’s name.
Prayers at this level reinforce the connection and recognize the huge responsibility of being powered by God to be a mini creator, doing as God does by creating reality moment by moment. Here prayers assert that there is only God’s will and that it can all be taken away in an instant if that is what Spirit wishes. Prayers announce “Thy will be done” knowing that to resist spirit is utterly futile and to recognize that there is only Spirit working through everything, allowing us to enjoy the universe that spirit has created.
At this sixth level, prayers turn to decrees: “Spirit, through you I am healed.” “Spirit, expand and sustain my success and happiness.” “Spirit, may all beings be illuminated with the light of peace.” This truly is the realm of the shaman.
You and I are one. I am becoming the peace I search for. Make it so. I am that. I am who am.
Level seven prayers are difficult to speak about because they go beyond words. They are a powerful recognition that occurs during meditation and contemplation on the nature of reality. These prayers are more like experiences than verbal statements. Nevertheless this type of prayer asserts that creator and self are one. There is no other, no separation, no duality, only integration and wholeness. The person who prays in this fashion asserts that “God” is a state of being and that all suffering is a product of the illusions of dreams that people make in their ignorance of spirit. When this ignorance is banished in the light of consciousness, the individual recognizes that there never was a problem, never was separation, never truly was banishment from the Garden of Eden so to speak. God is; I am; I am that; That is God; May it be so.
This level of prayer is for advanced practitioners and corresponds with the maturity one might find in an elder who has become a master late in life. Nevertheless it is an approach well worth striving for no matter what your age because the benefits and the results are so profound.
Now bear in mind that if you are praying at level one you will not be able to understand anyone praying at any level ahead of you. You can only understand the prayers of those levels you have already passed through. If you found some of the previous section difficult to understand, where it became cloudy is your edge where you are growing. A person who, for example, is praying at level five can understand the points of view of all the levels prior, but not ahead of them. This phenomenon is responsible for grave misunderstandings about how to pray the world over. For example you might regard the prayers of level six as sacrilege or heretical if you are at level two or three.
This phenomenon is also the reason that people praying at the more advanced levels sometimes regress in a moment of stress to more primitive forms of prayer. Under extreme conditions an adult might regress to adolescence or a child level before coming to their senses.
Prayers that fit level five, six, and possibly level seven are the levels where prayer has the greatest power to make a difference. When you acknowledge the power of being connected at the deepest levels, you gain access to the greatest powers of the universe. As a helpless victim you plead and whine but this only affirms and reinforces helplessness and victimization. As a child asking for presents you can only hope that you have been good and that an outside force will bring them. As an angry, confused, and suffering being, you can only hope for some relief, again from an outside force.
The minute gratitude appears you are on the shaman’s track of power. On the one hand the creator requires no thanks, no worship, no acknowledgement. Think about it. A perfect being makes no demands. Yet gratitude is a powerful step on the path to recognition because it opens the heart to God, and that reduces the sense of separation.
The more you assert your connection with the Creator, the more powerful you become. Eventually when you can see no more separation between self and Creator, all power becomes available. This is not sacrilege or heresy; it is the truth that all the great saints have discovered……….
Completing the Circuit
Many years of my life passed before I discovered the ultimate key to prayer. Like so many truths the key was right in front of me all along but even though I saw it, I didn’t really grasp it or understand it. With clues and hints coming from my shaman teachers and from my own praying, I finally awakened one day to what that key was in a great “AHA” experience. This awakening was midwifed a great many ecstatic shamanic journeys using plant spirit medicines.
The magical key to effective prayer is completing the circuit with Spirit. Inside the human heart is a tiny port where essence is plugged in just like the hook up between your computer and the wall socket. Essence or Spirit animates much of the physical body from that tiny little spot inside the heart, no bigger than the size of an atom. This is where the juice for our aliveness and awareness provides life to the body. This source for our lives is consistently buzzing twenty-four hours a day from the moment of our birth to the moment of our death right there in that tiny port. This is the source for all truth, all love, and all vitality, the three building blocks of this universe
I discovered that when I put my attention in that spot I always feel good. This why I call it the “Glad to be alive spot.” To get a rough sense of where it is, find the sensitive spot in the center of your sternum and press there lightly. The source spot is just behind and to the left in the top right side of your heart, the location of the Sino-atrial node. Physiologically this structure is responsible for creating the electrical impulses that is the source for the beating of a healthy heart. Here Spirit pours a constant stream of intelligence and life force into us as a pure blessing and gift of light.
