A well-known study done in 2008 by Brandeis University reports that 90% of Americans believe in prayer. In fact, according to medical centers across our country, prayer is consider the most commonly used “alternative medicine” practiced. But what does that really mean? Are we all thinking, feeling and practicing the same way? Hardly. In fact, I’m fairly certain that the prayers I practice are very different from the prayer that you say or do—if you do. But if 55% of our country’s population say they pray every single day, who or what are they praying to, what are they experiencing and what do they expect as a result? Obviously the power, mystery and variety of the practice deserves more discussion.
With that said, I’d better point out that I am not religious at all. I do consider myself spiritual—actually a spiritual being having a human experience—but what I sometimes call God is likely very different from how you define It. Fortunately I don’t need you to agree with my definition of All-That-Is to receive the full benefit of my understanding. By the same token, I hope you don’t need me to agree with your definition for you to receive your benefits as well.
What Do We Even Mean By Prayer?
Yet, even if we agree that we are all unique and approach our spirituality AND our prayers from a different perspective, what do we mean by prayer in the first place? According to author Larry Dossey, M.D. in his book Healing Words, “Prayer comes from the Latin precarious ‘obtained by begging,’ and precari, ‘to entreat’—to ask earnestly, beseech, implore.” Dossey admits that the two more common forms of prayer are: petition, asking for something for one’s self; and intercession, asking for something for others. But then he goes on to say that there are probably at least 21 more motivations for prayer including: thanksgiving, adoration, invocation, confession, connection and many others.
Is There One Right Way to Pray?
Along those same lines of thinking, it would be a mistake to believe that we all pray in the same fashion. Again as Dossey says, “Prayer can be individual or communal, private or public. It may be offered in words, sighs, gestures or silence.” He goes on to explain that although it is most often considered a “conscious activity” it may also flow out of our unconscious. I’ve personally observed people pray by playing music, dancing, or walking in nature. Beyond that, some people believe that every single thought we have is a prayer.
How Does Prayer Work?
So what are we doing when we pray? Most people who embrace traditional western religions like Christianity, Judaism and Islam tend to approach prayer as communication, connection or intercession with a supernatural or higher power outside of themselves. With a belief that God or this Higher Power exists separate and outside of them, those doing the praying are usually cast into what Dossey calls a very local and finite approach to the Infinite. In some cases, those who follow these traditions are locked into concrete rules and directions in order to “pray rightly.”
Other traditions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism and more of the recent belief systems like New Thought, approach God or spirituality in a more holistic fashion. That means that when they pray they tend to go inward and connect to the Source-of-their-Being or an All-That-Is perspective. This allows them to perceive of the world in a more nonlocal and infinite way. When approaching prayer from these traditions, most practice what Larry Dossey calls, “a spirit of prayerfulness” that allows them to align or attune with what they believe to be something greater than themselves, alone. Of course, many of us pray in a combination of both—inward and outward—or immanent and transcendent.
What Does Prayer Do?
But even more important to most of us is what does prayer do? Again, that largely depends upon who you ask. Almost overwhelmingly people in the U.S. believe that prayer works—at least much of the time. Wendy Cage, a sociologist at Brandeis University reports that, “Close to 90% of Americans pray. More than three-quarters pray for their own health or the health of their loved ones, and millions of patients, visitors, and hospital staff pray in health-care settings regularly…. National surveys report that 80% of Americans think that personal religious/spiritual practices including prayer can help with medical treatments, and 22% report being cured of an illness as the result of a personal religious/spiritual practice. Are people praying for a cure? Some are, but just as many are thanking God for blessings granted.”
But what about those who don’t consider themselves Christian or religious? According to a survey done by author Elizabeth Drescher in 2012, that question addresses those who report their religion as “nothing in particular.” Those “nones” believe that prayer is the only spiritual practice associated with traditional religion that continues to have meaning their lives. When asked specifically what these “nones” were doing when they said they were praying, most said that they were meditating, sitting quietly, reflecting, feeling grateful, connected and “experiencing the interconnectedness of all life.” According to Drescher, “…prayer is an experiential reminder that there might be ‘something else out there,’ something “more than just me.’”
Do We Have To Call It Prayer?
Beyond that, there are those who are working to prove that the practice has value in the area of stress reduction, balance and healing without calling it prayer at all. Work being done by Dr. Dean Radin at the Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS) and others at major schools like Duke University and California Pacific Medical Center are a great example. Rather than calling such focus “prayer” as a research scientist, Radin calls his research on therapeutic intervention, “Distant Healing Intentions (DHI).” By attempting to develop a protocol in which to study the efficacy of DHI, the plan is to verify when, where and how such intentionality can be used more reliably in the future to aid healing and healthy living.
