Do we need prayer or ritual with meditation?

As a historical matter, two of the main styles of meditation that I practice and teach have mostly been passed down in religious contexts. From the ancient Stoics and Platonists who composed and recited hymns to Zeus, Athena, and the Muses as an integral part of their philosophical life, to Benedictine monks quietly refining the art of lectio divina, to Anglican clergymen diligently practicing discursive meditation, to various other practices of ordinary people in societies and cultures that were much more religious than ours, it turns out that for many centuries, the people doing these practices were people who, whether it was strictly “necessary” or not, would be inclined to preface any important activity with a prayer. And even when this explicitly religious context began to wither, the meditative disciplines were taken up by people who might be described as “spiritual but not religious,” for whom ritual, even apart from prayer, was a default mode of engaging with, and framing, the most important things in life.

So for purely historical reasons, these meditative disciplines have traditionally been taught in a way that included an element of prayer or other ritual. But the question remains: Is that element really necessary, or is it just a historical accident, something that we could, if we chose, do without?

And my answer is: I don’t know.

I do know that this kind of formal opening and closing has at least three benefits. At its most basic, it serves as a psychological trigger, telling our mind when it is time to begin and end the process of meditation. From a larger perspective, a good opening prayer or ritual situates us within a larger cosmos, within a world that is bigger than just ourselves. Whether we do that through invoking personal beings (Gods, spirits, etc.) or the impersonal powers of nature, it’s quite helpful to deliberately place ourselves within that wider world, and to allow those larger currents to guide and inform our thought and contemplation. And finally, whether it’s simply from the power of applied psychology, or whether it also involves the help of those larger personal or impersonal powers, beginning with prayer or ritual can help to ward off various obstacles or impediments to our meditative practice: distraction, tiredness, hostility, confusion, etc.

But if someone still wanted to omit this step, and was willing to forego those potential advantages, would that be a problem?

Again, I don’t know.

And even apart from the advantages that I see, it’s precisely because I don’t know, that I pass along the traditional guidelines, to allow others to make their own, reasonably well-informed choice about whether or not to include these elements in their personal practice. I simply don’t have enough experience, and enough data, from enough meditators over enough time, to be able to say with confidence that these elements can be safely dispensed with over the long term. At this point, forms of western-style meditation which do not include these elements are still, at best, an ongoing experiment. So at a minimum, the issue is one of informed consent.

Consider an analogy. When my medical doctor prescribes a course of treatment, I’d like to know whether this is a standard, tried-and-true remedy, proven over decades of use with tens of thousands of patients, or whether it’s a new experimental treatment, which might (because it’s experimental) have unexpected side-effects. I may very well consent to an experimental treatment, especially if the established remedies don’t seem to be right for me, but it’s important that I know the difference, and freely consent to being part of the experiment.

So too with meditation practices, from whatever place and context. Is this a standard procedure, being used (as it were) according to the label in the little black box on the back, or is it being used “off-label,” out of the original well-established context in which any safety studies were done?

When I consider the way that “mindfulness meditation” has been brought from Asian monastic practice to Western psychotherapy, I see something being repurposed in a radically new context—something which seems to benefit a significant number of people, but which also comes with some surprising vulnerabilities for others—vulnerabilities that would not occur in the traditional context of the practice, where different understandings were in play, or where the risks were counterbalanced by other techniques which were left behind when mindfulness was translated into the Western therapeutic context.

So, do we absolutely need prayer or ritual as part of Western meditative techniques? I don’t know. And because I don’t know, I choose to explain the techniques in their traditional form, as they have been handed down over many centuries, and as they were given to me, to allow others to make a fully-informed, eyes-open choice about their own practices.

For myself, particularly in light of some of the troubles that have arisen from plug-and-play attitudes within the mindfulness movement, I’m inclined to follow the instructions on the package, and stick with the traditional approach. If you want my recommendation, that’s what I will strongly encourage. I think it would be needlessly reckless to give up the advantages of the traditional practice.

If you choose to disregard that, in favor of an off-label, plug-and-play approach, you are entirely free to do so. Just go in fully informed that you are undertaking an experiment, that you’re charting new waters whose dangers may not be understood, and so only time and experience will tell what, if any, pitfalls that approach might entail.

Caveat emptor.