“Prayer and love are learned in the hour when prayer has become impossible and your heart has turned to stone. If you have never had any distractions you don’t know how to pray. For the secret of prayer is a hunger for God and for the vision of God, a hunger that lies far deeper than the level of language or affection.” Thomas Merton
There is research backing the idea that meditation and prayer can trigger the release of feel-good chemicals in the brain.Getty Images/EyeEm
As heartbreaking details continue to emerge from the tragic Parkland, Fla. school shooting, we may feel determined to do something, anything. Maybe it’s donating money to those affected, donating blood, signing petitions or calling legislators.
I’m doing all that (which really doesn’t feel at all like enough) and then something I don’t quite understand: I’m praying.
As an agnostic who does not identify with any organized religion, my version of prayer isn’t rooted in any tradition or theology. It’s not a regular practice, nor one with set rules or goals. Sometimes I take the pantheistic approach of praying to the universe, focusing on sending healing thoughts out to the world, particularly others who are suffering. Sometimes I’ll just visualize a ball of light in my head — a collective conscious benevolence — and aim to contribute positive energy to it. Sometimes I pray to my twin brother, Phillip, who died when we were nine years old.
Prayer and meditation are highly effective in lowering our reactivity to traumatic and negative events.
Lately I’ve been wondering just what the science is behind the act of prayer and meditation. What parts of our brains are activated or deactivated? How might such a ritual, regardless of personal faith or intention, affect our behavior?
To learn more, I talked to several doctors including Dr. David Spiegel, associate chair of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and medical director of the center for integrative medicine at Stanford University School of Medicine, who discussed what the brain looks like on prayer.
The Deep Parts Of Our Brain Are At Work
“Praying involves the deeper parts of the brain: the medial prefrontal cortex and the posterior cingulate cortex — the mid-front and back portions,” says Dr. Spiegel, adding that this can be seen through magnetic image resonance (MRI), which render detailed anatomical pictures. “These parts of the brain are involved in self-reflection and self-soothing.”
While the reflective regions of the brain are activated, parts of the brain associated with taking action are inactivated.
Spiegel notes that while these reflective regions of the brain are activated, parts of the brain associated with taking action are inactivated. It’s an interesting correlation that Spiegel says could play a role in why prayer helps people struggling with addictive urges.
In one recent study conducted by NYU Langone Medical Center, members of Alcoholics Anonymous were placed in an MRI scanner and then shown drinking-related images to stimulate cravings (it worked, which sounds pretty cruel). But the cravings were soon after reduced when the participants — you guessed it — prayed. The MRI data showed changes in parts of the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for the control of emotion and “the semantic reappraisal of emotion,” the study cited.
The link between deep reflection and a decrease in action can be a useful one while dealing with a trauma or other negative situation. It’s pretty simple: When we’re praying, we can’t be lashing out or kicking walls in. In other words, we can’t react. This isn’t to say one should bottle up their anger or sorrow and lock it up in a prayer, but for the sheer purpose of self-care, prayer and meditation can be useful when we’re barely able to cope.
“Prayer and meditation are highly effective in lowering our reactivity to traumatic and negative events,” says Dr. Paul Hokemeyer, a marriage, family and addictions therapist. “They are powerful because they focus our thoughts on something outside ourselves. During times of stress, our limbic system, more commonly known as our central nervous system, becomes hyper-activated, which does two things: it thrusts us in to survival mode where we freeze, fight or flee the situation, [such that] we move away from the present state of being into a future state. This also shuts down our executive functioning [and] prevents us from thinking clearly. This is why when we’re stressed out we can make poor decisions and act in self-destructive ways.”
When we sit down and engage in prayer or meditation, we are able to shift away from this frightened and stressed survival mode into “an intentional state,” says Dr. Hokemeyer, and ultimately “reengage our prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that rules our executive functioning and enables us to make intelligent mindful decisions.”
Triggering Happy Brain Chemicals
There’s also research backing the idea that meditation and prayer can trigger the release of feel-good chemicals in the brain.
Dr. Loretta G. Breuning, founder of the Inner Mammal Institute and the author of “The Science of Positivity” and “Habits of a Happy Brain,” explains that when we pray, we can activate neural pathways we developed when young to release hormones such as oxytocin.
