What do you do when you feel bad about things that are happening to other people but aren’t able to help them. If I were Christian I would pray for them. What is the humanist alternative to prayer?
I asked this question many years ago when I was in seminary at Scarritt College for Christian Workers. I worked hard to make prayer work, but it seemed like nothing more than talking to myself. No matter what books I read or preachers I consulted, they could show me no benefit of prayer other than it gave them peace. As I searched, I soon found that meditation has all the so called benefits of prayer, without any of the hocus pocus. There are many meditative techniques, and they have the benefit of helping you think more clearly and reduce stress.
Religionists claim that prayer changes things. I would agree. Because prayer taps into the same neurological pathways that meditation uses, it brings about a peaceful feeling. Other than that, there is no evidence that it allows you to talk to supernatural beings. I always liked Ambrose Bierce’s definitions of prayer: PRAY, v. “To ask that the laws of the universe be annulled in behalf of a single petitioner confessedly unworthy.”
Occasionally, religionists accidentally hit on a prayer technique that seems to bear results in wellbeing and stress relief. In the late 1300’s an anonymous priest wrote a book called “the Cloud of Unknowing” where he describes methods that are quite similar to many taught in Buddhism and developed by modern day psychologists and neurological researchers. While he claimed that the method helped you get in touch with the supernatural, today we know that those methods are based on the way our physical brains work – nothing supernatural needed.
In the 1970’s, Dr. Herbert Benson, one of the pioneers in the area of secular meditation, looked at the claims of the Maharishi Yogi, who taught Transcendental Meditation (T.M.). TM claims that it creates peace and clear thinking in some vague and supernatural way. Dr. Benson decided to test this by studying their meditation techniques. He found that he could reproduce all the benefits of TM with some easily taught, simple techniques and none of the hocus pocus. In other words, he learned that TM was a good way to get your money, but it did not put you in touch with the supernatural, the universe, the universal mind or any other metaphysical thing. He learned that humans have a natural response to certain meditative techniques – he called this “The Relaxation Response.” His method has been used by thousands of people for decades now, including myself.
There are many teachers and practitioners of secular meditation techniques. There is good evidence that secular methods have a positive effect on the mind and body. Sam Harris, one of the most influential secularists of our time, advocates meditation techniques. You can read what he has to say at this site: http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/how-to-meditate
Many psychologists and researchers have looked at “mindfulness based stress reduction” and found that it shows scientifically valid results for those taught to practice it. You may wish to read more about it in this book.
Explore these and see what might work for you. At the same time, be very careful of meditation systems that have a supernatural component to them, that claim they help your spirit or help you get in touch with your soul. While their methods may actually work, the hocus pocus that they teach is often as destructive as the meditation is helpful. I would include many Buddhist methods in this potentially problematic area. Buddhism can be tricky because it appears, and often claims to be, atheistic, but scratch a little below the surface and most branches of Buddhism have supernatural ideas.
I hope this gives you something to consider. I believe that meditation is a good habit from which anyone can benefit. It reduces stress and definitely helps you think more clearly. People who meditate frequently are often more calm in stressful situations and less prone to make rash decisions, and are often healthier overall. It is something that requires practice. You train your brain and body to relax and let go of the constant barrage of thoughts, ideas, fears and anxieties that seem to invade our mental world. Meditation is much more valuable than prayer, since it actually has a benefit for you. I am very sure that you will find it as good or better than any praying you ever did..
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