Sunday, February 19, 2012

How to Unlock the Hidden Power of Prayer

Many of us spend hours each week praying to God. How can we make our prayers more sincere, uplifting and effective?

Prayer is a gift from our Creator, the opportunity to speak directly with the King of kings. We benefit most from our private audience with Him, when we realize that we are in fact having one. Before praying, pause for a moment and think about how you will soon be speaking with God. Then, ask God to open your heart to be able to pray to Him with intense fervor.

You might find it helpful to talk to yourself before praying, to put yourself in the proper frame of mind. You can use the points below or come up with your own.

I am about to speak to my Father and Creator. He is the all-powerful and infinitely wise King of the world. He created and sustains the entire universe. I can’t do anything without His help. Nothing and no one can harm or help me without His permission. Everything comes only from Him. Anything I want, He can give me. My Father loves me and wants to hear from me. He listens and cherishes every word I say. Every word brings blessing to me, my family, my people and the world – often in ways I don’t understand. I let go of all extraneous thoughts, stress and tension. (If you feel stressed, take a deep breath in and while exhaling slowly through the mouth, see if you can let go of stress and tension. Do this for at least two breaths.)

Three keys will help unlock the hidden power of prayer. We will not always be in the frame of mind to utilize all of them; sometimes, we can only grasp one of them for a short period of time. Nevertheless, any effort we make to engage these keys, will elevate our prayers.

The first key: Intention. The first key is to understand what you are saying. If you do not understand some or all of the words from the prayer book, find a translation that works best for you. If you are able to read Hebrew, two formats that allow you to say the Hebrew while looking at the translation are the Linear by Metsudah and the Interlinear by Artscroll.

Praying without comprehension is like getting dressed in pitch darkness; you will get dressed but not in a way that presents yourself well. Focus on mastering one small section at a time. For the section you are working on, make it a rule not to say the next phrase until you focused on the meaning of the previous one. Then, each phrase – a mini prayer – will be cherished and savored. (Often, it is easier to focus on the meaning of phrases, versus the meaning of each word.)

The prayer book was composed by the Sages through Divine inspiration. When we say the very words that have sustained our people for thousands of years, we connect with an incredible source of spiritual power.

When you get distracted during prayer and start to think about something else, gently remind yourself that prayer will help you more with that issue than worrying about it. Then, bring your attention back to the meaning of the words. Do not be discouraged if you need to do this dozens of times; every word you say with intention is another success.

Use the issues which distract you to enhance your prayers. During pertinent sections, think about concerns weighing on you, your own and those of others, to infuse a sense of urgency and bring new meaning to the words.

The second key: Feeling. The second key is to pray with feeling. To begin with, slow down the speed at which you pray; we can talk faster than we feel. Give yourself time for the meaning and feeling behind the words to sink into your heart and stir your soul.

Another tool to help feel our prayers is to silently ask ourselves questions during prayer. For example, “How would I say these words if I really meant them? How would I say these words if I knew for certain God was listening?”

The third key: Connection. The third key is to imagine God is right before you. During prayer, you are having a one-on-one conversation with Him. The great sage Nachmanides, in Iggeret HaRamban, wrote, “In all your words, actions and thoughts, at all times, imagine in your heart that you are standing before the Holy One, Blessed is He, and that His Presence is upon you; for His glory fills the universe…(see A Letter for the Ages by Rabbi Avrohom Chaim Feuer)” By following Nachmanide’s advice during prayer, the words will come alive and directly connect you to your Creator. Prayer will become an intimate conversation with God, were you whisper to Him your prayers as He listens intently.

When you focus on the fact that you are standing before God, everything else recedes into the background. It is just you and God, secluded in prayer. As you progress, you will realize that it is really just God; you sense your oneness with Him.

If you are able to say a few phrases of prayer with feeling while concentrating on God’s presence before you – amazing! If you can only focus on the meaning of some of the words or only the general theme of a prayer, or just that you are speaking to God – great, you have laid a solid foundation upon which to build.

Use these three keys not only with the prayer book but also when reciting Psalms. They will help you claim the treasure King David left for each one of us. Soon, you will be able to say to God with conviction, “And now, for what do I hope O Lord? My longing is for You (Psalms 39:8).”

Sometimes, we are able to pray with fervor. Other times, our prayers lack feeling and we may blame ourselves. This is a mistake. We cannot force ourselves to pray with inspiration; that is a gift from God. What is within our control is to put in the effort and ask God to help us.

Every prayer is a new beginning, a new opportunity to come closer to your Creator. Fortify yourself and start fresh with each prayer. Even if you think a prayer did not go well, the mere effort you put into it is precious to your Father and will bring you closer to Him. With persistence, God will open your heart and you will begin to feel a deep sense of being nourished by your Creator and united with Him.

Addendum: Hitbodedut

Hitbodedut is informal prayer which emanates straight from your heart; in your own words, in your native language and preferably out loud. This form of prayer was popularized by Rebbe Nachman of Breslov.

Daily Hitbodedut gives us an unparalleled opportunity: The chance to talk privately with the Almighty, sharing with Him whatever is on our minds. The following are some suggestions for how to use these precious moments: Thank your Father for the blessings and help He gave you, both ongoing and recently. Share your problems and struggles, and ask for His assistance. Confess when you stumble and ask Him to strengthen you to do His will. Plead with Him that you merit studying and living His Torah, that you merit coming close to Him and witnessing the redemption. Also include prayers for others in need, the Jewish people and the world. With all of the above, be as specific and detailed as possible.

It can take time getting used to talking out loud to God. To help you open up to Him, imagine that the only blessings you will receive are those for which you ask. In addition, make a list of the issues weighing on you. During Hitbodedut, unburden yourself to your Father; express your concerns about each item on your list and ask for His help.

In the beginning, you may want to set a countdown timer for five to fifteen minutes; during that time, do the best you can to communicate to God your deepest fears, pains, hopes and joys. Gradually increase the minutes to the duration that works best for you.

Another option is to practice silent Hitbodedut. This is where you meditate on God’s all-encompassing presence. While in this meditative state, you can silently talk to God.

In addition to practicing Hitbodedut during a set time, talk to God throughout the day. Whenever you realize a lack in your life or in the life of someone else – pray to Him for help. Whenever you are about to do something challenging – ask for His assistance. Weave an ongoing conversation with your Creator into the fabric of your day. By frequently talking to God, you will transform your relationship with Him. You will shift from thinking of God as up there in the Heavens, to relating to Him as your ever-present, companion, confidante, and guide.
For a free e-book on Hitbodedut offered by the Breslov Research Institute, click here.

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