“Oxytocin is known for its role in maternal labor and lactation, but it also [enables] social trust and attachment, giving us a good feeling despite living in a world of threat,” says Dr. Breuning. “It’s the idea of ‘I can count on something to protect me.’ So when a situation comes up and you’re out of ideas and you are helpless, feeling much like you did when you were a baby, prayer can provide some other source of hope.”
Praying is saying: I am really hurting about X. I am really hoping for Y. I am looking for support from Z.
And these meditative acts may be a way of being real with yourself — of locating where you are right now, what you’re feeling and identifying your needs.
“[Praying in part] is saying to myself: I am really hurting about X. I am really hoping for Y. I am looking for support from Z,” says Breuning, adding that as a repeated practice, prayer can serve as a useful habit for times when we’re overwhelmed or struggling to figure out a solution.
“All too often, we rush through our day and overlook our deeper impulses,” says Breuning. “Then when our work is done and we try to rest, the bad feelings we’ve ignored surge up, and we have trouble untangling the cause and finding a solution that restores hope. Praying makes that useful conscious act into a reliable habit.”
Balancing Prayer With Action
While there’s certainly a sound argument to be made for the psychological benefits of prayer and meditation, one discussion that comes up often (especially among those who are agnostic or atheist), is around what prayer can actually do in the world. How can we use it to not only center ourselves and self-soothe, but to take a positive action?
The key, Dr. Hokemeyer finds, is largely one of balance.
“The trick to balancing prayer with results is to recognize when is the time to pray/meditate and when is the time to go out and do something,” says Hokemeyer. “One of the purposes of prayer and meditation is to regain our footing so that we can step out into the world and take positive action: we reconnect, re-center, recharge and gain the strength necessary to take steps that will create real change. In other words, prayer is the fuel that lights the fire of action.”
Dr. Anna Yusim, a psychiatrist and the author of “Fulfilled: How the Science of Spirituality Can Help You Live a Happier, More Meaningful Life,” strongly recommends prayer and meditation, deeming them “wonderful and powerful tools,” but ones that are made all the more wonderful and powerful “when coupled with concerted action.”
A favorite meditation that Dr. Yusim recommends is the Loving-Kindness meditation, which blends breathing techniques with positive thoughts for all beings; she suggests that after you complete this meditation, you straighten up and ask yourself this question:
“What is one thing I can do to help somebody I love right now?”
Four Simple Autumn Prayers
Thu, Oct 19, 2017
Since this is such an incredibly beautiful time of year at ASEC headquarters, we wanted to share some simple seasonal prayers for autumn.
An Autumn Prayer
Abba, Father, the trees are ablaze with your glory.
The seasons change, but you never do.
You are always beautiful,
in the green and freshness of spring
as in the golds and reds and chills of autumn.
Make me like you.
Let my life reflect your beauty,
season after season,
as the calendar of my life turns and turns and turns.
The trees are letting go of this year’s foliage.
Help me let go of both blessings and burdens,
and surrender them both to your loving care.
Fallen leaves pattern the ground with variety.
So design my own fallings and failings
into whatever design will please you most.
In Jesus’ name, I pray,
When I must go
When I must go, dear God, please let it be
A golden autumn day; when red leaves fall,
When purple grapes in shining clusters hang
And bittersweet glows bright against the wall,
When o’er the barren fields and russet meads
Their last farewells the crickets cry.
Let me make my silent journey
When the homing birds fly south across the sky.
When I must go, dear God, please let me go
As silently as autumn rain,
As still as lacy shadows ‘neath the willow trees,
As calm as is the moon above the hill.
So let me go—and may there be no grief
When life is done and I must say goodbye.
I’ll take my leave with flowers and falling leaf
And lie in peaceful sleep beneath the sky.
As summer into autumn slips,*
O give me grace today
To rise and turn as summer’s leaves
Draw life and strength from heavenly rays.
*first line from Emily Dickinson
We see the Creator’s hand
In the fading of the summer sun,
the shortening of days, cooling breeze,
swallows’ flight and moonlight rays
A. WE SEE THE CREATOR’S HAND
In the browning of leaves once green,
morning mists, autumn chill,
fruit that falls frost’s first kiss
A. WE SEE THE CREATOR’S HAND
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The Jesus Prayer Meditation is a wonderful spiritual tool to deepen your inner communion with Jesus Christ, and with the Infinite. This meditation is a variation of the Hong-Sau technique. Swami Kriyananda taught this Jesus Prayer Meditation to a Catholic priest.
