Again I would like to include a three-part lecture series I was
asked to give at Edinburgh's Divinity School, at its New College,
about what I had gleaned from my scientific study of prayer.
Parts of these general lectures provide a fair background, I believe.
Prayer is an universal phenomenon, present in all peoples
and cultures. Prayer's historical antecedents are prehistoric.
And prayer is expressed and experienced at multidimensional
There are so many forms of prayer: personal, public, devotional,
petitional, liturgical, silent, meditative, contemplative, centering,
body control, biofeedback, transcendental, zazen, etc. There are
so many styles and labels.
What really happens to us, to those of us who seriously engage in
prayer? Some of us feel accepted or saved. Some experience "God"
at greater levels. Some feel better physically and mentally. Some
feel let down. Perhaps these various experiences depend on our
levels and comprehension of prayer. Lots probably depends on the
culture and religious system in which we reside, too.
Earlier, older studies usually relate only descriptive information
about the phenomenon of prayer. I am thinking, of course, of William
James, Rudolf Otto, and Evelyn Underhill.
James notes that when prayer goes beyond some recited formula,
it is then that prayer "rises and stirs the soul..." For him real, deeply
intent prayer engaged in intercourse with "God," is *real religion.*
[William James, THE VARIETIES OF RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE,
Mentor Books, 1958, p. 352.]
Otto actually does not even use the word "prayer." I checked. But
he does allude to "contemplation," that when deeply absorbed a
mind is submitted to *impressions* of the universe. Otto relates this
to a special kind of cognition, of knowing, in terms of intuition, surmises,
or inklings. [Rudolf Otto, THE IDEA OF THE HOLY, Oxford University
Press, 1950, pp. 146-147.]
Underhill places prayer under the title of "orison." She provides
extensive descriptions of the experiences of prayer, especially the
prayer of union and the prayer of quiet. She gets into the degrees of
prayer. She talks about the intuitional, about rapture (ecstasy), about
unknowing--but most always, again, in just religious terms. Her book,
however, is a landmark. [See Evelyn Underhill, MYSTICISM: A STUDY
IN THE NATURE AND DEVELOPMENT OF MAN'S SPIRITUAL
CONSCIOUSNESS, New American Library, 1974. This book was
originally published in the early part of the 20th century. ]
The Jesuit William Johnston has written lots about prayer. Living and
teaching in Japan, he is knowledgeable of both Eastern and Western
forms. He talks about different physical states, scientifically verified,
when engaged in deep prayer. But what I like most is a small idea he
injected in one of his books-- talking about the mantra "Honour to the
lotus sutra," Johnson discusses the claims that "the vibrations thus
aroused tap the life-force which governs the activity of the whole
universe." [William Johnston, THE INNER EYE OF LOVE,
Harper & Row, 1978, p. 165.]
There's no denying that prayer is a powerful phenomenon. And I
really do wonder if it is as of yet a mainly untapped human ability
(or faculty) that actually might serve as a psychic channel to other
dimensional levels of the Universe--and thus a channel to greater
cosmic comprehension. Is it possible to discuss and study prayer
outside of a strictly religious context and study it as not only a special
human faculty but as perhaps a universal communications systems--
of which we are only becoming aware?
Now let's look at some of Larry Dossey and Rupert Sheldrake's ideas
about prayer. Larry Dossey, M.D., is the Executive Director of the
Journal of Alternative Therapies. He also once served as the division
head of Alternative Medicine, the US National Institutes of Health. As
for Rupert Sheldrake, he has served in the following positions: Fellow
and Director of Studies in cell biology and biochemistry at Clare
College, Cambridge; Science Philosopher at Harvard University;
Research Fellow of the Royal Society (UK); and a member of the
Institute of Noetic Sciences. He is famous (or controversial) because
of his theory of morphogenetic fields in biology.
Dossey focuses-in on two experiments in relation to prayer. He
considers the work that cardiologist Randolph Byrd, with San
Francisco State General Hospital and formerly a professor of the
University of California, carried out with prayer and human patients.
Dossey also draws upon the work done with prayer and plant
material, which was carried out by the Spindrift researchers in
And Sheldrake picks-up with some of Dossey's commentary on
prayer. But let's proceed with Dossey.
Dossey considers that prayer involves a quality of consciousness
that could be considered *nonlocal.* What does this mean? First,
as Dossey puts it: "local" means something in the here and now.
Local mind as represented in the scientific materialistic view
essentially means the mind is localized strictly in the brain. On the
other hand, "nonlocal" is a consciousness that is not confined to
just brains and bodies, but rather is a kind of extended mind that
can spread out over enormous distances.
With this background, let's return to Dossey's focus on the Byrd and
Spindrift experiments regarding prayer. The Byrd experiment involved
recruiting dispersed Roman Catholic and Protestant prayer groups to
pray for designated sick people. The results, generally, are as follows:
the patients prayed for were less likely to require antibiotics; they were
less likely to develop pulmonary edema; they did not require endo-
trachael intubation; and fewer of these patients died.
In the Spindrift experiment the testing involved prayers and rye seeds.
It was an effort to investigate the power of prayer on non-human forms,
in particular on plant life. The rye seeds were placed into different sides
(A and B) of a container. Only one side was prayed for--and the results
showed significantly more rye shoots for the seeds prayed for. Beyond
this, in terms of praying for the sick--the Spindrift researchers "stressed"
certain rye seeds by adding salt water to their container. After prayer
these stressed seeds seemed to overcome their adverse environment
and sharply increased rye shoots.
Considering these experiments, Dossey wonders how prayer "knows"
which seeds to help. Indeed how does prayer "know" which patients
or people to help? Sheldrake has some opinions about this.
Sheldrake links his theory of morphic fields with the idea of an
extended nonlocal mind. Sheldrake sees mind in terms of "mental
fields." In this case, he means minds that go beyond, through, and
interface with the electromagnetic patterns of the brain. These mental
fields can extend over large distances.
Perhaps at this point, however, before we proceed, a brief review
of Sheldrake's theory would be in order!
Sheldrake's short explanation of morphogenetic fields are that they
are causal fields "with an inherent" memory provided by morphic
resonance. Beyond biological fields, there are other kinds of morphic f
ields--such as mental fields, behavioral fields, social fields. There are
fields acting through fields at all levels of reality. They interface with one
another; and, consequently, for Sheldrake there is no mind-body
Now--it is these mental fields to which Sheldrake believes there is a
"medium of connection" through which prayer works! At this point
Sheldrake draws back to Dossey's question, about how prayer
"knows" the recipient.
Sheldrake contends that a mental field is about a series of connections
between us and people, animals, places, etc., that we know and care
about. Morphic fields have to have a mental connection--there has to
be a link between the sender and recipient in prayer. A mental field
cannot simply spread serendipity, whether in terms of recipient or
locale. In some way the pray-er has to know (or know of) the recipient.
The above provides some other approaches (besides religious) to
prayer. But at this point we have talked mostly of prayer only in the
context of nonlocal mind--the human collective mind.