The power of non-religious prayer

It happened. I turned into one of those people. You know, those individuals who’ve adopted new age practices that make you roll your eyes. While not as extreme as some, I have arrived at a point where I genuinely believe that there is some sort of thing called the “universe” with which I have some sort of spiritual connection. We regularly converse – I do most of the talking and wait for the universe to respond in her own, difficult to interpret language. I even go so far as to ask her for things and often spend time envisioning the actualization of these requests as though I think it will help. Ugh, I know.  

One of the results of this journey has been that I’ve adopted a morning ritual where I recite a non-religious prayer that I composed myself and designed to suit my own emotional, physical, and spiritual needs. As I will argue, there are a number of advantages to this. If you’re interested solely in those, feel free to skip ahead. However, before extolling the benefits of daily, non-religious prayer, I feel it might be helpful to explain how a critical atheist trained in the scientific method arrived at this point. 

The path toward spirituality

How did I get here? Well, rather reluctantly, if I’m being honest, and with a good deal of trial and error. For much of my life there was something that just didn’t sit right in my stomach and needed to heal. I didn’t know precisely how and in what way, but I knew something was missing inside of me and needed to change. This change, in turn, had become my life’s purpose and I had shed so much sweat trying to bring it into existence. When you want something badly enough but find that your inputs aren’t matching the outputs, your exasperation eventually leads you to a point of resignation: not in the sense of giving up, but rather in freeing yourself of any resistance to ideas that you had previously laughed off as absurd. 

When a profound desire to change is coupled with a prolonged period of frustration over not being able to do so, it is normal to arrive at a point where just about anything feels worthy of exploring. In turn, your ears prick up a bit higher and your eyes open a bit wider and you scan the horizon for any obscure frequencies your antennae might pick up. Like in nearly all stories, luck plays a key supporting role and your journey takes you into fortuitous situations that bring you into contact with important messengers who greet any traveler willing to step outside of the normal confines of his or her information silo. Seek and you shall find. 

In retrospect, I realize that I kept hearing the same things. It’s like a pop song: the first time you hear it, you hate it; but the radio bludgeons you over the head with it until you find yourself tapping your toes to the beat and singing the refrain in the shower. When I look back, it seems that the first time I heard that song which would later become an earworm was two decades ago when I took a course on Zen Buddhism and was introduced to the work of Alan Watts. I found a lot of his ideas compelling, but I could never really bring them into my life in any practical way and I eventually abandoned them. A decade later, a different Alan would make an important appearance, when – in my desire to rid myself of what had become a heavy smoking addiction – I happened upon an usual suspect in this journey: a self-help book by Allen Carr called The Easy Way to Quit Smoking (a separate post in honor of Carr’s unappreciated genius can be found here).

Since that time, the same themes seemed to keep popping up in my life. Friends, therapists, romantic partners and even acquaintances kept humming the same tune in different keys. They kept prescribing the same recipe with maybe minor variations in the ingredients: be mindful; try meditation; use positive affirmations; practice active gratitude; be kind to yourself; be present in the current moment and stop lamenting the past; keep your imagination from running wild and refrain from ruminating on things you can’t change; listen to your body; listen the universe; accept things. Like water dripping against stone, my wall of resistance progressively started to erode and I acquiesced to what the universe seemed to insist on telling me. 

This is what karma is. As the Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön writes:

“The idea of karma is that you continually get the teachings you need in order to open your heart. To the degree that you didn’t understand in the past how to stop protecting your soft spot, how to stop armoring your heart, you are given this gift of teachings in the form of your life, to give you everything you need to learn how to open further” .

Start Where You Are: A Guide to Compassionate Living, p. 90

I had been asking to heal and the universe kept telling me how. I might have been listening, but I wasn’t quite hearing it. I kept finding myself reliving experiences that ignited my deepest fears and insecurities because I hadn’t properly taken these instances for the gift that they were: as a great source of discovery, examination and healing which would allow me to confront my issues and definitively work past them. Finally, the universe sat me down, bound me to a chair and decided to slap me around for a bit. It took away a woman who I loved beyond what I thought was possible; who I was convinced would be the love of my life and who filled me such meaning and purpose. At about the same time, it gave me cancer. To make sure that I’d really pay attention, it grounded me indoors for 4 months in a foreign country where I didn’t know anyone so that I’d have nowhere else to turn but to the present and inward. I got the message: No dessert until I finish my vegetables. 

