The odds that intercessory prayer will actually affect the external world are no better than chance. Why then do the faithful tenaciously cling to the practice, finding great personal satisfaction regardless of the outcome?
The answer is that prayer focuses and calms the mind, offering a respite from the incessantly chattering “monkey mind” that torments us all. Buddhists, being atheists, do not pray to a deity, but they engage in an analogous practice of meditation. Prayer uplifts Jews, Muslims and Christians for exactly the same reason that meditation rejuvenates Buddhists and nonreligious people.
Both practices offer temporary separation from the ego, the source of most of our suffering. Whether there is a God is irrelevant with regard to the benefit of prayer. Quieting the mind works.
The mind is almost never truly quiet. Each of us can attest to its endless advice and ruthlessly critical commentary on every action or thought. No doubt this tendency has become exaggerated as a result of modern civilization and the need for constant multitasking. Whatever the reason, it is clearly the source of much suffering.
Many have discovered through prayer, contemplation and meditation that if we can quiet this endless yammering, it can produce a lasting sense of well being.
To be truly transformative, these practices need to be applied in a rigorous fashion and require sufficient dedication of time and effort. Usually, the idea of prayer refers to a brief thanks offered in anticipation of a meal, a plea for an ill relative or friend, or a short report offered before retiring to bed. Used in this fashion, prayer is not likely to alter the habits of the mind enough to achieve significant long-term benefit.
However, prayer can be applied with much greater effect than the trifling exercises described above. Contemplative prayer is a more intense and extended practice; Catholic nuns (especially Carmelites) and priests devote a substantial portion of their day to contemplative prayer, averaging three to four hours daily, often much more. Generally, the goal is to completely occupy the mind in the act, pushing aside all distractions. It involves intense concentration on a single object.
Contemplative prayer has a long history. In 1974, Father William Meninger, a Trappist monk and retreat master at St. Josephs Abbey in Spencer, Mass., found a book in the abbey library, “The Cloud of Unknowing.” He discovered that this 14th century book presented contemplative prayer as a teachable, spiritual process enabling the layperson to enter and receive a direct experience of union with God, and he called it “centering prayer.”
The key features of the technique are, for about 30 minutes twice a day, to sit in silent prayer, eyes closed, focused on a “sacred word.” Each time the mind wanders to some thought, one is to return gently and non-judgmentally to the sacred word.
Compare this with the Buddhist technique of insight meditation — vipassana. One sits in silent meditation, with a primary goal of attending completely to the present moment. The initial focus is on the act of breathing, and gradually one expands the awareness to all physical sensations present in consciousness. Each time the mind wanders to some thought, one is to return gently and non-judgmentally to the breath.
Consider also Muslim prayer. Devout Muslims pray five times daily, often totaling an hour or more in daily prayer. Each session is similar in content, and after months or years of practice, the physical part becomes automatic. The mind is free to focus entirely on the present moment. It is the effect on the mind, not communion with God, which produces the undeniable benefit.
Visible, structural changes are recognized to result from meditation. It’s clear the mind has the ability to alter its own structure through intense concentration. Neuroscientist Sara Lazar in a 2005 publication compared 20 Buddhist who practiced meditation for an average time of nine years to a matched group of non-meditators. The meditators had significantly increased cortical thickness in right middle and superior frontal cortex and the insula, suggesting that meditation can generate structural change in the brain.
There have been similar findings in studies of Western meditators, who typically practice only about six hours a week. It would not be surprising to see similar structural changes in the brains of those practicing intense, regular prayer.
It is easy to see the strong parallels among these practices. In each of these techniques, the essential ingredient is that the mind is concentrated on the present moment. All extraneous thoughts are temporarily cast aside. Often, one must endure physical discomfort, boredom and restlessness to properly participate in such rituals, through which one learns the ephemeral nature of experience.
It’s not surprising that people of all faiths and people of no faith find great comfort in these practices. We are all human, more similar than not, and we all benefit immeasurably from understanding our own minds.