Doesn't prayer — wishing strongly for something — cause you to clarify and intensify your sincere intentions? Wouldn't that alone help you achieve what you're praying for? Wouldn't it help you stay focused on it and persistent about it? Of course, I'm here only talking about praying for something you can help make happen. If you're praying for rain, intensifying and clarifying your sincere intentions would be worthless (setting aside pure miracles for a moment).
As you can probably tell, I'm not a religious man. I wasn't indoctrinated with any religious teachings as a child, and I'm glad I wasn't. And yet I've had enough experience to suspect that somehow prayer has real, measurable effects in the world. Scientific studies indicate it as well (see the book, Healing Words).
That prayer might have real effects in the world seems amazing and mysterious to me, I guess more than it would be to someone raised with stories of miracles, and I guess I still don't quite believe it. But I don't quite disbelieve it either. When I first came across the studies, I immediately dismissed them as ridiculous. But then I realized that made me a believer of a different sort, didn't it? Dismissing what is a large collection of scientific research would mean I had "blind faith" that prayer can't have an effect. I don't want to be a believer one way or the other. I want to have open eyes and an open mind. I don't want to prematurely close my mind.
What I'm saying, though, is that even if prayer has no miraculous effects, it might still be worth doing if only to purify and clarify and strengthen your own good intentions. I know from experience that a clear intention makes that intention more likely to be accomplished than a vague intention. And I know that motivation is more easily sustained if you focus your emotions on it, which is what a prayer would do. That means that as long as the prayer didn't put you in a hopeless or helpless state of mind, it might be helpful.
Something else I was thinking about is metta meditation. Have you ever heard of it? It is a Buddhist form of meditation that focuses on love, kindness, and good wishes for others. Metta meditation is, then, a form of prayer. You are wishing good for others and yourself.
And I think prayer can include not only intending something, but also appreciating something, and reveling in that appreciation. Feeling grateful as a sort of meditation. A prayer of gratefulness.
You can also, of course, pray to ask for something you cannot influence with any actions you can take. That means if you are actually helpless to influence something, you don't have to feel helpless if you feel that you can pray and that does something. So if you used prayer in that way it might help you feel less helpless.
You can also pray for something in you, like strength of will, or seeing opportunities, or learning or growing. This also I think would help to clarify what you want to change about yourself. It would focus your attention on something you could actually influence: Your character.
I am not going anywhere with this. Just thinking out loud. What do you think? Let me know.
Read about a study on prayer: Send a Blessing.
Adam Khan is the author of Principles For Personal Growth, Slotralogy, Antivirus For Your Mind, and co-author with Klassy Evans of How to Change the Way You Look at Things (in Plain English). Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.