Psychology Topic 6/14/2020

Comparing Prayer and Meditation between Religions

Throughout the years that humanity has had some sense of civilization, there have been religions. Doctrines that help compartmentalize the chaos and volatility of our world, so that we may find solace. There may be a god, or gods, or nothing at all depending on the theocratic perspectives you follow. We all like the idea that our own perspective is the correct one, and not everyone likes to toy with the idea that they may be wrong. But today I would like to put some of these religious practices under the microscope, not to judge their validity, but rather to compare how some of the traditions affect human behaviors.

The most common practice that could be compared between religions would be prayer, or meditation. Prayer for one, typically involves the idea that one shares their thoughts and wishes to a deity or deities in the hope for a response of some form. The interpretation of this response varies by individual and how it is attributed to changes in their daily lives, or potentially in their afterlife. Meditation on the other hand is observed by religions that subscribe to an afterlife, and religions that do not (i.e. Hinduism and Buddhism). These practices are not so much as a call out to divine powers, but rather a search inside oneself to learn more about their mind and the affect it has on their body. Both of these concepts I have presented are oversimplified, but I believe it gets the point across.

Interestingly enough, meditation has made it into western cultures, likely appropriated back in the 1960’s and 1970’s, at least in the United States. Meditation has now been used in non-religious practices with the promises that it can help improve one’s mental health. One difference you may hear in a religions use of meditation versus a non religious use, a religious purpose of meditation is not to gain something from it, but it is a practice that embodies the faith itself. There are numerous different perspectives for what practice of meditation is meant for, some which English translations may not be able to explain to westerners.

But what about Buddhism versus Hinduism? This to me is an interesting topic, especially because they both practice meditation, but Hinduism voices a much larger importance on the idea of an afterlife, while in Buddhism the role of an afterlife varies based on the sect and generally states the existence of an afterlife is moot. Hinduism is a religion I have limited knowledge on, but I would go as far to say the similarities between Buddhism and Hinduism could be analogous to Christianity/Judaism/Islam. For those who follow one of these religions closely, this analogy may come off as ignorant or offensive, and to those, I apologize.

Back to the main idea at hand, how do the practices of prayer and meditation compare? Buddhism typically recommends at least two 45 minute sessions of meditation, one in the morning, and one in the evening. Islam requires multiple prayers a day, the specific sect determines if the time or place matters. Christianity and Judaism has a large variety or expectations for prayer, in my own upbringing as a Catholic, we were encouraged to pray at least once a day. Hinduism is said to have an expectation of prayer 3 times a day. So how do these practices affect our minds from a psychological perspective?

Meditation has been studied in psychology for quite some time now, most of the time resulting in significant findings as a helpful coping technique for mental health. But what about prayer? As I am not up to date on any psychology studies about prayer I will make inferences from my own personal experiences. As I stated before, I was raised Catholic, as I aged I felt a stronger attraction towards Atheism, then Agnosticism, then Zen Buddhism, and now Theravada Buddhism. The one thing that I remember truly enjoying about the Catholic upbringing was the time spent in reflection and prayer, and then song.

Hinduism is known for incorporating song into prayer and meditation. One yogi who has worked on bringing the practice to the western cultures is Krishna Das. After following some of his chants and lectures I had noticed similar feelings of euphoria that I similarly felt during prayer and during Buddhist Meditation. To me it seems that these practices of prayer, meditation, and song all activate similar parts of the brain that create some sense of peace and solace. From a psychological perspective, it does not surprise me that these religions have kept these practices for so many years, it often makes one feel better about life, like they are a part of something bigger than themselves, or reigniting faith and hope that the world is not as cruel and painful as we may find ourselves thinking during our lifetimes.

Who wouldn’t want to experience euphoria? Even if it lasted for a short amount of time. If we had a button that released all of the happy feeling neurotransmitters in our brain, we would wear out that button, and likely die from ignoring our essentials to keep on living. These awe inspiring moments likely contribute to our dedication to our own spiritual views. There are likely a vast number of explanations about how Atheists cope, for example hedonism or humanitarianism. We typically do not follow doctrines that lead to pain and suffering, when we do that, we likely find ourselves depressed.

As much as some of us may not want to admit, there seem to be many more similarities between religions than differences. Differences are more commonly explained and identified. This may stem from humans desire to be associated with a group and do not wish for those lines to be blurred. As well our stubbornness towards our personal ideologies are likely reinforced by how we believe our views affect our lives and potential afterlife. A desire to be a part of a group begins to fall more into a sociological conversation. All in all, I believe that we as humans follow a code of ethics and doctrines, religious or not, as a way to simplify life so we do not have to consistently face existential questions, leaving more energy and time for survival and other aspects of life.

Before I end this entry, I want to state that the information I provided is mostly from experience, lectures from spiritual leaders, philosophers, and conversations I have had with people coming from different backgrounds. I do not have a formal education in religious studies, and what I say should be taken with a grain of salt. I believe it is safe to say that everyone would explain their views of their own religion differently, even if they are a part of the same religious community. Please be kind and compassionate to others, no matter what beliefs they follow.

-Thoughts of a Writing Freak

Articles/Opinion Psychology

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