Let Us Pray
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Let Us Pray

Even when people come from different cultures and different faiths, they can generally agree on this one thing: Prayer helps. But why?

Sleep, it seemed, had gotten axed along with my job. I'd been laid off a week earlier and my mind wouldn't stop racing. I gotta get the kids to the dentist before the insurance runs out. Could John take on more teaching? We have to start eating rice and beans. I guess I have to join LinkedIn now. What is LinkedIn again? Doesn't matter, there are no jobs. I can't believe this has happened . . . I tossed, I turned, I tried imagining white sands and turquoise waters, I flipped and re-flipped the pillow to its cool side. Nothing worked, nothing.

Until a certain 3 a.m., when, out of nowhere, I found myself silently saying this to myself, in and out, like the tide: "Let go. Let God. Let go. Let God. Let go. Let God." I could picture the shiny Gothic letters from those AA bumper stickers. My heart stopped hammering. All my troubles began to melt, somehow, and I began to feel a deep, spreading, lasting peace.

Then, and only then, I slept.

Why had this incredibly unoriginal prayer calmed me so? Maybe I'd unknowingly taken some five-century-old advice from Martin Luther: "Pray, and let God worry." Or maybe I'd channeled Bon Jovi and discovered it did feel good to be oh, oh, livin' on a prayer. Or maybe it's because the activity in my prefrontal cortex skyrocketed while that in my superior parietal lobe plummeted. But more on that later.

Brain Benefits

The Psychological Benefits of Prayer

After that night, I wanted to find out why prayer does such good things for me. I started with Catherine Munz, the rector of my church in Northampton, Massachusetts. "When I pray, I don't feel like I'm alone," Reverend Munz says. "I can imagine God is sitting in the car with me, listening to everything I say. Prayer connects you with your Creator."

That God-in-the-car sensation makes you feel less isolated, explains Shannon Craigo-Snell, an associate professor of religious studies at Yale University. "It's a comfort to know God is in the middle of this mess with you, working for your good." Writer Anne Lamott takes it further: For her, prayer is not only the companionship of God in the car but the relief of relinquishing control. "I told God I was taking my sticky fingers off the steering wheel," she writes in Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith. "God could be the driver and I'd be just another bozo on the bus."

Most of us backseat-drive, though, don't we? We tend to pepper our Higher Power with a lot of really specific directions and requests. Please God, land this plane safely and I swear I'll give up smoking this time. Please heal my dad's stomach cancer. Or, and this one goes out to all my jobless friends, Dear God, I need money.

These very specific requests may not always get you what you want, but they tend to make you feel better anyway. That's because they give you the framework for stating your needs, says Rabbi Dayle A. Friedman, director of Hiddur: The Center for Aging and Judaism at Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, in Wyncote, Pennsylvania. This thinking-out-loud quality leapfrogs you to a better place. "If you think about it, prayer connects you to hope," Rabbi Friedman says, "because it gives you an opportunity to articulate what it is you aspire to or hope for."

For women, prayer is a way to bypass male-dominated hierarchies and go straight to the source. When you pray, there's no priest, rabbi or imam required, points out Craigo-Snell: "You don?t need a man to help you do it." Another thing that?s attractive for women: Prayer acts as a calm counterweight to the multiple responsibilities -- jobs, housework, child rearing -- that can make you feel crazy. Praying offers tremendous focus and centering and is just the opposite of multitasking.

Still, why does prayer seem to help, even when your prayers go unanswered? Deep down, most of us know that our entire laundry list of requests can't always be granted. Planes don't always land safely, after all, and cancer does sometimes have its way. I like this answer from one commenter on Beliefnet.com: "Some prayers are just emotions trying to make peace with reality."

Body benefits

How your faith affects your body

Back in the '80s, Harold Koenig, M.D., a psychiatrist who specialized in geriatric medicine, began asking his patients, "How do you cope with stress?" Many said they relied on their religious faith. This powerful idea had not been addressed in much of the scientific literature, so Dr. Koenig decided to study it. His research started an academic trend, and Dr. Koenig is now the codirector of the Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health at Duke University Medical Center -- a juxtaposition of science and theology that would have been hard to imagine three decades ago.

In the 1990s Dr. Koenig's research found a link between higher rates of faith and lower rates of depression. In later studies he found that people who pray daily and attend services weekly tend to have lower blood pressure. On top of that, people who attend religious services are almost 50 percent less likely to have high interleuken-6 levels (which indicate poor immune system function) than are people who don't attend services. In plain English, the more religious you are, the less stressed out you tend to be. Which often means you're healthier.