Of course if my reading or research did nothing more than remind me, even when most of us believe in the power of prayer it remains a mystery that only seems to follow our desires about 20% of the time. So even though most of us want a simple and easy formula that we can learn and practice, as Dossey says in his book, “we are not wise enough to use a prayer that works 100% of the time.”
A Few Personal Reasons For Prayer
Yet even knowing that prayer only works some of the time, there are plenty of reasons to practice it on a regular basis. A month ago we learned that a young man married to Thom’s niece is facing his second round of intense chemotherapy for Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Two weeks ago I learned that one of my sisters has colon cancer. Last night we got a phone call and learned that a friend who lives across the street was in a serious car accident. While the prognosis looks promising for my sister and our neighbor, we aren’t so sure about our nephew. Stuff happens. Prayer gives us a vehicle to go inward (or outward) and connect to something bigger than ourselves. Prayer offers us a space in our heart that is big enough for the challenges that we all face. If prayer does nothing more than sooth the psyche and comfort the troubled, how can that not be good?
There is so much more that can be said about prayer but I think you can see that I think prayer has value. An enormous amount of scientific evidence exists that shows that what we each think and do can influence ourselves, those around us, and the world in general–so surely our prayers carry equal weight? Plus, it is said that when we pray we aren’t changing God or All-That-Is. Instead, prayer changes us, inside out, and hopefully for the better. The challenge of course is to remember that what works for me may be different than what works for you. But rather than argue about who is right or better, maybe it’s SMART to just celebrate the mystery and power of prayer as best we can.
Michelle AKA Crumpets and Bollocks says
I love it. I just posted in your Ello, but in case you don’t see it… I just added the category of prayers to my blog, even though my blog is far from religious. I have yet to post prayers, but I pray all the time. I figured it would be a great place to post certain prayers people can use, and certain reflections people would reflect while reading my reflections if that made any sense… But I was thinking I was doing the outcast misfit thing when I did it. Thanks for making me feel like it might be more trendsetting than I originally thought it would be.
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Michelle! Thanks for stopping by SMART Living and sharing your thoughts on this. And yes, I agree that your actions might appear outcast misfit but that is all the more reason to do it. Prayer works because of what it does for us and to us (and perhaps others as well) so how can any other person say that our prayers don’t have value and purpose?
With that said, I happen to believe that “every thought is a prayer” so how could my writing and your writing be otherwise? I’m looking forward to seeing those prayer posts on the your site. Thanks again for coming by…. ~Kathy
Bruce Livingston says
Very refreshing to see so many folks discussing prayer without fire and brimstone or angry replies. Lets face it. Death is a very scary thing and if prayer helps people cope with the great mystery of death how can that be bad? In my life I have had several serious injuries, lost an eye, open heart surgery and I was knocked out by lightning when I was 10 and yet I am not religious and I never pray. I wish I could be religious and take comfort from praying. Fact is I have never seen any proof that anyone has ever communicated in any way with God or our creators. It would great if that proof was discovered. Until then I can only wish that I could ever obtain the same level of comfort that some people have through prayer. It is a fascinating topic!
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Bruce! Welcome to SMART Living and thank you so much for sharing your thoughts on this subject. I really appreciate your perspective because I know others who share it as well. I’m not sure why it works so well for me because as I wrote, I’m not religious at all. But I guess I do have a sense (and it’s a sense, not something I could scientifically prove) that there is something that is both within me and outside me that is much more than just the flesh, blood and bone that I am. I was raised in a very benevolent but only slightly religious household so I never had a lot of religious baggage to overcome (unlike my husband Thom) but I also was never raised by a fundamental scientific family either. Frankly I’ve seen atheist’s who are as fundamental as many who are super religious. I fell somewhere in the middle of all that so maybe that explains some of my perspective. Whether it is merely a comforting story I tell myself (and hey, aren’t we all just tell ourselves a story most of the time anyway?) or not, to me if it brings comfort to situations that are challenging then I’m for it.
You’ve certainly experienced lots of challenges in your life too but if you’ve managed to pull through and stay reasonably happy and content, then that’s what matters right? The only thing you might take a look at is the quest for proof of something before you are willing to entertain it? For example, I can’t really prove how much I love Thom, but love him I do. I think prayer might be a little bit like love. We can’t prove it but when we feel it we know it to be valuable to our experience.
