Pray your way to peace

Women pray during Mass in the Mexican state of Oaxaca. Researchers are finding that daily meditation can heighten one's sense of peace and compassion.


Women pray during Mass in the Mexican state of Oaxaca. Researchers are finding that daily meditation can heighten one's sense of peace and compassion.

February 23, 2015

Prayer. Deep meditative prayer. Most of us long for it. Many have achieved it.

"But there is a certain degree of fear and anxiety in going after some of those very big feelings," says Dr. Andrew Newberg, "because they are a bit overwhelming and scary in some ways. They are wonderful but they can be very scary at times as well."

Newberg, director of research at the Jefferson Myrna Brind Centre of Integrative Medicine in Philadelphia, has delved into the neurological impact of prayer and meditation since the early 1990s.

He has also written seven books, including How God Changes Your Brain, which he co-authored with Mark Robert Waldman.

It is possible for some to achieve great depth of prayer. So why don't we?

"It's a combination of the amount of time people have and some of their own fears and concerns," replied Newberg. "One of the bridges I hope to build is that sometimes people feel 'Well, that's only for people who are really spiritual or only for the monks and Dalai Lama and not for the everyday person.'"

Not true, said Newberg.

"What our information and data continue to show is it really can be within any one of us, and we would be able to explore any kind of those experiences and have them. It's really just a matter of trying to pursue them and spend some time."

In their book, Newberg and Waldman discuss their work with Gus, a man who had no interest in religion and who had never meditated, but who was concerned about his "faltering brain."

Dr. Andrew Newberg

Dr. Andrew Newberg

After eight weeks of daily meditation, Gus showed significant improvements in several areas of brain functioning and had improved his memory by 50 per cent.

Newberg said, often when people talk about religion and spirituality, they talk about it based on a specific tradition or sacred text.

"I don't negate that, but it (prayer by itself) provides a different kind of perspective."

Strip away the religious boundaries and discover a new way to understand.

"It brings a fresh and new voice into the discussion," Newberg said, "and gives us the opportunity to think about some of the really big questions in life and religion in a new way."

Newberg, who says he is "not specifically religious," writes, "Spiritual practices, even when stripped of religious beliefs, enhance the neural functioning of the brain in ways that improve physical and emotional health."

Contemplation, especially when practised over a long period of time, strengthens neurological circuits that generate peacefulness, social awareness and compassion, he says.

He directly challenges the anti-religious "scholarship" of those such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens who claim that religion is hazardous to one's health.

They provide no empirical evidence to support that claim. The problem isn't religion, but authoritarianism, he maintains.

"The enemy is not religion; the enemy is anger, hostility, intolerance, separatism, extreme idealism and prejudicial fear – be it secular, religious or political."

His voice fills with enthusiasm as he speaks of his latest work.

"We have started to study people going through St. Ignatius' Spiritual Exercises. We couldn't swing the 30 days, so are doing a week-long intensive retreat. So we are just waiting to see the results."

The Spiritual Exercises are a compilation of meditations, prayers and contemplative practices developed in the 16th century by St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, to help people deepen their relationship with God.


For centuries, the Exercises were most commonly given as a "long retreat" of 30 or 40 days in solitude and silence. In recent years, there has been a move to adapt the Spiritual Exercises to the needs of laypeople.

The most common way of going through the Exercises now is a "retreat in daily life," which involves a months-long program of daily prayer and meetings with a spiritual director. The Exercises have also been adapted in other ways to meet the needs of modern people.

In general, Newberg says, meditation can strengthen neural circuits that degenerate with age. However, while meditation can repair one's brain, it needs to be practised daily.

He also warns against a false form of meditation – ruminating on things that make one frightened or angry. Such rumination can actually harm the brain.

Newberg's research extends beyond spirituality to examine how the brain is affected by all facets of a person's life.


"I am in the Centre of Integrative Medicine, so for me every person is a spiritual person and a social person and a psychological person and a biological person."

"All of them link together. So it is important to think about all of those different aspects. If somebody's spiritual beliefs are in some sort of disharmony or some type of struggle, then that can spill over into stresses and anxiety that ultimately affects mental and perhaps ultimately a person's physical health.

"Also, it teaches us the significance a spiritual or religious life may play out in terms of their overall health and wellness."

But Newberg notes, "You don't become religious just in order to derive a health benefit."

Nevertheless, spirituality broadly defined can be a source of health and well-being, and surely that is a positive thing, he said.

These studies spill over into other areas – basic science, brain imaging, pastoral care, religious studies, neuroscience and radiology.