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"A heartfelt prayer is not a recital with the lips. It is a yearning from within which expresses itself in every word, every act, nay, every thought of man. When an evil thought successfully assails him, he may know that he has offered but a lip service to prayer."
-- Ghandi

You know that expression, "nothing left but a hope and a prayer"? Well, in many respects, that hope and prayer are more powerful than we previously gave credit for! In fact, prayer can be a powerful healing modality, whether we pray or are the object of someone's prayers.

The word prayer comes from the Latin precarius, "obtained by begging" and precari, "to entreat" (ask earnestly, beseech, implore). And that is what many of us do when we pray: we put our hopes into words and send them out of ourselves. Prayer is used by every major culture and religion, worldwide, and it is accessible to everyone, whether involved in organized religion or not. It is an appeal to a wisdom greater than our own.

"Prayer is", according to theologian Ann Ulanov and Prof. Barry Ulanov, "the most fundamental, primordial, and important language humans speak. Prayer starts without words and often ends without them. It knows its own evasions, its own infinite variety of dodges. It works some of the time in signs and symbols, lurches when it must, leaps when it can, has several kinds of logic at its disposal."

Prayer Works

There have been many studies about the efficacy of prayer for a host of circumstances. Particular evidence of interest include the effects of prayer on health.

A study on intercessary prayer (where the object of the prayer does not know he/she is being prayed for) that was randomized and double-blind studied the effects of prayer on coronary care unit patients in hospital. All patients received appropriate medical treatment. However, the group which was prayed for had significant health benefit from the intercession:

  • Significantly less likely to require antibiotics (3 patients versus 16)
  • Significantly less likely to develop pulmonary edema-a condition in which the lungs fill with fluid because the heart cannot pump properly (6 versus 18).
  • Significantly less likely to require insertion of a tube into the throat to assist breathing (0 versus 12).
  • Less likely to die (but this difference was not statistically significant).

Because there have been criticisms of study designs where humans are subjected to intercessary prayer, follow up studies have used nonhuman subjects.

According to Larry Dossey M.D., in a survey of 131 controlled experiments on spiritual healing, it was found that prayed-for rye grass grew taller; prayed-for yeast resisted the toxic effects of cyanide; prayed-for test-tube bacteria grew faster.

Another study used seeds soaked in salt-water to prevent germination. One group of seeds was a control, the second were prayed for using directed prayer "please help these seeds germinate", and third group was prayed for using nondirected prayer like "thy will be done". None of the seeds from the first group sprouted, some of the seeds from the second group sprouted, but 2-4X as many seeds sprouted in the third group as in the second group -- those seed that received nondirected prayer.

And the prayer need not be locally delivered. In several experiments, volunteers visualized stimulating or retarding the growth of bacteria and fungi and achieved significantly positive results from as far as 15 miles away.

At the Mind Science Foundation in San Antonio, Texas, researchers took blood samples from 32 volunteers, isolated their red blood cells (RBCS) and placed the samples in a room on the other side of the building. Then the researchers placed the RBCs in a solution designed to swell and burst them, a process that can be measured extremely accurately. Next the researchers asked the volunteers to pray for the preservation of some of the RBCS. To help them visualize, the researchers projected color slides of healthy RBCS. The praying significantly slowed the swelling and bursting of the RBCS.

Experiments reviewed in Dossey's work also showed that prayer positively affected:

  • High Blood Pressure
  • Wounds
  • Heart Attacks
  • Headaches, and
  • Anxiety.

The subjects in these studies included:

  • Water
  • Enzymes
  • Bacteria
  • Fungi
  • Yeast
  • Red blood cells
  • Cancer cells
  • Pacemaker cells
  • Seeds
  • Plants
  • Algae
  • Moth larvae
  • Mice
  • Chicks

The processes that had been influenced by prayer were:

  • Activity of enzymes
  • The growth rate of leukemic white blood cells
  • Mutation rates of bacteria
  • Germination and growth rates of various seeds
  • Firing rate of pacemaker cells of the heart
  • Healing rates of wounds
  • The size of goiters and tumors
  • Time required to awaken from anesthesia
  • Autonomic effects such as electrodermal activity of the skin, rates of hemolysis of red blood cells and hemoglobin levels.

Given all of this evidence, no-one is quite sure how prayer works, only that it does. There is a lot about the world that we do not know. Even though we often act as though we have a handle on the nature of our world and the universe, the truth is that we don't actually have a model of how consciousness may interact with physical reality other than those found in our spiritual heritage, where there is a recognition of the process but no need to explain it. There are clues in physics which relate to non-locality of physical reality which I will not go into here, but we are far away from understanding those processes intimately on anything but an intuitive sense.

Regardless, we can use what we do know: that prayer does work to help us in the same sense as any other therapy. We can use it to help others, and we can use it to help ourselves. I keep a jar of patient names and turn my attention to it regularly, in a prayer for the well being of those persons that have entrusted their care and story to me. Each of us has the ability to use this knowledge to help.

How Should I Pray?

Prayer is individual. There is no right or wrong way. Pray with your heart and keep your mind open to results.

 

 

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