A Conversation With Larry Dossey, MD
A doctor of internal medicine and author of the New York Times best-selling book on prayer Healing Words (HarperSanFrancisco, 1993), Larry Dossey, MD, is an authority on spiritual healing and the role of prayer in getting well. We caught up with him recently at his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Q: How did you first come upon the topic of spirituality and health and decide it was going to become the focus of your career and life?
A: It was a slow process; there were no eureka moments. In high school, I had classic migraines, associated with not just headaches, but partial blindness. This got a lot worse in medical school—nothing worked for it—and in desperation I learned how to do biofeedback, a form of relaxation training, which virtually solved the problem. This got my attention about the role of consciousness and how your body behaves. It was an awakening for me, and it paved the way for openness on my part to the first healing study I ever saw, which was in the mid-80s.
Q: What is the scientific proof that spirituality, prayer, and meditation can help people overcome illness?
A: There are nine major human studies that have been done looking at the effect of prayer and healing intentions on various illnesses. Six of these studies show statistically positive findings. Prayer and healing intentions from one person to another are correlated with an improvement in health. So there is something to say for adding prayer and healing intentions to one's medical program, no matter what the illness is.
Q: How do you define spirituality?
A: Spirituality is simply, in my judgment, a sense of connectedness with something greater and wiser and more powerful than the individual sense of self. My term for it is the Absolute. Many people refer to it as God or Allah or the universe. Some people consider spirituality to be a majestic sense of beauty and order. I take a very wide approach to what spirituality is.
Q: Even if you're not sick, can prayer help keep you healthy?
A: Spirituality is a rich source of hope for people. It's connected with a sense of purpose and direction in the world. We now know through excellent research findings that people do not do well without a sense of purpose and hope in life.
Q: Do you think physicians still neglect the spiritual aspect of health and healing—or have you seen a change in the medical community in the last decade or so?
A: Doctors still neglect [spirituality], but there's just been a huge change. Back in 1993, only three of the nation's 125 medical schools had any sort of course work looking at the role of spirituality in health. Now approximately 80 of the nation's 125 medical schools have those sorts of courses.
Q: If you could spend time with any famous healers, religious or spiritual leaders, or notable people throughout history, whom would you choose and why?
A: I'd like to go back and hang out with Florence Nightingale. I consider her a giant who actually transformed not just nursing but public health worldwide. She's one of the towering figures of the 1800s. If she'd been a man, she would have been prime minister. I'd like to sit at her feet and soak up her wisdom.