This lesson explores how Unitarian Universalists can use prayer and meditation as part your your spiritual practice. We look into how prayer fits into the Unitarian Universalist context and what science tells us about prayer and meditation. We then suggest ways to pray on your own, teach your children about prayer, and join others in sacred space in order to express gratitude, ask for help and guidance, or stand in awe of the great mysteries of the world.
The good news, as always, is that you are free to choose what works for you.
Use these links to skip to sections of this lesson:
- Prayer and Meditation for Unitarian Universalists
- What Science Tells Us About Prayer and Meditation
- Ways to Pray
- Further Reading on Prayer and Meditation
Because prayer and meditation are so personal, we won’t ask you to “show your work” for this lesson. However, since this is the last entry in our 8-part Being UU at Home series, we’d love to hear any feedback on your experience with this series of lessons. Please send any thoughts, critiques, or appreciations to email@example.com.
Prayer and Meditation for Unitarian Universalists
In Unitarian Universalism, prayer is one piece of the great quandary in our faith about how to talk, think, and believe about God and divinity. Because we have no set of beliefs held in common like other mainstream faiths, the use of prayer and sacred language in our gatherings remains controversial and we generally avoid it.
What do we mean when we talk about God? Is it inside us or outside us? Who created whom? When we pray, who are we talking to and who is listening? Addressing our prayers “To Whom It May Concern” trivializes what is meant to be meaningful. On the other hand, calling on God with all the names we can think of so no one will be offended becomes a ludicrous and tedious recitation that robs our prayer of the power and grace it might have if we had wings to get to the point.
Unitarian Universalists are ambivalent about centralized dogma and prayer for good reasons. “I don’t know” is an honest and brave response to unanswerable questions. And public prayer, especially before staged events or with mixed groups, is usually presumptuous, hypocritical, vain, and manipulative — a stage prop used to create the illusion of virtue and to exert control. In those contexts, it becomes institutionalized bullying, makes a mockery of spiritual consciousness, and infringes on the rights of people not to be subjected to beliefs and practices they do not share.
Rabbi Jesus gave clear instructions for prayer in his Sermon on the Mount. He said:
“When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites. They love to stand and pray in public so other people will see them. I tell you the truth, that is their whole reward. But, when you pray, go into a private place, and close the door. Then pray to the Father in secret, and the Father, who hears your secret prayer, will reward you openly …For your Father knows what you need before you even ask.”~Matthew 6: 5-8
Despite our uncertainty about the nature of the Great Mystery (Source, the ground of being, God and the thousand other names, whatever you call it), it is a THING, an archetypal force. We all experience an inner awareness or longing to connect that everyone grapples with, regardless of belief. Prayer and meditation are time-honored and proven ways of connecting to it. If you have wondered about how to pray as a Unitarian Universalist, you are not alone.
The Difference Between Prayer and Meditation
Prayer and meditation are part of every spiritual tradition in the world. Every religion has physical, mental, ecstatic, and devotional methods for invoking and entering the presence of the divine. Although the practices have many different names, and vary in their simplicity or complexity, all of them are methods for going to the source and center of thought, awareness, and BE-ing.
Prayer is outwardly focused and requires intentional thought. When you pray, you are speaking to God. Meditation is inwardly directed, a practice to help you still your thoughts so that God or the Inner Light can speak to you in silence (or perhaps just so you can experience stillness).
What Science Tells Us About Prayer and Meditation
Regular practice of prayer and meditation has provable benefits for overall and long-term brain function and general health, and people who pray and/or meditate regularly are statistically happier and live longer than people who do not.
Prayer and meditation has been found to
- Reduce resting and ambulatory blood pressure and heart rate
- Synchronize and stabilize heart rate and breathing.
- Boost serotonin and dopamine levels in the brain
- Strengthen the immune system
- Reduce stress hormones such as cortisol, adrenaline, and noradrenaline
- Release endorphins and promote positive mood states.
