Prayer is not prayer is not prayer. When someone says they are praying, we really have no idea what that person is doing in their heads. In Christianity, there are many forms of prayer — as I listed below. Let me know if you can think of others.
These prayer categories are not mutually exclusive. A person’s prayers may contain mixes of these:
- Miracle Prayer: Supplicating God for healing, protection, success and miracles for self or others
- Guidance & Self-Corrective Prayer: requesting insight into difficulties or changes in temperament or perspectives. Prayers for understanding of others or self
- Endurance Prayer: requesting strength
- Confessional Prayer: Penitence and repentance. Telling God the wrongs you have done and asking for forgiveness and intercession
- Worship & Praise: Admiration, praise, adoration
- Thanksgiving Prayer: thankfulness and appreciation
- Social Prayer: Prayer directed ostensibly at the deity but meant to bond the group in action or attitude.
- Meditative or Mystical Prayer
- Contemplative Prayer: contemplating on some spiritual topic or emotion
- Absorptive Prayer: simply abiding in the presence of God
Even if there is no god listening to these many sorts of prayer (yet alone responding to them), nonetheless, spending time in these mental activities will have an effect on a person. In this sense, prayer “works” — it changes the mind of the person praying.
One cannot underestimate this brain-on-brain affect. That is, even if there is no god-on-world, or god-on-brain affect, our activities affect us. Just as you are what you eat, your are what you think. Prayer is a way of thinking. But since all prayer is not the same, these effects differ. Each different type of prayer will have a different effect on a believer’s mind. And using the wrong type of prayer for the wrong type of person may have unwanted consequences. Prayer styles should be chosen carefully.
When I speak of prayer, I am not speaking of causal polite meal prayers and perfunctory church prayers, but those of Christians who make prayer a significant, conscious part of their lives. Chapter 5 of Oliver Sacks book “Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain” is entitles Brainworms, Sticky Music, and Catchy Tunes. It explores how certain music can haunt us — pleasantly and unpleasantly. One of my brain worms is the game WeiQi — when I speak with people, I can sometimes see pattern emerging in my mind that try to distract me from conversation. But I also have a pleasant meditation mindworm — a reminder to breath, pay attention and relax. It comes to remind me often — it is a pleasant uninvited guest. Prayer mindworms would would the same for diligent prayer practitioners — coming into their mind during the normal day’s activities to remind the believer of what they have chosen to value. So if these practice are going to flavor our days, it is wise to choose a practice carefully.
In some contemplative Christian traditions, a mentor will guide a novice to practice sacred contemplative practices on subject matters that suit their personality type. For example, you don’t want a depressed person contemplating God’s wrath, nor, perhaps, a manic person focusing on miracles. Instead you want a prayer to strengthen a person’s deficient mental areas and/or weaken their undesirable mental patterns. So when helping a friend within their own tradition, it may be useful to guide them to prayer styles useful within their own faith that best match their minds.
In the Buddhist tradition, especially in Tibetan Mahayana practice, meditation techniques are likewise geared to match to temperament of the practitioner in a prescriptive, curative manner. Students, thus, are encouraged to be most careful in choosing their meditation teacher to guide one’s spiritual development.
Questions for readers:
- In your Christian days (past or present), do feel prayer affected your mind? What styles do/did you use?
- If you are an Atheist, can you see the benefit of encouraging a Christian to pursuing one type of prayer over another? Or is it all bunk to you and all thus a total waste of time?