There’s a well-documented scientific study1 that’s been all the rage in the past few years about something that happened in the Israeli Defence Force. Before entering the Defence Force, all the cadets had to sit pre-entry exams testing intellectual capacities like cognition and problem-solving, to physical capacities like fitness, endurance and the like. The cadets were then assigned to their training officers accordingly.
In this particular year, a couple of the training officers were told that they had tested and found the best of the best, ‘the mother-shawarma’ of all cadet groups, showing great promise for future leadership roles in the Defence Force. Other training officers were then assigned ‘regular’ cadets, and everybody started training.
Fast-forward a year and lo and behold the group that showed remarkable signs of promise did indeed deliver, and significantly out-performed all other groups of cadets in both intellectually and physically-based exams.
There was just one catch: all the cadets were just randomly assigned to their training groups. There were no ‘gifted’ cadets, or ‘regular’ cadets, they were just a randomly selected mix of all-sorts.
When the researchers went back and investigated what made all the difference, it was because the training officers believed that they were working with gifted cadets, and that belief changed everything.
As soon as I read about this study, I immediately thought about the Junior Youth Spiritual Empowerment Programme (JYSEP), and about the differences between the long-term results of one group compared with another. Could it be the beliefs that the animators held regarding the latent capacity of their participants is what determined their success (or lack thereof) in transforming their lives?
I then started researching about other implications of belief. For example, many of you may have heard of or read the ‘5 Steps of Prayer’ article2 attributed to Shoghi Effendi, where he offered advice to a pilgrim wanting to know how to use prayer to solve problems. The Guardian advised that we:
1. Pray and meditate about the problem.
2. Come to a decision, and hold onto it.
3. Be determined to see it through.
4. Have faith and confidence that the means of it’s realisation will be made manifest.
…and then there’s the fifth step…
I find the fifth step the most intriguing:
5. Act as though it had already been answered.
Let’s pause and think about what that might look like. Imagine you have an issue that you want to resolve, a habit you want to change, or a new one you want to create. Imagine then that you pray about it, and you have faith that it will be answered in the affirmative (particularly if you’ve read the Writings and it seems to align with His will for us – think: confirmation). Then you go on living your life assured that that test, shortcoming, habit, whatever it may be, is now behind you. Your actions become imbued with something liberating: faith and belief.
Could this be an implication of the celebrated passage of Baha’u’llah where He says:
The essence of faith is fewness of words and abundance of deeds…3
Deeds carried out with the confident assurance that the past is behind us? Could the fruit of true faith be to act with the confidence that God does indeed answer our prayers? To act as if yesterdays shortcomings are behind us, and that we are indeed protected from whatever manifestation of our lower self that has haunted us for years? What are the implications of Abdu’l-Baha’s injunction that…
…as ye have faith, so shall your powers and blessings be…4
…prayer verily bestoweth life…5
I’m reminded of one of the first practice elements of the Ruhi Institute, when in Reflections on the Life of the Spirit, we are encouraged to study prayers with friends and acquaintances. I think there is so much wisdom in this exercise, as we learn to focus on the words and phrases of prayers pertaining to different aspects of life. We try and discover their meaning and implications. For example, if we study one line in a prayer for protection by The Master, we say:
Make Thy protection my armor, Thy preservation my shield, humbleness before the door of Thy oneness my guard, and Thy custody and defense my fortress and my abode.6
Do we believe that we then have His protection as our armor? Do we believe that we are safeguarded in His fortress? Or do we think they are simply some beautiful and poetic lines, but essentially we are on our own?
I should state here that I don’t think this approach to prayer can work in all aspects of supplication. These thoughts pertain to the use prescribed by Shoghi Effendi, namely, for solving problems. Prayer is of course used for other means, such as to humbly ask certain things from God, or that He may aid us in a certain endeavour. Some people pray for a specific result they seek, others pray so that they can realise what His will is, and that they then have the strength to follow that guidance. Oftentimes matters related to these subjects are not so clear-cut. For example, if you’re praying to discover what your future profession should be, this is not something you can find an explicit answer to in the Holy Writings; however if you’re praying to resolve a problem you have, like, for example, the tendency to tell lies, and you can clearly see that it is not in accordance with the Will of God to be a liar, then you can use the above method to resolve such problems.
Let’s continue with the method at hand: My point is, if we can’t have faith in the efficacy of prayer, what can we have faith in? Ourselves?
Well, let me share my understanding of how I think this works. The nature of all life on Earth seems to be cyclical and repetitive. Many of the spiritual teachings in all religions therefore also teach about laws that need daily replenishment – Obligatory Prayer, imbibing the Sacred Word, self-reflection, and so on… So I think of these prayers as having a ‘spiritual expiration date’ of sorts. For example, say you have a bad character flaw that has been plaguing you for years. You decide to pray, and ask Baha’u’llah to get rid of it through His Power. So you beseech divine assistance, cognisant that it aligns with His Will that you do not, for example, dwell on the faults of others, and then you act with the complete confidence that this has been answered in the affirmative. You believe it’s already worked. And you live your day happy and un-chained from this old nemesis, able to move on to new spiritual battlefields.
Here’s how I conceptualise it: In the Baha’i Faith we are taught that faith and reason do indeed go hand-in-hand. So it doesn’t quite seem reasonable to me that a one-off prayer will forever banish a particular test from a creature as powerless as I. If this were God’s method, then eventually we could grow proud or feel self-satisfied, right? So rather I recall the cyclical nature of life, and believe that I am protected from that test for the next 24 hours – no more, no less. And within that period of protection, I must humbly beseech that that protection be granted for another 24 hours. And then again, I go forward confidant and happy, and act with that belief. Over time, as one commits to this practice, individual imperfections are gradually weeded out, one by one, as belief in the efficacy of prayer fuels the development of new habits.
To me, this is rational. There is nothing scientific about an researcher that tries something for a day or two and then gives up on his pursuits. So to with a student of true religion. Both require acting with belief that there is an order to creation, and that the human mind and soul can gradually discover this order and become its master.
I welcome your reflections and experiences on this topic, and am eager to hear how others understand the treasure of Divine Revelation we have on the dynamics of prayer and belief.
Please leave your comments in the ‘Comments section’ below.
- Self-fulfilling Prophesies in Organizations in Organizational Behaviours: State of Science ed J.Greenberg (Mahwah, NJ:Erlbaum, 2003), p.91-122. [↩]
- Recalling Health to the Spirit website: http://spirit.recallinghealth.net/Prayer_Meditation_for_Problem_Solving.html [↩]
- Baha’u’llah, ASL-I-KULLU’L-KHAYR (Words of Wisdom), p.155 [↩]
- Abdu’l-Baha’s final address to the first group of western pilgrims, Haifa, 1898. http://people.ucalgary.ca/~bahai/tablet.html [↩]
- Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha. http://reference.bahai.org/en/t/ab/SAB/sab-173.html [↩]
- Abdu’l-Baha, Baha’i Prayers: A Selection of Prayers Revealed by Baha’u’llah, the Bab, and Abdu’l-Baha, p.268 [↩]