I’ve also heard teachers urge students not to try to “make it look like the pictures in the books,” as doing so could lead to forcing and injury.
In a physical practice like yoga asana, it’s easy to catch ourselves evaluating others, both in person and in print. In contemplation, it’s not so obvious in person; we may have a strong sense that someone else is further along the path than we are, but unless they tell us themselves about their experiences, we can only guess at how prayer is “going” for them.
In print, however, we are offered vivid accounts of the experiences of the great contemplatives of history, from Teresa of Avila to Vivekananda, and from Julian of Norwich to Ramana Maharshi. This is good insofar as it in instructive and inspirational, but I fear that reading about the great mystics can be daunting, too–especially if we have practiced for years without ever being “caught up into the third heaven”[i] or having visionary experiences.
Each person’s experience in prayer is unique, and it is useless to compare ourselves to others. The anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing, a fourteenth-century English text on contemplative prayer, emphasized this point:
It is important to realize that in the interior life, we must never take our own experiences, or the lack of them, as the norm for everyone else. He who labors long in coming to contemplation, and then rarely enjoys the perfection of this work, may easily be deceived if he thinks, speaks or judges other people on the basis of his own experience. In the same way, he who frequently experiences the delight of contemplation–almost, it seems, whenever he likes–will be just as mistaken if he measures others by himself. Do not waste your time with these comparisons. For it may be that, in God’s wisdom, those who have, at the beginning, struggled long and hard at prayer and only tasted its fruits occasionally may, later on, experience them as often as they like, and in great abundance.[ii]
In fact, if you are experiencing emptiness in prayer, it may well be a good sign. You are, at any rate, in very good company: everyone from St. John of the Cross to Mother Theresa has gone through “dark nights of the soul.”
He will set them off with communications of His presence which, though faint, seem great to them, with emotional sweetness, and easy conquest over temptation. But He never allows this state of affairs to last long. Sooner or later He withdraws, if not in fact, at least from their conscious experience, all those supports and incentives. He leaves the creature to stand up on its own legs–to carry out from the will alone duties which have lost all relish….Hence the prayers offered in the state of dryness are those which please Him best… He wants them to learn to walk and must therefore take away His hand; and if only the will to walk is really there He is pleased even with their stumbles. Do not be deceived, Wormwood. Our cause is never more in danger, than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy's will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.
So if you feel like “nothing’s happening” in prayer, don’t despair. The signs of spiritual growth are subtle; often, other people may notice the changes in you before you do, as you gradually grow, spiritually, through practice. Or it may be that God is only withholding His hand so that you may learn to stand up on your own legs.
[i] 2 Corinthians 12:2
[ii]Anonymous, The Cloud of Unknowing, Chapter 72. Ed. William Johnston, SJ.