A Primer on Mormon Prayer

July 3, 2011 | 28 comments
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A religious life is a life of prayer. Don’t skimp on this or, no matter how white your sepulcher, your insides will always just be full of dry bones. 

How to pray:

1. Pray for at least twenty minutes, at least once a day, preferably in the morning.

2. Sit with your back straight, your hands nested in your lap, and your head only slightly bowed.

3. Aim for a 10-to-1 ration of listening to yammering. Given twenty minutes, say what you have to say in the first two minutes, then shut up and listen.

4. The Spirit can speak in all kinds of ways, but take as your baseline the classic Mormon expectation that the Spirit will manifest in your bosom or gut. Physiologically, direct you attention to the area just behind and below your navel. Simply attend, without interruption, to whatever bodily sensations show up there. Direct your attention to that single spot in waiting and expectation. This is what it means to “watch in prayer.”

5. Whenever your attention wanders – which it will do regularly, consistently, and almost immediately – note without judgment whatever you were daydreaming about (“Thinking about lunch-plans.” Or, “Thinking about the inconsiderate thing my husband did.”) and then, without elaboration, bring your attention firmly back to your gut and continue listening for the Spirit. You’ll get better with practice. But, in the meanwhile, you’ll also get a master-class in the content and extent of your own fallen, distracted, and profoundly self-absorbed nature.

6. The most obvious manifestations of Spirit include the following feelings in your bosom. Watch, in particular, for these: (1) warmth, (2) the rise and fall of your diaphragm in connection with the breath of life, (3) a spreading stillness, (4) a recession of your need, like the tide going out, to compulsively impose your will on the course of the day and on the people you’ll meet, (5) a willingness to, in general, pay attention and serve, and (6) the distinct impression that you are, in fact, regardless of circumstance, alive.

7. Learn how to pay attention to the Spirit in this same way throughout the day, as often as your able, whatever you’re doing. This is called “praying always.” The extension of this attentive, prayerful listening into the business of your daily life is the sum and substance of “conversion.”

28 Responses to A Primer on Mormon Prayer

  1. Ugly Mahana on July 3, 2011 at 7:39 am

    Thank you for sharing these thoughts. They are worth pondering.

    Where do your ideas originate? Do you think that other approaches to prayer may be valid also?

  2. Adam Miller on July 3, 2011 at 7:59 am

    This is, I think, just the same stuff we’re always saying all the time.

  3. Aaron R. on July 3, 2011 at 8:38 am

    Adam, thank you for articulating this so clearly. As someone who is in the middle of a low-point in my prayer practice this is really needed.

  4. Solon on July 3, 2011 at 9:06 am

    This reminds me of meditation techniques (which, in some way, prayer is). One thing I noticed though is your emphasis (concerning the Spirit) on the physical sensation. What about the mind? (it just seems to me that a lot of people equate ‘feeling good’ or ‘feeling very emotional’ with the Spirit while the scriptures usually talk about the mind or at least place the mind first) What do you think would be manifestations concerning that? (opposed to own thoughts or pseudo-/self-induced inspiration)

  5. Dave on July 3, 2011 at 9:07 am

    Sounds like meditation. There is nothing particularly Christian about meditation. Which doesn’t mean it is bad, of course, just that it requires an explanation.

  6. Rob Perkins on July 3, 2011 at 12:17 pm

    That they’re worth pondering goes without saying; Adam always offers things worth pondering, which is self-evident since I’ve taken time here to supply a thoughtful reply.

    Having said that, though, elements of this list of steps are, to me, off-putting. This is true to me even though I know there are members of the Church I’m acquainted with who do this or nearly this, and who maintain full and active fellowship in the Church.

    First, it’s a list, and as a list there is the risk, in my opinion, that if taken too seriously it will be followed too precisely. I point this out because I think there are many, many more ways that the Spirit manifests itself, and that each person detects those manifestations at least slightly differently. I acknowledge that you point that out. That is to say, I know Mormons who believe and behave completely, who have never once felt a burning-gut sensation. So, I don’t think that it’s a good enough universal starting point.

    Step 5, as described, reminds me of zen meditation techniques I’ve read about. I’ve always been under the impression that mediation in the Mormon sense involves high-cognition study of the Standard Works, which is not the same as zen meditation, even though there are certainly congruencies possible.

    Finally, the definitions of “conversion”, “praying always”, and “watch in prayer” are (see above) too narrow to me. That could be a side effect of the gloss that this is, but, again, the worry is that it’s as far as someone would look if such a thing as this became a part of our doctrinal framework.

    Therefore, I still prefer the nominal recommendations the missionaries have always given: Remember to address Him by name, to remember gratitude, to ask Him for help, to invoke the name of the Savior, and to meditate on the contents of prayer by turning to the scriptures and trying to understand them as completely as possible.

  7. Julie M. Smith on July 3, 2011 at 12:54 pm

    I kept jumping to the end of this post looking for a “just kidding.” I’m still amazed it wasn’t there.

