Waking up at dawn, heading down to your local Shinto shrine and praying to the enshrined kami before starting your day, that’s the dream, right? Unfortunately for many Shinto practitioners this is not an option. We are outside of Japan, or situated somewhere far away from any kind of Shinto shrine or retreat, sometimes even stuck in the middle of a large city.
So instead, we pray at home. Some of us might have a kamidana (a household altar), others may simply revere part of their home or garden as sacred. Or perhaps you simply pray to the essence of Kami-sama themselves. I find that often life gets in the way of this ideal life of prayer and reflection and we stray from our Shinto values and fall into the ‘real world’ of too many responsibilities, chores, bad moods and everything else that demands our attention.
I’m guilty of this too; of not praying daily, I don’t always do misogi and sometimes I forget festival days. However we must remember that Shinto is not and has never been a strict faith – in fact you are not required to really do anything drastic to ‘be’ Shinto. You just need to understand and respect the Shinto values and ideas, living with them in mind.
But for some of us, prayer and ritual does form an important part of our devotion to the kami. It is almost like a ‘hello, I recognize that you are there and influencing my life’ practice, a recognition of the kami and such a fuel for the kami to act on our behalf.
A lot of Shinto prayers and ritual are very formal, known in Japanese as norito (祝詞). These often require a formal celebration, offerings and actions in a certain order, along with the prayer said. Norito can range in length from a few syllables to a full 30 minute session of chanting, dancing and blessings. Although norito is usually carried out by kannushi ((神主 – sometimes refered to as a ‘Shinto Priest’ but literally meaning ‘God master‘ or ‘Shinto master‘) in Japan and at other shrines across the world, many individual practitioners also perform norito in their home. These are often done daily and at a kamidana, or in front of an ofuda (a type of wooden or paper tablet inscribed with the kami’s name).
When to Pray
Ideal times to pray would be at sunrise and sunset, especially as the ‘main’ kami revered in Shinto is Amaterasu-Omikami – the Solar goddess. Other times can be at midnight on New Year’s, before a business venture, before an exam or other life events. Some people pray once a day, some twice a day, while some people pray only once a month or year. It is really up to the individual on how often they feel that they need to pray.
If you have any type of kamidana in your home, it is expected that you pray at least once a day out of politeness and reverence for having the essence of that kami in your home. Ideally this would be at the kamidana but of course, many of us find this impossible. There are many reasons why and this could be:
- A lack of privacy: This is my main problem. I live in a small flat with two other people and it’s difficult to find the time to pray. Even if I close the door, I feel self-conscious and like I can’t fully be sincere – almost like my connection to kami is compromised.
- Demanding kids or pets: It can be even harder to find privacy if you have kids or loud pets. In this case, perhaps praying before they wake up or after they go to sleep may help.
- Outside noise: How many times I have woken up, prepared to pray and only for someone outside to begin drilling! This is not the ideal background ‘music’ for any kind of spiritual reflection.
- General busyness: A lot of us have commitments which get in the way – we may have to go to work, perhaps we oversleep, the fire alarm is going off, the post man is here! So many interruptions that can really put us on edge and get in the way of prayer time.
How to Find Time
Prayer should never be a chore
First of all, prayer does not have to be a huge event that takes over half an hour every single day. You do not have to schedule it five days in advance, get into different clothes, dust the entire house or perform misogi. Of course if you have the time, you can! But remember that prayer is something personal that comes from the heart.
If you don’t have any norito on you or you don’t know them by heart, that’s okay! You can pray in your native language. The kami will understand! Remember that language is a human invention – the kami (and all deities) do not speak our languages – their own language is merely translated to ours through our own minds. Although it can feel more powerful to re-enact a norito perfectly and in Japanese, remember that you also need to see it as something that comes from your soul, your very core – not just a ritual. Conversing in your own language with the kami will also bring you closer to them and improve your relationship tenfold.
Pray for the little things
If you are praying just because you feel like you need to, then your intentions are not truly there. Remember one of the most important core values of Shinto – gratitude! Instead of a formal prayer that stresses you out because you need to take the kids out in five minutes, consider a simple ‘thank you’ or ‘arigatou gozaimasu’ (ありがとうございます) throughout the day. Gratitude goes a long way and I often find myself exclaiming ‘Thank you, Inari-sama!’ at events on a daily basis, even if I was too ill or forgot to do formal norito that morning.
You can pray before meals too, like many religions do. Small prayers that can be said are ‘Itedakimasu‘ (いてだきます) before eating and ‘Gochisosama deshita‘ (ごちそさまでした）afterwards. These basically translate as ‘Thanks for the food’ and show gratitude to the kami for providing you with the meal.
Pray in Nature
It is easy to feel separated from nature in today’s society. However remember that us humans are not separated from nature at all; we are very much a part of it. Think of the grass that grows between the city concrete, the animals and plants that flourish in urban settings. We cannot ever escape nature, and we should be thankful for that. When you can, say a few words of gratitude to nature – to the sky, the wind, the potted plants on your windowsill. If you can get to a park, you can even pray or meditate there. Being in a city does not mean nature is not there also.
Some more tips:
Prayer reminders: If you want to pray often but also forget to, consider placing small verses of norito you like, images of kami or similar symbols on the walls in your home (yes, even in the bathroom!). This will remind you to pray, even if you are not at a kamidana! Remember that the whole Universe is kami’s domain, not just a shrine or kamidana!
Prayer beads: Although prayer beads (mala) are more often associated with Buddhism, they can also be used in Shinto for praying. Wearing them or carrying them on you can help you focus and pray – if you haven’t learned any norito by heart, you can always say one thing you are grateful for on each bead.
Setting an alarm: If you really want to perform prayers at a certain time, set an alarm on your phone! Once you have done this successfully for over a month, it should become a solid habit. If you feel yourself going off this, start setting the alarm again.
Read up on Shinto or learn kana: If you are travelling or somewhere you really feel you cannot pray, consider studying from some Shinto books. Alternatively, you can study some kana (the Japanese alphabets) in order to be able to read norito in Japanese. You don’t need to learn the language itself to read the norito, but learning the kana can be a huge boost, as well as a focus boost.
Something to Remember
Most importantly, please remember that kami understand that you are busy. They understand that you are human and you have other priorities. They understand that you are too tired or sick to pray, or that maybe you forgot. If they want to remind you themselves, they find ways through dreams and signs. So please do not feel bad if you cannot pray daily or if you only change offerings once a week – kami understand.
I hope that you found this post insightful and useful and as usual, if you have any questions feel free to ask or comment below!
Thank you for reading!