In this week’s The Soul of Therapy, psychologist Kevin Anderson, PhD, stresses that prayer is simply recognizing when joy, gratitude, compassion, or awe happen.
Q. Everyone talks about meditation and mindfulness these days, my therapist included. Whatever happened to prayer? Do you steer your patients away from language about God and prayer to words like mindfulness and meditation? As I’ve moved away from formal religion I don’t pray as much as I used to. I’m not sure anymore what I believe about prayer or whether it works. Any thoughts on all this would be helpful.
A: I took four years of German in high school and now I can barely get past Guten Tag. Same with Spanish. But in my work as a psychotherapist, I must be fluent in various languages people use to talk about suffering, meaning, purpose, and the sacred. If words like God or prayer are meaningful to my patient, then I am comfortable speaking that language. One of my nested meditations in Now is Where God Lives starts with the line: “The name ‘God’ makes you think.” In the next stanza that line is extended to “The name ‘God’ makes you think / you know what you’re talking about.” What I’m hinting at is that human beings try to find language for the Infinite, but when our language becomes too habituated it can obscure the raw awe and mystery we feel in relation to that-which-is-beyond all-knowing.
About thirty-five years ago, I went to a spiritual mentor and told him I was confused about prayer. I told him that when I tried to pray it seemed like nothing was happening. He gave me a book on prayer which I found to be insightful and energizing. I told myself that I would try to access some of my enthusiasm for the book during prayer. But several hours later when I tried to pray, the result was the same: a sense of confusion and skepticism. When I went back to my mentor, he laughed and said, “Kevin, the prayer happened when you first picked up the book and felt energized!” Then he told me that prayer isn’t just something we do, it’s something that can happen to us. “Notice prayer when it happens,” he said. I’ve never forgotten those words.
Sometimes, I think of prayer like one of those suction tubes at the drive-up banking station. My old way of thinking about prayer would be to put a request in a capsule, send it up the chute, and wait to receive something back. But now prayer is mainly noticing when joy, gratitude, compassion, or awe shows up in the chute of my awareness. I can think of that as noticing prayer when it happens or as just staying alert for graced moments. Exactly what I call it doesn’t matter. But noticing energies that are bigger and deeper than my ordinary awareness seems really important.
I like the late theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s words: “Joy is an infallible sign of the presence of God.” When I play with his words a bit I arrive at other similar lines, such as, “Gratitude is a sign of my connection to something bigger than myself” or “Compassion reminds me I am a filament for Love.”
Like you, I’m not convinced that prayer “works” if we think of it like a vending machine. But every time I notice grace in the moment, my awareness is deepened and I feel closer to the best version of myself in this world.
As Thanksgiving approaches, it might be a good time to ponder one of the simplest statements I’ve found about prayer, from Meister Eckhart, a 14th-century monk: “If the only prayer you say in your entire life is ‘Thank you,’ that is enough.” The title of Anne Lamott’s book Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers also serves as a quick reminder for me about the essence of prayer.
Q: Do you think psychotherapy works? I’ve seen a number of different therapists during my life and I still struggle with many of the same issues. Is the fact that I’m not over my inner junk an indication that the therapy I’ve done was not effective?
A: The roots of modern talk therapy are in Freudian psychoanalysis. In the old days when that model prevailed, people often went to therapy five times per week for years. Imagine an insurance company paying for that these days! The idea of such a prolonged and intensive therapy was to achieve some sort of major, permanent overhaul of the psyche. I think that’s an unrealistic idea of what therapy is.
In the old days when that model prevailed, people often went to therapy five times per week for years. Imagine an insurance company paying for that these days!
No one would say, “I went to a physician several times over the past three decades, so why do I need to go back to one now?” We understand that the body needs constant care and that any single episode of care does not mean we’re good to go for life. The same is true of the mind and spirit. The opening line of Scott Peck’s The Road Less Traveled, “Life is difficult,” is an important reminder that our past efforts to deal with difficulties do not make us immune from current or future difficulties.
With patients who are ambivalent about their need for therapy, I often use a coaching metaphor. The best athletes in the world get the most intensive coaching. They don’t say, “I got coached in junior high. Why do I need this pro coach trying to tell me how to earn my millions?” They understand that it always makes sense to up one’s game.
Regarding your question about therapy’s effectiveness, thousands of studies have been done on this. Across many different diagnoses and treatment approaches, the average person who gets therapy ends up moving from the 50th to the 80th percentile of functioning on various outcome measures. What’s important to know about this research is something that even many therapists forget: The number one predictor of positive results from therapy is the relationship that develops between the therapist and patient. If therapy came in a box like cold medicine, the label would say: Active ingredients: therapist-patient bond, hope, and therapeutic techniques.
If you want to take a deep dive into this topic, check out The Heart and Soul of Change: What Works in Therapy. Though it’s getting a bit dated, it’s the best summary I’ve seen. You can also google “psychotherapy effect sizes” for more information, as well as peruse more recent articles.
Send your questions to [email protected]. Questions may be edited for clarity or length. Dr. Anderson cannot respond to all letters. Sending a letter, whether answered in this column or not, does not create a doctor-patient relationship. Information in this column is for general psychoeducational purposes and is not a substitute for assessment and care provided in person by a medical or mental health professional.
Check out Kevin's last column to learn how to tackle self-doubt and low self-esteem, or dive into his six-part series on spirituality and mental health: