The sages refer to prayer as, “the service of the heart” (Ta’anit 2a; based on Deuteronomy 11:13). Thus we see that both meditation and prayer are essentially connected to the heart, and therefore, to each other. Yet, just like we saw how meditation is really the unity of mind and heart, similarly, prayer has an intellectual element as described by the Ba’al Shem Tov, as well as being the service of the heart. This is what is called in Chassidut, turning Torah into prayer and prayer into Torah. Meaning that whatever we learn in Torah should immediately be transformed into a prayer to actualize the inner point of the learning within our lives. Likewise, when we pray, our words should not only be spoken and felt, but should also be simultaneously listened to and intellectually contemplated for their deeper meanings and implications.
There are in fact many ways to unify prayer and meditation. We saw in the above teachings of the Ba’al Shem Tov and Rebbe Nachman the intense concentration and focus needed in prayer, which is, in essence, what meditation is — concentration and focus. Yet, nearly two thousand years ago the Mishnah tells us that there was a group of pious men who would meditate and prepare themselves spiritually for a full hour before reciting the Amidah, which they would then take an hour to complete; and further, they would then meditate for another hour after their prayer. It is interesting to note that our morning prayers today are structured so that the Amidah comes in the middle of the entire service, and thus, even today we have the opportunity to approach our prayer in a similar fashion regardless of how long the prayers actually take to recite. Although most people take far less time than the three hours described in the Mishnah there have always been those who take a substantial amount of time, far beyond the usual, in order to experience prayer in a truly meditative manner. When taking the time to contemplate and experience the prayers in such a manner, prayer indeed becomes a practice conducive to receiving Divine inspiration.
In the above chapter on Prophecy in Kabbalah and Chassidut we discussed how the Arizal promoted a system of unifications and intentions in his teachings about ruach hakodesh, many of which were to be contemplated during prayer. The Arizal felt that these deep and profound mental exercises would allow the mind to break free of normative thought patterns and ascend to a level of consciousness wherein Divine inspiration could be accessed and absorbed. Although these unifications are highly complex and beyond most people’s grasp, we mention them again here merely to emphasize how prayer, when combined with various meditative practices, can open up one’s soul to deep spiritual experience.
On the other hand many great rabbis who were in fact capable of contemplating such unifications chose instead to concentrate fully on the simple, straightforward meaning of the words. Essentially, they felt that the words of prayer in of themselves were powerful enough vehicles to connect them directly with God and this alone took enormous concentration. This perspective was based on the fact that the words of prayer were not only composed by prophets and others who possessed various degrees of ruach hakodesh, but they also contained actual verses from the Torah (itself a prophetically charged document), making the liturgical text itself a kind of prophetic script to be articulated and animated by each and every one of us in prayer. The addition of even deeper levels of complexity beyond the simple and powerful desire to connect to God was, they felt, beyond the capability of most people, and might even be distracting from this ultimately simple and straightforward goal.
There are of course no rights or wrongs in these matters. Rather, each person needs to find their own balance when seeking to make the most out of prayer. Different things work for different people and even on different days or during different periods of our lives. The main point is to realize the tremendous potential that exists in prayer as a spiritual practice, especially when combined with any number of meditative or musical techniques, and to thereby take advantage of what can be a truly inspiring and transformative experience.