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 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.

As a philosophical and spiritual matter, I think it would be a grave mistake to try to strip the more-than-human powers out of any philosophical/spiritual tradition (be it Platonism, Stoicism, Buddhism, Confucianism, or any other).  While others may disagree, my understanding is that one critical aspect of meditation (and of philosophical and contemplative practice more generally) is the activity of placing myself in the middle of a metaphysical and epistemological chain, which descends from some objective (external, prior-to-me) ground of meaning and of reality, with the help of various mediators who are greater than myself, through me, and into the material world around me, as well as into the language and artifacts that I might create.  If I were to cut off the top levels of the chain, thereby leaving myself as the “top” thing left, I would run a huge risk of narcissism, solipcism, and delusional “the world is whatever you want it to be” kinds of thinking.  That does not strike me as healthy or desirable, nor in accord with how the cosmos actually is, and so I emphatically avoid such an approach. 

To be sure, I think there is also an opposite error, in cult-like schools that expect mindless obedience to authority (human or otherwise) at the expense of critical thinking.  This would be, roughly, to put myself at the very bottom of the chain, cutting off everything that comes below or after myself, thereby rendering myself totally passive and inert.  I think that Aristotle and the wider Hellenic tradition are quite right when they define the human being as a rational animal, which means that the exercise of my rational powers of deliberation and judgement is essential to my full humanity.  So I avoid any philosophical/spiritual path that demands that I give up, or fail to use, my powers of reasoning, judgement, and discernment.

In closing, I’ll simply emphasize the way in which I’ve framed the last few paragraphs in the first person, describing my own understanding, experience, and approach.  I am certainly not claiming any kind of moral authority over others, nor am I insisting that I have The One Right Way™ for all people, at all times, to approach these issues.  I respect the right of thoughtful people of good will to disagree with one another, and to pursue lines of thought and/or practice that seem to me to be dangerous, misguided, or simply weird or uninspiring.  If asked for advice, I’ll say something along the lines of what I’ve written in the last two paragraphs, but that would be advice only, and not any kind of command.  (I add this last paragraph just to ward off any possible confusion.  As Westerners, we’re so used to one particular style of religion that thinks it has the right and the duty to give absolute, one-size-fits-all commands for all of humanity, and so, despite how utterly strange and unusual that is in the wider scope of human history, many people are quick to reject all references to Gods or spiritual powers.  To my mind, that throws millions of babies out with the bathwater.)