The secret to successful prayer is to complete the circuit by returning the life force back to the sacred source spot in the heart, specifically by focusing intent there and using the mantra “I Am”. This opens the door to the heart. It has been said over and over again by great spiritual teachers that the entrance to heaven is through an open heart. Shamans and mystics the world over say that to enter the spirit world where the source of all things lies, one must have an open heart. This is why they use drums during ceremony and prayer because drums mimic the heartbeat. So directing awareness, gratitude, and love back to the essence plug-in spot in the heart completes the circuit. Only then will prayers and decrees have their full dynamic power.
To pray effectively one should always direct attention to the source atom in the heart first while reciting “I Am” to engage it. Once you feel the buzz of life there, you are ready to pray. From a shamans point of view prayers offer directions to what you want Spirit to do. They are like decrees such as “Spirit, thanks to you I am enjoying perfect health and happiness!” And, “Spirit, I am thankful that I am filled with your love and prosperity!” Or “Spirit, take charge of my thoughts and feelings, erase all negativity and doubt. Guide me to manifest myself as healthy, wealthy, and wise.”
Good Position for Praying Like a Shaman
According to shamans everywhere certain postures and positions are prayers without words. For example an ancient Toltec position of prayer is the following: The shaman stands facing the sun with legs apart and knees bent; the back, shoulders, and head are arched far back; the face is straight up toward the sky and the arms are outstretched to either side, horizontal with the shoulders; hands face upward and fingers are out stretched. The posture is a prayer of complete surrender to spirit. The heart is completely vulnerable and is given symbolically as an offering to spirit focused toward the sun. Eventually this posture spread northward from Mexico and was adopted by the Lakota Sioux as part of their Sacred Sundance ceremony.
There are a great many such postures each with their own meaning but a detailed explanation of these is beyond the scope of this article
You have a variety of choices regarding posture and position while praying. You can truly pray anywhere, in your car, in the elevator, in the bathroom, on an airplane, or walking on a crowded urban street. Ultimately there is no right place or right way but here are some tried and true suggestions for best results.
I spent many years of my childhood on my knees praying on a hard wooden floor or on a kneeler in church. Perhaps this is why I do not prefer kneeling while praying any more, especially since I had surgery on both my knees. You, on the other hand, may find it your best position so do what comes naturally. I have never seen a shaman pray on their knees and therefore the positions I mention here are everything but kneeling.
Most people are taught to sit very still with head bowed and hands folded while praying but using gestures or what shamans call magical passes can be tremendously beneficial and will produce results faster. If you watch various types of priests officiating at ceremonies you will see that the more effective ones use gestures freely while praying in front of their group. Don Guadalupe, our Huichol Shaman teacher, would gesture freely and often when praying to Spirit. He spoke out loud from his heart, face to the sky, feathers in his hands spread out, completely expressive in his prayers. Never once did I see him on his knees praying. His prayer was active, mobile, energetic, and life affirming. He saw no reason to abase himself before his creator. He knew God wanted him to stand up straight and tall like a tree or a flower reaching for the sun. In his tradition, this is the greatest sign of respect.
When affirming blessings from Spirit why not reach up to the sky and guide blessings down onto your head with your hands like a Taoist doing chi gong? When affirming being healed why not guide healing with your hands to the place on your body that needs it the most? When honoring Spirit for being everywhere and creating everything why not spread your arms and hands out wide indicating the whole universe? When showering Spirit with love and gratitude why not evoke and spread these feelings outward from your heart with your hands and arms? When affirming “I Am” why not gesture toward your heart or even touch your sternum with your fingers? There are so many ways that your body can speak naturally along with your prayers enhancing the words many times over. It may be that at times you are so moved by your prayers that all you can do is gesture, words failing, tears in your eyes. Gesturing in these ways adds immeasurable power to your prayers.
Excerpts from the book “Praying With Power,” Watkins, London 1988 by Jose Luis Stevens