The “Jesus Prayer” Meditation
by Mary Kretzmann, Ananda Healing Prayer Ministry
Years ago, I was reading a small and humble magazine dedicated to Therese of Liseux, “the Little Flower.” It recorded experiences of answered prayers, especially after people had prayed a novena in her name. Therese had promised to send “Roses from Heaven” to signify when prayers had been heard. Some of the stories were remarkable. All were touching.
One story, however, made an impression, and it was different from all of the others. It was written by a widow who had been very lonely, until her priest taught her the Jesus Prayer Meditation. After making this a part of her daily life, she said that while she was still alone; she was no longer lonely, for she inwardly felt His presence with her always.
When I turned the page to read about the techniques, I expected to see something akin to what I had learned from the book, “The Way of a Pilgrim,” the 19th century Russian spiritual classic, which describes the author’s inner transformational journey using this Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the poor sinner.”
But to my surprise, what I found was a meditation technique that I knew from the tradition of Paramhansa Yogananda, called Hong Sau. Everything was the same, such as sitting still, and watching the breath, except instead of “hong sau,” one said the Jesus Prayer. I was thrilled, thinking, “Oh my goodness! This must have been passed down intact from the time of Jesus, and then through the Desert Fathers, then up to this time!”
I was young and very enthusiastic. I happened to see Swami Kriyananda a short time later and told him about my discovery. He was just as thrilled, but in a different way. He exclaimed, “I taught that to a Catholic priest years ago! He must be out there teaching it.”
The kingdom of God is within you. (Luke 17:20-21)
The Jesus Prayer as written in her article was, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.”
Please note that it does not include the traditional ending, “a poor sinner.” Paramhansa Yogananda taught that, “It is a sin to all yourself ‘a sinner.’”
Our God nature is our true state; our errors and ignorance along the way are temporary. Our past errors do not define who we truly are, for as Jesus said, “Is it not written in your law, ‘I said, Ye are gods?’”
“…And Christians who imagine themselves inherently sinful, rather than sinning under the influence of delusion, would do well to meditate on the parable of the prodigal son, whose true home was in God. And, if those Christians aspire to heaven, they might ponder these words of Jesus, ‘No man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven.’ (John 3:13)” The New Path, by Swami Kriyananda.
It is also good to clarify the word, “mercy.” Think of it as asking for the loving mitigation of our karma, or spiritual debts; some created long ago, but still getting in the way of our spiritual understanding, and unfolding. So even though we are not to define ourselves as “sinners,” we have indeed created errors over the course of this lifetime, and many lifetimes. So, we are asking for help in dissolving our old karma, much in the same spirit as in the Lord’s Prayer, “And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” Matthew 6:12
Practicing the Presence
A beautiful benefit about doing the Jesus Prayer Meditation is that once you complete your formal practice of the technique (instructions are at the end of this article) you will find that it is now much easier to “practice the presence of God” using this prayer throughout the day. The phrase, Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, is now in your thoughts, and you can encourage it along, like the turning of a prayer wheel. In your normal day, while “practicing the presence,” you need not link the prayer to the breath; that is better for your meditation time. But do try to let each prayer be sincere; you don’t want merely to “parrot” the prayer as that serves little purpose. Feel that your spiritual heart is talking to Jesus as you say the prayer. Try to feel His Light, or a warm Presence in your heart center. This sense of His Presence will grow over time, with practice.
It is also very powerful to feel that you are sending this prayerful attention to Him from the point between the eyebrows, which is called the Christ center, or spiritual eye. As a little girl, I would see the spiritual eye every night after my Dad said bedtime prayers with me. I would quietly lay in bed, feeling my love for Jesus, and Mary, his Mother, and see a “donut” of blue light – surrounded by a ring of golden light. I did not know what it was, but I saw it every night of my childhood, after saying prayers, until finally drifting off to sleep.
Jesus Christ said, The light of the body is the eye: If therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light. Matthew 6:22
This point of energy is in you, even if you do not yet see that light. It is a point of inspiration in your body. Lift your prayers to that point. You can also pray: “Reveal Thyself, Reveal Thyself, Reveal Thyself…” from that point, and after a little while, relax to feel His answer in your heart.
Reverence for the Holy Name
There is a timeless and powerful principle in the reverence for the holy name. This is referenced, of course, in The Third Commandment: Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain. When we use the power of the Holy Name trivially, or “in vain,” and for no purpose, we cheapen that potential spiritual power within us.
