Mindfulness and meditation practices seem to be flourishing these days. As of today, there are over 22, 000 research articles on mindfulness in the Library of Medicine’s online database. Research on modern versions of mindfulness began to gather traction in the past two decades. Most of the enthusiasm for these practices stems from their reputation for improving mental health by reducing stress.
No matter what your life situation, everyone experiences stress at some point or another because we are often in pursuit of happiness that is based on societal standards. Modern society often dictates how we live our lives. We strive for materialistic, unrealistic goals that lead to stress, anxiety, and other mental health issues. We’re usually in a constant rush from one task to another, following routines and developing habits that we just can’t seem to change.
This never-ending stream of things to do, deadlines to meet, and unhelpful thoughts and emotions, sap our mental energy. They drain us of our vitality and peace of mind.
But not all stress is bad.
In fact, the stress response known as the fight or flight response is necessary for survival. In the past when our ancestors encountered a predator, the brain would automatically release cortisol – nature’s built-in alarm system, into the body enabling us to focus our attention on the means to survive. Once the threat was averted the body would return back to balance and homeostasis.
Within a modern context, healthy stress can also be beneficial because it makes us alert and motivated to act, finish tasks, and be responsive to environmental cues.
Unhealthy stress is when our systems start to go wrong.
Researchers have concluded that every system in the body can actually be damaged by stress. Stress affects your physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health. In addition to stress, another modern-day issue is that we also tend to live on auto-pilot, unconsciously. This is when we lose the ability to think consciously, and remain mindful of our thoughts, emotions, and actions. We follow a set routine we have made for ourselves based on repeated habits. This results in seldom being aware of our thoughts and mental processes. This leaves little room for personal growth because all our energy is being spent on unconscious habits.
Our state of mind can negatively impact our whole state of being.
Taking time out to force oneself to disconnect, to de-identify with your mind and emotions can elicit a relaxation response. This trains our minds to focus and hone our thoughts, to only pay attention to what’s useful and important, to ignore the negative and unnecessary, and to separate our egos from the thoughts and emotions running through our heads. However, modern versions of these practices tend to focus on stress reduction, or other health benefits in daily life instead of spiritual development, liberation, or enlightenment.
Prayer, a form of focused meditation, can also elicit relaxation and peacefulness. Increasingly, prayer is the most widespread alternative method being used by people confronting psychological distress and depression, anxiety, or stress. But, how exactly does the power of prayer work and why is it different from modern practices of mindfulness and meditation?
The power of prayer extends beyond just the physical.
The power of prayer is such that it not only provides the benefits of meditation and mindfulness but also develops the opportunity for transcendental thought. Research has shown that focused prayer creates many mental and physical health changes by triggering a relaxation response. During prayer the body’s metabolism decreases, the heart rate slows, blood pressure goes down, and our breathing becomes calmer and more regular. This physiological state is correlated with slower brain waves and increased vibrational energy. Higher levels of gamma waves that control our levels of happiness and optimism in our brain are all experiences felt during prayer.
Prayer goes one step further where.
It helps you become connected with the Ultimate Source of Energy — God.
Scientists have found that the brains of people who spend time in prayer and meditation are different and there are several plausible hypotheses of why the concept of prayer is used as a way of coping with negative or stressful life events. As an individual goes deeper and deeper into concentration, intense activity begins taking place in the brain’s neurological networks — those that control a person’s orientation in space and establish distinctions between self and the world, i.e. our consciousness increases
Prayer also increases vibration at the cellular, atomic levels – energy that affects our physical being, thoughts, and emotions. Scientists have actually documented a “quietude” that envelops the entire brain through brain scans. Essentially, prayer gives the mind and the body a ‘time-out,’ disconnecting from the world around us, and the stresses around us. It also deactivates genes that cause stress and trigger inflammation and prevents stress-induced disease.
Through the power of prayer, we are intentionally focusing on the present moment.
We develop new positive neural pathways in our brain that cause change in our being, thoughts, emotions, and our consciousness during prayer. That concentrated thought (i.e., brain waves) changes our brain (i.e., new neural pathways), then our body (i.e., physical/mental health), then our reality (i.e., consciousness). An increase in consciousness results in acknowledging limitless possibilities.
Essentially, when we are constantly living with stress hormones or paying more attention to the outer world, we are constantly activating different compartments of neural networks in our brain by shifting our attention from one person to another or one thing to another. This can lead to incoherence and eventually burnout. However, instead of focusing on matter, if we focus our mind on the limitless, i.e., God, we can enable our brain to enter a whole-brain state where the different neural communities can synchronise and integrate becoming more coherent. Naturally, if our brain is more coherent, we will become more coherent, and at peace.
Through prayer, we achieve a sense of wholeness and fulfilment.
Prayer enables us to actively develop our morality and consciousness for the better. Not only can we feel contentment and peace of mind, but an increase in God-consciousness can help us in developing morality. When we actively take out time to focus our minds on God who is the Ultimate Source of Grace, we praise Him and appreciate His attributes and presence in our lives. This in turn helps us liberate ourselves from the shackles of societal constructs. It also reconditions our brain to be more mindful of Him during our day, pushing us to live our lives adopting Divine qualities rather than trying to merely meet the expectations of society.
Remembering God is the foundation for developing Taqwa (reverence of Allah) which means to be mindful of Allah in all our actions. Almighty Allah states in the Holy Quran: Surely, Prayer restrains one from indecency and manifest evil, and remembrance of Allah indeed is the greatest virtue. And Allah knows what you do.
This means that the remembrance of Allah is greater than all matters and loftier than all forms of worship, and that prayer, being one of its forms, can help one not enter a negative state of being. The Holy Prophet also explains that the comparison between a person who remembers his Lord and one who does not is akin to the living and the dead. This means that those who pray, who remember Allah and strive towards becoming more mindful, can live a life that is full of life, and contentment.
Remembrance of Allah is the most important aspect of the teachings of Islam.
However, Islam does not condone practices adopted as an escape from reality or an attempt to enter altered conscious states, such as practices using psychedelics; the use of hypnosis which is commonly found in modern spiritual retreats; or certain rituals that are found in the Muslim world which would be considered innovations and are not substantiated by the Holy Quran or the practice of the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him).
If done properly, a great degree of pleasure can be obtained from prayer. Its aim is not to escape from reality but to train our minds to be more mindful of Allah in every aspect of life, gradually becoming more righteous as a result of it. Particularly for those who practice the remembrance of Allah, the Holy Quran states that Salaat or prayer is such a practice that it can help in replacing negative states of being with positive ones and help us become more mindful.
This is because we actively take our minds off of thoughts that result in stress and focus them on Allah to break the feedback loop of stress. Ultimately, if our thoughts can cause us to experience chronic stress, ultimately draining us of energy, then the opposite can also be true.
Our energy follows our thoughts. But, we can train our mind to take back control of our energy which was being invested in stressful thoughts and unmindful actions, through the remembrance of Allah. We acknowledge and accept our feebleness and become more mindful of the Majesty of Allah.
Thus, God brings about the means and circumstances for achieving your destiny.
Ultimately, prayer enables a feedback loop of positive growth. When we focus on Allah, we develop elevated emotions of gratitude. This leads to higher positive energy within ourselves and reduced stress. When our prayers are accepted, we become more mindful of Allah, developing a natural positive state of being. This enhanced state enables us to be more mindful and create positive change in our character and improve our spirituality.
And, as we become more mindful of Allah, we become more mindful of our true selves.