Science, Prayer, and Healing with Dr. Larry Dossey
Dr. Larry Dossey is one of the fathers of a growing family of doctors and scientists discovering common ground between spirituality and science. His second book, Prayer is Good Medicine, restates his dedication to establishing an acceptance of the natural harmony between medicine and prayer. He offers further scientific proof that prayer actually helps healing. Speaking about his first book, the best-selling Healing Words, Larry shares that "Almost all doctors wanted to see this move forward. Even the AMA gave the first book, Healing Words, a very warm reception, which was unexpected." The first book was written more in technical terms, and Prayer is Good Medicine is an extension of that, written more for non-scientists, and for people who are simply interested in prayer.
An internist by training, Larry is very confident with the procedures that are used in medicine today, but believes that without spirituality, these procedures on their own are not enough. He says we use what works, but it is not either spiritual approaches or medical approaches. Prayer is Good Medicine delivers proof that prayer is an actual, tangible, usable means of healing. Spirituality, science, and prayer co-exist beautifully, and Larry admits a personal attachment to seeing science and spirituality co-existing: "I grew up in a religious community, and when I started going to college my spirituality collided with my science teachings, and I became agnostic for a time. I divided my life, as most people do, and said this is the real part, the real tangible, provable part of existing; and my spirituality is un-proven." He has done an excellent job of finding peace between the two studies, which is no small feat for a physician.
Larry says some doctors don't listen to the spiritual aspect of their patients at all when treating them, but probably only because they don't know how to approach a person's spirituality without feeling like they're turning their backs on their science. "I think that honoring that spiritual dimension will bring the doctor and the patient together and they'll be able to find a relationship that works for healing."
Larry says there is already a science supporting the value of prayer in healing, although we are still witnessing the first official breaking of the taboo. This fall, five of the major medical schools in this country will be offering courses in how faith and spirituality affect healing. One-third of all the medical schools in our country have already developed and are teaching courses in alternative medicine. Many of them focus on spirituality, or the effect of the mind: what a person is thinking and feeling about themself and their life, and how that affects their well-being and their health. "All of these courses have come about as a result of the students banging on the doors of the dean saying, 'We need to know about these alternatives, we demand an education!' We now have hard core evidence from scientific experiments that prayer works in healing. We can have it both ways. This really expands the potential for healing of patients, doctors, and our culture. But with that, and with the proof that prayer actually works in healing, there are a lot of nuances."
Larry points out that prayer is a big concern for a lot of religious fundamentalists because they feel prayer should be done a certain way and everyone should do it that certain way. He is simultaneously pointing at the need for tolerance in our world today. He recalls an evening watching CNN, as Dublin was in flames. "Here were Protestants on one side and Catholics on the other, and they were fighting and killing each other in the name of what? The same God. It's like they're fighting for the right to pray; who's got the pipeline to God." Larry defines prayer as communion with the absolute, and he believes we must let people define what this is for them. "It's actually bigotry when people deny other people's ways of communing with the absolute. I stand up for people and individuals to have whatever take they want on prayer and their approach to their relationship with God, the absolute."
Larry shares that one of the benefits of experimenting with prayer from a scientific approach is being able to bring different religions into study, without a bigotry where you don't even look at other ways of communing with the absolute. The fruit of his study--and it may be sour fruit to some--is that all religions' prayers work. The different avenues that all the religions have for communing with the absolute work for the people who use them. Their is no single pipeline to God. "Looking at prayer scientifically destroys the idea that someone has a monopoly on prayer. In that respect, science has done a lot for prayer, and will continue."
In 1993, when Healing Words was published, Larry faced some very vocal opposition. Even though they are few, some doctors out there despise prayer. Larry said the worst it ever got was when he was called a murderer on national TV. He was part of a panel, and on the panel with him was an oncologist who said Larry was leading people to prayer and away from traditional medicine and the treatment they needed, and in many cases they would die. "He said, 'You mislead and seduce people and they abandon drugs and surgery.' I had to remind him about the amount of people that get sick from hospital stays; it should be a national scandal! It's very disingenuous of members of the medical community to abash prayer so heavily." He states that there are relatively few skeptics, but those few are very vehement and bitter. "I tell people, do not abandon medicine. Use alternative therapies in addition to," and he is confident that Americans are not as stupid as religious and medical fanatics make them out to be.
