This is How and Why you Benefit from Prayer (even if you’re an Atheist)

The word prayer can be a little off-putting for the non-religious. I definitely found it a little off-putting. 

And then I changed my mind.

And I read, and I researched, and I uncovered some interesting things about prayer. And I don’t mean the kind Madonna was singing about.

Prayer, it seems, offers powerful benefits. 

If done with the right intention, prayer can be used to enhance neuroplasticity, and help us to cultivate powerful emotions such as gratitude and forgiveness. Perhaps this was what Ghandi meant when he described prayer as a “powerful instrument of action.”

Ghandi described prayer as a 'powerful instrument of action' Click To Tweet

Prayer has also been described in less glowing terms. The criticism stems from prayer’s use as a self deception tool, a placebo and worse, an act of arrogance and complacency.

So what exactly is the right way to do prayer?

And, um, what exactly is it?

Anatomy of prayer

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Prayer is the setting of an intention; it is more of a resolution than a plea.

‘I pray that I do not forget the way I felt on the last election day.’ This is an example of a prayer.

Importantly from the perspective of the non-believer or atheist, it is not necessary for the subject of your prayer to be ‘out there’.

Although the major Western traditions, such as Christianity, Judaism and Islam subscribe to the out there construct, the major Eastern traditions, such as Buddhism, Hinduism and Taoism come at things from an ‘in here’ construct.

It is not necessary to prayer to something 'out there' Click To Tweet

Prayer from this perspective is something more introspective and akin to meditation.

Purpose of prayer

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“The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.” ― Søren Kierkegaard.

The broad purpose of many forms of prayer is to change our state.

The purpose of prayer to to change the prayer's state Click To Tweet

Over to Frank Sinatra:

“Basically, I’m for anything that gets you through the night – be it prayer, tranquilizers or a bottle of Jack Daniels.”

Types of prayer

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There are many kinds of prayer that have the general purpose of promoting a shift in the sayer’s state. Here are a few:

Blessing prayer

Blessing is when prayer moves from the egocentric (praying for me), to the ethnocentric (praying for you/us) and geocentric (praying for all of us).

Matt Khan’s simple prayer, ‘may you be blessed’, has helped many people to shift into a state of love out of, um, less desirable states.

Intercessory prayer

This form of prayer is again on the behalf of others. This form has attracted the attention of researchers investigating healing:

  • One 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.
Science shows that intercessory praying has powerful healing effects Click To Tweet
  • A comparable double-blind study 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.

Commentators have suggested that the existing studies proves the existence of a relationship between the states of consciousness experienced by those praying, and the subjective experience of those prayed for.

Serenity prayer

The one used in 12 step programs throughout the world.

‘God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.’

This prayer promotes the states of compassion and self-acceptance.

Pitfalls and paradoxes of praying

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The main criticism of prayer tends to be towards the ‘petition prayer’. The one that asks for something. Maybe something ego-related. To some, this kind of prayer isn’t just benign – it is destructive. 

One New York Times writer summed up the issue as follows:

“It’s the last resort of people who have run out of ideas, and the first resort of people who never bothered to think about how they could actually fix the problem at hand.

Some suggest that praying lulls people into a false sense of accomplishment Click To Tweet

This is not harmless. There’s a very real downside to praying. It lulls believers into a false sense of accomplishment.

Prayer is nothing but a powerful placebo. We’d all be better off accepting that.”

Request prayers might lack the intention necessary to change state in a positive direction. However, I am not sure the vilification is deserved. Self deception aside, request prayers might act to self-sooth when nothing else is working. Refer above to Frank.

When to pray

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So we use prayer to set intentions. When else is the time ripe for a little kneeling? (Just kidding. You don’t need to do it on your knees).

When you need a solution

Abraham Lincoln was a fan of the old solution seeking prayer:

“I have been driven many times upon my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had no where else to go. My own wisdom and that of all about me seemed insufficient for that day.”

Used in this way, prayer may serve to relax our thinking minds enough to open up our awareness to new solutions.

The happiness prayer

The one you do when things are going good.

This form of prayer is more like an affirmation/gratitude. Again the underlying purpose is to maintain a state of being. Here’s two chaps that thought so:

“You pray in your distress and in your need; would that you might pray also in the fullness of your joy and in your days of abundance.” ― Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet.

“If the only prayer you said was thank you, that would be enough.” ― Meister Eckhart.

Benefits of praying when done with the right intention

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“Prayer is not only of great importance but has also a great effect upon human psychology.” –  Carl Jung. Here’s a few ways praying can benefit you. 

It can give you a psychological and physiological lift

Prayer is state altering, just like meditation. It influences our state of mind and therefore our physical state. It reduces the experience of anxiety, elevates a depressed mood, lowers blood pressure, stabilizes sleep patterns and impacts autonomic functions like digestion and breathing.

It influences thinking 

Pray 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.

Praying assists with neuroplasticity - rewiring our brain into more helpful behaviour Click To Tweet

It can help you with gratitude and forgiveness 

Studies have shown that praying can help people to muster forgiveness as well as cultivate a sense of gratitude. Forgiveness and gratitude are both essential for us to view our past experiences positively. Without doing that we are likely to be stuck.

It interrupts the flow of anxious thoughts or compulsive behaviour

Studies have shown that prayer can help people delay gratification and control impulsive actions. (Of course, this applies to other forms of taking pause too.)

Can any of these benefits be gained other ways?

Yes. maybe. You can change your state by meditating and exercising. Or just regular intention setting.

The act of praying, along with intention, signifies humility and connection to something greater Click To Tweet

I suppose what praying might deliver over and above meditating is it is a humble act. There is something about asking for help/guidance that anchors humility and a sense of connection to something larger. It is deference to something outside of our immediate senses.

Just, like a prayer?

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Hopefully this article has widened your perspective on what prayer actually is and how practicing it might benefit you. Or at least, not narrowed it. Or taken a giant dump all over it.

Used right, prayer is intention setting with humility.

I personally enjoy the serenity that a little prayer now and then provides.