I had come a long way in recent years and I had made radical changes to my lifestyle so that I could transform. Like the last mile of a marathon, however, an excruciating stretch still stood between me and my goal. While my legs felt like they were going to give out, the finish line was in sight. The options were clear: either give up or focus all of my energy on each subsequent step and trust that I’d get to where I needed to go in the end. I chose the latter and with no one else to speak to during these months of isolation, I started to converse more openly with myself and with the universe. It was time, I decided, to more earnestly apply these life tools that I kept being advised to incorporate. And so, my practice of speaking to the universe was ritualized and the morning prayer was born.

The benefits of prayer 

Before discussing the specific advantages of prayer, it is important to clarify the type of prayer we are concerned with here. For many, the concept of prayer invokes imagery of asking a higher power for something. While I do make requests when I speak to the universe (more on this later), I would like to distinguish this from what I feel is a false notion of prayer. You should not, for example, expect your prayer to cause Lionel Messi to miss a penalty kick. You should not expect prayer to bring back your ex or cure your mother of cancer and you should not expect prayer to help you win the lottery. Prayer is not sitting on Santa Claus’ lap and no empirical link has ever been established between prayer and external events or external recipients of the prayers. So, while you’re welcome to ask the universe for such things, you should probably recognize that it is no more than a placebo and not what is being advanced in this article.

What is of interest here are the tangible benefits that prayer can confer upon the individual praying when undertaken as a deliberate and thoughtful act. This latter caveat is an important distinction because it implies that prayer is most effective when it is conducted in way that is meaningful to the person praying and not as something done reflexively or begrudgingly as one might have experienced as a child when forced to, e.g., recite “The Lord’s Prayer” or the “Pledge of Allegiance” (or whatever your nation’s equivalent might be).

When prayer is undertaken in a state of mindfulness, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) reveals that our medial prefontal cortex and posterior cingulate cortex are activated. Since these regions of the brain are associated with self-reflection and self-soothing, their activation implies that a parallel disengagement is occurring in those areas of our central nervous system that become active in moments of stress. When this happens, we are not only more likely to find ourselves experiencing reduced levels of anxiety and stress, but also improved executive functioning and mental clarity. This, in turn, both improves our decision making and allows us to more effectively cope with trauma (which for many of us fortunate to live in environments devoid of external physical threats would relate to trauma associated with past events and interpersonal conflict).   

In addition to reducing trauma and stress, prayer can also directly enhance our level of happiness in a number ways. While also promoting happiness through its ability to foster mindfulness and enhance relationships, it is in prayer’s association with gratitude that we find perhaps its most important benefit. Research regularly shows that gratitude is a key component of happiness and personal well-being (See, e.g., this, this, this, or this). This is extremely important because – with much of the variation in our happiness explained by genetic factors that are outside of our direct control (See, e.g., this or this) – gratitude is one of the key elements of happiness than can actually be cultivated, making it one of the most important tools at our disposal for improving our subjective well-being.

In practice, the ability to feel genuinely grateful for things that you have shifts your mind away from negative experiences or feelings of deprivation and – when practiced habitually – can help reshape your perspective of the world towards one that is more optimistic in outlook. In being grateful, moreover, we naturally identify that there are external sources for the things in our lives that we have received. Things that are externally provided are then more likely to be viewed as gifts, which promotes feelings of being blessed or fortunate. In such instances, we become less likely to focus on the things in our lives that are missing or which we have lost and instead identify ourselves as fortuitous recipients rather than deprived victims. In short, we become more likely to see the glass as half-full.

When we are able to enter such a state, two benefits emerge: (i) we become better equipped at identifying things that are pleasurable; and (ii) we train ourselves to respond to these good moments by slowing down and being present. We can sink ourselves into that ice cream cone, savor that glass of wine, and fully immerse ourselves in that kiss without having the enjoyment of it diminished by external concerns that can, quite frankly, wait. What this means, in short, is that good times increase in frequency and intensity as we learn to avoid the universal regret of not appreciating something while we have it.

Because gratitude can also assist us in reducing trauma by decreasing the frequency with which we revisit negative memories, it also becomes a particularly resourceful tool for periods of adversity – such as what we are collectively facing at present due to the global pandemic. Actively creating space for gratitude in our lives directly decreases mental space for rumination on painful thoughts and provides us with a frame of mind that is more conducive to moving forward and finding opportunities in objectively negative situations.

