How Prayer Creates Positive States of Mind

I’ve been exploring what the Baha’i Faith teaches about Baha’u’llah’s daily obligatory prayers and comparing it to what is known in neurobiology about learning and states of mind. 

I’ve always wondered: can prayer help us, not only from the perspective of the soul and the spirit, but from the perspective of our minds, as well?

Now let me say right off, me being me, the word “obligatory” tends to personally trigger an immediate feeling of resistance. You might feel that way, too, but bear with me and we’ll explore why that shouldn’t always be the case.

Baha’u’llah asked those who are Baha’is to pray daily, and to use one of three optional prayers: short, medium, or long. Of those, I have usually chosen the shortest – composed of three sentences said once in each 24-hour period. This says more about me than it does about the prayers, I suspect.

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But after thinking more about it, I’m beginning to understand that the long obligatory prayer may have a lot going for it – well, of course it does spiritually, but I mean neurobiologically speaking. Perhaps the Baha’i obligation to say these prayers has something to do with their potency and the benefits they bestow. Maybe longer is better?

According to Abdu’l-Baha, one of the purposes of the obligatory prayers involves creating what neuroscience calls a shift in one’s “state of mind” from negative to positive, no matter what the external stresses may be. He said:

Obligatory prayer is the very foundation of the Cause of God. Through it joy and vitality infuse the heart. Even if every grief should surround Me, as soon as I engage in conversing with God in obligatory prayer, all My sorrows disappear and I attain joy and gladness. A condition descendeth upon Me which I am unable to describe or express. 

Notice that Abdu’l-Baha describes a shift that – but for the prayer – would not have occurred. A key marker of the shift is emotion. In this example he explains that even an extremely intense negative state, surrounded with “every grief ” can shift to “joy and gladness.” The shift is a whole-body experience too. He calls it a “condition” that comes over him that he is unable to describe.

What does neuroscience have to say about this?

Daniel J. Siegel, MD, a well-known professor of psychiatry at UCLA and the author of numerous articles and books, coined the term “interpersonal neurobiology” to describe the complex interface of human experiences and basic biological developmental processes. He speaks often and at length about states of mind.

Siegel defines the mind as energy and information flow within an embodied brain that includes that thing between both of your ears – sometimes called the “headband brain” but also the entire rest of your body (and your relationships too, by the way). The activity of the mind includes thoughts, yes, but emotions, too. In fact, this “embodied brain” encompasses the totality of you.  

Dr. Seigel explains in The Developing Mind that learning depends on experience. He says, “Experience activates certain pathways in the brain, strengthening existing connections and creating new ones.” Through experiences, we develop our states of mind. 

Those states of mind, Seigel explains, cause the brain to create patterns that allow it to achieve efficiency and cohesion despite the randomness and chaos of everyday life. 

According to Seigel, “A ‘state of mind’ can be defined as the total patterns of activation in the brain at a particular moment in time … .”  Another term for this phenomenon is a “neural net profile.” These patterns not only coordinate brain activity in any given moment, they are remembered and repeated. Practice makes them more likely to become patterns that our minds rely upon in the future.  

Emotion plays a key role here, helping to coordinate our states of mind. Emotions can trigger the brain to shift into previously experienced states. Over time, practice literally structures the brain’s interconnections – and that determines its functional capacity. 

This is all a fancy way of saying that experience alters your brain. The change is not just a passing thought, but rather a full-body, emotion-laden sensory experience that lays the groundwork for similar experiences in the future. 

Paying attention to an inner state of mind can strengthen it, Seigel says. Awareness and intention are key. Eventually, a state of mind can be called upon when needed and be under our conscious control. 

In other words, when a state of mind is experienced, it leaves a neural trace, like a pathway through a dense meadow. The more the same path is trodden, the clearer the pathway becomes. Once the pathway is well-trodden, it becomes easy to see and follow. In other words, with repeated practice, we learn. We can actually learn to be happy, to enter into bliss, to feel spiritually engaged and enriched.

Siegel teaches people to do this in a process he calls “Mindsight.” (He wrote a book by the same name.) He says, “…one of the most exciting scientific discoveries of the last twenty years” is how focused  attention shapes the structure of the brain. 

Based on this discussion then, from a neurobiological perspective, the long obligatory prayer may have more potency, shall we say, than the shorter prayer. Since it includes recommended changes in posture throughout the course of the prayer, like standing, sitting, and bowing, it engages the entire body. Those movements have the potential to capture my full attention while I’m focusing on the spiritual significance of the words. The longer time span may increase the probability that practiced pathways become engrained. 

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In Seigel’s interpersonal neurobiology full attention is called “awareness.” Notice that Abdu’l-Baha’s quote above continues using that exact word:

Whenever, with full awareness and humility, we undertake to perform the Obligatory Prayer before God, and recite it with heartfelt tenderness, we shall taste such sweetness as to endow all existence with eternal life.

I see now that the Baha’i obligatory prayers are powerful gifts – they are entry points into structuring my own neurobiology in ways that bring me peace and joy. Far from just words, they are energy and information – the stuff that controls my states of mind. To reap the full benefits of the prayer, it is important, as Seigel says, to have not only awareness but a clear and stated intention to shift my state of mind to the experience I seek. 

I find it fascinating that one way to interpret the beginning phrases of the long obligatory is just that –  setting the intention to make this mind shift. In the prayer, the negative state of mind is a  “veil” and the positive one a “light” leading to experiences of the presence of God. It says: “… make of my prayer a fired that will burn away the veils which have shut me out from Thy beauty, and a light that will lead me unto the ocean of They Presence.
Wow. I guess the long obligatory prayer does have a lot going for it. Feel free to add here a vision of me slapping my own forehead with the palm of my hand in a gesture of, “Duh, do you think?”

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