Eleven Months Part 6: How to Pray

I wrote before about attending shacharit (morning services) every day—particularly in the context of mourning. As the year has passed and I’ve returned to the rhythms of Jewish life and blended those rhythms into my larger life, prayer has become more and more part of my consciousness.

I knew about prayer, I thought. I knew the structure of the service and the evolution of the service over the many, many years since Judaism adopted organized prayer as a spiritual practice. I understood the tension between keva (the formal structure and rules surrounding prayer), and kavanah (the intentional or mindful aspects of prayer). Despite that knowledge, or maybe because of that knowledge, I still need to constantly teach myself how to pray. Praying every day has underscored to me how much prayer changes each day, and I think that’s part of why there is a fixed structure. Structures, like yoga asanas or fixed prayers, provide a profound opportunity for reflection and even for creativity.

So I’ve made a list of various ways to pray, depending upon my mood, or my level of energy, or my spiritual needs. I wrote them for myself as a series of intentions to hold as I sing through the service; the “You” in this list is me.

  1. Enter the room.
    Your attendance means something here. Everyone in the room is counting on you. Without you and nine others, no one can pray the complete service. More than that, your presence counts for everyone in the room as well. Be there, be present.
  2. Say hello.
    Acknowledging that you are here with other people is how you begin praying with them.
  3. Imagine you don’t know the words or their meanings.
    You don’t know the nusach. You don’t know anything about this prayer service at all. Let the others sing it to you. Notice how they use their voices, the rising and falling of the music, the changes in tempo and pacing. Be receptive—that awareness is the opposite of passivity.
  4. Imagine you know the words to the prayers, but not their meaning.
    Pay attention to how those words are formed by the shapes you make with your mouth and your breath. This can be a gateway to understanding more about yourself.
  5. Know the words and their meanings.
    Count the number of times certain words come up, or simply note when they do. Try the Hebrew words for: Love, Compassion, Earth, Wisdom, Kindness, Gratitude, Redemption. Choose one each day. Try to take that word with you when you leave.
  6. Sit up straight when you cover your eyes and say Shema: “Listen.”
    Feel the vibration of the word travel down your spine to its base in your tailbone. Listen to your back body. What do you have held there?
  7. Vary your pitch.
    If you lower your voice an octave during the prayer that begins emet (true), when you get to the word yafeh (beautiful), you will feel it through your entire body.
  8. Match pitch.
    If you match pitch with the person sitting next to you, the moment of singing in unison with that person will remind you of the connection you have with that person. You are in this together in a very meaningful way.
  9. Stand
    Feel the floor underneath your feet. Feel the earth beneath the floor supporting you, holding you up.
  10. Open up.
    As you stand to pray the standing prayers, move your shoulder blades toward one another and keep the sides of your body long. Your heart will open and your spine will gently stretch. Remind yourself of the strength of the connection between your mind and body. There is no difference between them, really.

I use this list a fair amount. Some mornings I wake up excited to see where some of these practices bring me and I find that I leave the synagogue feeling the same way I do when I leave my favorite teachers’ classes. Some mornings—more mornings, even most mornings—I rely on the structure of my list to get me focus myself on being present as I pray. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. Those days I struggle to keep up, to keep my focus, even not to be annoyed at the fact that I’m at the synagogue at 7:30 in the morning when I have a meeting at 9:00. Those mornings, I have done something just by walking through the door.