Some religious folk claim that talking about, or experimenting in prayer is heresy and blasphemy. They say Dr. Dossey and his colleagues are trying to test God. But Larry says that as a class, most scientists experimenting with prayer are very spiritual in their approaches; they're not debasing prayer or blaspheming it. "What we've discovered is not heresy by any stretch of the imagination." Larry refers to Prayer is Good Medicine, in which he gives this rebuttal: "A friend of mine who is a scientist performs experiments on prayer. He embodies the reverential approach I am advocating. 'For me,' he once said, 'conducting an experiment to see if prayer works is like giving an elegant dinner party. I prepare the most inviting meal I can imagine, I set the table as beautifully as possible, then I open the front doors of my house to see if anybody will come to the table. If not, the dinner wasn't enticing enough. An experiment in prayer is similar. If I arrange the conditions of the experiment invitingly enough, the divine may show up and I'll get positive results. If not, I've got more work to do next time.' Teilhard de Chardin, the Jesuit priest and scholar, once said something similar: 'Research is the highest form of adoration.' "
In addition to proving that prayer does work--all forms of prayer--Larry believes he knows what makes it work. He says what he thinks is most important in prayer, or what makes prayer most effective, is intention on healing. He places more importance on a person's intent than he does the words they use: "We have all these thees and thous and ritualistic stuff, but I think that prayer is more about being than it is about doing. I think what's important is clarity, focus, intent, and love; those are all crucial to the outcome of prayer."
Larry is brutally honest when he says that a lot of people actually pray in meanness."They pray that so and so will see the light, and come around from their wicked ways, stop all this silliness about Buddhists. I call that negative prayer. It's like the dark, shadow side of prayer." He says that in a study of prayer habits of Americans, five percent admitted to praying for harm to come to others. That's only the five percent that admitted it. Larry calls this disguising of harmful intent in prayer repressing the shadow, where we try to hide our cruelty behind a mask of spirituality and goodness. He tells me that, fortunately, all religions also have means of protection from negative prayer. Good thing.
Larry is finding common ground everywhere, even between Christianity and Buddhism. "I think that compassion and love are equally at home in Christianity and Buddhism. I think they're twin concepts and sometimes there's very little difference between love and compassion." He says that Western religions have a personal idea of God, where they identify God and say this is how he is and what he looks like. While Buddhists don't have that idea of a personal God, this doesn't mean this personal God image is necessarily bad, because prayer certainly is compatible with the God image; but some things transcend a God image. Larry believes that all religions can benefit by openly sharing their ideas about God and prayer.
Larry says part of this personal image of God is that it's like an almighty jukebox, where prayers are like quarters. You put a prayer in, and you get to hear the song you want. "I don't remember who said this, but they said, people use God like a cow, only for the milk." Larry says, "Many people approach prayer thinking, 'What's the best payoff.' Is it winning the lottery; getting a parking spot? None of those are the payoff. The payoff is simply the capacity to be able to commune with the absolute. We're rewarded with something wider, greater, and more grand than anything, and that is a bridge to the absolute power in the universe. That is beyond whether or not you can pray away your illness. You get to touch immortality, and frankly, people may have to settle for immortality over winning the lottery, or a new car. Again, I think it's the intent that is important. I always pray out of compassion and love. Yes, I do pray for other people, but I do not put my intention into their life, or my will into their way of being. I always ask that the best thing be done for everyone. I don't ask that anyone be saved or enlightened, and there's no special input from me, it's just prayer in love. I have a deep desire to help."
Before Dr. Larry Dossey, the man who said, "We don't need to franchise prayer, and we can't," is finished, physicians and religions may have to settle for health and well-being for their patrons over proprietary rights to any solutions.