Excerpted from "The Way We Pray" by Maggie Oman Shannon and published by Conari Press.

Like a number of disciplines that have become diluted, even muddied, through the popularity of their practice, the word affirmations can either raise eyebrows or elicit enthusiastic examples of their efficacy. Some stories about affirmations have become part of our modern folklore: the $10 million check for "acting services rendered" that Jim Carrey wrote to himself just years before he made the news for being signed for that exact amount; the discipline of writing daily, "I will become a syndicated cartoonist," by Dilbert creator Scott Adams - with the result that he not only became a syndicated cartoonist but, thanks to enthusiastic merchandising efforts, a millionaire as well.

Affirmations as we know them were brought to the public eye in the nineteenth century through the work of French pharmacist Dr. Emile Coué. In the 1870s, Coué became fascinated by the power of the mind, practicing "mind conditioning therapy" in his free clinic. One of the first and best-known phrases defined as an affirmation comes from Coué: "Every day in every way I'm getting better and better." As that example illustrates, effective affirmations follow similar guidelines: they are focused on a specific goal (such as cartoonist Adams'); they use the present tense ("I love and accept myself"); they are positive and focus on the desired outcome ("I feel wonderful and radiate perfect health"); they are short and easily memorized; and they are repeated out loud or written down several items a day for weeks - often longer.

While affirmations are a proven psychological tool for enhancing success - they are used in combination with visualization by top performers in every field, including business, sports, and entertainment - they do have roots in older, more spiritual arenas. Indeed, as authors Willis Harman and Howard Rheingold wrote in "Higher Creativity," "In institutionalized religions, prayer probably originated as a living exercise in affirmation, but degenerated to a ritual of supplication or penance directed toward some external being. Yet those whose devotion leads them to the true meaning beneath the outer form of their religion's prayers come to realize that it is not an external message system, but a dialogue between self and Self, a channel to the wisest of our inner personalities."

According to spiritual teacher Paramahansa Yogananda, who nearly fifty years ago wrote a book on affirmations titled "Scientific Healing Affirmations,"

The Lord helps those who help themselves. He gave you will power, concentration, faith, reason, and common sense to use when trying to rid yourself of bodily and mental afflictions; you should employ all those powers while simultaneously appealing to Him.

As you utter prayers or affirmations, always believe that you are using your own but God-given powers to heal yourself or others. Ask His aid; but realize that you yourself, as His beloved child, are employing His gifts of will, emotion, and reason to solve all difficult problems of life. A balance should be struck between the medieval idea of wholly depending on God and the modern way of sole reliance on the ego.

Affirmations, used as a prayer practice, help us to focus on the Divine and to affirm ourselves as spiritual beings with creative power. Using the "I am" format of affirmations echoes the name of God: "I AM THAT I AM." Being mindful of what follows the "I am" construction is crucial, because there is great power in that declarative sentence. It is wise to use it to affirm that which you want enhanced in your life, not to announce that with which you are dissatisfied.

Shakti Gawain, author of "Creative Visualization," and Louise Hay, author of various books, including "You Can Heal Your Life," are two contemporary writers who have helped to bring the practice of affirmations into popular, even mainstream, use. Hay also created a compendium of healing affirmations to treat specific illnesses, believing - as a survivor of cancer - that what we say to ourselves does have the power to positively affect our health. Writes Hay, "We have learned that for every effect in our lives, there is a thought pattern that precedes and maintains it. Our consistent thinking patterns create our experiences. Therefore, by changing our thinking patterns, we can change our experiences."

New Age wishful thinking? Not when you place it in the context of New Testament scripture, which in Philippians 4:8, advises us that "whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable - if anything is excellent or praiseworthy - think about such things." Here, it would seem, we're asked to affirm that "I am a unique and valuable expression of God," not to whine "I am so fat." Though we're all familiar with the nursery rhyme that proclaims, "Words will never hurt me," practitioners of affirmations believe that words can hurt us if we repeat them often enough - especially if we believe that they're true. Jesus, in Matthew 21:22, indicates why we should watch our words so carefully: "If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer."

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