  8. Cameron N. on July 3, 2011 at 1:10 pm

    I think there is something particularly Christian about meditating. Meditating is a catalyst for inspiration, whether it’s a monk or someone doing Yoga receiving the Light of Christ, or a member with the gift of the Holy Ghost.

  9. SteveP on July 3, 2011 at 1:15 pm

    Mu.

  10. Jared on July 3, 2011 at 5:03 pm

    I feel sorry for Adam. Evidently, he hasn’t had much success with prayer.

    Maybe when it comes to prayer he is like a high school drop out. You know the type, they haven’t got much good to say about high school.

    By the way, I dropped out of high school. Later, I had a change of heart and ended up graduating from college.

  11. Bob on July 3, 2011 at 5:43 pm

    This sounds more like TM in the 1960s. Such, a better way of spending your time than on porn or video games, but not what Mormons think as prayer.
    Yes it can be helpful in quieting youself for a prayer, But I enjoy soft music instead.

  12. James Olsen on July 3, 2011 at 6:13 pm

    Adam – like those above, I always appreciate what you post and particularly the seriousness (always manifest) with which you take our religion. Like, Julie, I kept looking for . . . well, not a “just kidding,” but something like “These points were articulated by [fill in the blank - probably someone from an eastern tradition] – discuss.” Not because I think what you’ve articulated here is incompatible with Mormonism (though if one put a credal period at the end, I think it would be). But I strongly disagree with your comment 2. It’s a thought provoking individual interpretation/practical unfolding, but clearly not what “we’re always saying all the time.”

    I second much of what Rob Perkins said, particularly in your lack of acknowledging the conceptual/intellectual aspect of prayer and revelation. Combined with some of your other posts, I suspect your own philosophical prejudices (many of which I share) concerning the fundamentally embodied nature of human life and understanding are operative here. Nonetheless, one cannot deny the cognitive side of things – particularly given our scripture and tradition.

    I flatly disagree with some things. For example, I think point 6.4 directly contradicts Mormon theology.

    Finally, my biggest concern is the Mormon Doctrine style of the articulation. You do not present this as an individual interpretation or something we all might gain from or the like, but as a clear exposition of our doctrine/practice. Particularly given the limiting nature of this articulation, I find it worrisome.

    That said, I’m hugely in favor of meditation. As is already obvious, I don’t think what we call prayer and what you describe here (an eastern-style meditation) is the same thing; but I do think they go together well. And I think that recognizing and experiencing the spiritual potency of meditation is something that would greatly enrich our own practices. It strikes me as one of those truths/practices Joseph Smith was talking about that is found elsewhere and that we need to garner if we hope to “come off true Mormons.” I have found other such truths/practices outside of our institution that I feel strongly about (e.g., related to prayer, praise is a beautiful part of prayer, found in scripture and many other traditions and even some significant aspects of our own history, but which is very rarely mentioned in our services/manuals/group prayers today).

  13. Jonathan Green on July 3, 2011 at 7:03 pm

    Thanks, Adam. A lot of these points really resonated with me, especially 6.4.

  14. Jax on July 3, 2011 at 7:56 pm

    I echo Julie in #7. I kept waiting for the “just kidding” at the end. Not that the ideas were bad, just that their specificity made it seem comical (10-1 ratio, and required physical position especially).

  15. DavidH on July 3, 2011 at 8:46 pm

    Nice post Adam. I do struggle with points 1 and 2 as seeming a bit too prescriptive. As to point 3, I believe listening more than speaking to God is completely consistent with LDS teachings, if not culture, and surely called for by the apostle James who suggests that with other human being we be quick to hear and slow to speak. How much more so with God. I like the way you blend some eastern concepts of listening to God/the Universe/our inner voices into LDS meditation.

  16. Jon on July 3, 2011 at 11:30 pm

    I second Julie in being surprised there was not a JK at the end…

  17. OffsidePosition on July 4, 2011 at 2:42 am

    I don’t know Adam personally, but I have seen enough of things he has written to not expect j/k at the end. My response was more like, “Wow, he’s actually doing this. I wonder what this will stir up.” I think a few people so far haven’t read close enough.

    A couple things I like about Mormonism is its all-encompassing approach to truth, along with the tension between orthodoxy/orthopraxy/revelation. It’s hard to argue with what works. But after finding something that works, as far as it goes, does it make sense to stop there and criticize something that works for others? Does it matter what culture or time it comes from? It’s interesting how close this and some of the comments here resemble the arguments of some Mormon critics who claim the scriptures (oh, and the creeds) are enough.

    By the way, Adam, I think 6.4 and 6.5 are very insightful. To me they describe someone who is oriented by love towards others. And I can’t think of a better way than you have described to put into practice “praying always” and “watch in prayer.”

  18. Marjorie Conder on July 4, 2011 at 12:25 pm

    Here’s a third vote, for surprise that this wasn’t tongue in cheek.

