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The Science, Psychology, and Metaphysics of Prayer

What do we pray for, and for what do we pray?

Some weeks ago, the students of Paramahansa Yogananda -- the teacher widely credited with bringing Yoga and Yoga Science to the West - approached me to write an article on prayer, coincident with their upcoming annual week-long Self-Realization Fellowship Convocation. An exploration into the subject reveals prayer to be a considerably more complex subject than the stereotypic image we tend to have of the ardent believer, fervorently casting forth pleas for help, forgiveness or some other momentarily pressing need. Prayer is not just a going out, but also a going in, and it is a practice woven deeply into the fabric of global culture -- a rich tapestry of science, psychology, metaphysics and, of course, faith and spiritual sojourn.

As a practice, prayer is the setting of an intention; it is not a plea, but a resolution, and that resolution takes many forms. Whatever that form, the psychology that underlies prayer issues forth from two fairly distinct perspectives. On the one hand, God, or the object of prayer, may be represented as an external construct of the ego, or something "out there". On the other, God may be represented as an interior archetype, or something "in here".

The various spiritual and religious traditions -- major and minor, dormant and new - each fall primarily into one of these two containers, and then include some lesser blending of the other. This fundamental psychological framework subsequently influences and informs the form that prayer and meditation take within each of the various spiritual traditions.

The major Western traditions, such as Christianity, Judaism and Islam subscribe in large measure to the "out there" construct; so, God is primarily "prayed to". The mystic traditions associated with each of these larger traditions -- Gnosticism, Kabala and Sufism, respectively - lend the "in here" aspect to this particular container, resonating with the notion of the Self as divine.

The major Eastern traditions, such as Buddhism, Hinduism and Taoism issue forth from the other side of this coin, subscribing in large measure to the "in here" construct; so, prayer from this perspective is something more introspective and akin to meditation. Within each of these traditions, there are also reflected varying aspects of the "out there", compassed by things like the Hindu and Buddhist pantheons, or Tao begetting Yin/Yang begetting I-Ching, in a parallel of Genesis.

Smaller traditions both East and West, such as Wicca, Jainism, Bon, Native American shamanism, Shinto, Voodoo, Santeria, etc., reflect a similar set of balances within their fundamental psychological underpinnings. Witness the Great Spirit of the Native American Sioux tradition, which also emphasizes the relationship between The People and The Land, anthropomorphizing tatanka, the Buffalo. Similarly, Wicca relies heavily on practitioner's relationship to the 5 Elements as aspects of the self, but regularly calls The Goddess into the ritual circle, while Voodoo and Santeria hold close association with Christian tradition.

No matter the form of prayer particular to a tradition, one type of prayer that is ubiquitous to all is the prayer of blessing. Again, speaking to the psychological aspect, blessing is when prayer - no matter its antecedent - moves from the egocentric (praying for me) to the ethnocentric (praying for you/us) and geocentric (praying for all of us). After all, one of the most ubiquitous terms - and blessings -- in the English language is "goodbye", which is shorthand for "God be with ye".

An interesting bit of science attached to this ethnocentric and geocentric evolution of prayer comes out of Duke University Medical Center, where a study found that, within a group of 150 cardiac patients who received alternative post-operative therapy treatment, the sub-group who also received intercessory prayer (they were prayed for) had the highest success rate within the entire cohort. The fascinating thing about the study is that it was double-blind - neither the researchers, nor those on the receiving end of the intercessory prayer knew that these patients were being prayed for -- suggesting an intervening variable.

A comparable double-blind study, conducted at San Francisco General Hospital's Coronary Care Unit, demonstrated similar results. Those patients "prayed for" showed a significantly diminished need for imminent critical care, maintenance medications and heroic measures, as well as witnessing fewer deaths - again, suggesting an intervening variable.

Clearly, the intervening variable implied by these studies isn't a case for God. It does suggest, however, some relationship between the states of consciousness experienced by those praying, and the subjective experience of those prayed for.

From a metaphysical perspective, what we are talking about here is the reciprocal resonance that has been demonstrated to exist between states of consciousness - specifically, casual states of consciousness (prayer, meditation and deep, dreamless sleep) -- and the quantum field (what we like to call reality) described by quantum physics. From a more practical perspective, the notion of this relationship leads us to consider both the individual and collective experience of prayer, and the potential influence it can have on our experience both in and of the world.

Prayer, like meditation, influences our state of mind, which, in turn, influences our "state of body". It reduces the experience of anxiety, elevates a depressed mood, lowers blood pressure, stabilizes sleep patterns and impacts autonomic functions like digestion and breathing. Further, in influencing our state of body-mind, prayer and meditation also influence our thinking. This prompts a shift in the habits of the mind, and, subsequently, patterns of behavior. These changes, in turn and over time, induce changes in the brain, further influencing our subjective and objective experience of the world and how we participate in it.

Does all of this sound familiar? It should, because what we're really talking about here is neuroplasticity, a topic that spiritual teachers like Thomas Merton, Baal Shem Tov and Paramahansa Yogananda expounded upon extensively in their discussions of prayer and meditation long before we had the language to describe it.

So, if prayer and meditation influence the body-mind, which, in turn, influences our experience of the world and the manner in which we participate in it, what happens when you get a group of folks praying or meditating together? Logic dictates "one is good, two are better", and one has only to witness the orgiastic union of a Baptist congregation or the quiet solemnity of Islamic Salaat to recognize the power and potential of collective prayer, as well as its larger social impact.

With collective prayer, we move from the egocentric to the ethno- and geocentric. Generalizing the individual experience of ethnocentric and geocentric prayer to the collective, along with its associated motif of neuroplastic change and the evident influence of intercessory prayer, it becomes clear where an effort like the Self-Realization Fellowship's Convocation finds its intention, and inspiration.

Remarking on prayer, meditation and the power of intention, Paramahansa Yogananda and his contemporaries drew not only on the core of spirituality, but also fundamental principles of psychology and specifically neuroplasticity to describe the transformation of the interior landscape. The exterior expression of that interior transformation extends the intention of transformation outward, with prayer, and most specifically collective prayer, providing, in part and quite literally, the vehicle, to quote Mahatma Gandhi, for "[Being] the change [we] wish to see in the world."

© 2010 Michael J. Formica, All Rights Reserved

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