Since Dr. Koenig started his work, lots of other researchers have jumped on the bandwagon. He estimates that, to date, at least 3,000 studies have looked at whether religious faith affects physical or mental health. Between half and two-thirds of the studies do find a link. And the doctors who are out on the front lines seem to agree: According to a 2007 survey published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, 54 percent of doctors said "a supernatural being" (aka God) sometimes affects a patient's health.

Daniel Sulmasy, M.D., a Franciscan friar and the Kilbride-Clinton Professor of Medicine and Ethics at the University of Chicago, cautions that it's theologically wrongheaded to pray just to reap the health benefits. "God is not Prozac," he says. Still, he's not surprised at the positive research results. Dr. Koenig's blood-pressure findings ring especially true for him. "I can almost sense it in myself, the relaxation that is part of a deep meditative experience," says Dr. Sulmasy.

Prayer vs. Meditation

What if you just slow down and reflect?

The practice of meditation, or "mindfulness," is associated with a whole slew of health benefits, from pain relief to improved self-esteem. The research is impressive. But let's be honest: Americans aren't big into the whole "om" scene.

Truth be told, the closest most of us get to meditation is yoga class. That counts, though, says Betsy Wheeler, of Northampton, Massachusetts. She first tried yoga a decade ago to cope with severe headaches and a neck injury. Along the way she has learned to meditate during her poses. ?It slows me down,? says Wheeler, who is now a yoga instructor. "The first five minutes, my mind is running as fast as it can. If I sit through this feeling, though, I can then go through the day and do what I have to do without that crazy urgency."

You can't stop the worrying, agrees Sylvia Boorstein, a meditation instructor and author of Don"t Just Do Something, Sit There. "But meditation can help slow the flying-into-action part."

Boorstein does formal meditation every day, but she also does it on the fly -- and she insists anyone can. As an example, she mentions a recent trip to the supermarket. She'd run in to buy one item, but ended up in a long line and was late for an appointment. "I was full of self-recrimination," Boorstein remembers. Then she stopped and looked around. It was late, people looked tired. She felt for them.

"When I stop focusing on what's happening to me, I connect to the people around me, changing from 'poor me' to a feeling of companionship and community," Boorstein says. "In this sense, meditation is simply about giving a curious, warm attention to the world."

So what?s the difference between prayer and meditation? "Prayer," says Wheeler, "is for speaking to the universe. Meditation is for listening."

End result

This is your brain on prayer and meditation

Here's the deal in the end: Whatever the benefits may be, it seems that we are wired for prayer and meditation. And it doesn't matter what culture we're raised in -- whether we flip the switch or not, this inclination is there, waiting for us. At least that's the word from the newish field known as neurotheology, which looks at the biological basis of religion and spirituality.

One of the main newsmakers in the field is Andrew B. Newberg, M.D., author of How God Changes Your Brain: Breakthrough Findings from a Leading Neuroscientist. In Newberg's most famous study, from 2001, Tibetan Buddhists were asked to meditate and Franciscan nuns to pray. After 40 minutes or so, when each signaled they'd reached their deepest place of contemplation, their brains were scanned.

Scientists found that the prefrontal cortex, the area that causes us to pay attention, was lit up like Vegas. The researchers had expected this; it makes sense that prayer and meditation would involve intense concentration.

But they got a surprise when they checked out the scan for the superior parietal lobe, the part of the brain that basically tells us where our body stops and the rest of the world starts. No Vegas here. It had gone dark. Turns out that when you pray or meditate, you shut down this region. With no sensory input coming in, the brain can't distinguish between self and not-self. You feel at one with -- well, with whatever you're inclined to feel at one with. Humanity. The universe. God.

A nonbeliever would say this is simply neurons doing their work and God is a brain-caused illusion. A believer would say that God or Allah or Yahweh is making Himself known. A Buddhist would say there lies the way to nirvana. But whatever you believe, here's something you can count on: When the self dissolves, the worries and stress that usually batter the self go away, too.

"You get the most benefit from prayer when it helps you realize you aren't able to control everything around you," says psychology of religion expert Kevin Ladd, Ph.D., of Indiana University--South Bend. That effect has an explanation in neuroscience. The brain only has so much processing power before it hits "cognitive exhaustion," Ladd says. But when you turn around and -- I'll just say it -- let go and let God, it clears your head. And you feel better.

In other words, in this crazy world of difficulty and heartache, in this scary economy, in these hard times, you do have a prayer.