To my understanding, prayer is talking to God, (and God talking to you), thus prayer is communion with God. I believe part of prayer is not just ascending, but also descending (from God, or Angels or Saints), and one needs to listen carefully to what God is doing, how He moves our lives and what He expects of us. A great Elder, Arsenie Papacioc, would always say that he was not so much for quantitative ascetic tasks (such as a lot of spoken prayer), but he was for a state of continuous presence before God -- that is simply having God before you no matter what you do and where you are. This is the essence of prayer, to BE with God ALWAYS. So, prayer can be even a silent attitude before God instead of repeating the Jesus Prayer, and it's really up to each individual to figure out what he needs. No matter which method you choose, the state of presence before God must always exist, even if you are reciting or thinking of words; in fact, we may forget this, and may end up reciting or saying the Jesus prayer a million times in our heads but forget that we are speaking to God and that He is with us. Good deeds (like alms-giving) are very important, and if you give up serving God and your neighbor for the sake of improving your own prayer, you are headed for delusion.
There are many levels of prayer, but how and when one will receive them is up to God. The change is generally gradual (maybe complex) and goes hand in hand with purification from the passions and various factors -- one cannot expect prayer to improve if one does not try to become a better person, and prayer for the sake of prayer itself doesn't happen either (like I've been saying). Prayer is, of course, a tool that helps us grow closer and enter into communion with God, it is not an end in itself. The higher levels of prayer, such as prayer of the heart, are already visibly becoming the work of God, and there are even higher levels such as "prayer that moves by itself" (actually God moves it Himself and the man just sits in the hand of God). The highest is "vision of God in The Kingdom of Heaven", and Saints have achieved this also -- this is basically entering Heaven in this life, those saints were not even eating or sleeping anymore, just having Holy Communion. There are many saints who achieved these, and some were very simple people who did not necessarily systematize their prayer, but they were people who loved virtue and God blessed them. There were many saints who did not achieve any level of prayer, but again, they were precious martyrs for God. We should not feel bad, if we don't achieve higher levels of prayer, neither should we desire them because they can become idols or more things to have. Best is to be with and love God and our neighbor, and good things are bound to come, as God thinks is necessary.