The Desert Fathers in the 4th century used segments of the psalms repetitively in order to focus the mind spiritually. The first written record of the Jesus Prayer is in the 5th century in Greece. In the western tradition, there is a practice of repeating the name of Jesus, in order to practice the presence of God. A quick Internet search brought up this devotional gem from the Catholic Catechism on praying unceasingly:
THE TRADITION OF PRAYER
“The invocation of the holy name of Jesus is the simplest way of praying always. When the holy name is repeated often by a humbly attentive heart, the prayer is not lost by heaping up empty phrases, but holds fast to the word and “brings forth fruit with patience.” This prayer is possible “at all times” because it is not one occupation among others but the only occupation: that of loving God, which animates and transfigures every action in Christ Jesus.”
Love is the source of prayer; whoever draws from it reaches the summit of prayer. In the words of the Cure D’Ars: l love you, O my God, and my only desire is to love you until the last breath of my life. I love you, O my infinitely lovable God, and I would rather die loving you, than live without loving you. I love you, Lord, and the only grace I ask is to love you eternally…. My God, if my tongue cannot say in every moment that I love you, I want my heart to repeat it to you as often as I draw breath.
Paramhansa Yogananda used to like to remind people that the Cure D’Ars also said, “If you only knew how much God loved you, you would die for joy!”
Paramhansa Yogananda saw Jesus Christ in vision many times, and he said that the paintings by Heinrich Hoffman looked the most like the real-life Jesus of any art availble at the time.
Spiritual Power of Man’s Word
“…Man’s word is Spirit in man. Words are sounds occasioned by the vibrations of thoughts. Thoughts are vibrations sent forth by the Ego or Soul. Every word that leaves your mouth ought to be potent with your genuine soul vibration. Words in most people are lifeless because they are automatically put forth into the ether, without being impregnated with soul force. Too much talking, exaggeration or falsehood used in connection with words is just like shooting bullets out of a toy gun, without the gun-powder. That is why the prayers or words of such people do not produce any desired definite change in the order of things. Every word you utter you must mean it, i.e., every word you put forth must represent not only Truth, but some of your realized soul force. Words without soul force are husks without the corn…” (From Scientific Healing Affirmations, 1924 Edition: By Paramhansa Yogananda)
This tradition of reverential, devotional use of “the Holy Name” also exists for the name of the great Indian Master, Babaji: “Whenever anyone utters with reverence the name of Babaji,” Lahiri Mahasaya said, “that devotee attracts an instant spiritual blessing.” Autobiography of Yogi, by Paramhansa Yogananda.
“The kingdom of Heaven is within you.”
Jesus Prayer Meditation: Preparation
Adaptations by Mary Kretzmann: from “Watching the Breath Meditation” from the book, How to Meditate, by John Novak
One of the best ways to relax the body is to tense it first. Then, with relaxation, you will find tensions being released that you didn’t even know existed. Begin your meditation experience by practicing the following two relaxation techniques. The first exercise relaxes your body, and the second calms your mind.
- Inhale, tense the whole body, then throw the breath out and relax. Do this exercise three times to help rid your body of unconscious tensions.
The breath reflects one’s mental state. As the breath becomes calmer, so does the mind, and vice versa. Relax your mind before meditation, by doing this simple breathing exercise:
- Inhale slowly counting one to eight, hold your breath for the same number of counts, then exhale for the same count. This is one round of “even count breathing.”
You may either lengthen or shorten the number of counts according to what is comfortable, but keep the inhalation, retention, and exhalation equal. Practice the “even count breathing” six times (six rotations).
For the Jesus Prayer Meditation, you can do the “even count breathing” with the numbers above, or using the Jesus Prayer:
Inhale: “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me.” (9 syllables= 9 counts)
Hold: “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me.”
Exhale: “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me.”
For longer counts, try this:
Inhale: “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me, Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me.” (18 syllables= 18 counts)
Hold: “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me, Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me.”
Exhale: “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me, Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me.”
Meditation: As the breath becomes calmer and more refined during meditation, there is a joyous feeling of peace and exaltation. Practice the following meditation technique to help calm your breath, your mind, and your whole being.
Complete Instructions for Jesus Prayer Meditation
Adapted, by Mary Kretzmann, from the book, How to Meditate, by John Novak
Although simple to practice, this is one of the central and most important techniques of meditation. Watching the breath is extremely powerful because it works scientifically to calm our breath, mind, and life force. By concentrating intently on the breath and becoming a simple observer of the breathing process, you quickly calm the breath, redirect the flow of energy to the spiritual eye (or Christ center), and concentrate the mind.
