Prayer and Meditation: Considerations of Distinction and Overlaps
For many religious and spiritual traditions spending time in quiet solitude is common place. An individual is supposed to separate themselves from the rest of the world, slow down the normally constantly racing mind and manifest calm reverence. As to what is done during that quiet time can be diverse. One division that is made is between prayer and meditation. The former consistently connected with faiths of the Judeo-Christian line and the latter stemming predominantly from what could defined as eastern religions. What truly is the differences between these however? Both seem to share many similarities in outward appearances, but what are some of differing effects on the mind of those who practice these traditions and how does it affect the lives of the practitioners in the rest of their lives and effects do they seem to share?
Definitions From Ancient Traditions
Prayer obviously coming from a variety of traditions has multiple forms, stemming from the more structured, such as the Salat in Islam, to the open-ended, like the familial gratitude prayer before a meal commonly practiced in many households. A common thread in these different seems to be prayer as an act of supplication and remembrance of a higher power.
“So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” — Luke 11:9, King James Bible
“Seek assistance through patience and prayer” — Surah Al-Baqarah : Ayah 155–157, The Qur’an
“Whoso reciteth, in the privacy of his chamber, the verses revealed by God, the scattering angels of the Almighty shall scatter abroad the fragrance of the words uttered by his mouth, and shall cause the heart of every righteous man to throb.” — Gleanings From the Writings of Baha’u’llah
All religions who use prayer as a spiritual practice point to the benefits provided through prayer stating that assistance and help can be found in the trust and love of a Divine source. By asking for help and praying to an omniscient being you will be given access to what you desire. Also by attributing and making regular testaments to one’s state and to the state of a higher being, you will be fulfilling the purpose for which you were created and will gain peace. Many traditions claim prayers as way of life that soon extends beyond the individual practice itself and causes the practitioner to be in constant remembrance of a higher power throughout their daily lives, but for research purposes, it would helpful to begin with the simple definition of quiet time spent in communion with a higher power.
Meditation similarly has a diverse set of forms that it could take, such as the popular mindfulness meditation which hopes to assist the practitioner to concentrate all of their attention to what is occurring in the present. Loving kindness meditation is another form where individuals, beginning either with a loved one or possibly themselves, imagine the happiness and removal of suffering for their person of focus. They then progressively do the same for people they have little feelings for or even those for whom they harbor ill will. Though there are differing forms there still seems to be the uniting method of looking inwards. This looking inwards allows one to examine the assumptions one has created about the world so that a better understanding can arise. For meditation, tradition would suggest that wisdom comes from an understanding that any conception our minds create is but an attempt to make sense of the world around us and that this meaning we attribute to certain things is a particular understanding, that understanding could be erroneous or at least limited and through meditation new wisdom can arise from destructing previous understandings.
“We are shaped by our thoughts; we become what we think. When the mind is pure, joy follows like a shadow that never leaves.” — The Dhammapada, 1. The Twin Verses, verse 2
“While you meditate you are speaking with your own spirit. In that state of mind you put certain questions to your spirit and the spirit answers: the light breaks forth and the reality is revealed.”
- Paris Talks, Abdu’l — Baha
For myself, I regularly practice in both methods and reap somewhat different though not entirely separate benefits. To spend time in quiet solitude has brought me peace and calm, so I often do both in a continuous session, beginning with meditation and ending with prayer. Meditation, as mentioned before, is the examining of oneself and through exposure of different manners I have been able to make realizations about myself, such as a difficulty in accepting myself and a lack of mindfulness, that have made my prayer become more fruitful. By taking the time to meditate before praying, not only do I find myself in a more reverent mood, I also seem to know what to ask for and feel directed to seek the wisdom that world has to offer me and this is how I see the relationship between prayer and meditation. The latter being an internal check in to figure out what I need assistance in and the former being a consolidation of the intention to act upon what I am asking for. Two aspects of a truly single process.
In fact each seem to mutually support the other. One issue that kept recurring when I was praying was I began to lose a sense of warmth that I once had with the practice. The prayer themselves felt almost as bondages, as if I was asking for things and expecting things of me that I maybe never intended to fulfill, such as ‘I pray for assistance in being more kind with others’ and then that would become an expectation I would place myself that if not improved upon, would cause a small amount of guilt and would build over time. Causing over time a lackluster effect on my time spent in prayer. When we spent time with analytic mindfulness meditation I found I was able, with continued practice, to release some the expectations I had placed on myself and a sense of love and acceptance seemed to take its place. Inversely, the focus I have developed and the appreciation of solitude I have enkindled with prayer have all contributed to my success in meditating. In my personal life journey, both seem to play essential roles in my mental health and the lack of one would be a sacrifice to the whole.
