It is easy to confuse structure, content and process. This piece is about process.
To clarify the difference before we start: a movie is a structure. A novel is a different structure. A song is a third structure. Yet the content called Wuthering Heights has appeared within all three structures, suitably changed and adapted for each of them. The processes would be making or watching the movie, reading or writing the book, and singing or listening to the song.
This entry looks at the processes which are commonly called 'meditation' and 'prayer' and contrasts them with processes which have different names and which come out of the personal development movement. It also asks questions about the role and function of belief.
The word 'meditation' covers several different activities from several different traditions.
In Eastern traditions such as Buddhism, meditation is the focussing of the awareness on a single thing. Concentration in its purest form. The focus may be an internal aspect of the body such as the breath or walking, it may be an external physical object such as a candle flame, a leaf or a stream, or it may be an emotion such as metta, or loving-kindness.
One tradition of meditation takes the form of guided visualisations where whoever is leading the meditation talks the meditators through some sort of journey, starting in a wood perhaps, and ending on a mountain. The purpose here is to release imagery from the subconscious in order to observe and interpret it.
In Christianity 'meditation' usually focuses on a concept. St Augustine's meditations are really essays on particular subjects. Some Christians include meditation as part of their practice: the clergy in the Church of England meditate on Christ's betrayal, trial, death and resurrection during Holy Week.
A mantra is a word or phrase which is repeated. The objective may be to distract part of the mind, freeing up the rest for meditation. Or the meaning of the mantra may itself be the focus of meditation. The most eastern of the Christian traditions, the Orthodox Church uses the Jesus Prayer - 'Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner' - in the same way that mantras are used in Asian spiritual practice. Dom John Main wrote about Christian meditation and recommended the use of the word 'Maranatha', which means 'Come, Lord... Come, Lord Jesus'. Some people find the Kyries1 to be a good mantra either chanted or spoken.
Chanting itself has a physical effect on the body, generating alpha brain waves2 lowering the blood pressure and slowing the pulse. Chanting can be heard in many religious practices, including the Gregorian Chant of the Christian Church and in Buddhist and other eastern traditions.
Prayer is more of a dialogue or a monologue. Prayer at its simplest is talking to God. Most prayers are verbal, and many are written down formally. In some liturgies prayers are sung, and the line between prayers, hymns, psalms and canticles is blurred. Prayers can themselves be an object of meditation, and the Jesus Prayer is an example of this.
Most traditions of Christianity advocate either informal or formal daily prayer. This can still be seen in School Assemblies, and in the requirement that priests say the Mass daily in the Roman Catholic Church, and in the expectation that the clergy say Morning and Evening Office (Mattins and Evensong) daily in the Church of England.
Prayer usually has an objective. People pray for something, whether that is strength to deal with whatever is facing them, or divine intervention in the weather or for a particular football result. Jesus Christ constantly emphasised the power of faith to heal the body, claiming that his miracles were the result of the faith of the person healed, not the result of any external act of his. In Christianity, the faith is belief in the redeeming power of the Christian God. But when we look at the same processes in a secular environment we see the same emphasis on belief.
Affirmations, Visualisations and Self-improvement
Where it gets interesting is when we move away from spiritual practice and look at the self-improvement movement which has become so popular in the 20th and 21st Centuries. Early writers within the self-help movement were Napoleon Hill and Dale Carnegie. The original focus was on development of character and moral qualities as a human being, and on material success and achievement. The techniques which worked were adapted by sports people, and there is a loosely symbiotic relationship today between people coaching success in sport, business and in personal contexts. The two techniques which became standards are daily affirmation, and visualisation.
Affirmations at one time were seen as the quick way to character change, a sort of personal hypnosis. They are discredited now as more refined techniques have been developed. As Anthony Robbins says:
There is no point in saying 'there-are-no-weeds-in-my-garden-there-are-no-weeds-in-my-garden-there-are-no-weeds-in-my-garden' if you don't do something about it. They'll take the garden while you stand there saying it.
He pin-points the fact that affirmations about external reality do not work. However the original proponents of affirmations were recommending them as a tool to change internal realities. Either 'I like weeds' or 'I love gardening'.