Thanks again for your thoughtful comment. ~Kathy
Michelle C says
I agree: prayer is a mystery. It is valuable for self-reflection and also for encouraging us to think outside of ourselves, but it is also more than that. I believe we ARE spiritual, that there is something going on other than what we can see or understand, and that it is possible for God to communicate to us through prayer.
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Michelle! Thanks for your thoughts on this and for sharing how prayer works for you. I so agree that there is “something going on other than what what we can see or understand” and prayer offers us one way to break through that and ease our soul. Surely something that mysterious deserves our attention and willingness to explore. ~Kathy
Jodi Aman says
I call it prayer just because it is a common term, but there are so many other words that describe the energy of this act, which can be so varied for me. Connecting, appreciating, meditating, jounreying, listening, crying, divining, asking… to name a few!
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Jodi! Yes! What a great way of sharing your idea of “prayer” with us all….there is indeed energy and intention by the act itself that is so much bigger than one word can describe. I have a background in New Thought and many from that philosophy call the act “treatment”. But again, that word is limited so I don’t use it that often myself. I think lots of people get turned off by the word prayer because it brings back thoughts of a religion that they have outgrown. But again, it’s only a word. The big question is: Is there something positive that happens when you do what you do that increase the quality and experience of your life? If yes, then I’m all for it. If no, then find something that does!
Thanks as always for your thoughts on this! ~Kathy
I loved this post. I identify as religious and believe in God, but I’m not a bible believing-every-word style Christian. Interestingly, I dated an atheist who also prayed every night, a habit from his Seventh Day Adventist mother (not his Muslim father).
My philosophy on both me ‘practicing’ (ie attending church and associated events) religion and prayer, is that if it’s doesn’t harm, and seems to heal, then why not? I do NOT attempt to convert anyone (including the current BF who doesn’t really want to be involved). But I know both formal prayers at church, said by rote, calm my spirit and remind me to think of others and do better than I have done in the past. Personal prayers offer me comfort – as a child when we found a thief in the house, it calmed to me to ask God to keep us safe. Likewise, I use prayer for when I’m feeling depressed, a mystery I assume God can understand, and if not, can at least be there to listen.
You haven’t scared me off – if anything, I enjoy hard hitting topics such as these more so than travel posts, which isn’t to say I don’t like travel posts, but this digs deeper and considers some interesting ideas.
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Sarah! Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this post with me and everyone else. And I’m especially glad I haven’t scared you off either! While I too particularly love to dig deep into ideas like these (the more provocative the better actually) I also love to travel. 🙂 As a blogger yourself you know that it’s difficult to keep all our readers happy and interested.
With that said, I appreciate your open-minded and practical approach to prayer in your life. I believe that if all of us approached it by checking within to see whether it is helping us personally, then as you say, “how can that be bad?” And wouldn’t you say that believing that we are being listened to and understood on any level can definitely offer comfort to us when needed.
Thanks again for these thoughts. ~Kathy
This is a really beautiful post, Kathy. And exactly what I needed to read this morning. It was a really tough one from the start … REALLY tough. I pray every day, and yet through the disaster I was trying to work through it hadn’t occurred to me to deal with it like that. So I did. Immediately. And the truth is, it doesn’t really matter what we mean, if there’s a right way, how it works or what we call it … it does still work for me, and for most. Thank you for reminding me that this is a healthy and important outlet when I needed it most.
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Sarah! Your comment was exactly what “I” needed this morning Sarah. Thank you. I’ve gotten some side-feedback that this post is making some of my readers a bit uncomfortable. But as a writer, one of my big intentions has always been: “To comfort the disturbed—and to disturb the comfortable.” So your comment helps balance that out.
I think your calling prayer an “outlet” is really important. All too often I think people try to fight or deny things they don’t understand (or maybe have been tormented by) and when that happens they become as closed-minded and cut-off from the mystery of Life as anyone who is a fundamental anything. Instead I believe that SMART Living is using whatever works for you as a means to a more peaceful, happy and harmonious life. My prayer for you (in my own way and understanding) is a peaceful resolution to whatever concerns you. ~Kathy
Nancy Teixeira says
Reading this post made me recall a study cited by Richard Dawkins in his book, The God Delusion. A scientific study known as the Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer was conducted on 1,802 subjects. All of the subjects were receiving the same surgery and all generally believed that prayer works. The subjects were divided into three groups:
1.Patients who would be receiving prayers, but didn’t know it.
