Prayer as a Healing Force

This article is taken from Dr. Larry Dossey’s remarks at the July 17, 1996 workshop “Spirituality, Healing, and the Soul,” part of the Center’s series The Healing Force of Nature. Dr. Dossey serves on the Board of Advisors for the Center. He is the author of several bestselling books including Healing Words: The Power of Prayer and the Practice of Medicine and its sequel, Prayer is Good Medicine.

You can’t go through years of education here in the U.S. without being exposed to the idea that everything is physical. If you have a metaphysical, cosmic experience, well, that’s just a chemical reaction. If you have a born-again experience, lithium will take care of it! We come out of our schools with no appreciation of the mind or even the presence of consciousness.

In reality, you can’t find anything in the body that defines consciousness. It’s hard to find anything that you can pinpoint as “the mind.” It’s time we admitted that nothing in chemistry or physics has even a remote bearing on consciousness. As David Chalmers, a philosopher at the University of California at Santa Cruz said in a recent article in Scientific American, it’s time to bite the bullet and admit that consciousness is another force altogether, on a par with matter and energy.

When we talk of prayer we are talking about distant manifestations of consciousness. To talk in this way is to break some kind of taboo. We can accept the power of the mind in affecting bodily processes, but to talk interpersonally–that my consciousness can have an effect on other persons and events–is a major paradigm shift.

The first major shift in our thinking about health came in the mid 1800s when we began to view the body scientifically and mechanically. You identify what’s not working right and fix it. The second era brought in the connection between mind and body. We began to talk about psychosomatic illness. The third era introduces the idea of non-local medicine.

Local medicine believes that my mind is localized in my brain. Non-local medicine says that my mind may not be localized to my brain and body or even to the present moment. One way to define intercessory prayer is as a “positive, distant, non-local manifestation of conciousness.” This includes born-again Christians’ prayers as well as the Buddhists’. It can include rejoicing, talking, silence, be addressed to God or to the universe. How you pray is up to you.

People get upset with this kind of broad definition. Most people in this culture define prayer as talking aloud to oneself or to some white, male parent figure, usually in the English language. But there are many cultures and religions with prayer practices. Unless you want to disenfranchize lots of people, we need a broader definition. And interestingly, the studies on prayer show no correlation between religious affiliation and the effects of prayer in the laboratory. The factors that seems to work are love, compassion, empathy and deep caring.

The most famous prayer study was conducted by Dr. Randolph Byrd, a cardiologist at the University of California at San Francisco Medical Center. He took 393 people who had been admitted to the hospital with a heart attack. All of the subjects received the same high-tech, state-of-the-art coronary care, but half were also prayed for by name by prayer groups around the country. No one knew who was being prayed for–the patients, the doctors, the nurses. The prayed-for group had fewer deaths, faster recovery, less intubations, and used fewer potent medications.

If the subject of this study had been a new medication instead of prayer, this would have been considered a medical breaththrough. Up until then, most medical people had considered prayer a nice thing. It didn’t hurt much, but they certainly didn’t consider it a matter of life and death.

One of the complaints about Byrd’s and others’ studies is that they are not rigorously done. In writing my books I looked at all of the studies, some 160 of them. While it is true that some have problems, many are fanatically precise and admirably designed. Two-thirds show that the impact of distant prayer is statistically significant.

Some scientists have talked of the “problem of extraneous prayer.” How do we know that those cardiac patients in the control group weren’t being prayed for by friends and family? People often pray in a crisis. Now, I for one am glad that this problem of extraneous prayer exists. If I have a heart attack, I want to have a lot of this problem! But for research purposes, scientists have gotten around this by doing studies of the growth of bacteria in test tubes. That way you guarantee the purity of the control group. And you know what? The prayed-for test tube also shows a reduction in the growth of bacteria. This kind of study might seem outrageous but this is where precise science can be done.

Some people have told me, “You can’t afford to talk about prayer stuff like this. You’ll make people feel guilty. What if someone is on this wonderful spiritual path but the pathology report comes back positive? They may feel shame and blame and guilt. They may feel they haven’t prayed hard enough or been spiritual enough. So don’t bring it up and make them feel uncomfortable.”

I think we who believe in the connection between body, mind and spirit have to take this problem very seriously. In some circles there is the belief that if you stay on a spiritual path everything will turn out all right. There’s even a book that says that you’ll never die if you achieve spiritual perfection. So if you get sick, that means you had some more spiritual work to do.

We need to say emphatically that there is not a one-to-one correlation. One’s well-being is not just as simple as being happy and being aware or praying properly. Any model we create about the relationship between spiritual achievement and good health has to account for two groups of people. I call them the Healthy Reprobates and the Unhealthy Saints. One of the oldest men on earth lives in Iraq; he’s at least 120 years old and drinks and smokes all the time. And history is full of very spiritual people who were sick all the time. In the Bible, Job was described as perfect, and look what happened to him. The Buddha died of food poisoning.

We should understand that prayer does have an impact, but it can’t save us from death or guarantee we won’t get sick. There’s no historical or clinical evidence that this is true. I would say to you though, don’t wait for the results of more double-blind studies to pray. We can stand to have more extraneous prayer in this world of ours.

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Written by Dr. Larry Dossey MD

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