The most usual method recommended for affirmations is first to still the mind and the body, (most of the techniques recommended for this come directly or indirectly from eastern meditation practices) and then to repeat the chosen affirmation or affirmations. They work best worded in the first person, in the present tense and in a positive structure. ('I like weeds' not 'I won't mind the weeds'). Affirmations should be believable. Affirm that you are capable of doubling your income, rather than affirming that you are capable of making it multiply ten times. And affirmations should be said in an emotional frame of positive expectancy and excitement.
The key elements are positive expectation, belief and daily repetition.
Here we can see that the process of affirmation draws on elements of meditation and mantra, and combines them with the daily repetition of prayer and other practices, and that both affirmation and prayer lay strong emphasis on belief. The Lord's Prayer could be seen as a spiritual affirmation.
Visualisation is widely acknowledged as a powerful tool for physical and mental achievement. Bones heal more quickly and cleanly if the injured person visualises themselves using their limb normally. Track and field athletes will often talk of visualising the winning post, or visualising the time that they hope to achieve. Visualisation is also taught to help people give good performances on stage and in public speaking, as well as to help people achieve material and business success.
Visualisation has a measurable effect on the body, and it is clear that it also has an effect on emotions and the mind. In the self-improvement movement, visualisation exercises are used to enhance positive emotion, and to re-inforce belief.
From what has been said already, it can be seen that visualisation - the focus of the attention on a single internal reality - is a form of meditation. The content may be winning a race or closing a deal, but the process is a meditative one.
One activity which is clearly seen both in the self-development movement and in some religious traditions is Dynamic Meditation. This includes activities such as fire dancing, and was practiced by the Whirling Dirvishes. Again, the activity and the way it is performed, bring about changes in the body and in the mind. Anthony Robbins trains people to fire walk as a way of overcoming fear.
There is a long tradition of walking meditation; and both swimming and running can be highly meditative activities. What makes the difference between just swimming or running and doing either as a dynamic meditation is focus. For example focusing on the exact replication of movement, or on the sensation of water around the body, or on the way the weight of the body is transferred across the sole of each foot. It is not a fluffy state of unfocussed drifting, it is a concentration of the attention on one single aspect of the movements you are making.
The Importance of Emotion and Positive Expectation
The keys to using affirmation and visualisation to create changes, (whether you use them directly as the self-help movement does, or in the form of prayer as most religions do), are intensely held emotion and positive expectation.
If you want something passionately, the power of that emotion will make micro-changes in the way that you behave, in your reactions to situations, and in how people respond to you, so that you will achieve your goal.
Expectations, both your own expectations of yourself, and in particular the expectations that people have of you, have a disproportionately high effect on your ability to perform. This is why it is important to have a high-expectations boss, one who tells you that they believe in you and in what you can achieve; and why it is vital to do what you can to ensure that the teachers of your children expect them to blossom and grow in their care. And high expectations coaches and team managers make more difference to the performance of a football team than the raw quality of the players.
And there is a cycle of reinforcement here. Those people who believe in a god who loves them and wants the best for them, will find examples of the personal goodness of their god in their own lives, and will change their behaviour in response to manifestations of divine grace.
Process, Content and Belief
The really difficult questions then come when you take these observable facts, that meditation, prayer, affirmation and visualisation share common processes and structures, and ask 'what about content?'.
The conclusion is unavoidable that at least part of the way in which prayer works is as affirmation and visualisation. The processes are almost identical, with a similar emphasis based on the efficacy of belief. As Henry Ford said 'Whether you think you can, or whether you think you can't, you are right'. Theistic religions3 place emphasis on belief in an external locus of control, and some prayers to their gods sound like a shopping list. Atheistic religions such as Buddhism and Taoism place emphasis on practice, and use the feedback loops between the body and the mind to bring about changes in both the mind and the body - and thereby in the spirit too. In this respect they are nearer to the self-help movement than either usually admit.
It seems that what you believe is less important than the process of belief. And it cannot be proven or even satisfactorily argued that there is a divine process at work.
Unless of course you believe that providing a process which works is in itself an act of God.