WHEN a medical doctor undertakes to write about prayer, he runs the risk of alienating those who consider prayer ``unscientific,'' as well as those who think they know more about prayer than he does. Why do it, then? Because, as in the case of fellow surgeon Bernie Siegal, Larry Dossey has seen the power of prayer at work and feels impelled to share his views. ``[T]he choice between science and spirituality appears increasingly artificial today, even from a scientific perspective,'' he writes.
Dossey claims that the healing effects of prayer are largely ignored because they do not fit the current medical paradigm. ``A body of knowledge that does not fit with prevailing ideas can be ignored as if it does not exist, no matter how scientifically valid it may be. Scientists, including physicians, can have blind spots in their vision.''
Dossey was raised in what he describes as the tent-meeting revivalist atmosphere of the Texas prairie. Losing his teenage religious fervor at the University of Texas, he abandoned his original intent to enter the ministry and became a physician. But during his medical training, he also became acquainted with Buddhism and Taoism and found that Western religious tradition also had deep elements of mysticism and meditation connected with it. He came to the conclusion that not to pray for his patients would be as unethical as to withhold a drug or surgery that he felt was needed.
Dossey also wrote ``Space, Time and Medicine'' and ``Beyond Illness.'' He is currently co-chairman of the Panel of Mind/Body Interventions at the Office of Alternative Medicine of the National Institutes of Health in Washington, D.C.
While everything Dossey writes will not find immediate acceptance as scientific in the medical community, those who practice spiritual healing quite apart from any medical intervention will also be critical of parts of his book. Its significance, however, lies in the fact that someone with Dossey's credentials raises the issue of prayer in such a positive context. And he does so in a manner that indicates he is not advocating prayer as an attempt to ``use'' God: ``The primary reason to focus on the role of prayer in healing is not to prove its effectiveness scientifically.... The best reason goes deeper: Prayer says something incalculably important about who we are and what our destiny may be.''
One of the author's main points is that true prayer advances the healing practice beyond the fairly well-accepted concept of mind/body interaction. Prayer is effective when there is no sensory communication between the one who prays and the one who is prayed for. Thus, prayer indicates that some part of the universe is inexplicable in normal sensory terms.
Dossey writes: ``The nonlocal view suggests that the mind cannot be limited to specific points in space (brains or bodies) or in time (the present moment), but is infinite in space and time; thus the mind is omnipresent, eternal, and immortal. If minds are indeed nonlocal, this means that in principle they cannot be walled off and separated from one another: at some level they are unitary and one.'' (Emphasis added.)
As for how one prays, Dossey thinks there are as many approaches to prayer as there are personality types. But he seems to favor the kind of praying in which the individual tries to learn God's will, to draw closer to whatever he defines as this power outside himself - rather than a prayer of giving the Almighty specific instructions.
``Results occurred not only when people prayed for explicit outcomes, but also when they prayed for nothing specific. Some studies, in fact, showed that a simple `Thy will be done' approach was quantitatively more powerful than when specific results were held in the mind,'' he explains.
``To use spirituality for a specific purpose,'' he writes, ``would be a contradiction in terms, and exercise in hypocrisy. Get-well formulas that advocate spiritual practices are by definition inauthentic because they require that one take on spirituality from the outside, instead of allowing it to emerge from the center of one's being.''
He includes five Japanese case studies of persons with advanced cancer; in these cases, strong religious faith was involved, and the individuals simply vowed to get on with living. ``This was not passivity, resignation, or giving up, but rather a commitment to a renewed devotion to previous activities or to new interests in life.''
Dossey briefly examines what he calls ``black prayer,'' the concept of using prayer as a curse. If prayer is nonlocal, can a person be harmed if he is not conscious that thoughts are being directed against him? The evidence, particularly from primitive cultures, certainly suggests that curses can harm, Dossey writes.
The concept of mental malpractice, (a phrase he does not use) brings to mind the question of who or what is it that is praying. Is it the human mind willing something, or is true prayer one that connects the human consciousness with a positive, loving intelligence that is universally available?
Most individuals in this scientific period are as uncomfortable reading about curses as they are hearing of examples of telepathy and clairvoyance. Yet if prayer is to be honestly examined, we will need to become more aware of the various phases of the human mind. It is to Dossey's credit that he has even tackled the problems of negative prayer.
``Healing Words'' quotes more studies than most readers will be aware of. It certainly begins to lift the veil from the public discussion of the efficacy of prayer. Yet the book is as much a book of spiritual perception as one of medical case studies, as when Dossey notes that no separation exists between those praying and prayed for. ``We do not have to establish or invent these connections because they already exist. Prayer is not an innovation, it is a process of remembering who we really are and how we are related.''