- The technique of watching the breath should be done immediately following the preparatory techniques, (tensing and relaxing and even count breathing), when you are already relaxed and focused.
Begin by exhaling completely. As the next breath flows in, mentally watch it as if you were observing the flow of a tide. Be very aware of the breath, but make no attempt to control it in any way. Simply observe its natural flow. Try to feel the breath as it passes in and out of the nostrils. If you are unable to feel the breath in the nostrils, focus for a short time on the breathing process itself, the movement of the chest and lungs, and then transfer your awareness back to the breath in the nostrils.
- To help deepen your concentration, mentally repeat a simple word formula such as “Amen” in tandem with the breath. As you inhale silently say “A,” and as you exhale silently repeat “men.” Or you could say “I am” while inhaling and “He” while exhaling. Or, say “Jesus” for the incoming breath, and “Christ” for the outgoing. Or even more simply, “Je-sus.”
And, one can also do it like this:
Inhalation: “Lord Jesus Christ”
Exhalation: “Have mercy on me”
All of these help contribute to training the mind to “pray unceasingly.”
In India they silently repeat “hong” with the incoming breath and “sau” with the exhalation. This is a special “mantra” or word formula that is especially effective in calming the flow of energy in the spine
It is also helpful to move the index finger of the right hand slightly toward the palm on the inhalation and slightly away on the exhalation.
If the mind wanders, immediately bring it back to concentrating on the technique.
- As the breath becomes calmer, gradually become aware of it as it passes higher and higher in the nostrils until you are feeling it high up in the nasal cavity. Now you can transfer your point of concentration from the breath to the point between the eyebrows. Continue to mentally observe the breath, and to silently chant your word formula, still making no effort to control either the rhythm or depth of your breathing.
- The key to success with this technique is to deepen your concentration at the spiritual eye until you no longer think of anything except the rhythmic flow of the breath. As the mind becomes very focused and calm you will find your need for breath diminishing. Enjoy the spaces between breaths, keeping your mind very still and allowing the pauses to lengthen naturally.
A cycle of increasing interiorization is set into motion through this technique. As the breath (and the flow of life-force) begins to calm down, the mind is naturally able to concentrate more deeply. Deeper concentration brings about an even greater calming of the breath, allowing yet deeper focusing of the mind, and so on. The final stage of this cycle is the complete withdrawal of life current from the body and senses and the total concentration of the mind. “I protest by your rejoicing which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die daily.” 1 Corinthians 15:31
As the energy becomes completely focused at the spiritual eye, the body’s need for oxygen ceases and the breath stops. At first this may be a somewhat odd, and even frightening experience, but it is the doorway to the deepest states of meditation.
- End your practice of this technique by taking a deep breath and exhaling three times. Then concentrate very deeply at the spiritual eye, trying to hold your mind completely still. With the mind deeply concentrated and interiorized, you can go on to the other parts of your meditation, such as concentrating on the light of the spiritual eye, listening to the inner sounds, or feeling the deep love, peace, and joy brought by meditation.
How long should you practice this meditation? Be guided by your own feeling of enjoyment and your ability to maintain your concentration. Be sure to allow time for silent communion and devotion after your practice of the Jesus Prayer Meditation technique. “Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10)
Revelations of Christ
Proclaimed by Paramhansa Yogananda
Presented by His Disciple, Swami Kriyananda
“…My fervent prayer is that this book, and its proclamation of Paramhansa Yogananda’s renewed revelation of Christ’s revelation, will initiate a renewal of dynamic, original faith in Jesus Christ…”
“Jesus Christ was sent to earth to proclaim the Heavenly Father’s love for us all, and to awaken love in our hearts for Him. Science has shown us a universe, however, too vast to have been created by any man-like Father figure. Science’s view, however, is also limited. Whatever, or Whoever, brought everything into existence created also human beings with human feelings, and with individual appreciation for parental love, filial love, romantic and friendly love. If that Infinite One is omniscient, then He certainly knows our innermost feelings, no matter how often science with its dry, factual outlook on reality scoffs at the idea of a Being infinitely superior to the scientists themselves, far beyond their intellectual games, lambent with tenderest feelings of love for us all, unceasingly forgiving, and awaiting only our love in return to bring us back to Himself.”