Research reveals that prayer is one of the ways in which we can effectively cultivate gratitude and it is easy to understand why. As demonstrated in daily religious acts of, e.g., “saying grace”, the practice of regularly setting aside time to express gratitude for events that we have come to feel entitled to (e.g., meals, life, health, relationships, shelter) limits the likelihood that we will take such things for granted and brings us into the present moment so that we might refocus our attention on the inherent joy contained in these items.

By creating a ritual around prayer, moreover, we can amplify these benefits and transform our perspectives and experiences. Through neuroscience research on the principle of neuroplasticity, we have discovered that it is possible to reshape neural pathways in the brain. This implies that we can train our minds through prayer and meditation much like we might train our bodies through physical exercise. A ritualized prayer, practiced daily, is analogous to spiritual and mental exercise that can multiply benefits over time. Thus, in designing prayers that contain meaningful prescriptions, we can create a cognitive framework that increases the likelihood that their contents come into reality (the self-fulfilling prophecy principle). Furthermore, by actively cultivating elements such as gratitude during periods of relative calm, you can build up a stockpile of mental resources that will be more easily accessible once adversity inevitably arises. In this way, prayer can provide us with a tool for distancing ourselves from past trauma, while also bolstering our immunity against new trauma (and in a much healthier way than other methods such as shutting yourself down emotionally).  

Non-religious prayer in practice

To illustrate how non-religious prayer might be designed and incorporated into your everyday life so that the above benefits can be harnessed, I will provide here an example of the prayer that I recite each morning. While a prayer such as this could be done at any time, I personally find it useful to recite shortly after waking so that I can set an effective tone for the remainder of my day.

As you will note, much of the prayer’s content reflects items of personal importance. In this respect, I would advise you to tailor your own prayer towards your specific needs and ensure that it includes a message that resonates with you and fosters strong feelings of personal attachment. Regardless of what you end up including, I would also encourage you to say the words aloud (even if only at a whisper). In my opinion, there is something more soothing about orally speaking a prayer and I find that the act of pronouncing the words slows you down and allows you to ascribe greater weight to the sentiments underlying the prayer and reflect more deeply on its meaning.

Accompanied by my morning cup of coffee and standing on my balcony looking outwards at the external world, I begin my prayer by thanking the universe for providing me with that day as well as my mother and father for giving me life. I then ask the universe to provide me with three things. First, I ask that it grant me sight so that I might see the path that I should follow. Next, I ask the universe to provide me with strength so that I might adhere to this path and overcome any obstacles that I might encounter along the way.

Lastly, I ask the universe to provide me with the capacity to love. Here, I take time to deconstruct this rather nebulous concept by enumerating various components of love that I am specifically seeking to more actively bring into my life. Namely, I request that the universe provide me with the ability to love in a way that is: 
(i) charitable (so that I might view faults in others not as something towards which to feel disgust, but rather compassion); 
(ii) kind;
(iii) understanding (so that I can see others, including the needs and pain that they may be experiencing; and so I might see negative behavior by others as originating in pain and not as personal acts of aggression or malice towards me);
(iv) generous;
(v) forgiving;
(vi) loyal;
(vii) patient; and 
(viii) self-sacrificing (so that I might embody a love willing to forego realization of my own personal desires in instances where such an act might bring greater joy to another).

I then ask that the universe provide me with the ability to apply this love to all people I interact with that day. Very importantly, I also request that I be provided with the ability to apply this love towards myself. I then take time to ask that my requests of the universe also be extended to three other people, who I name individually and pause to properly reflect upon in that moment. I conclude by again thanking the universe and expressing my intention to honor it and these gifts with the actions that I subsequently take during that day.  

I share my own personal ritual in the hope that it might assist you in bringing a similar practice into your life. To facilitate this, I’ll attempt to explain the rationale for why this sort of prayer works and what it accomplishes.

Let’s start by looking at what my morning prayer achieves (probably more by accident than by design). By beginning with expressions of gratitude, the prayer helps cultivate this important attribute and places us in a position to more effectively realize the benefits discussed in the previous section. For much of my life, I’ve been a borderline miserable person. Cultivating gratitude has had a pronounced impact on my life and helped me fundamentally transform into a person who is both happier and more optimistic. For any of you who feel less “naturally” disposed towards happiness, I strongly recommend taking efforts to bring appreciation into your consciousness.