  19. Rob Perkins on July 4, 2011 at 3:00 pm

    I’m not at all surprised that this wasn’t offered tongue in cheek, and rather than supposing it’s a failure on Adam’s part or evidence that he misunderstands something substantial, I think he’s offering a framework which, for him, really works and really gives him the connection to God we all need. My experience led me to what I think is the same place, but I used different tools to get there, all the while still observing the outward requirements imposed on any Mormon, just as I’ve supposed he has.

    Having taken a different path, I’m able to see which elements of his path would never work for a person like me. Therefore, I’ve disagreed that it’s a useful primer, but it would be just as dissonant to me to suppose that it wasn’t sincerely offered.

  20. SouthernMan on July 5, 2011 at 10:59 am

    Nice post, but I find that I speak to the Father through my prayers, and He speaks to me through my scripture study. Things come to mind in answer to my prayers as I read, most of the time the communication has nothing to do with what I am actually reading. Often it does, though.

  21. Scott Armstrong on July 5, 2011 at 12:14 pm

    But a “just kidding” would have undermined the irony.

  22. Martine on July 7, 2011 at 7:17 am

    Christ was prostrated on the ground in Gethsemany.

    Too many echoes of Dallin Oaks or Bruce R in this post. “This is the way I do Mormonism and it’s the only way to do it right.”. That gives me the creeps.

  23. Adam Miller on July 7, 2011 at 9:50 am

    Prostration is definitely an option, Martine. But I usually just fall asleep this way. Have you had any luck with it? For some people, especially if they have difficulty sitting comfortably, this may be the best route.

  24. greenfrog on July 7, 2011 at 12:33 pm

    I like this.

    A few random observations from the perspective of my more Buddhist-derived experience with meditative prayer:

    1. Posture is important, even though its detailed elements seem off-putting and may not work for all bodies. An erect (and unsupported, where possible) spine and slightly down-turned gaze are very helpful to meditative practice. Body energy and mindfulness work together in particular ways in that posture. It isn’t that any other posture means failure — only that other postures don’t as fully support the practice as that posture does. Zen priests aren’t sadists. There’s a purpose beyond mere discipline to posture.

    2. I agree that interesting experiences can arise from the belly, but there are many other centers in the body that can inform our understanding of God — the heart, the throat, the brow, and the crown come to mind.

    3. I find especially useful the thought-noticing-and-labeling practice as an effective way of beginning to get my own thought-churning and conjuring mind out of the way. It’s pretty amazing how much of our experience of God is actually conditioned, colored, and shaped by our own thoughts.

    I’m reminded of a comment I recall being attributed to Mother Theresa. She was interviewed by a reporter about prayer.

    Reporter: Do you pray?

    Mother Theresa: Yes. Often.

    Reporter: What do you pray for?

    Mother Theresa: When I pray, often I don’t say anything. I just listen.

    Reporter: What does God say to you?

    Mother Theresa: Nothing. God just listens, too.

  25. Adam Greenwood on July 7, 2011 at 12:48 pm

    I like practical stuff and lists of things to do. Silly in a way, sure, but also incarnational. My own prayers improved when I started setting a set time for my evening prayer and when I made a list of people I wanted to pray about.

    That said, if I am being urged to adopt oriental practices or hesychasm, I would like to be told up front. Or is is possible that Miller independently arrived at these, that at least in his case they are genuinely and natively Mormon? The possibility can’t be dismissed, though I doubt it.

  26. greenfrog on July 7, 2011 at 1:01 pm

    (excellent word alert) ;)

  27. Bored in Vernal on July 7, 2011 at 1:47 pm

    I have met Adam in person and I find him deeply spiritual, so I am inclined to take this post seriously. I consider him someone from whom I can learn a lot. I especially appreciated the emphasis on listening, and the suggestions having to do with embodiment and communion with the Divine (such as body position during prayer, sensations, etc.)

    The post brought up a lot of questions for me, however. First, it was off-putting to have these ideas touted as “A Primer on Mormon Prayer,” with the instruction: “How to pray.” As others have pointed out, the instructions don’t seem to be particularly “Mormon.” Is there a reason you identified them as such?

    Next, some yoga-enthusiast friends of mine have wondered why you focused on the navel area, home of the second Chakra (the center for sexuality, sensuality, creativity, blame, guilt, POWER, ethics, and money–also known as the seat of the Self.) I doubt you would be unaware of this.

    Last, what do you think about praying “in the true order” outside of the Temple? I don’t consider it inappropriate to discuss since it was done regularly until the 1960s. Would this be a more “Mormon” way to pray, if one wants to go beyond the basic “four steps?” Has anyone reading this tried it, and what were the results?

  28. Robjphil on July 8, 2011 at 1:03 am

    I loved this post. I pray this way often. To each their own and all of that of course and I know most other members of the church that I talk to do not pray in this fashion or at least have never made it known to me. I have a lot of Buddhist leanings and practice zazen. I can definitely see the consistency between the two. I appreciate this because I understand the level of awareness that zen meditation can cultivate. It has never been as easy for me to bring my mind into focus and really quietly listen to that still small voice as it is during sincere meditative prayer.
    Thank you Adam for sharing this! Now I know I’m not alone.

WELCOME

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