Is Prayer Good for Your Health? A Critique of the Scientific Research ( STUART M. BUTLER: What does the evidence show in terms of the connection between religious practice and other characteristics of our society: poverty, welfare, health? Also, what might be the implications of this research and analysis, if any, for public policy? These are the objectives of this Center, and we are very pleased it pulls together a lot of the work that we have been doing in various parts of the Foundation for some years and gives it a focus.

Our event today is to explore the relationship–again, I say if any–between religious practice and personal health and recovery from illness. Hence the provocative title: “Is Prayer Good for Your Health?”

Most people have fairly strong views about this one way or the other, and generally speaking, most people at some point in their lives or in their religious practice do at least call for some assistance for their recovery or the recovery of their friends. In our synagogue, we say the misheberach, which calls for physicians to be as skillful as they possibly can be in dealing with people who are ill, and calls for those who are ill to have the strength to deal with their illness.

This kind of calling for assistance from God is a very common feature of all religions, and for all of us, even if we’re only mildly religious, generally speaking, there is a point in our lives where we call in that way. Also, there’s a lot of anecdotal evidence in the medical profession and elsewhere about remarkable occurrences that people have seen in their medical practice or in their personal lives…

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Christian Mantras and Meditation

Christopher Mendonca, Times of India: Chanting of mantras and the practice of meditation are time-honoured traditions in oriental religions like Hinduism and Buddhism. But because of the universal validity of this practice, the Desert Fathers adopted it and made this the starting point for the “tradition of pure prayer” which they handed down within the Christian context.

Christians use the concept of chanting in a variety of ways in their prayer. The Divine Office or Prayer of the Church is a rhythmic recitation or singing of the Psalms in monastic communities.

The Rosary is the successive repetition of the ”Hail Mary”. But perhaps the most popular mantra used by Christians is “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me”. The Way of the Pilgrim is the story of a Russian pilgrim who learned the practice of the presence of God through the constant use of this mantra.

Eastern tradition of meditation helps the mind turn away from thoughts and images, to help achieve liberation. Similarly, the Christian tradition of pure prayer seeks to protect us from distraction, taking us to the inner silence of the heart where Christ prays in us through the Spirit.

For a Christian the practice of meditation is the practice of an ”awareness” of God in Christ. Equally, at the heart of the practice of Christian meditation is the essential onslaught on the ”ego” so that we may be completely free from its domination. Prophet Isaiah says (30:15): “In conversion and tranquillity lies your salvation”.

Conversion and inner silence are the essential ingredients of Christian meditation. Solitude is the place of conversion. It is not a private therapeutic place. Rather it is the place where the old self dies and the new self is born.

It is in Christian terms a death-resurrection experience, a participation in the Death and Resurrection of Jesus…

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The brain at prayer

Why do humans pray? What happens in our brains when we meditate? Are we genetically programmed to look for the spiritual experience? These are questions that have driven American scientists to scan the brains of meditating monks and nuns at prayer – in the hope of understanding the link between the religious experience and the workings of the brain.

Ever since he was five years old, Andrew Newberg has been asking himself the big questions – why are we here? Is there a God? How big is the Universe? Now as a neurologist and radiologist, Dr Newberg is still asking big questions about how the mind and brain work – and whether it is possible to “see” a spiritual experience as it happens in the brain. “We’ve been doing brain-imaging studies to look at what goes on when somebody is praying,” explains Dr Newberg, who is Director of Clinical Nuclear Medicine at Pennsylvania University in Philadelphia. “We wanted to find out how we as human beings experience certain types of spiritual events; how these spiritual experiences affect the different regions of the human brain and to ask important questions about the philosophical and theological implications of such research.”

Tibetan monks and Franciscan nuns

So Dr Newberg invited local communities of Tibetan monks and Franciscan nuns into the laboratory where, using radioactive tracers, he could monitor any changes in blood flow to the different regions of the brain during meditation. For this, Dr Newberg used a state-of-the-art imaging tool called a SPECT camera – SPECT stands for Single Photon Emission Computed Tomography – which detects radioactive emissions. “Our volunteers were certainly very happy to take part in these experiments,” explains Dr Newberg, “as we explained to them that we were not trying to diminish their experience or explain away a deeply personal and profound event.”

So what was Dr Newberg’s team looking for and what did they find? Dr Andrew Newberg: “Our theories about what goes on in the brain during spiritual practices is that many different areas of the brain are involved – that there’s not one spot. Some people have talked about a “God Module” but we don’t really feel that way. When one looks at the broad array of religious experiences, they involve our emotions, thoughts, sensations, feelings – I think it really has to involve many different regions all working together.”

The main areas of the brain which the team thought would be involved include the Frontal lobes, which allows us to focus our attention, and the Parietal lobes, which help us distinguish ourselves from the outside world.

Altered sense of self-image

“When we stared looking at the results, we saw that a lot of our hypotheses were correct, says Dr Newberg. “When people meditated, they activated this front attention-focussing area of the brain and turned off this orientation, parietal part of the brain – basically blocking the sensory input into that part of the brain, which would be associated with an altered sense of self-image. We also saw a very significant increase in activity in an area known as the thalamus which plays a key-role in allowing parts of the brain to ‘talk’ to each other.”

So what does all this mean? Did God create the brain or does the brain create God? Dr Newberg remains open-minded; “We’ve tried to come down in the middle – to find ways to bring science and religion together and to provide information to allow people to open up a dialogue, so that we can start asking the really big questions that all human beings have asked throughout time.” Read the rest of this article…

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