Proof for the Power of Prayer?

September 30th, 2013

The New Testament tells us in James 5:16 that “the prayer of the righteous is effective and powerful” (New Revised Standard Version). Scientists may have actually found concrete evidence that this is true.

One of the emerging new treatments for depression, anxiety, and stress-related illnesses is a therapy called mindfulness meditation. Although clinicians have developed it from ancient Buddhist meditational practices, there seems to be a Christian counterpart as well. The technique is found in prayer as practiced by Christian monks of the Sixth Century A.D. onward. Praying in this way has been shown to actually “rewire” key circuits in the brains of practitioners. This rewiring results in demonstrated changes in the way the pray-er responds to life. In particular, people who habitually pray in this way have been found to be protected from the effects of stress. They are less depressed, less anxious, report higher levels of satisfaction with life, and better health. This is true even when other factors, such as differences in social support and personality characteristics, are accounted for.

Although there is some evidence that any kind of prayer can contribute to such effects, the type of prayer that is most powerful possesses certain characteristics. First, it engages the practitioner in the “present moment.” People who pray in this way learn to become aware of thoughts, feelings, and memories that arise. But rather than dwelling on these inner sensations, the pray-er simply learns to release each one from consciousness as it occurs. Father Thomas Keating, a Roman Catholic priest, is the developer of a contemporary Christian prayer technique known as centering prayer. He likens the pray-er to a scuba diver who is sitting on a rock at the bottom of a deep river. Each of the thoughts and sensations that pass through the pray-er’s mind is like a boat crossing above the diver on the surface of the river. The diver simply notes the crossing of the boat. Then she returns to meditating on the fact that God is surrounding her with grace in that present moment, just as the water engulfs a submerged scuba diver.

Another characteristic of this form of prayer is that the pray-er learns to disengage his mind in order to focus on the presence of God. Some people have referred to this type of prayer as a training of one’s attention. The practitioner learns to let go of the constant stream of thoughts that crowd our consciousness. Practitioners of mindfulness meditation do this by learning to concentrate on the act of breathing. Each time they find their mind wandering, they simply, and gently, return to concentrating on the act of breathing. Thomas Keating suggests that the difference between Christian prayer and the clinical practice of mindfulness meditation is the difference between the training of one’s attention and the training of one’s intention. The Christian does not teach himself to concentrate on his breathing so much as he learns to concentrate on waiting on the presence of God. In essence, this type of prayer becomes not so much a prayer of supplication. In other words, it is not so much about asking God for things. Instead, it is about listening to what God wants to say to us. It is simply learning to be silent in the presence of God.

Scientific research suggests that the ability of this type of prayer to rewire the brain of its practitioners is directly related to the amount of time spent in this type of prayer. In other words, like physical exercise, the more one practices it, the more one enjoys the benefits of it. Thomas Keating suggests setting aside a period of 20 uninterrupted minutes once or twice per day. Therapists who employ mindfulness meditation say that 20 to 30 uninterrupted minutes once per day are enough. But, either way, the message is clear. The extent to which we place ourselves in God’s presence is the extent to which we reap the concrete benefits. Admittedly, my own experience is anecdotal at best. But I have found that, by practicing this type of prayer once daily, my level of contentment and joy increases markedly. So does my experience of the presence of God in my everyday affairs. I find this to be enough to keep me returning daily to this practice of meditational prayer.

The power of prayer to change other people may yet be a matter of scientific debate. But the power of prayer to change the one who prays seems to be increasingly well established. I encourage you to join me in practicing the type of prayer that avails much (James 5:16, New King James Version).

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