- Regulate sex, growth, and pituitary hormones
- Reduce anxiety and pain
- Help with self-control and forgiveness
- Enhance self-esteem
- Change activity levels in the frontal and parietal lobes, thalamus, limbic system, and brain stem
- Increase gray and white matter in certain areas of the brain
- Improve quality of life in late-stage disease
The above benefits apply to the one who is doing the praying, but the scientific data on the benefit of praying for others is not as clear. In a 2009 article in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry, “Prayer and healing: A medical and scientific perspective on randomized controlled trials” (Andrade and Radhakrishnan), reviewers discussed several studies on the effects of prayer that showed mixed results. Some studies ruled out the placebo effect and demonstrated that people who were prayed for improved faster than those who were not, even when they didn’t know someone was praying for them. Another study showed that wounded animals improved faster when prayed for. Yet in a study of cardiac patients, prayer had no apparent relationship to recovery, and in some cases, seemed to have a negative influence. Andrade and Radhakrishnan suggest that
“For a multitude of reasons, research on the healing effects of prayer is riddled with assumptions, challenges, and contradictions that make the subject a scientific and religious minefield. We believe that the research has led nowhere, and that future research, if any, will forever be constrained by the scientific limitations that we outline.”~Indian Journal of Psychiatry. 2009 Oct-Dec; 51(4): 247–253.
Ways to Pray
A Simple Method
Find a quiet and comfortable space where you will not be disturbed. Having an altar or a special place where you usually pray or meditate works best. Keep writing materials, sacred texts or tools, and a candle and matches handy.
Light a chalice or a candle. Gaze into the flame for a few seconds and breathe gently. Use chalice lighting words if you like, to bring yourself into the present moment and sacred space. For example:
“We light this chalice as a symbol of Unitarian Universalism, to honor the light within us, the light among us, and the light we bring into the world.”
Close your eyes and center yourself: Breathe gently, take a few moments to inventory your body and consciously relax. Feel your life moving through you and bring your attention to the present moment.
Begin your practice. Perhaps you are practicing a meditation technique or breathwork that requires close attention. Perhaps you are working on cultivating a new skill or releasing old habits or hurts that no longer serve you. Perhaps you are feeling deeply grateful or deeply troubled. Perhaps you just want to rest in the presence of the Divine.
Say your prayer. You can use a pre-printed prayer or a sacred text. Unitarian Universalism draws from many sources. You can find many resources for UUs on Worship Web. Pray for a specific purpose or just express your feelings. Give thanks for blessings and opportunities. Express your needs and desires. Pray for others, and for needs you see around you. Do not worry if you are unsure where your prayer is going; maybe a higher power outside yourself is listening or maybe you are changing your own heart. It doesn’t matter—you are bringing yourself into alignment.
When you pray, it is very important to pray with the belief that your prayer is already answered, to intentionally and consciously imagine how your life would look and feel, and how you would behave with the answered prayer in place, and to express gratitude for that feeling. The feeling IS the prayer.~Gregg Braden,Secrets of the Lost Mode of Prayer
Remember that answers to prayer usually involve listening, waiting, and being prepared for surprises. Prayers do get answered, sometimes in surprising ways, but prayer is not like drive-through, or magic, and there are no guarantees of instant gratification.
When you complete your prayer, extinguish the chalice.
Saying Grace Before Meals
Every culture has practices that invoke gratitude and peacefulness through food. This happens at different times: specific prayers when an animal is killed for its meat, prayers said at planting and harvest, and daily when people pause before eating to reflect or speak a blessing aloud.
Saying a blessing before eating is a way incorporating a spirit of gratitude into moments of daily life. Over time, those brief moments of articulated gratitude have the cumulative effect of making us more present to abundance, more grateful for life’s blessings, and more aware of the need for balance and reciprocity in our taking and giving back.
Light the family chalice. Each person at the table can contribute an idea or name something for which s/he is particularly grateful, or one person can lead a blessing while others listen.
Some simple UU table graces:
It is good,
It is good to be,
It is good to be together.
Add to it: “it is good to be together as a family, sharing a meal, celebrating your birthday, etc.” Or be silly: “. . . it is good to be together… wiggling our toes, wearing clean underwear, with our hair sticking up,” or whatever strikes the mood!
From you I receive.~Hymn 402, Singing the Living Tradition
To you I give.
Together we share,
And by this we live
Come Great Spirit, be our guest,~Our Good Friend Anonymous
Our morning joy and evening rest.
And with our daily food impart,
Deep love and peace to every heart.
For the bounty received we are thankful.
(Each person says one thing they are thankful for.)
For the bounty received we are thankful.
A Blessing for Family or Group gatherings:
We gather here with gratitude.
We bless all those that we love,
and those who love us.
We bless all beings.
May this be a holy table,
Where food and love are served in abundance and all are fed in body and soul,
Where we welcome each one just as they are and not as we wish they might be,
Where the memory of those who are not here is full and alive,
Where old grudges are released, and old pain is soothed by loving kindness.
May this be a table of joy,
A table of gratitude,
And a witness to grace.
Blessed, blessed, Blessings, Be.
