Demystifying Faith – How Prayer Works
“I used to pray that God would feed the hungry, or do this or that, but now I pray that he will guide me to do whatever I’m supposed to do, what I can do. I used to pray for answers, but now I’m praying for strength. I used to believe that prayer changes things, but now I know that prayer changes us and we change things.”
― Mother Teresa
The purpose of prayer is not to change God’s mind. The purpose of prayer is to manage our internal orientation and focus. Prayer changes things from the inside out. Prayer and meditation can create profound changes in our mental state, level of awareness, focus, and self-control.
Peter Kramer in 1977 wrote a seminal work entitled Listening to Prozac. The theme of the book could be described as the remaking of the self.
Shortly before this book came out I had my own transformative experience linked to the use of Prozac. I had been in therapy for several years trying to deal with the trauma of childhood abuse. The talk therapy was not working because I could not go deep enough to get at the root causes. Prozac for therapy was like Novocain in the dentist chair. The Prozac allowed me to work through the pain and to complete the therapy.
Under Prozac I had a profound and surprising sense of “self.” There was a “self” there that was different from the painful things I had experienced. Under Prozac my “self” awakened. I could separate my “self” from what had happened to me, and from what I had done in reaction. I found myself saying, “I did that, but that is not who I am,” or “That was done to me, but that is not who I am.”
Peter Kramer went on to explore our mental states. He wrote that everything that we are, our emotions, our mental state, even our personality and character, are all products of our brain chemistry. This sounds like the ultimate reductionism, but it resonated with the experiences that I had undergone.
Kramer writes that controlling our brain chemistry controls everything about us and our inner lives. It controls our actions, our feelings, and even our personalities. He goes on to say that there are two and only two ways to regulate our brain chemistry. We can do that through chemical intervention or through our own mental hygiene.
The effect of chemical intervention is obvious. There are many forms of psychoactive medicines such as Prozac or Valium. There are mood altering substances such as pot, alcohol, nicotine, and caffeine. There are also many forms of illegal drugs can cause extreme psychological trauma as well as physical damage to our bodies and our brains. There are diseases such as syphilis or streptococcus infections that can radically alter personality and behavior.
The notion of mental hygiene is a little less obvious. The main premise here is that wherever our thoughts dwell, that is who we will become.
It is easy to give our minds over to various addictions. For example, a man might become engrossed in pornography. He gets drawn to casual sexual hookups. He hangs out in strip clubs or other sex industry sites. He develops a constant craving for more exciting and dangerous experiences. He starts groping women or even involving children in his perverted fantasies. His needs are insatiable. His addiction usurps all of his money, time, and attention. He loses his job, his home, his family, but still he cannot stop. The changes to this man’s brain chemistry are as real as if he were abusing drugs. This is why addictions are so hard to break. Every time he breaks through another boundary there is an addictive rush. He lives to experience those highs and will sacrifice his whole life in the process.
Real, authentic prayer takes us in the opposite direction. Instead of unmanageable cravings we find inner peace. Prayer is reaching for the transcendent. Prayer is touching something greater than ourselves. Prayer lifts us out of the muck of our daily existence and fills us with something much greater than ourselves. In prayer we connect with the divine transcendence and through that we connect with all people in love. Prayer connects us with the infinite power of love. This love transforms our inner reality and alters our very brain chemistry.
Real, authentic prayer is available to all regardless of his or her religious affiliation, or lack thereof. There are universal factors shared by all human beings in our DNA. There is a brain chemical called DMT or “the spirit molecule.” Preliminary research has shown that many people, regardless of their spirituality, or total lack thereof, experience what can only be described as a transformative divine encounter when tested with DMT. The research is still in the development stage and I believe it unwise to draw any conclusions about what is happening. But this research does offer some interesting preliminary insights into the human brain and its faith encounters.
It would be hoped that anyone on a spiritual journey would connect with others on the same journey. In this way experiences could be shared, help and support freely given, and a sense of a common direction might emerge. A group united by prayer can then pool their energy and resources to accomplish more than any one person could.
Pope Francis recently made a stunning statement about prayer. “You pray for the hungry. Then you feed them. That’s how prayer works.”
Prayer does not end with ourselves. It begins with a transformation of brain chemistry but it does not end there. Prayer connects us with an infinite reservoir of love. It gives us power that is beyond anything that we can understand. When working together with other prayerful people we can multiply our powers and achieve the truly miraculous.