The lines between prayer and meditation don’t seem to be entirely clear borders as well. At the end of a mindfulness meditation it might be common to end with the silent utterance of an intention that comes to the practitioner’s mind. One might even call it a prayer to the universe. For me this the seamless transition into prayer and my own personal proof that is not entirely needed to divide them in one’s daily life. However, for the purposes of research it would seem helpful to have distinctive definitions.
In regards to wisdom and the acquiring of insight these differences between prayer and meditation become particularly important. In prayer you’re asking for wisdom, among other things, to be revealed or shown to you from the Divine source from which it is believed that all wisdom comes from. A certain receptiveness is then created within the individual as they keep their eyes open for the answer to this call for wisdom and they begin to look outwards. Now in my personal experience for prayer this is useful in certain circumstances and counterproductive in others. In times where action is required and effort needs to be invested for the acquisition of wisdom, such as practice in the act of kindness, a belief in the support of a Divine source is helpful to spur on my efforts. In other situations, such as when I need to examine my own assumptions of how I understand kindness, meditation is more helpful. So if my understanding of kindness or the implementation of kindness is incorrect, time spent meditating on this subject would allow me to possibly initially let go of my incorrect understanding and then reformulate a new understanding of kindness. This is then how I see meditation and prayer being most inline with one another. Meditation assists in the clarifying of one’s understandings of the world, while prayer can be the intention to act upon these understandings and possibly look at new steps to be taken or ideas to be examined in further meditation.
Now what does the research literature have to say about how the possible differences or similarities affect the mental health of an individual who is practicing these methods regularly? Research seem to suggest some similarities. Both seem to lower stress among their practitioners. In a meta-analytic review of mindfulness-based therapies, large effect sizes in the decrease of anxiety and depressive symptoms were found. 0.95 for anxiety and 0.97 for depression (Hofmann, S., Sawyer, A., Witt, A., & Oh, D. 2009). In another study, 15 participants were put through a program of 10 weekly 2-hour group sessions and individual practice of Centering Prayer, which shares some striking similarities to meditation, where they spend time finding God within themselves, 2-times daily (Ferguson, J. V. 2010). Participants cited lower stress levels and noted concern over stress being lessened as a heightened awareness for more important things, such as their relationship with God. Further research would need to be done to validate this study due to its small sample size and wholly Catholic grouping. There also seem to be some differences. In one study, regular frequency in a prayer practice was correlated with lower psychoticism, a personality trait associated with aggressiveness and interpersonal hostility as well as creativity, scores while regular meditation was associated with higher psychoticism scores (Kaldor, P. W. 2002). This could show possible effects of meditation and prayer, showing somewhat negative effects for meditation. Another explanation could be that particular types of personalities choose one method over the other or found meditation or prayer more helpful in lifes. Thereby, possibly providing a distinction in the purposes of usage of meditation and prayer.
For prayer in particular though, there are a lot of conflicting research findings (Ellison, C., & Bradshaw, M., et al 2014). With some studies providing the benefits of prayer, such as the lowered reports of anger and aggression (Bremner, R., Koole, S., & Bushman, B. 2011). In a study with college students, researchers found that praying, for strangers, friends, and individuals who had provoked them, lowered reported levels of anger and aggression. Then other studies had findings that suggested a positive correlation between the frequency of prayer and the perception of God as remote and several different forms of psychopathology. Implying that a view of God as a remote and uninterested being in one’s life could be the cause of distress and frequent prayer increases this sense of remoteness. Multiple other studies have similarly conflicting results ( ).
This seems to be in part due to some variability in the definitions researchers utilize when defining prayer ( Hill, P., & Pargament, K 2003). In attempts to provide some structure to further research on the subject, Margaret Poloma and Brian Pendleton formulated a measure for four specific types of prayer (Poloma, M. F. 1989). These include meditative prayer, or prayer spent either in quiet contemplation of God or attempts to hear His will, ritualist prayer, or prayer done using memorizations from holy books or reading from scriptures, petitionary prayer, or prayer spent asking for material things, and colloquial prayer, or prayer that is spoken in your own words and also includes your possible wants and desires, such as an end to the world’s suffering or for guidance. These four different types of prayer were then scored on scales of life satisfaction, religious satisfaction, prayerful experiences (a sense of well-being during prayer) negative affect, existential well-being, and happiness. Findings were shown that simply frequent prayer brings ambiguous results in many of these scores and what seems to be more important is the style of prayer. Ritualist prayer was correlated with negative affect, which they suggested might lead individuals who on engage in this type of prayer to become sad, lonely, and tense. While meditative prayer was associated with existential well-being, as well as religious satisfaction. Colloquial prayer was the only type seemingly associated with happiness. These findings might lend themselves to the idea that different forms of time spent in solitude, even different types of prayer might lead themselves to specific situations. These findings, particularly of meditative prayer, also might lend themselves to the idea that meditation and prayer are more difficult to separate than previously thought.