Saying Prayers at Bedtime
Bedtime prayers are a good way to share prayers with children. They can be rituals of comfort, a time of reflection and calm before sleep. The idea that people can share thoughts and feelings with God as well as with those who are close to them is appealing for lots of reasons. It is comforting to connect to a power that transcends ordinary relationships and is always available to listen and respond.
Here are some prayers to repeat at bedtime:
There is love holding me.~Rebecca Parker, Unitarian Universalist
There is love holding you.
There is love holding all.
I rest in this love.
The sun has gone down,~UU Puerto Rico
the friendly dark has come and now it is time to sleep.
Let me think about all I have done: good things to do again, bad things to let go and forget.
Now I shall sleep, and grow while I sleep, and tomorrow I shall be happy.
Here is a lovely bedtime prayer practice that invites reflection and conversation. It’s simple and carries no doctrine. The idea came from The UU Kids Book (Brotman-Marshfield, 1989), now out of print. It’s great for children, but the practice works equally well for adults.
Think about being in a PLACE of BEAUTY or a FAVORITE place where you feel safe and good.The UU Kids Book (Brotman-Marshfield, 1989)
Tell us of the things you are THANKFUL for today.
Tell of something you feel SORRY that you said or did, and what you might do to make it right.
Tell about something you HOPE for, and any way you can help it to happen.
Tell us about the people you love and their love for you. See each person’s face in your mind and send them LOVE from your heart.
Now think of yourself resting, peaceful and safe, and waking full of ENERGY and HAPPINESS.
Metta Meditation—Saying the Loving Kindness Prayer
A Metta Meditation, also known as a Loving Kindness Prayer, is derived from Buddhism. It follows a pattern of first directing loving kindness toward oneself and then directing loving kindness outward toward others. This meditation/prayer practice is for everyone, and it works. Guaranteed. There is nothing to believe and you do not even have to mean it; you just have to practice regularly.
Here’s how to do it:
Find a quiet place, perhaps at your altar.
You may want to light a chalice or candle. Make sure to move things that could catch on fire away from the flame. Sit in a comfortable position.
First, say the words below and send them toward yourself. Until you can love and take care of yourself, you cannot be much help to others. At the beginning, this may be as far as you can go, especially if you are often hard on yourself.
May I be filled with loving kindness.
May I be safe from inner and outer dangers.
May I be healthy and well.
May I have happiness and well-being.
May I be free.
Next, say the prayer for someone you love or who loves you. This part is easy. Repeat the prayer below for your loved one until you have a clear picture in your mind of that person feeling healthy, safe, happy, and free.
May you be filled with loving kindness
May you be safe from inner and outer dangers.
May you be healthy and well
May you have happiness and well-being.
May you be free.
Now, say the words above for someone you do not know. There is no judgment, and your emotions are neutral. It might be someone in the car next to you at a red light, a clerk in a store, or a person walking past your house. Repeat until you feel kind and loving toward this stranger.
Finally, if only for a moment, say the prayer for a person you don’t like. Maybe you have had a conflict with them, perhaps they treated you unfairly, or you don’t like the way they behave. Unexpected and uncomfortable feelings can arise when you begin to pray for your enemy. They can disrupt your sense of peace, and bring up feelings of anger, fear, resistance, guilt, or contempt. This is natural. Just sit with all the feelings, and if you can, let them go. And keep on saying the words, even if your teeth are clenched.
Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh says that saying even the first line of the prayer for your enemy begins to change your heart. Ask yourself how you might see the other person if you did not carry those angry thoughts or that grudge. Think about the other person’s desire to be happy and the challenges they face in their own life. It can help you to forgive. (Advice: When you are starting this part of the prayer practice, it is better to think of a person that is just annoying or difficult for you, not the person who has caused you the greatest harm. Keep that for later.)
Suggestions: Keep it simple. Make sure you understand and feel comfortable with what each phrase means. If the ones used here don’t feel right to you, there are many versions and explanations of this prayer online.
Any spiritual practice takes time, and there is no hurry. Take it easy, be gentle with yourself, and expect to experience it in stages. You may need to spend some time on practicing loving kindness to yourself before you are ready to spread it to others, let alone the whole world.
Your thoughts are important when you practice the Loving Kindness Prayer. Focus your attention on the meaning of the phrases, and rest gently with them. Do not expect or struggle to get any particular feeling. Sometimes your session will feel amazing, at other times only ordinary or even boring. Don’t worry. That doesn’t mean it isn’t working or that nothing is happening. Feelings come and go, and you cannot judge your practice by them.
