When you pray, you generally are looking for help from a third party or power that is beyond your personal reach. You don’t typically pray to yourself. You pray to a higher power to assist you. Normally, this is done when you or a family member are really in trouble. For example if you were diagnosed as having cancer, you might pray mightily for a remission or cure.
Is the benefit from praying: (1) the comfort or hope that you receive by petitioning for help or (2) a positive answer to your prayer, or (3) triggering of serotonin or dopamine releases in the body, providing an out-of-body experience, or (4) a belief system that is effective only because you believe it to be true, or (5) you become unified with God?
There are several types of prayer, so we need to analyze what type of prayer we are featuring in this analysis. You might read a prayer or repeat “The Lord’s Prayer” without any thought given to the action. If this were just an inner speech, it would be no different than if you were talking to your friends. But there are other prayers that can include a range of profound emotional experiences, which may have a significant impact on our feelings of well-being, both present and future.
Serotonin, dopamine, and other chemicals produced by our bodies may be created by meditation involved in intense prayer. I am not aware of any study where these chemicals were measured before and during prayer. There have been some studies examining general brain activity, using MRI scanning, during intense prayer. The brain lit up during prayer. However, these same results occurred when Buddhists or Hindus meditated. Similar studies showed that dopamine was released when subjects had emotional responses to music that they enjoyed.
At this time, these studies do not give us any concrete results. We believe that there are a great variety of brain responses during spiritual experiences, depending on how involved that particular individual is with their respective prayers.
William James, in The Varieties of Religious Experience, wrote that religious emotions were just simply emotions, no different than the emotions of an atheist. The experiments that showed an increased brain activity during prayer would be, in James’ opinion, exactly the same in a secular setting. This seems to support the fact that religious prayer and secular meditation produce similar brain patterns.
In my opinion, prayer is personal, so it does not matter to me that secular meditation may reach a similar plateau. I am only concerned with my ability to pray and what level I can reach with my prayer. I also believe that meditation could be coupled with prayer, so the two are not mutually exclusive. I would go to a quiet, dark room, where I could shut down my normal thoughts and sensory receptors in an effort to reach a simple, happy union with God. I would be attempting to become one with God.
There are products that can make us transcend ourselves when we can become connected to the divine such as: (1) salvia divinorum, which acts through the dopaminergic system, (2) psilocybin mushrooms, which affect the serotonergic system, and (3) ayahuasca which also impacts the serotonergic system. But we can reach these stages on our own without using these drugs with proper focus and control.
If you truly believe that you are connecting with God, then you are connecting with God. Third parties can criticize your nexus with the divine, but it does not mean that your connection was not real within you. Only you know you and your God. Only you know whether your connection was real or not.
Some articles have indicated that if you believe that a man like Jesus can heal you, then you can be healed through your faith. If you believed apples will cure your cancer and you ate an apple every day, your cancer might go into remission. The same goes for believing that you are connected to God. If you truly believe that you are one with God, then you will be one with God.
It does not matter to me whether other people believe that I am not really connected to God, but only think that I am. That is because all that really matters is that I think I am. If I die and am still thinking, and I think I am connected to God, then I will be. And that is the nexus that will be required for me to be one with God in the underworld.
So when I pray and work toward unifying with God, it does not matter to me what others think. They might laugh at me and wonder if anybody other than me is listening to my prayers. But the answer is that it only matters what I think. And if I think I am one with God, then I will be. But the power of prayer makes you stronger by blending in the power of God. Even though you become one with God, you are no longer the old you. You become a different entity.