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Prayer and Imagery


Larry Dossey, M.D.

Dr. Larry Dossey practices internal medicine and has authored "Space, Time and Medicine," "Beyond Illness," and "Mind Beyond Body." He is president of the Isthmus Society, an organization whose goal is to bridge the gap between science and spirituality.

Most people do not know that there are scientific studies which show that prayer, one of the most ancient methods of healing, really works.

For example, Dr. Randolph Byrd, a staff cardiologist at the University of California Medical School, studied almost 400 patients admitted to the coronary care unit of San Francisco General Hospital. Half were given routine, state-of-the-art treatment. The remaining half also were given routine care, but in addition were prayed for by prayer groups across the United States. Neither the doctors, nurses, nor patients knew who was being prayed for. In the jargon of science, this was a double-blind, randomized prospective study-the very best kind.

The results highly favored the prayed-for patients, who had fewer deaths, fewer instances of CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation), less need for mechanical ventilation (attachment to breathing machines), less need for diuretics and antibiotics, and less pulmonary edema (filling of the lungs with fluid). The outcome was so significant that if the method being investigated had been a new drug or surgical technique, it would undoubtedly have been heralded as a scientific breakthrough. A noted skeptic of psychic healing, Dr. William Nolen, author of "The Making of a Surgeon," acknowledged the importance of this study, saying that physicians should perhaps be writing on their orders, "Pray for patient three times a day." Prayer

But what is the best way to pray? Again, scientific studies have attempted to answer this question. For a decade, the Spindrift organization of Salem, Oregon has conducted experiments on the ability of a prayer-practitioner to effect changes in simple biological systems such as sprouting seeds or yeast cultures. Their findings show that the most powerful method of prayer is when the person uses a non-directed approach in which he or she does not attempt to tell the object of prayer specifically what to do—i.e. if he or she prays that Thy will be done or May the best thing happen. This let it be method is difficult for many people to accept, for we usually prefer a directed form of prayer in which we tell the universe what to do—praying for the cancer to go away, the heart attack to repair itself, etc. But the Spindrift experiments show that, although both methods work, the non-directed approach is much more powerful than the directed method.

These findings, I feel, should be comforting to us mortals. They suggest that a wisdom higher than our own is at work in any given case, and that it is not up to us to know what specific outcome is best. This implies that the images one makes while praying need not always be utterly specific and precise. Above all, these objective findings imply that it's best to trust the wisdom of the universe over our own preferences.

Our task, then, would be to cooperate but not control. Attunement and alignment are words that capture this attitude. These strategies may sound too passive for people who believe their prayers, imagery and visualization should be as specific and precise as possible. But these psychological attitudes are not really passive but active, and they have been sanctioned by perhaps all the great spiritual traditions—and, as scientific studies show, they work.

An extensive discussion of the role of prayer in healing can be found in Dr. Dossey's book, "Recovering the Soul: A Scientific and Spiritual Search," available now from Bantam Publishers.

Reference: Randolph Byrd, "Positive Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer in a Coronary Care Unit Population," Southern Medical Journal 81:7, July 1988, 826-9.

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