In its broadest terms, prayer refers to any kind of communication with a Higher Power, the Absolute, or God. For millennia, humans have been making requests to a higher entity in the form of gifts, actions, or verbal supplication. Prayer is still alive and well in the world today in its many different and fascinating forms. People believe in it, use it, and sometimes rely on it for guidance and healing. Perhaps you know someone who has gone to an energy healer and come away feeling better? Or you might have heard of a person who has received prayers from a church group. Are these practices a carry-over from more primitive times or only ‘wishful thinking’ as the materialistic paradigm we live in tells us? Let’s take a look at some of the current science and research into prayer and also look at prayer’s history, diversity, and implications.
Since the 1950’s, researchers have been attempting to study and understand reports of the power of prayer and “psychic” healing. Like parapsychology, the methodologies developed for studying prayer have become quite rigorous, ruling out most of the known causal, physical, or even psychological explanations for healing.
Some current scientific research refers to prayer as “Distant Intentionality” (DI) in order to avoid religious connotations and to emphasize the purposeful, mental aspect of prayer. The following modalities of healing fall under the umbrella of DI: A) Intercessory prayer—making a request for a desired outcome; B) Non-directed prayer—requesting only the will of a higher power; C) Energy healing—covering many different practitioners who use subtle energies to heal; D) shamanic healing—a complex set of practices where a practitioner uses altered states, metaphysical realms, and spirits to encourage healing; E) Therapeutic Touch—a specific practice using a meditative focus and intention; and F) Spiritual healing—refers to a wide range of techniques including spirits, mediums, seances, trances, and channeling, often within some religious context.
Researchers have been able to show in double-blind, scientifically controlled studies that mental intentions can have effects upon distant biological systems. These effects have been explored in many varied applications. College students and healers have affected the growth of fungus, yeast, or bacteria growing in cultures. Healers have influenced the growth of cancer tumors in animals or the animals’ recovery from anesthesia. There are many studies showing how mental intent can influence humans: to speed their recovery from surgery, to increase or decrease the production of certain cells, or slow the progression of certain diseases, such as advanced AIDS.
Researchers have also conducted rigorous ‘meta-analyses’ of these kinds of studies. These analyses look at the overall results of all the research to see if the results can be replicated and if there is enough statistical power to make the studies scientifically valid. These meta-analyses show results that are far beyond what might be expected by chance; and, though the effects may be small in some cases, they are sometimes as much as eight times larger than the effects reported in other mainstream studies that have been touted to be medical breakthroughs. This kind of research challenges the scientific community and is often strongly resisted. The reasons seem obvious. Acceptance of this research may require a redefining of our culture’s predominant models of mind, consciousness, and healing. The conventional model assumes that consciousness, and its effects, is localized in the physical body and in the present. The new analyses indicate that consciousness may be able to affect physical organisms at a distance. Science has shown that you can help your loved one to heal if you pray for him.
Larry Dossey, who has compiled some meta-analysis on this subject, noted some interesting trends in the research. The strength of the affects of the DI seems to compare with the intensity of the thoughts, feelings, and intentions of the person sending intention. Intentional healing abilities seem to be widespread in the human population, and some studies seem to show that advanced meditators and healers produce larger effects. A healing outcome can occur at different distances, from hands held directly over the body to DI practitioners being in different rooms. People with a greater need for healing seem to be more susceptible to the prayers of others. Effects can occur without the knowledge of the receiver and, interestingly, the effects can be blocked by the receiver if desired.
Another interesting area of research has concerned the so called “Maharishi Effect.” Since the early 1970’s, practitioners of Transcendental Meditation (TM) have been putting their calming thoughts and intentions to use. In many large US cities, studies using TM have observed statistically measurable reductions in crime when as little as one percent of the city’s population is engaged in some form of meditative practice. In some studies, the quality of life in the population was measured using incidence of fires, traffic accidents, serious crime, and stock market fluctuations. A direct relationship between the number of participants and the various measures of the quality of life was shown. When the number of people praying was reduced, the incidence of serious crime, fires, and accidents increased.
