Thus far we have discussed the more esoteric aspect of the prayer service, and now it is time to talk practically about how to implement some of these ideas in order to reap the spiritual (and physical) benefits of the gift of prayer.
To begin, I would like to recount a personal story.
Prayer for me, today, represents a highlight of my day, and is a very uplifting experience, often an opportunity for real personal growth. That does not mean that prayer comes easy for me, nor that I have always enjoyed it. On the contrary, in my early years, times of prayer were the most difficult part of my daily schedule.
In fact, I used to speed-pray: from the moment everyone began the Shemonah Esrai together, I saw a "starting flag" which set me in quick motion to finish my personal prayer as fast as I could. This is how prayer was for me for quite some time; I only reached the turning point "accidentally."
My "big break" was a fit of boredom -- the boredom of waiting for everyone else to finish their prayers.
My "big break" was a fit of boredom -- the boredom of waiting for everyone else to finish their personal Shemonah Esrai, and then having to listen to the chazzon (the one leading the communal part of the service) repeat the entire communal Shemonah Esrai. What else was there for me to do besides stand there and pay attention -- which usually meant day-dreaming?
One day it occurred to me: If I took more time to say my own Shemonah Esrai, then my mind would be kept occupied, and I would have less time to be bored (because there is nothing more boring than an idle mind). It did not take long to find out just how right I was.
With all that time to pray now, I began to focus on the words and ask myself questions (in my mind, of course), like, "What does this word mean to me, and to the Jewish people as a whole today, and historically ...?" I even experimented, and tried to visualize the words of the different prayers in my mind as they came off my lips.
I even experimented, and tried to visualize the words of the prayers in my mind as they came off my lips.
Within a short period of time, I found that davening (as prayer is often called) could be a very meditative, and therefore relaxing experience. Better than that, for the first time ever (and I wouldn't have believed it possible), I felt -- literally "felt" -- as if I was talking with God Himself, and not just "at" Him.
So here are my prayer tips:
- Take your time. Look at prayer, especially the Shemonah Esrai section, as a time to "get away from it all" -- quiet time of your own to relax and meditate. Obviously, the more serious the minyan (prayer group) is about praying, the easier this step is to achieve. Patience and relaxation are crucial keys for successful prayer.
- Try to visualize each word, or, at least "key" words as they pass quietly through your lips. It helps tremendously to take some time during non-praying moments to jot down some ideas about what each prayer means to you personally and your life, and the Jewish people in general. For example, one of the first prayers in Shemonah Esrai talks about God giving man the capacity to understand knowledge. Ask yourself, "Where would I be today without knowledge, or understanding?" Prayer becomes far more exhilarating when we stop taking the blessings of life for granted.
- For additional "homework," try simple meditation at quiet moments of your day. Prayer demands that we block out the outside world for the duration of the prayer period. That's like asking a train traveling at 80 m.p.h. to stop on a dime and change directions -- not an easy task to do! Developing control over your mind to the point that you can make it dwell on whatever you want it to, whenever you want it to, is a great asset, not just to enhance prayer, but life itself!
- Try not to pray "at" God, but "to" God. This means developing a relationship with God, which can take time. Some people talk with God during the course of the day as if He is right there next to them (which He is), though it is recommended to do this while ALONE, so people won't write you off as a lunatic!
My prayer "break-through" happened some fifteen years ago. Since then, I've had my "ups" and my "downs" with respect to davening -- some good prayer sessions and some less-than-good ones. However, overall, prayer for me remains to be an extremely important part of my day for getting in touch with God, with my own inner being, and for getting my priorities straight.
(If this is true for the everyday prayer service, how much more so is this the case for the Shabbat prayers and the High Holiday services?)
Since that time, I have increased my Torah understanding, which includes a deeper understanding of the dynamics of Jewish history, and a better appreciation of the purpose of creation and man's role within that creation. So, one last tip:
- Do research. The prayer service is more than just a period of time to meditate on God and the blessings and shortcomings in your life. Wrapped up in the prayer service are the goals and the hopes of the Jewish people. Taking the time to understand and appreciate those goals and hopes will create a stronger bond between you, God, and other Jews -- and make your time of prayer a tremendously self-fulfilling opportunity.
All of this has helped me, and many others, to transform what were once "strange" words from ancient wise men whom we never met, into words that flow from our own hearts -- words that allow us to move from one level of soul to another.