On Faith: When Prayer Doesn't Seem to Work

Q: What do you do when you're depressed and your prayers don't seem to be answered?

When we are well, and happy, the sun seems to shine even when it is cloudy outside. But when the world troubles us, when our head and heart hurt, and when our prayers seem to fall on deaf ears what can we do? What should we do? The first and most important act would be to consult a good doctor, for modern therapy and modern medicines do provide the necessary correctives to the physical, mental, and emotional imbalances in us.

However, we cannot reduce human beings to their chemical and physical components in search of cures and palliatives for all of our troubles and aches. There is indeed a difference, as Devdutt Pattanaik says, between "the world" - the rational, logical, physical, linear world that we can measure, take some control of, and manipulate - and "our world" - the spiritual, emotional, psychological, cultural, interpersonal, and circular world that edifies and energizes us but which can also enervate us and, if we are not attentive, defeat us. The balms therefore cannot always be chemical-based. We then seek recourse in our gods and deities, beseeching their grace, and seeking solace. But what if the gods ignore us?

There is an adage in my language, Kannada, which says "Sankata bandaaga, Venkataramana": translated it means that we think of God when we are in trouble/pain. And the cautionary advice of the bemused sage who said this is that unless God and prayer are part of your daily life, you really have not acquired the strength to deal with the vicissitudes of life, and last-minute appeals are not really strong enough to cut through the billions of appeals clogging the Cosmic Superhighway to reach God in time! Thus there has to be a discipline and rigor to prayer as there is to anything serious and important in life. It cannot be like the prayers of many students in Indian schools and colleges, who skip classes and ignore their books, but come exam time they promise their favorite gods offerings of coconuts if they pass the exams.

Prayers can take any form, and are crafted in many forms. Some masters tell their students that careful and constant attention to whatever we do and observe is prayer. In Yoga, the instruction is to lead the student into the state of "chitta vrittti nirodha" - meaning the cultivation of a mental state that will enable the student to stop the endless motion of repetitive and/or stored thoughts. Depression is an extreme case of thought repetition that affects the whole being. A good yoga teacher/Guru will guide the student to learn to sit comfortably and securely (in Sanskrit, and as the great compiler of the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali said, "sthira, sukha asana"), learn pranayama (regulation of breathing), and begin meditation.

It has been medically shown that pranayama can lower blood pressure, reduce stress, and develop a strong mind and will. Since the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders says that the symptoms of depression include "feelings of sadness or emptiness," "reduced interest in activities," "loss of energy," "difficulty concentrating, holding a conversation, paying attention, or making decisions that used to be made fairly easily," and "suicidal thoughts or intentions," learning and practicing pranayama and meditation can be the cure and the prayer that will work for you. There are drugs that are clinically proven to help treat this disorder. But if one wants to seek help beyond medication, then prayer is indeed beneficial given that we approach it with steadfastness and conviction, and seek the guidance from a good teacher, minister or priest, or counselor.

Published originally in The Washington Post, online, “On Faith” blog -- https://www.onfaith.co/onfaith/2009/12/10/when-prayer-doesnt-seem-to-wor/3417#more .


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