"Why Prayer?"

I have often wondered what place prayer has in my life and in my work of bringing shamanism into contemporary western life. After all, I can do a shamanic ‘journey’ to helping spirits to make requests and to have a direct relationship with the Larger Order of Things, so shouldn’t that cover it?

Prayer has always seemed more vague to me somehow, more like childish hope connected to my childhood religious upbringing. Yet I do it. In the past, it seemed I would pray at those times I felt painted in a corner by life, feeling scared or overwhelmed and beyond personal resources. It also seemed to me that using prayer in shamanic training groups was presumptuous on my part, that I am not a religious leader, and should just primarily give participants methodology, not doxology.

In recent years, however, this has begun to change, and now I see prayer as helping set the stage to open our hearts to bring the sacred into the mundane. Since we ourselves are embodied spirits in finite bodies, prayer becomes an acknowledgement of this, a direct invitation to have the eternal present in the temporal as we move between heaven and earth in our life’s walk. Prayer has become more of a joyful actof hospitality rather than a fearful act of desperation.

In writing about prayer, Buddhist teacher Elizabeth Mattis-Namgel posits, “The very act of asking for help allows the heart to open and invite the world in . . . Prayer can be a way of giving over to the mystery and movement of life, expressing an acceptance that we don’t know everything and never will — that we only see a little piece of things [rather than] the infinite web of interconnectedness.

“We can pray for anything. But what we pray for influences the direction we go in and the transformative nature of the practice . . . If we move out of our individual desire to be free from suffering and into the bigger view where we acknowledge that suffering is part of living in this body and world, we experience the profundity of prayer. The asking, the request itself, has power.” 1

Nowadays I see prayer as invitation and as declaration, as well as supplication. From this perspective, prayer expands beyond just naming an ‘Other’ or ‘to Whom’ to pray and becomes all about the direct relationship with our Larger Self, however we understand that. Prayer becomes not just a conversation with deities, but rather an open exchange with the divine immanence in all things. “Prayer is like riding a bike — our steering will naturally follow our gaze. The direction we go in is up to us.”2

For me, prayer has also become deeply intertwined with gratitude. Shamanism has taught me that we are never alone, and when I move into a place of prayerfulness, my heart opens to experience great gratitude for this -- and I find myself steering my spiritual bike in this direction to allow for a natural connection and a natural joy in whatever request I may have for the spirits.

In his poem “A Place of Continuous Prayer,” Tony Basilio stretches our understanding even further. Through a single line, he reaches through our binary minds to show us there is no separate time for praying and for not-praying:

Prayer is the direction we lean in to hear better the truth of our hearts.

One simple, embracing, glorious line. One ongoing, continuous Ceremony for Life.

Breathe in prayer. Breathe out prayer.

I get it.

I can deal with it.


1Mattis-Namgyel, E. “Why Do Buddhists Pray?,” Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Quarterly, Fall, 2014, pp. 35-36.

Cecile Carson, MD, has been practicing and teaching shamanism for the past several decades in Rochester, NY. A Founding Board Member of SSP, she has edited the anthology Spirited Medicine: Shamanism in Contemporary Healthcare and regularly offers shamanic training to medical personnel in the U.S. and abroad. She can be reached at cecile@cecilecarson.com. or www.integratedhealthinstitute.com.

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