To pray is to let go of your belief that you are in control of your life, and to give it over to something more inclusive than your own point of view. It requires a leap of faith. Even if you have only the slightest sense that a higher power is at work in the world, you can still pray. You can name that gossamer belief "God" or not. You can pray to God, or you can pray to your own larger perspective—the part of you that trusts in the meaningfulness of life.
Sometimes I pray using other people's words. Sometimes I pray in silence. Sometimes prayer feels to me like the last resort, an act of throwing up my hands and saying, "You take over now!" Sometimes it feels like a cry of hunger or thirst. Rumi says, "Don't look for water. Be thirsty." Prayer is allowing ourselves to be thirsty; it is a longing for something we just cannot seem to find. The Sufis say that our longing for God is God's longing for us. In this way, prayer is like a conversation between friends separated across time and space.
One of the reasons I love prayer is that it is an antidote to guilt and blame. If we are unhappy with the way we have acted or been treated, instead of stewing in self-recrimination on the one hand, or harboring ill will toward someone else on the other, prayer gives us a way out of the circle of guilt and blame. We bring our painful feelings into the open and say, "I have done wrong," or "I have been wronged." And then we ask for a vaster view—one that contains within it all the forgiveness we need in order to move forward.
Sister Wendy Beckett, a marvelous Roman Catholic nun best known to the world from her books and television shows on art criticism, says this about prayer:
I don't think being human has any place for guilt. Contrition, yes. Guilt, no. Contrition means you tell God you are sorry and you're not going to do it again and you start off afresh. All the damage you've done to yourself, put right. Guilt means you go on and on belaboring and having emotions and beating your breast and being ego-fixated. Guilt is a trap. People love guilt because they feel if they suffer enough guilt, they'll make up for what they've done. Whereas, in fact, they're just sitting in a puddle and splashing. Contrition, you move forward. It's over. You are willing to forgo the pleasures of guilt.
You can find prayers everywhere to help you move beyond "the pleasures of guilt," and to stimulate conversations with God—poetry and song, hymns and common prayers, your own language of longing. Here are some words taken from a variety of traditions that help me enter into a state of prayer.