Nobody knows whether there is a god, whether the universe is sentient, whether the universe cares. This is a fact. Let’s stick a pin in the question of god’s existence and move on to what we do know.
Prayer doesn’t always work. At least, it doesn’t always work in the way the praying person would like it to. Loved ones still die, people all over the world suffer and the Minnesota Vikings have yet to win a superbowl despite my most sincere efforts to sway the guy upstairs. Why continue to do something that doesn’t work? Because this question misunderstands the purpose of prayer.
Prayer isn’t supposed to be about sticking a quarter into a gumball machine and opening your hand up for some candy. It is not an immature transaction answering the demands of a child. Prayer doesn’t have to be anything you don’t want it to be. It can just be a confession to yourself that you don’t know everything, that you aren’t in control of everything in your life and that there are disparities between what you want and what you have. Prayer is an exercise in self-honesty, self-discovery, gratitude and meditation.
Our brains aren’t books, we can’t open them up and read the contents on demand. We have mixed thoughts and feelings about things that our subconscious does not always share with us. One ancient form of prayer, The Examen, implores the pray-er to explore the emotions they felt throughout the day. Over time this process reveals things to yourself—what is the pattern in things you are grateful for? Least grateful for? Perhaps you didn’t know what a drag your significant other was until you found yourself complaining about them every night. Maybe you’ll discover that another person is a rock in your life, or that you always notice gratitude when you get to work on certain kinds of projects at work. This kind of self-knowledge is invaluable in making life decisions.
For those of us with minds that won’t shut up, a repetitive prayer or mantra can busy our lips and hands long enough to achieve the benefits of meditation. In The Way of a Pilgrim (the book that inspired Franny & Zooey, FYI) the pilgrim is a spiritual student who wanders the countryside attempting to achieve ceaseless inner prayer—prayer that becomes an involuntary activity performed by your body automatically, without end. What is the difference between trying to achieve a kind of spiritual enlightenment this way versus traditional meditation, yoga, using koans, etc.? Take what is beneficial to you and leave the rest.
Gratitude is another byproduct of prayer, and an enormously beneficial emotion. One group of writers compared prayers of gratitude to a practice developed after WWII to help children ease their anxiety in order to sleep:
During the bombing raids of World War II, thousands of children were orphaned and left to starve. The fortunate ones were rescued and placed in refugee camps where they received food and good care. But, many of these children who had lost so much could not sleep at night. They feared waking up to find themselves once again homeless and without food. Nothing seemed to reassure them. Finally, someone hit upon the idea of giving each child a piece of bread to hold at bedtime. Holding their bread, these children could finally sleep in peace. All through the night the bread reminded them, “Today I ate and I will eat again tomorrow.”
By paying attention to the things we are grateful for, we realize the sheer volume of things we have to be grateful for. In turn, being grateful actually makes us happier people.
You don’t have to believe in anything to pray, it can just be a mental check-in time. The benefits are the same regardless of who, if anyone, is listening.