The purpose of this post is to encourage readers to explore the importance of prayer and fasting. My intention is neither to draw any definite conclusions about prayer and fasting nor to summarize the Bahá’í perspective on this topic. I’m simply investigating some areas of inquiry regarding this topic through a cursory study of the Bahá’í writings. The opinions and ideas presented below are of my own, and are not necessarily those of the worldwide Bahá’í community.
The Bahá’í writings often exhort us to live in a state of prayer and meditation. In one passage, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá explains that “prayer and fasting is the cause of awakening and mindfulness and conducive to protection and preservation from tests” (Source). In another, Shoghi Effendi talks about a “mystic feeling” that unites us with the Ultimate Reality, and claims that this state “can be brought about and maintained by means of meditation and prayer” (Source). As Bahá’ís, we are charged with investigating the truth behind such claims by applying scientific methods, daily practice, reflection, and consultation.
The best way to explore any truth is to start by asking questions. For instance, do “prayer and fasting” result in “awakening and mindfulness,” and are these practices conducive to “protection and preservation from tests”? Of course, many of these variables have to be defined since there are many ideas out there about what “prayer” means, for example. The Bahá’í writings teach that prayer and meditation are intimately connected to our social reality (Source). It is my opinion that this connection exists because prayer and meditation create a heightened sense of mindfulness that causes the individual to act conscientiously, i.e., the processes of prayer and meditation create a cognitive and spiritual state that allow us to act thoughtfully and to be mindful of the moral implications of our actions. In turn, these actions affect our social reality.
(Slight Digression) In the same light, fasting serves a similar function as it reinvigorates spirituality, increases mindfulness, and, ultimately, influences behaviour:
The fasting period…is essentially a period of meditation and prayer, of spiritual recuperation, during which the believer must strive to make the necessary readjustments in his inner life, and to refresh and reinvigorate the spiritual forces latent in his soul. Its significance and purpose are, therefore, fundamentally spiritual in character. Fasting is symbolic, and a reminder of abstinence from selfish and carnal desires. (Source)
What I’m suggesting here of course (in no uncertain terms) is that adjustments to one’s inner life (i.e., thoughts, beliefs, values, etc.) might lead to changes in one’s outer life (i.e., behaviours). However, the relationship between prayer & mediation and behaviour is not unidirectional. For instance, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá assures us that “Work done in the spirit of service is the highest form of worship” (Source), which simply means that when we perform work in the “spirit of service” it can be as powerful as prayer – if not more. Also, there is a passage that is often attributed to the Bahá’í writings (although I have not yet been able to ascertain its source), which argues that behaviours can lead to inner states similar to those achieved through prayer:
Be not the slave of your moods, but their master. But if you are so angry, so depressed and so sore that your spirit cannot find deliverance and peace even in prayer, then quickly go and give some pleasure to someone lowly or sorrowful, or to a guilty or innocent sufferer! Sacrifice yourself, your talent, your time, your rest to another, to one who has to bear a heavier load than you — and your unhappy mood will dissolve into a blessed, contented submission to God.
So, do “prayer and fasting” result in “awakening and mindfulness,” and are these practices conducive to “protection and preservation from tests”? The Bahá’í writings seem to advocate a positive correlation between mindful “inner” states and conscientious “outer” behaviours, but how does this relate to “protection and preservation”? Well, recent scientists have been exploring the effects of Mindfulness Based Meditation Techniques (MBMT), and their findings are very intriguing. For example, researchers at Brown University found that MBMT practitioners are able to regulate their own physiological responses to sensations such as pain, memories, and depressive cognitions (Source). Of course, results such as these are only preliminary, but they make intuitive sense. Through prayer, meditation, and fasting the individual can achieve heightened cortical control over cognitive, emotional, and physiological responses to stimuli that would otherwise create “tests” for the individual.
I can dig that.
It would be nice to see more science dedicated to understanding the effects of meditation, prayer, and fasting on human thought and behaviour. I find that many researchers working on questions pertaining to the mind and behaviour are non-theist materialists who shy away from questions pertaining to spirituality or religious practice (unless they’re trying to debunk something, of course), and approach the human experience in a very mechanistic way.
I’m not judging, just sayin’ – that’s what I find.
As a Bahá’í, I believe that humans are spiritual beings having a physical experience, and that our physical and spiritual realities are engaged in an intimate dance. On the one hand, science describes the observable characteristics of the dance such as its movements and the physical laws governing these movements. This approach is important because it helps us to communicate and replicate learning, to make predictions, and, most importantly, to prevent the dancers from stepping on each others’ toes! On the other hand, Religion legitimizes the dancer’s experience by providing a reference point of values that gives meaning and purpose to otherwise meaningless movements. Binding these two realities together is an Ultimate Reality that is mysterious and unknowable, and our relationship with that reality is equally as mysterious and unknowable. Therefore, I dare not comment on what prayer has to do with this Ultimate Reality (a.k.a., God), but I definitely subscribe to Kierkegaards famous line:
The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.