Meditation research on the other hand has been able to be a bit less ambiguous in its findings, with some of its effects including help with HIV pathogenesis, depression relapse, inflammation, drug abuse (Creswell, J., & Lindsay, E. 2014). This consistency may be in part to the majority of studies being focused on mindfulness meditation. By defining more specifically what kind of meditation is intended to be study, meditation researchers have been able to create a slightly larger body of literature, becoming “one of the world’s most widely practiced, enduring, and researched psychological disciplines” (Walsh, R., & Shapiro, S. 2006).
Both prayer and meditation seem to share some research concerns in that for both practices it is still very unclear as to which components provide the benefits recorde (Walsh, R. 2011). Is it simply sitting in solitude that provides these benefits? Is it the closing of one’s eyes? or even the sitting on a comfortable cushion? Some of the referenced studies had their subjects participate in group sessions, which might lend itself to the possibility that simply having access to a support network might be causing the benefits perceived to be coming from prayer or meditation. It seems very clear that further research needs to be done to account for these possibilities.
After looking at the current research, it is abundantly clear that to be able understand what possible benefits that prayer and meditation distinctively provide and how they may or may not provide mutual supplementation for mental health requires a better understanding of what each brings to the table. In addition, research could be structured around the effects of when prayer is practiced in isolation, when meditation is practiced in isolation, and when both are done concurrently. This would give greater insight into whether the similarities in things suchs as improvement of stress levels and life satisfaction for both prayer and meditation would build off one another.
In conclusion, meditation and prayer are infinitely complex phenomenon in and of themselves and though I or many other maybe able to provide anecdotal evidence of the benefits each claim to provide, much more investigation must be undergone to fully understand them, and by extension how they interact with one another. Our understanding seems fuzzy at best.
Bradshaw, M. J. (2008). Prayer, God Imagery, and Symptoms of Psychopathology. Journal For The Scientific Study Of Religion, 47(4), 644–659.
Bremner, R., Koole, S., & Bushman, B. (2011). “Pray for Those Who Mistreat You”: Effects of Prayer on Anger and Aggression. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37(6), 830–837.
Creswell, J., & Lindsay, E. (2014). How Does Mindfulness Training Affect Health? A Mindfulness Stress Buffering Account. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 23(6), 401–407.
Ellison, C., & Bradshaw, M., et al (2014). Prayer, Attachment to God, and Symptoms of Anxiety-Related Disorders among U.S. Adults. Sociology of Religion, 75(2), 208–233.
Ferguson, J. V. (2010). Centering Prayer as a Healing Response to Everyday Stress: A Psychological and Spiritual Process. Pastoral Psychology, 59(3), 305–329
Hackney, C. S. (2003). Religiosity and Mental Health: A Meta–Analysis of Recent Studies. Journal For The Scientific Study Of Religion, 42(1), 43–55.
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Hofmann, S., Sawyer, A., Witt, A., & Oh, D. (2009). The Effect Of Mindfulness-based Therapy On Anxiety And Depression: A Meta-analytic Review. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 78(2), 169–183.
Kaldor, P. W. (2002). Personality and Spirituality: Christian Prayer and Eastern Meditation Are Not the Same. Pastoral Psychology, 50(3), 165–172.
Poloma, M. F. (1989). Exploring Types Of Prayer And Quality Of Life: A Research Note. Review Of Religious Research, 31(1), 46.
Priester, P. C. (2009). The Frequency of Prayer, Meditation and Holistic Interventions in Addictions Treatment: A National Survey. Pastoral Psychology, 58(3), 315–322.
Walsh, R. (2011). Lifestyle And Mental Health. American Psychologist, 66(7), 579–592.
Walsh, R., & Shapiro, S. (2006). The Meeting Of Meditative Disciplines And Western Psychology: A Mutually Enriching Dialogue. American Psychologist, 61(3), 227–239.