These studies seem to indicate how the inward practice of calming your mind can have a positive effect on the world around you. Gregg Braden, in The Isaiah Effect, claims that early sages and prophets suggested that one tenth of one percent of humanity could shift the consciousness of the world. There is a Hopi prophecy that recommends prayer for changing the course of world events, saying when prayer and meditation are used rather than relying on new inventions to create more imbalance, humanity will find the true path. “The Maharishi Effect” studies confirm these older beliefs and suggest the critical number of those with healing intentions may be even smaller.
The TM studies bring up another interesting phenomenon of prayer. The language we use may have power in itself. TM is a meditative practice that uses mantras, energy-based sounds that when spoken with repetition are believed to transform the psyche of the individual, and sometimes the individual’s body, too. Mantras are usually simple one- or two-syllable words but can also be a longer phrase. It is believed that when you invoke a mantra, you are accessing all the stored history of that word. You are in essence piggybacking on the work of all the individuals who have intoned that mantra over the thousands of years they’ve been in use. OM (or AUM) is one such word. OM is believed to be the sound of the universe in Sanskrit. It is believed that invoking it is to align your consciousness with the underlying unity frequency of everything and to help remove the illusion of separation. Many thousands use this word in their prayer and meditation every day. One interesting quality of mantras is that it doesn’t seem to matter if you know what energy your mantra evokes, you can still experience its benefits.
Sanskrit is an ancient language whose sounds are thought to be derived from the actual sounds of the universe. In other words, the sound of the word used is thought to be connected with the essence of whatever is being described. This belief differs from English or modern languages which are based on a physical and logical connection to what is being described. When one invokes the name of a deity in Sanskrit, it is thought that the power of the deity joins you through the sound frequencies of the name. If, for instance, you call or sing to Ganesha, the elephant-headed god in India who is thought to be the remover of obstacles, you will actually experience more openness and success. In the same way, each mantra or prayer said in Sanskrit is thought to physically affect change.
Devotional chanting is believed to have similar qualities. When you repetitiously sing a song in one of these ancient languages, you may experience a shift in your consciousness. We have seen the negative effects of this kind of consciousness shift in some forms of mass hysteria, when people are “pulled in” to the consciousness of a group intent for violence. Group chanting can create a mass ‘hypnosis’ that can affect positive changes. Also, with mantras and chants, you have the added benefit of repetition, which can help to shift you into a trance state. In a trance, the conscious mind is quieter, more relaxed, which allows for a more direct access to the benefits of whatever words or intentions are being activated within the person’s deep unconscious.
Mantras and chanting are used worldwide as a part of ritual prayer and healing. Indigenous people use sound and chant in their shamanic rituals. East Indians use specific intonations of sounds which correspond with an entire range of cleansing activities, creating ritual space, even preparing for death and spiritual release. Each of these activities has a cultural history and group intentions to go with them, which makes it easier to enter into the desired mental or spiritual state.
Making vocal sound, though, is not the only way to pray. In Buddhist countries like Tibet Sanskrit prayers are printed on flags or prayer wheels. A prayer wheel is a cylindrical ‘wheel’ (Tibetan: ‘khor) on a spindle made from metal, wood, stone, leather, or even coarse cotton. Traditionally, the mantra Om Mani Padme Hum is written in Sanskrit externally on the wheel. According to the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, based on the lineage texts regarding prayer wheels, spinning such a wheel, or even flying a prayer flag, will have much the same benefit as orally reciting the prayers. Here again, the collective memory of Om Mani Padme Hum is thought to be evoked through the turning of the wheel or the wind moving over the prayer flag. Some computer-savvy Buddhists have used digital and other technological tools to automate and amplify their prayer power. The Dalai Lama has commented that simple computer animations can work as well as prayer wheels.
The effectiveness of specific words, mantras, or chants that we use may also be a form of morphic resonance. Rupert Sheldrake originally expanded the concept of morphogenetic fields as it was used in biology where it refers to the production of organs from certain cells. He suggested there may be morphic, organizational fields for all kinds of human behavior, social and cultural systems, and even certain kinds of mental activity. These fields are not physical but are based upon some kind of subtle reality. There may be a morphic field associated with certain mantras and chants which individuals and groups access for healing.
