At its simplest, prayer is a way to connect with your heart. It can also be your pathway to a more intimate relationship with the Divine. Here's a guide to the traditional stages of the journey.
Breathe into the heart. Connect your energy to the energy of the heart. The heart center is both the seat of your subtle sense of existence and the traditional center for communion with the Divine.
As you place your awareness in the heart, don't worry about whether your heart feels soft or open. One of the purposes of prayer is to help you move deeper into the heart. So start from where you are.
Greet and Offer Praise
Spend a moment or two setting the stage with a prayer of invocation or praise, or an offering of gratitude. You can take one from a traditional prayer or make one up on the spot. The invocation can be as simple as "God, my maker and source" or "I offer my salutations to the Buddhas and bodhisattvas." Or you can deeply contemplate the qualities of Universal Presence, of consciousness, of God, and "name" the ones that arise for you at that moment. The more personal you can make your prayers, the better.
Speak Your Truth
Acknowledge your interior truth for that moment. Say, "I'm longing for connection." Or, "I'm having a really tough day" or (this is my favorite), "I'm stuck and need some guidance." Or, "I saw something in myself that I'm not happy about."
After that, take a moment to "plug in" or to simply feel your aspiration for connection.
Make a request
Once you sense connection, even just a little one, make your request. The real secret of petitionary prayer lies in making sure you ask from a place of connection. With practice, you'll learn to recognize those moments when you're plugged in and those moments when you're not. You'll also discover that the more you work with prayer, the easier it becomes.
Make your request clearly, without shame. Don't be afraid to mix up "great" requests with small, personal ones. Just make sure that you stay connected. And when you've completed your request, say "Thank you."
Take a couple of minutes to let go of the words, let go of the wanting. Allow yourself to simply be present in the feeling state that has arisen, whatever it is. This is the moment when you open yourself to intimacy with presence, essence, spirit—when your feeling of being separate and disconnected from the universe and wanting can melt. Christian contemplatives call this "communion." For me, getting to this point is sometimes like tuning a radio: You move the dial this way and that until the band clicks in, and you're suddenly getting reception. You know that your communication has gotten through. You've been, in some way, met.
A friend told me, "This moment of connection is what makes me feel my prayer has been answered. I reach a certain intensity of feeling, and that's the fruit of the prayer." In other words, at this point there's not really any question of praying for anything. You're simply resting in prayer, as you might rest in meditation or in an asana.
Immerse Yourself in the Sacred
At this point, if you let yourself sit for awhile, you may find yourself segueing into what I call "deep" prayer, prayer as immersion in the sacred, prayer as silence. At this level, you stop striving and enter a state where words merge into feeling.
All the spoken forms of prayer—petition, praise, and confession—can lead you to that inner state of connection. The secret is to be willing and ready to go there, to track the signals that it's time to let go of words, and to allow yourself to be in stillness.
Sally Kempton is an internationally recognized teacher of meditation and yogic philosophy and the author of The Heart Meditation. Visit her website at sallykempton.com.