As a word of caution, I feel that it is essential to emphasize that you should not reflexively utter these sentiments of gratitude, but rather attempt to truly reflect on the thing for which you are thankful (even if only briefly). The reason for being focused and present when expressing gratitude is simple: once you are concentrating on things for which to be grateful, you immediately attain the sensation of possessing something and shift away from any thoughts of deprivation which may be occupying your mind. As I am doing this shortly after waking, this moves me away from thoughts of how, for example, I might not have slept particularly well or how I have a ton of work in front of me. Instead, this practice immediately places me in a mental state that is more conducive to having a good and productive day.

In the act of thanking the universe for providing me with that day, the prayer ascribes value to life and brings acknowledgement to the scarcity of time. This, in turn, helps foster a perspective better equipped to appreciate the small gifts encountered throughout the day which might otherwise be taken for granted. It also reminds me to make the most of the time I’ve been provided and to spend less on things that are more trivial.

In the specific act of thanking my parents, two objectives are potentially achieved. The first is related to the previous benefit as I am again made to feel grateful for something I have which I did nothing to earn. In being reminded of the debts I owe, I am humbled and bound to others through a sense of duty and obligation. Nearly all of us can benefit from a less self-centered approach to our lives and the acknowledgment that life is good and given to us by others allows us to reaffirm the essentialness of belonging and commitment to society. Trust me, this is a really good thing to cultivate because without it we wind up with people refusing to wear Covid masks or vaccinate themselves.

If you are like me, however, you might view one or both of your parents as a source of notable torment (though this is not necessarily mutually exclusive of loving them). You might hate them or have actively hated them at some point in your life. If this is the case, an act of gratitude towards them provides an additional benefit: it allows you to plant seeds of forgiveness. In the act of thanking someone who has wronged you, you create space for compassion. Instead of a malicious person who attempted to harm you, you foster the ability to see them as flawed and scarred – just like you. When sentiments of forgiveness towards such people can be created, it reverberates outwards into your day and provides greater potential for you to apply these feelings towards people you encounter who are being a bit of a dick. (Personally, I always lament those moments where I react to aggression with more aggression, so bringing this into my mind early on each day is of great value to me.)

It is important to note that it is not really essential to actually believe that there is a universe that will provide you with something such as sight, strength or love. In the end, I’m not sure I truly believe that “the universe” would even provide these for me. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that, in the act of asking for these things, I am reaffirming to myself what is important in my life and what I want myself to cultivate within myself. I am reminding myself of what love is and how it manifests itself. I am recalling recent instances of how I’ve behaved in this way and reminding myself of those areas that are in need of greater attention and improvement. In asking for sight, I am reminding myself that there is a purpose to my life and goals for me to achieve. I am meditating on the state of my journey and giving myself space to see more clearly (whether or not a universe or God is the one providing it). In asking for strength, I am acknowledging that I am the one ultimately responsible for walking the path that I choose and recognizing that there will be difficulties ahead of me. I am preparing myself mentally, physically and emotionally to take on any challenges that I might meet and persuading myself to not be discouraged by the difficulties that will inevitably arise. I am instilling confidence in my choices and the path I am taking and asserting that I will reach my destination regardless of the detours and roadblocks that I encounter along the way. 

In the penultimate part of the prayer, I am brought back to the external world and reminded that I am tangibly part of something larger than myself. I am forced to remember that there are others in this world whom I love – who in turn weave me into the web of this thing called the universe to which I am praying. Here, I like to think of people who are either on my mind and/or who I know to be going through a bit of a rough patch. I find that it is important to think of specific people so that I can envision their faces and immediately apply some of those aforementioned elements of love.

Importantly, the act of thinking of others and wishing them well helps us recall that we are not the center of the universe and that often the universe’s plan for you is to play a key supporting role in someone else’s story. You have been given great gifts and norms of reciprocity demand that you honor those gifts by repaying them.

After closing with one last expression of gratitude and a voiced intention to honor the gifts I’ve received, I am now ready to really begin my day. If I later find myself deviating from this mindset, it is in these moments where I turn to meditation and other mindfulness exercises (which I also strongly recommend as a complement to prayer).

This practice has been incredibly helpful for me and I recommend that you give it a try if you want to harness some of the benefits mentioned in this article. Just remember that this is a type of exercise and reaching a truly transformative state will take time and persistence – just like gains from going to the gym. Wherever you’re going and however you get there, I hope the universe speeds you along your journey. Chances are it’s been trying to reach you now for a while. Pick up the phone.