Unconscious Prayer and Psychotherapeutic Healing

[This original manuscript for this article was titled " A Note of Spiritual Countertransference as a Possible Mechanism of Action in Psychotherapeutic Healing" but was published under the title given above in the Spring 1996 issue of Voices: The Art and Science of Psychotherapy.  The article is presented below, followed by the original manuscript.]

Unconscious Prayer 1
Unconscious Prayer 2
Unconscious Prayer 3
Unconscious Prayer 4

 A Note on Spiritual Countertransference as a Possible

Mechanism of Action in Psychotherapeutic Healing





In their book, Primary Speech--A Psychology of Prayer (1989), Barry and Ann Ulanov postulate the following:


Everybody prays.  People pray whether or not they call it prayer.  We pray every time we ask for help, understanding, or strength, in or out of religion.  Then, who and what we are speak out of us whether we know it or not.  Our movements, our stillness, the expressions on our faces, our tone of voice, our actions, what we dream and daydream, as well as what we actually put into words say who and what we are.


To pray is to listen to and hear the self who is speaking.  This speech is primary because it is basic and fundamental, our ground.  In prayer we say who in fact we are -- not who we should be, nor who we wish we were, but who we are.  All prayer begins with this confession.


In graduate school, a quarter of a century ago, my favorite postulate (which I believe was my own creation, as much as anything ever is) was the following:  It is impossible to hate anyone whom one truly knows (i.e. at a deep level), and it is probably impossible to refrain from loving such a person.


If these two postulations are added to the scientific research pertaining to prayer which is beginning to emerge, it appears that the result may be a new way of understanding how psychotherapy heals.  Recent scientific research pertaining to prayer (summarized1 in Dossey, 1990)  indicates that: (1) prayer works (i.e. it influences the health of people and other living organisms), (2) its effect is not a function of the distance between the person doing the praying and the object of the prayer (this finding seems to be predictable from all the previous parapsychology research showing that the inverse square law does not apply to psychic transmissions), (3) the amount of time spent in prayer directly influences the effectiveness of the prayer, (4) more experienced prayors have greater impact than less experienced persons who pray, (5) how well the person praying knows the object (human or otherwise) of the prayer directly influences the power of the prayer, and (6) nondirective prayer is far more effective than directive prayer. 


The last four findings are the ones which seem to have implications for how psychotherapy heals, and will be referenced below by their numbers in the preceding paragraph.


With regard to finding #6, it should be noted that nondirective prayer is essentially an overtly spiritual version of client-centered therapy.  It is prayer in which one simply holds lovingly (or prayerfully)  the object of prayer in one's consciousness,2 without specifically wishing or asking for a particular effect other than their/its highest good.  That is, one does not  pray that a cancer be cured, a marriage survive, or that financial prosperity be attained.  Rather, one attempts to adopt the attitude of "thy will be done," rather than "my will be done," with the only specification being that the highest good be realized for the object of the prayer.3


What appears to follow from the above postulates and research findings is the following possibility.  Perhaps what psychotherapy does at its most fundamental level is to allow the client to be known better--by himself, by the therapist, and by other clients (in the case of group, couple, or family therapy).  The interpersonal techniques of disclosure, confrontation, and affirmation are simply the ways in which this knowing is accomplished.  If my graduate school postulate is true, then this knowing will lead to, at a minimum, an accepting (i.e. without hate) attitude, and will probably lead to a loving attitude.  If this is the case, that this knowing of the client by himself or herself as well as by others leads to the development of a loving attitude or feeling, then in some way a form of spontaneous prayer may be engendered (as described in the Ulanov book).  To the extent that the therapeutic model is a nondirective one, then this praying will maximize its impact (#6).  If the persons involved are highly experienced (i.e. the clinician has been in practice a long time or the other members have been in the therapy group a long time), all the better (#4).  The finding (#3) that the amount of time spent in prayer correlates positively with outcome may explain why many clinicians and clients believe so strongly in the value of long-term psychotherapy.  In addition, interaction of the intensity and duration of the therapeutic involvement could be expected to predict how well a person would come to be known (by self as well as other), and this degree of known-ness should in turn predict how effective any spontaneous prayer would be (#5).  To the extent that one might think in terms such as "intervening variables" or "modulating variables," one could think of human prayer as an intervening or modulating variable between human beings and the (presumably healing) love of God.


