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.