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Struggling with Prayer : A Psychological Perspective

Many people following a spiritual life are often mystified by the fact that when they are most troubled and in need of quiet prayer, they are least likely to find the space for it. There can always seem to be reasons why there isn't time, we have other pressing obligations or we simply forget.

And even when we do pray there may be inner resistances to focusing on the very areas of our lives that are most troubling to us.

Here, I highlight some of the psychological defenses that can, at times, undermine our prayer life.

Resistance to prayer may be the result of wanting to avoid some psychological feeling or experience that threatens to surface if we become quiet and relaxed, something that we are busy trying to avoid. We can frequently resist prayer experiences in order to avoid uncomfortable feelings, unpleasant memories and unflattering insights into ourselves. Maybe, at root, we are angry at someone, and don't want to open up to that fact and let it go. Perhaps, in the quiet space we would have to confront some pain or difficult understanding about ourselves and our lives. The threatening issue may not be 'spiritual' in nature but rather be some repressed uncomfortable psychological material. We may be scared that by opening ourselves in prayer we may be overwhelmed by feelings of anger, grief, sexual attraction, jealously and other so-called negative emotions. Men in particular may often fear experiencing their own vulnerability and women their anger. If this resonates with you, do see my articles on working with our emotions in the spiritual life.

We may also 'forget' to pray about certain troubling matters because we unconsciously fear that the prayer may work and we might be relieved of them. As human beings we can prefer to unconsciously cling to what we know of ourselves, even if it is our pain and suffering, rather than open to our growth and change. To offer them to God, or to truly seek their healing through prayer, would confront us with the possibility of doing without them, and - unconsciously at least - this may be very threatening. Our places of pain can often be part of our self-image and how we see ourselves: who am I without them? Psychological resistance is often accompanied by the unconscious strategy of 'forgetting'.

We may also sometimes fear a 'failure' of prayer - a disappointment that would seem like God's rejection or disapproval that could be taken to confirm our own worse fears that we are not good enough or acceptable. At a sub-conscious level it may be easier to avoid facing the possibility of that 'failure,' and its subsequent negative impact on our own fragile self-esteem, and simply not pray, rather than risk having to work through the troubling and deep question of our self-identity and the sometimes paradoxical nature of the efficacy of prayer. Other sources of psychological resistance can centre around a rebellious sense to discipline and authority, to set and adhere to scheduled times and a sustained rhythm in prayer. In such cases we are really, at root, rebelling against our own internal 'parent' who tells us we should or shouldn't do something, and resisting holding ourselves consistently in the space that can bring about true openness and transformation in ourselves.

Alternatively, we may have established a pattern of prayer that is repeatedly diligent but that includes no real willingness to open to the Spirit. A sort of 'going through the motions' of prayer but where one's inner awareness is dulled, restricted and closed off. From outside all can look well, but no real spiritual growth is seen at soul level. In some ways the focus on adhering tightly to the actual method of prayer can be used as a defense against feelings that the person may not wish to experience, and a means to not really make themselves vulnerable to God in prayer.

We may also seek 'highs' of experience in prayer, carrying unhelpful expectations of pleasurable sensations or relief from distress, and become disappointed and depressed if these expectations are not met, which can then lead to resisting further prayer.

Alternatively, if expectations are not met we may work harder at prayer. This is more characteristic of those who don't like to quit and that carry the internal message that hard work gets you your goals. However, this working harder is also counter-productive, carrying with it the assumption that the quality or effectiveness of prayer is a function of one's own effort rather than a graced gift. It holds a terrible burden that the success of prayer is down to oneself.

Even after beautiful, consoling experiences, we may bafflingly find ourselves turning away from further prayer for a while. But consoling experiences can be just as much a serious threat to our self-image and ego. The deeper levels of our psyche may recognise that, yes, the experience was beautiful indeed, and perhaps even what we longed for - a deeper, more profound realisation of our being in relationship to God. But, it can also feel a bit overwhelming in its intensity; it makes us afraid. Our ego can urge us to 'pull back' and go more gradually; back off until we have a stronger sense of control. Any sense of surrender that comes with deep, consoling experiences can be a threat to our pre-established self-image and sense of control. They could bring incomprehensible and radical changes that we find threatening to our whole sense of who we are.

Most of these psychological defenses are, at root, about our defending against any changes to our current sense of self, and any process of change and transformation that prayer may be bringing within us. The strength of self-image (positive and negative) we carry impinges very directly on our reactions to spiritual experiences and prayer. Here 'strength' implies the stability of one's self-definition and is unrelated to the quality of that self-image. Our ego can resist change that upturns its world and that loosens its hold, and the stronger our notions are about ourselves the stronger we resist.

Elsewhere, I will start to explore what our ego is and is not (some on the spiritual journey prefer to call it our False Self), and about allowing ourselves to live more out of our True Self as found in God, and how we can open to this transformation wrought within us by the Spirit. Also, I will be exploring what prayer is and its part as a medium of that change.

If we recognise ourselves adopting any of these defences in our prayer life, then we need to hold ourselves first in loving compassion - the spiritual life is not always easy. Courage is then needed to face the reality of ourselves and make gentle adjustments. Prayer is a powerful vehicle for our spiritual transformation which can be frightening to experience, and even cause us to run away. But maintaining that openness and connection to God, like keeping a pot heating on the stove, enables our growth and transformation.

In all this, though, I want to emphasise that we are not an improvement project; we are accepted and loved unconditionally by God as we are. And as I explore in my article 'Travelling', the path of our transformation in Christ is the movement of ever deeper surrender into the loving acceptance of God that already encompasses us.

For more thoughts exploring what is prayer?, please see my article. In my Prayer Life Series I also detail several forms of contemplative prayer for people to explore, drawing on ancient monastic sources.

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