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Soul searching

If you haven't guessed by now, this is how most of my blog posts get started.  I see something on my Facebook feed and it gets me thinking.  I've thought about prayer many times.  When I was a believing Mormon, prayer was a big part of my life.  I'd pray when I woke up in the morning, when I ate any meal (even at restaurants), when I went to bed at night and even sometimes before I had sex with my wife.

This illustration does a good job of juxtaposing the unity that believers express in their common descriptions of their spiritual experiences with the anger they often express when discovering differences in their beliefs.

Perhaps the goal of the cartoon is to point out how ridiculous prayer is.  Perhaps it's to point out how ridiculous all religions are, by showing how no one can agree on which one is the correct religion.  Or perhaps there was some other intent.  Regardless, it made me think about prayer, as I have many times since I left the LDS church.

Many irreligious people, I would wager most, probably don't think about prayer very much at all.  It's most likely just not something that passes through their field of conscious thought on a regular basis.  Some ridicule prayer as pointless and perhaps even harmful.  Some people who are atheist or otherwise irreligious may actually pray from time to time--for various reasons.

The reason this graphic sticks out to me personally is that it emphasizes the benefit of prayer and weeds out the pointless aspect of it.  Notice the parts where all of the people agree--about the feelings it makes them feel when they pray.  Then notice the parts where they all disagree--about which entity the prayer is directed toward.  I believe that is exactly where prayer is useful versus where it is useless.

If there were an entity listening to the prayers of its followers and acted accordingly, such actions would be observable by us.  For example, if Allah is the actual supreme creator of the universe, then we would notice that the prayers of Muslims would be answered more frequently than the prayers of those of other faiths.  Yet, no such correspondence has been recorded, so the most logical conclusion is that none of the entities is actually responding to any of these prayers in any observable way, which is fully equivalent to the prayer not being uttered at all.

However, in my opinion, the prayer does have an effect.  Not an effect on the outside world.  But an effect on the person offering the prayer--which, ironically, the way English is, is also the "prayer".  How do I know this?  Because I've noticed it in my own life.  What possible benefit could prayer have?  Those benefits have been well-documented.  But I want to, as usual, give a personal perspective.  What have I noticed in my own life?

As a Mormon, my prayers consisted almost entirely of two types of sentences.  Ones that begin with "please bless" and ones that begin with "thank thee for".  That is, a majority of the prayer was expressions of gratitude and expressions of desires or fears.  This is therapeutic.  It helps me acknowledge and even face the fears I'm experiencing at the time.  It gives me an opportunity to stop and reflect on the issues at sometimes I might even arrive at a solution to the problem during the meditation.  But, whether I thought of a solution or not, forcing myself to vocalize the issue did seem to help me cope with it.

Expressing gratitude is a wonderful thing.  It can brighten your day.  It can lighten your mood.  It can turn you from grumpy to happy.  Sometimes in my prayers I would think about what I should be grateful for.  Occasionally, I would try to be creative and think of new things I hadn't thought of before.  If you take something for granted, then you're displeased any time you notice it missing from your life.  If, on the other hand, you are grateful for it, then you are pleased while it is there.  As an example, let me use a recent event in my life.  I have a car.  I take it for granted.  I am not grateful for the privilege of owning a car very often.  Recently I had to take it to the shop to be repaired and I then had to find alternate means of transportation to commute.  This was a combination of getting rides from Conrad and taking public transportation.  It was an inconvenience.

Consider what difference it would make if I was grateful for my car on a daily basis.  I would be happy for the convenience that my car affords me.  It would put me in a good mood, doing no more than simply acknowledging that I was privileged to own the car and have virtually unrestricted use of it.  When my car was in the shop, I could be grateful for the mechanics being able to repair the vehicle for me, and I could be grateful to my boyfriend and to the public transportation system for conveying me to work during the time my car was being repaired.

I don't pray.  I haven't prayed in over three years.  That is, I don't pray to any supernatural entity.  But from time to time I do stop and reflect.  I have introspective moments.  I should do it more often, and I should do it with a more concerted effort, as I did when I was religious.  I have noticed some changes in my attitude and behavioral patterns that perhaps can be traced back to this lack of meditation.  I won't pray because I think it will help cure Aunt Betty's cancer.  But I will pray because I think it will make me a better person, and I recommend it to others for the same reason.

This is my resolution, to take a few minutes out of my day and contemplate the things in my life that are going well and the things which are not going well, to be grateful for the pleasant things in my life and to acknowledge and address the problems which I have in my life.  Also, to spend time thinking about what I can do to be a better person.

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