A theoretical/conceptual outline such as the one given above might prove to be explanatory of the results published by Spiegel, et.al. (1989).  They found that women with breast cancer who were assigned randomly to either group therapy or a control group were much more likely to live longer if they received the group therapy assignment.  The original intention was to simply provide support for persons facing a potentially fatal illness, without any attempt to see if it was possible to extend survival.  What is interesting to note is that the absence of the intention to extend survival may be exactly what made it possible to do so.  If the goal had been to extend life, then the efforts of the group (including whatever spontaneous prayer might have occurred) would have been much more directed.  The nondirective nature of the intention may have actually contributed unwittingly to the outcome.


There is another historical piece of psychotherapy research which might well support a theory that psychotherapy heals through spontaneous, and perhaps even unconscious, prayer.  This is the finding (Fiedler, 1953) that therapists of differing theoretical orientations tend to be more and more difficult to distinguish behaviorally from each other in their practice of psychotherapy over a number of years.  It may be that there is a natural pull toward some sort of attitude, which is in turn reflected in therapeutic style, and which could be described as prayerful.  Of course what I have just described as "a natural pull" may be nothing more than the effects of operant conditioning.  That is, we may simply be reinforced by the outcome when our approach is nondirective, and therefore learn over time to emit more of these (covert) operants called prayer.  It is also interesting to note that this particular psychotherapy finding is quite consistent with the finding in prayer research that more experienced prayors are more effective.  The notion that the development of a prayerful style of therapy might occur outside of the  conscious awareness of the therapist is quite consistent with the degree to which therapists of differing theoretical orientations have been found to converge on a common behavioral pattern without conscious awareness.


It is particularly intriguing to me to think of the notion that coming to know myself better (i.e. finding ways to make conscious what had previously been unconscious) might make it possible for me to pray for myself more effectively.  Extending that notion, the more any person gets to know self or other, whether in the context of psychotherapy or not, the greater the possibility that some kind of healing through prayer will occur.


The research implications of the above theorizing are probably somewhat summed up by Nikola Tesla, the physicist whose ideas and experiments a few decades ago caused him to be regarded by some as a genius, and by some as a crackpot.  He is reported by Kalweit (1984) to have said: "on that day when science begins to investigate non-physical phenomena, it will make greater progress in a decade than in all the centuries that it has existed."  In a more concrete form, these implications would have to do with designing carefully controlled studies in which a number of variables would be studied in a double-blind fashion to assess their impact on whatever praying may occur in the course of psychotherapy.  These would include: (1) the degree of similarity between the theological belief systems of the therapist and client, (2) the presence or absence of conscious intentionality to pray as part of the psychotherapy process, (3) the degree of willingness of the client to have the therapist pray for him or her, (4) the impact of non-human prayer (e.g. domestic pets present in the therapy or the broader life of the client, as well as any non-human entities the therapist might invoke in a shamanic fashion), (5) the degree to which the therapist is consciously aware of praying (of course the measurement of unconscious praying would open a whole new chapter in projective testing), (6) the degree to which therapist and client believe that prayer is effective, and (7) the specific form of the prayer.






Dossey, Larry, The Power of Prayer. New Realities, May/June, 1990, pp. 28-34.


Fiedler, Fred E., Quantitative Studies on the Role of Therapists' Feelings Toward Their Patients. in Mowrer, O. H. Psychotherapy Theory and Research, Ronald Press, New York, 1953, pp. 296-315.


Kalweit, Holger Shamans, Healers, and Medicine Men, translated by Michael H. Kohn, Shamabla, Boston and London, 1992, 299 pages.


Spiegel, David, Kraemer, Helena C., Bloom, Joan R. & Gottheil, Ellen,  Effect of Psychosocial Treatment on Survival of Patients with Metastatic Cancer. The Lancet, Oct 14, 1989, pp. 888-891.


Ulanov, Barry & Ann  Primary Speech--A Psychology of Prayer, John Knox Press, Atlanta, 1982, 178 pages.




1 A much more detailed presentation of many of the experiments summarized by Dossey can be found in The Spindrift Papers, a lengthy unpublished manuscript available from Sprindrift, Inc., P.O. Box 3995, Salem, OR 97302-0995.


2 Kenneth Wapnick (personal communication, 1993) points out that the concept of "joining," as presented in A Course in Miracles, fits very nicely with the notion of nondirective prayer.  According to A Course in Miracles, it is through the joining with others that one is able to undo the belief that one is separate from God.


3 Gerald May (personal communication, 1993) suggests that the Judaeo-Christian evolution of prayer has been from the very directive prayer of the Psalms and prophets to the very nondirective prayer of the mystics, who came to understand prayer as an attempt to tune into God's own prayer.






John C, Rhead, Ph.D.

5560 Sterrett Place, Suite 205

Columbia, MD 21044