The important thing is to show up and to allow the doing to create intention in your mind and loving kindness in your heart so that their combined power can flow through you into the world.
Further Reading on Prayer and Meditation
If you are interested in reading more about prayer for UUs, here are some online links and a short list of available books:
- Visit the page on Spiritual Practice and Prayer in Unitarian Universalism on the UUA website.
- “Praying as Unitarian Universalists“: A UU World article by about how we can pray with “integrity, grace, power, and purpose.”
- “A Humanist’s Guide to Prayer“: A UU World article about what prayer looks like for humanists.
- “How to Pray without Being Religious“: A sermon by Rev. Greg Stewart of Hope Unitarian Church, Tulsa, Oklahoma.
- Find several books on prayer and meditation in the UU Book and Gift Shop’s inSpirit series of Meditation Manuals.
- A Child’s Book of Blessings and Prayers, collected by Eliza Blanchard
This collection offers prayers for every day — giving thanks, seeking help, and expressing care for the earth and all living things. Here are words to bless the morning, share at bedtime, honor a birthday, even give thanks for a friend next door. These graces, poems, prayers, and blessings are drawn from wisdom traditions around the world — Hindu, Sioux, Islamic, Jewish, Christian, and Unitarian Universalist, and others. Beautifully illustrated in full color.
- Help, Thanks, Wow—The Three Essential Prayers, by Anne Lamott
Beloved author and humorist Anne Lamott distills what she has learned about three simple prayers essential to coming through tough times, difficult days, and the hardships of daily life. It is these three prayers – asking for assistance from a higher power, appreciating what we have that is good, and feeling awe at the world around us that can get us through the day and can show us the way forward.
- Evening Tide: Meditations, by Elizabeth Tarbox
Whether in the bleakest moments of bidding goodbye to her dying father or in the pain she hears as she counsels gay youth, Tarbox’s ears and eyes are attuned to the hopes and the solace that she finds in nature — in the gentle sounds in a stand of pines, in the intensive chore of splitting wood. These meditations comfort and inspire. Part of the UUA Meditation Manual series
- Everyday Spiritual Practice: Simple Pathways for Enriching Your Life, edited by Scott Alexander
Forty inspiring contributors share their personal spiritual practices for making each day more meaningful and satisfying–from meditation and prayer, to recycling and vegetarianism, to quilting and art. This collection suggests a wide variety of ways to spiritually examine, shape, and care for your life to achieve wholeness, satisfaction, depth, and meaning.
- In the Holy Quiet of This Hour: A Meditation Manual, by Richard S. Gilbert
These gentle prayers remind us that we can find the sacred and profound in every day by taking the time to stop and absorb the holy quiet. This book is listed as “hard to find.” Part of the UUA Meditation Manual series
- Life Prayers from Around the World: 365 Prayers, Blessings and Affirmations to Celebrate the Human Journey, edited by Elizabeth Roberts and Elias Amidon
This eloquent anthology honors the wonders and challenges of life on earth and celebrates the seasons of our lives with poetry, wisdom, prayers, and blessings from thinkers and writers all around the world.
- Meditations of the Heart by Howard Thurman
Meditations of the Heart is a beautiful collection from Howard Thurman, the great spiritualist and mystic, who was renowned for the quiet beauty of his reflections on humanity and our relationship with God. Within this collection are words that sustain, elevate, and inspire. Thurman addresses those moments of trial and uncertainty and offers a message of hope and endurance for people of all faiths.
- Morning Watch: Meditations by Barbara Pescan
This small book offers thirty-four poems and prayers on love, spirit, and the extraordinary significance of daily life. In elegant verse, Barbara Pescan helps us step out of routine existence and reflect on the things that matter most.
- Rejoice Together: Prayers for Family, Individual and Small Group Worship, edited by Helen Pickett
Here are opening words, chalice lightings, prayers, table graces, devotions, meditations and more, culled from traditional and modern sources. This new edition includes more than 50 added selections, primarily from contemporary UU sources.
- In This Very Moment: Introduction to Zen Buddhism for Unitarian Universalists by James Ishmael Ford
Zen master and ordained UU minister James Ford combines the history, philosophy and practice of Zen in this concise introduction. From helpful discussion of the different schools of Buddhist thought to basic instruction for shikantaza (sitting Zen meditation), Ford offers an accessible and engaging starting point for newcomers.
Thank you for reading through this lesson! Since this is the last entry in our 8-part Being UU at Home series, we’d love to hear any feedback on your experience with this series of lessons. Please send any thoughts, critiques, or appreciations to firstname.lastname@example.org.