There was, once upon a time a certain woman who had lived a long life and gathered wisdom through her years. In her village she was well respected, and people often consulted her about one thing or another. Usually, they came with questions that seemed to be about the outer life – problems in the family, sickness, disputes about business, and so on. But one day a girl came to the wise woman, greeted her politely, and asked her a different kind of question.
“Mother,” she said, “what is the best way to pray?”
The old woman studied the girl for a moment, and then said, “Do you go to the temple? Did they teach you what to say?”
The girl nodded. “I go to the temple and I say the words that they taught me – but it feels like there should be more. Something is missing.”
The woman studied the girl some more now, and then nodded with understanding. “Daughter, the best way to pray is – just pray.”
The girl looked puzzled. “What do you mean, mother?”
“The next time you go to the temple, daughter,” the woman said, “sit quietly in a corner, and watch the people praying. Not to pry into their affairs, but just to watch and learn. Everyone prays in their own way, but you will see four groups. The biggest group is the people that close their eyes and say the words, but are thinking about something else. They are a long way from real prayer.”
The girl gave a small smile. She had already seen that.
“And some think that what matters is to be seen praying. So, they perform their prayer for whoever is in the temple. They may give a good show, perhaps they even inspire others to pray, but that is not prayer either.”
The girl nodded thoughtfully.
“A few,” the old woman went on, “have gone a little further – they are not thinking about the people around them, but they are trying to show God that they are making good prayers. Unfortunately, their God is very critical. So, they are really looking at themselves, concerned about their attitude and their defects and their shortcomings. Even they are not yet really praying. They are trying to become a person who could pray.
“The smallest group,” the old woman concluded, “are the ones who forget themselves completely. Without fear, they fall into the prayer like a stone falling into the sea, and just pray. As far as I know, that is the best way to pray.”
After a silence, the young girl said, “Thank you, mother. I will try to just pray.”
“You are welcome, daughter. I think you will be able to do it.”