In this way, when a person invokes the name of Jesus in his prayer, he may be accessing all the collective intention of the history and energy of that name through its morphic field. Similarly, it is widely believed that some religious texts are intended to be read aloud in their original language to evoke the spiritual state of their creator. Morphic fields may also explain how individual people can spontaneously intuit a powerful healing phrase for themselves, only to find out that their personal phrase is a mantra that’s been used for centuries.
Stan Tenan, who is the director of the Meru Foundation, has researched the Hebrew text of Genesis for many years. His research shows how the words of the text are connected to a geometric metaphor that models embryonic growth and self-organization. Though his research is based in the mathematical patterns in the letters of the text and the geometric models that these letters seem to project, it does connect to our discussion of prayer. Tenan suggests that the speaking of this text—especially the ritual, regular repetition of the first word, the first sentence, the first paragraph and then the entire text—is intended to produce a mystical experience. Quite literally, the words are thought to take a person’s consciousness through certain proscribed spatial translations and activate the transformation and growth of consciousness within the person. Interestingly, the text is thought to have had a series of hand gestures which accompanied the recitation and which also helped to transmit the morphic resonance of that transcendent experience.
Even on an everyday basis, the power of the spoken word is active in our lives. The anthropologist and philosopher David Abram points out how language has a very powerful influence in our lives and our world. In his book The Spell of the Sensuous he discusses how our language helps to influence the kind of world we live in. Indigenous cultures have specific words and entire languages that speak to the aliveness and interconnectivity between the natural world and the human world. Thus they are able to literally see that aliveness in a very real way where more ‘civilized’ people have more difficulty. Some American Indian tribes, such as the Blackfeet, have languages that are based upon verbs, and thus they see everything as being in a kind of flow or change. This is why the physicist David Bohm held dialogues with the Blackfeet in an attempt to find a language that could more accurately describe the quantum world that modern science was discovering. Bohm became aware of how his language limited his ability to comprehend the new quantum world.
David Abram points out how it’s not coincidence that the word “spell” in English has a double meaning—to arrange letters to form a word and to make magic. In that way, what we spell and what we speak cast very tangible transformations on our minds and psyches, and, consequently, upon our reality. Think how a doctor in an office can, in effect, curse or bless the patient by the kind of prognosis he gives or the way he gives it. How many times have you heard of someone who died almost to the day that his doctor predicted he would? Similarly, some doctors have a true ability to bless patients with well-spoken words, loving intention, and authentic presence. These examples are also forms of prayer or DI. Many Westerners have given science and the priests of allopathic medicine the power to cast life or death spells over us.
At the same time, some people have shown the ability to step out of our cultural trance and cast different spells over themselves. Spontaneous remission is a known fact, even when the doctors refuse to accept the evidence, sometimes even denying there was cancer present in the first place. In some cases, individuals have prayed for themselves, or they have received the prayers of their church. In other cases, patients have participated in some other “alternative” form of treatment that cured them of the “incurable” disease. Some individuals receiving a prognosis from Western medicine are already a partial participant in a different belief system and have more resources to draw on for healing.
The power of our consciousness, words, and intention is receiving more recognition in mainstream culture. “Distant Healing” is a term now used at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and at an increasing number of hospitals to refer to what we know as prayer, energy healing, spiritual healing, or non-local healing. The NIH has called for research specifically to address the question of how to integrate such practices into mainstream medicine. One research team has designed special guided imagery and self-hypnosis techniques to help cardiac-bypass patients control blood flow and minimize complications during surgery, which they will practice before their surgery. What’s exciting though, is that at the time of the surgery, their families will also be encouraged to find a meditative or relaxing frame of mind and then will be taught a similar visualization to “send” to their loved one.
I am hopeful, seeing the trends in modern medicine and science towards more inclusion of these ancient techniques and the practical implications of the non-local mind in our lives. It is important to continue researching and studying these very real qualities of consciousness in our world. We can also continue to use what we intuitively feel to be true or helpful. Send your loving thoughts to your loved ones. Your thoughts do have the power to affect those you care about. Invoke your sense of a higher power, God, or spirit when you feel called to do so. Recall the mystery that we evolved within and which still surrounds us today. Patrick Marsolek is the director of Inner Workings Resources. He is author of A Joyful Intuition. See www.AJoyfulIntuition.com for more information.