2.Patients who would be receiving prayers and were told about it ahead of time.
3.Patients who would not be receiving prayers (the control group).
Three groups of religious folk (two Catholic, one Protestant) from religious states (Kansas, Minnesota) provided prayers to the study subjects in groups 1 and 2 (whom they did not know) throughout the course of the study.
The most fascinating thing about this study (to me) were the results, which found no differences in the complications of groups 1 and 3, which the scientists expected. Unexpectedly, however, patients in group 2 actually had MORE complications during surgery…a psychosomatic result of knowing about the prayers, perhaps?
Sorry for going off on a tangent, but when I think of organized and formal prayer now, I always remember this study. 🙂
As for me, I’m not sure I consider what I do prayer. I feel very connected to the universe when I’m hiking and climbing mountains, but I don’t consciously communicate with the universe. Perhaps subliminally I do though, as I always feel much more peaceful and happy following a trek into nature.
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Nancy! Yes prayer can be a very complex and confusing subject. I read about that study too and it raises more questions than it does answers. (it wasn’t a tangent at all 🙂 ) So what’s going on there?
BUT–if 90% of U.S. citizens (not sure about Canadians though) believe in it–what are earth are we all doing? The thing is most of us don’t talk about it much so there is a lot of confusion. Ha! I’ll bet people would rather talk about their sex life than their prayer life–unless of course they are deeply religious and share it with everyone else at church that does it exactly the same way. But the truth is there are LOTS and LOTS of us that don’t go to church and aren’t religious that are still doing “something” –like your walks in nature or meditation, or something–but we aren’t talking about it or spending much time thinking about it.
I’m probably freaking out most of my readers by even writing about it!!!! Still, I do think it deserves discussion and thought. If you believe in it–Why? And if you don’t believe in it–why? Fascinating! 🙂 Thanks as always for shining more light on the subject. ~Kathy
Naveen Verma says
I tried hard to find a job, do my own work and a lot of stuff, but not succeeded anyway. After a lot of try i finally gave it up to prayers. Its good to believe in what religion you belong to. Prayers can give you believe. This is all required to keep yourself up and running.
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Naveen. Thanks for stopping by SMART Living and sharing your thoughts here about prayer. May you have good luck on finding a job. Plus I think you point out a great reason for prayer in the first place, as I said in the post, even if it doesn’t change the Universe, it does change the person doing the prayer. I hope you find peace and comfort while searching for your job and right place. ~Kathy
Rena McDaniel says
Growing up my father was a Baptist preacher until I was 6. He became disillusioned I think and 5 kids I don’t know he quit and got a job. He died 9 years later never getting a resolution. My mother was raised by a strict Pentecostal preacher. I know she’s always been this way but ALZ makes it worse. Like it’s a sin to have fun, to goof off. It’s made me question my own beliefs and this is very recent and still a work in progress. I do pray but I don’t know if I’m praying to “some body” or just out to the Universe. I live by karma. You put out good you receive good, in all things. I just don’t know what I believe about God, I guess I’ve been skeptical lately.
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Rena, Thank you for sharing some your story with us in relation to prayer. I think most of us were “raised” with it one way or another so it is a big part of our culture. Regardless of whether the religion of our past was benevolent or abusive, most of us carry bits and pieces of it with us still. It sounds like your past was even more unusual than most… that’s why it is so important for you to find your own answers that bring you comfort regardless of what any of the rest of us think. I also believe as you do, that what we give out comes back to us. And more importantly, regardless of what we believe in, I think most of us know at our core that LOVE is a key. From everything I know about you Rena, you LIVE that every day. ~Kathy
My Inner Chick says
I pray throughout the day.
Usually it goes something like Annie Lamott’s prayers, “help me, help me. please help me!”
Without God, I would have vanished 4 years ago.
Thanks for the interesting post, Kathy. x
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Kim! I think many of us do–but just not in the same way. Hopefully whatever practice we do brings us some peace and balance. And for someone who has gone through the trauma that you have endured, I can see why it is so very important for you. ~Kathy
Jay Schimke says
Powerfully supportive words & passages -*- especially these:
“sooth the psyche and comfort the troubled”; and
“prayer changes us, inside out … for the better”.
Thank You !
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Jay! Thanks for popping in here and letting me know you appreciated this perspective. I think a balanced and SMART life needs to look at EVERYTHING it takes to make a good life and we can never forget our spirit–regardless of how we interpret that. ~Kathy