One thing that may or may not surprise people is that I am inclined towards praying often. Part of this is from habit and conditioning, having been raised with a worldview that placed a heavy emphasis on prayer, an emphasis I felt drawn to more than other aspects of the tradition.
I never prayed much as a child. As the youngest child in my family I felt my upbringing was much less hands on than my older siblings. I don't know If my parents had instructed my older siblings to pray as children, but by the time I came around I certainly never experienced it. We did have occasional family prayers, but it never even occurred to me that I should be praying regularly on my own.
I don't remember what first motivated me to begin privately praying on a regular basis, but I remember fairly clearly when it happened and how much of a difference I felt in my life. I quickly developed a more positive outlook on life and myself and a sense of connection with something wonderful and loving, which was helpful to have during the difficulties of adolescence. I don't think any particular event motivated my sudden interest in prayer. I imagine it was simply stemmed from becoming old enough to be aware of my spiritual life and wanting to take an active interest in developing it. I was about 13 or 14 and had a paper route for a brief period. It may likely have been the increased time for introspection I had each day as walked around my small town delivering papers which turned me towards prayer, but since that time, It has been a regular habit of mine. Rarely have I prayed in a formal way, on my knees with my head bowed. It is something I do regularly throughout the day as a part of regular activities, such as drawing a picture or walking.
I wouldn't say that I have a strong belief in prayer as being a genuine supernatural experience. But I do have a strong believe in the ability of prayer to evoke in me a spiritual feeling. I'm aware that this may be nothing more than an entirely physical process.
Through brain scans of various religious people engaged in religious ritual, we know that certain parts of the brain become more (and other parts less) active during prayer, meditation etc.. When the frontal cortex is active a person begins to feel a loss of their sense of 'self', which creates a feeling of connectedness and oneness.
Depending on the religious activity, different parts of the brain may become active as well, adding additional qualities to the mystical experience, but in general, the frontal cortex seems to create the underlying aspect of a spiritual experience.
It may be that act of imagining God and talking to him/her/whatever in my mind activates, or is carried out by parts of the Frontal Cortex, which then creates the sensation of 'spiritualness', and it may be nothing more than this.
It may be that some genuine spiritual activity is taking place, and the Frontal Cortex is merely the vehicle for this to happen. Since we are physical beings whose emotions are created by chemical interactions, even if there were some outside influence creating the spiritual experience, it would need to act on the mechanisms already in place for creating experiences and emotions within us. If it were a genuine spiritual experience, I would expect it to look and behave (as seen via brain scans) exactly as it has observed it to. As well, if it were nothing more than a physical process, some anomaly of our evolution, we would also expect it to look and behave(as seen via brain scans) exactly as it does.
We know these experience can happen by 'artificial' means, such as drugs, damage to the brain, epilepsy or mental illness. Since we know that these experiences can occur by merely physical means, adding a supernatural realm to the mix seems like an unnecessarily complicated addition.
While I am inclined to believe the experience of prayer is little more than an interesting chemical reaction, some fluke of our evolution, there is some other part of me that believes it to be more than that. Not because I have any good reason to. My reason, as far as I can tell, is no more than that I want to believe there is something more. Believing it is something more is more enjoyable for me, so I find myself doing it. I realize that my desire to believe something true, in no way makes it more likely that that thing actually is true. If anything, my desiring for it to be true, should make me even more cautious, since I know my objectivity is compromised.
But whether I believe prayer is something truly divine or not, I have found matters little in terms of what I experience. When I first began to disbelieve the Church I was surprise to realize that regardless of my disbelief in a particular thing, its ability to evoke spiritual was unchanged. Regardless of my belief on the subject, the act of prayer(or various other rituals I enjoy) evoke the same results, a feeling of peace, calm, and connection to the Universe.
Of course, there are aspect of prayer that goes beyond just the emotional experience of it. People pray to influence events and people. People pray for knowledge, wisdom and other sort of divine help. That deserves an entry of its own.
Why I feel inclined towards seeking spiritual experiences probably has a lot to do both a genetic tendency towards spiritual feelings and my upbringing in 'personal spiritual experience' centered religion. I do not deny that growing up in the Church I felt what I thought of as the Holy Ghost quite frequently. This was something I enjoyed and sought for. When I found I couldn't maintain a belief in the Mormon church anymore, it was partly my experience with spiritual feelings that kept me as a member of the Church for a few more years, as well caused me a fair amount of confusion and heartache. I knew I had experienced and could continue to experience spiritual feelings in Church, and things related to the Church, and felt this was evidence of it being true. Yet almost everything else I saw as evidence of the Church being untrue. I tried hard to reconcile these seemingly conflicting concepts, and spent a great deal of time and energy trying to figure out a way I could believe in the Church. Gradually I found that while the Church does an excellent job at fostering environments that create spiritual experiences, this was not nearly as unique as I had imagined. Once I realized that I was able to comfortably step away from the Church yet maintain and pursue a spiritual life without the intellectual pain and cultural discomfort I felt as a member, I did so. Now that I have been away for a while and see how enjoyable it is, it seems almost strange to me I tried so hard to stay in. If anything I have found it easier to enjoy a the feelings of spirituality that comes from prayer and other things, because I no longer see certain things as being prerequisite to spiritual experience. Whereas before I felt I could only feel the spirit under certain specific conditions, and so rarely attempted or allowed myself to outside of those, I no longer have such limiting expectations, closing me off to the bountiful experiences all around us.
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