My book Why Religions Work explores religious tolerance issues. It could not be more relevant at the moment with the world in its present state.
This blog has concentrated recently on the wonderful pilgrimages I have been on - to the Holy Land and to Turkey and more recently to Holy Georgia , Greece "In the Steps of St Paul" , Ethiopia and most recently my experiences in Iran.

"If I was allowed another life I would go to all the places of God's Earth. What better way to worship God than to look on all his works?" from The Chains of Heaven: an Ethiopian Romance Philip Marsden

Thursday, 27 October 2011

The power of prayer and meditation – the interface between Medicine and Religion

Science is increasingly meeting spirituality within medicine:
Larry Dossey: "I used to believe that we must choose between science and reason on the one hand, and spirituality on the other, as foundations for living our lives. Now I consider this a false choice…we can recover the sense of sacredness…not just in science, but in every area of life." From Reinventing Medicine
In 1988 Byrd, a cardiologist at the San Francisco General Hospital and also a devout Christian was struck by a conversation with a colleague about a terminally ill cancer patient. All medical avenues had been exhausted and the physicians really did not know what else they could do for the patient. We could try prayer, said Byrd.(2)Thus began the prayer study that has inspired so many subsequent experiments into non -local healing phenomena. The scientifically designed and double blind trials produced more positive responses in those groups of patients who were prayed for, when compared with the control groups. Although the sample was small and the statistical interpretation of the results controversial, there have been many more studies since then that have corroborated in different ways the principal of that pioneer experiment; non local intervention such as prayer can give a positive outcome. Byrd’s work certainly proved to be a catalyst for physicians such as Dossey who was interested in exploring the spiritual questions of medicine within wider parameters beyond the known interaction of mind and body.
Inspired by his belief in faith's healing power, and by personal experience Harold G. Koenig(3) has spent many years studying the impact of people's religious life on their physical and emotional health. He shows how prayer can very definitely help people come through serious afflictions and improve the outcome of many illnesses. He relates many such stories of hope and inspiration in The Healing Power of Faith,(4) which he later followed up with The Healing Connection: The Story of a Physician's Search for the Link Between Faith and Health.”(5)

Work of doctors such as Dossey and Koenig who are recognizing a further healing dimension in medicine beyond the body and brain are I believe incredibly important in helping us gain an understanding of a further dimension in religion beyond the dogma and doctrine. There is a massive overlap between the phenomena described by these men in their healing practices and the power of prayer or meditation in a religious or spiritual setting. But there is still a great deal of prejudice against these views, particularly those where the focus is specifically on religion, rather than on a more generalized concept of spirituality. Indeed, doctors and nurses have put their careers in jeopardy by suggesting prayer in a clinical setting, for example.
We are indeed seeing the dawning of a new paradigm in the history of medicine: we are entering an era where the spiritual healing needs of the patient can be met alongside both alternative and complementary therapies and the very best of the latest clinical medicine. Although there are some highly successful holistic healing centers – for example Burrswood in the UK, and the Integrative Medical Clinic of Santa Rosa, California, much work still needs to be done.
Dossey has labeled what he sees as the dawning of the latest phase of medical history as Era III. This is the era of non-local mind medicine. Some of the most exciting work to emerge over the last few years has been that of Dossey himself as he works to show to the world the ability of a mind that is ‘unconfined to the brain and body, mind spread infinitely throughout space and time,’ a concept introduced in his 1989 book Recovering the Soul. ‘This is the first era of scientific medicine that acknowledges that our thoughts may affect not only our own body, (Era II), but the body of a distant individual, without the mediation of any known physical energy or force, and without diminution by spatial separation,’ he writes. ‘Non-local healing phenomena appear almost always to involve consciousness: the empathic, loving intent of one individual to help another.’(6)
This all builds on Byrd’s earlier and famous research and there are an increasing number of empirical and scientifically measurable studies on spiritual tools such as prayer intercessions, intuition, dreams and stories of coincidence that provide a sound foundation for those who believe that medicine can be imbued with spirit. In his book Reinventing Medicine Dossey relates stories of experiments conducted on subjects as diverse as barley seeds and yeast cells, mice and human tissue cultures, to see the effect of prayer or other healing intention, often using conditions and analyses as stringent as any employed in traditional drug trials. In one such experiment, for example, mice were measured for their ability to heal from a deliberate wound made on their backs. The subjects were divided into three groups. The group that was exposed to the attentions of a healer showed a statistically significant healing rate above that of the group looked after by inexperienced medical students with no interest in healing, or by the control group. Similarly, it has been shown that yeast cells respond with an increased growth rate to the attentions of spiritual healers when compared with the attention of those disinterested students. It has to be assumed that mice and yeast cells are incapable of giving a bias to the experiments through their own positive thinking, or by praying for themselves or for those in one of the other groups. This answers some of the cynicism often displayed around prayer experiments on human beings. We do not need to understand why these experiments give the results they do. As Dossey points out, we still don’t understand gravity but we have come to accept it! If we are prepared to accept these profound findings medicine certainly will require reinvention.

What does this have to do with religious tolerance? Firstly and perhaps most obviously, I believe that we need to build a society where doctors and nurses can talk about spirit and soul and prayer with their patients in appropriate circumstances without fear of reprimand.
But I think that this new era of medicine has a deeper significance for religious tolerance. Because there seems to be the potential for so much common ground between the findings of doctors such as Byrd, Dossey and Koenig, and the spirit and power of prayer, meditation and spirituality in any religious setting.

(1)Byrd story related by Larry Dossey, in Reinventing Medicine: Beyond Mind-Body to a New Era of Healing, Shaftesbury, Dorset, Boston, Massachusetts: Element Books, 2000, p. 12, p. 53 et. seq.
(2)Professor of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences and Associate Professor of Medicine, Dr. Koenig is founder and former director of Duke University’s Center for the Study of Religion, Spirituality and Health, and is founding Co-Director of the current Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health at Duke University’s Medical Center,
(3) Koenig, Harold and Malcolm McConnell, The Healing Power of Faith: How Belief and Prayer can help you Triumph over Disease, Paperback Simon & Schuster - April 17, 2001.
(4) Koenig, Harold G., The Healing Connection: The Story of a Physician's Search for the Link between Faith and Health (Templeton Foundation Press, 2004).
(5) Dossey, Larry, Recovering the Soul: a Scientific and Spiritual Search (Bantam, 1989).
(6)Definitions of the 3 Eras taken from Larry Dossey, article, The Forces of Healing: Reflections on Energy, Consciousness, and the Beef Stroganoff Principle, revised from the keynote address and welcome originally presented at Exploring the Forces of Healing, the Second Annual Alternative Therapies Symposium; April 1997; Orlando, Fla.
(7) Larry Dossey, 2000, also a HarperCollins e-book; 1 edition July 24, 2007)

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