Isn’t it ironic that during the time I am writing these 5 blog posts, I have a major flare-up of my pain! Perfect time to practice what I am preaching, eh? And also learning way more about the physiology of pain. In Part 1 I discussed how the nervous system is the place where pain happens and it is influenced by many factors and systems. If you want some additional reading on the systems involved, here is a GREAT article explaining them: A Systems Perspective on Chronic Pain.
Today I am moving on to another important strategy to help your pain. Even if you are not religious you might have occasionally felt a pull toward the transcendent (especially in times of need) and perhaps even said or thought a prayer. For me, prayer is the most important layer to helping my pain, but I am aware that not everyone will identify with this. For that reason, I will write both about my personal experience from prayer, but I also cover a very good alternative and complement to prayer: meditation.
2) Authority of Prayer
I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God, it changes me.
Pain can easily bring you to the edge of yourself. A place where helplessness can turn into hopelessness. A place where a horizontal gaze often turns into a vertical gaze. Will that gaze go up or down?
I choose UP.
During my early years as a Christian (both as a child and while wandering from my faith), my reasons for praying had often been about asking God to take away my troubles, which is reasonable, right? The state I had been in as I prayed was one of loss of belief that I can get well and I confess I was asking for healing in order to help me believe that I could get well (if I get healed, then I’ll have faith). What I have realised (albeit through my own experience and reading about prayer) is that faith (even so small or weak) must come first. It is in knowing God’s will that I can pray with authority over my pain and hand that burden over to God while being confident that He will always help me. Healing might not always take the shape of my pain being gone (although this has happened), but prayer has helped deliver me *from* the clutches and control of pain. It steadies me on the edge of myself and gives me the strength and perspective to deal with it. I look for good in the situation and see how my experiences may even help others.
Prayer also opens me up to being vulnerable. I find I want to handle everything alone but through my faith I have often reached out to fellow believers to pray for me, which has always helped. Something I realised over the last few weeks was the one thing stopping me from praying or reaching out for prayer … was pride. So prayer also keeps me humble, which reduces the stress and anxiety related to trying to appear strong and together to others:
“For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst.”
– Matthew 18:20
So what does science have to say about prayer?
It seems from most studies that if you are religious you are more likely to use prayer as part of your coping strategies. If you are not religious, is there much use in praying to a God you don’t believe in? Probably not since God’s will “works” (if you like) with Faith. However, there are many examples (anecdotally) of people being healed through the faith of others. That being said, the act of prayer by a non-seeking person (someone who is not genuinely seeking God) appears not very effective. However, meditation has been shown to help people with chronic pain (both religious and non-religious) which shows at least a little of what CS Lewis meant when he said: “It doesn’t change God, it changes me.” I wonder if belief in meditation makes it more successful? After all, someone who is mediating or praying half-heartedly seems less likely to benefit from them. If you feel impatient and frustrated while trying to meditate, you won’t reach a meditative state. While “proper” prayer doesn’t require the achievement of a specific “state”, faith and [expectant] hope in a positive outcome seems to be a very important part (and not just of prayer, but of any treatment option).
Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.”
– Mark 11:24
The other thing to consider is the role that perceived responsibility can have on your pain. This is just my own speculation, but I wonder: if you believe that you are responsible for your pain, then are you going to cope well with that? Carrying a burden of blame could make things worse. One of my pet peeves at the minute is seeing biomechanical explanations of pain on the internet. I get a deep righteous anger when I see someone saying that my 10 year chronic pain is because I am weak, my muscles imbalanced, my breathing is dysfunctional. But on top of that is this idea that the solution is singular. So, I have suffered all this time and the answer is that I sit wrong? **FACE PALM** Come on! Why are we so quick to reduce everything? We now know that chronic pain is poorly correlated to tissue damage, posture or biomechanics, so let’s stop fuelling the obsession of our bodies failing us. Let’s, instead, learn how to listen to what pain *is* telling us: there is a threat alarm going off and that is *not* your fault. Further, the threat may be physical, emotional, or spiritual as it often depends on many factors, including your beliefs and experiences. This article about the beliefs that rural South African women hold make me wonder: Do we (in the “West”) focus too much on our bodies? I wonder what impact all this biomechanical reductionist information is on the trust we have in our bodies?
Another confounding factor to my pet peeve is this idea that you’re broken, but someone else has to fix you. It could encourage learned-helplessness.
Consider now the act of prayer (or meditation) could help to transcend the idea that you are only a body. Realising that makes pain seem smaller and less threatening (IMO). Using prayer to both “off-load” the feeling of guilt, shame and pressure to get fixed (structurally) and affirm your body’s healing ability can empower you to “get up” and get on with living as you realise your greater purpose. You see, pain rarely just goes away, so there has to be a plan to help you get on with life while you are getting better. And even if you still believe your pain is being caused by a structural “problem”, then you can still use other techniques to help you cope as you “fix” it. You might actually be surprised by the results.
So, are you learning helplessness or are you practising hopefulness? What is your inner narrative?
“I can’t, sir,” the sick man said, “for I have no one to put me into the pool when the water bubbles up. Someone else always gets there ahead of me.”
Jesus told him, “Stand up, pick up your mat, and walk!”
– John 5:7-8
In the Gospels, Jesus often says “your faith has made you well” and he emphasises the importance of belief in many group and individual healings. When Jesus returns to his home town it is written that he cannot perform healing or miracles because of the unbelief, which reinforces the need for faith during prayer. Faith gives you authority because you expect your prayer to work.
Let me just add a footnote to this: We must be careful not to fall into helplessness if we don’t receive the desired outcome right away. It is very easy to assume you aren’t getting better because you lack faith and so the burden falls back on your shoulders. Does a lack of healing (in a sense you want) and repeated prayer indicate a loss of faith? No! We are told to persist in prayer to strengthen our faith and keep the channel of communication open to God so we do not fall prey to what Satan wants us to believe. Faith needs to be practiced. And I think this is something many people struggle with. Not seeing the desired result (no pain) can be discouraging, but it is also an opportunity to practice trusting God and continuing to place it in His hands; always seeing the bigger picture:
Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day. For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.
– 2 Corinthians 4: 16-18
If prayer is difficult for you, you can begin with short one-line prayers even asking God to help you with any unbelief or couple it with mediation on the Word.
Scientifically, I don’t expect there to be much in the way of strong evidence for the use of prayer in the future. It is too difficult to measure and it is impossible to account for the presence of absence of prayer from others.
So prayer may be a different kind of natural meditative state, or it could be supernatural and an essential part of expressing your full humanity.
I choose to believe that it is both.
New to meditation? Here are 3 resources to help you on your way: