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Posted: September 23, 2005

Spiritual Caregiving

What Is This Thing Called Prayer?

Ah, to be in the thick of things. This is where I find myself these days, as my research on prayer and healing captures the media’s attention. Last week I was interviewed for The New York Times (front page, no less). Yesterday, a national morning show called; they’ll be assigning us a West Coast producer. Then there’s the conservative talk show host who says he’s interested in a fair-minded debate.

This morning my editor at Spirituality & Health, Steve Kiesling, rang up. "How does it feel to do research on such a controversial topic? How do you balance your personal truth with your role as scientist?" he asked. "You should write about this."

OK. But it’s not as easy as it sounds. My training as a scientist has taught me to adopt an objective attitude towards my work. We do experiments to understand something about the world outside ourselves. It’s a place to leave our personal lives behind. Or is it?

For me, the study of prayer and healing raises important scientific questions: Where do mind and matter meet? What role does belief play in our experience of the world? How does the search for meaning and purpose impact our health? But I also have to admit that exploring these questions is really great fun. The questions, the experiments, and the passionate people I work with are what get me out of bed in the morning.

What I didn’t realize until recently was the extent to which the fledgling field of prayer and healing research is a lightening rod for debate about larger social and political issues. Indeed, paradigm wars between our dominant truth systems — science on one hand, religion on the other — are being waged around the small body of preliminary research. The terms for engagement by the media often include personal attacks on friends and colleagues, attributions of motives that have no place in the objective sphere of science, and a split between skeptics and proponents that leaves little room for a balanced middle ground.

My current dance with the media involves a study my colleagues and I are conducting on distant healing (including prayer, meditation, and intention) to influence wound repair in female surgery patients. The experiment is funded by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine at the National Institutes of Health.

A team of healers representing many traditions has been paired with surgery patients, although they never have any direct contact with one another. The healers are instructed to send compassionate intention toward their assigned patients, but given free reign as to how they do this: energy balancing, prayer, intention. Some of the patients know they are the objects of healing intention, others do not. What we will measure is the rate of collagen deposition (an essential part of the wound-healing process) on a small Gortex patch placed under the skin.

The study design is straightforward and well-controlled. What remains a mystery is whether the distant healing intentions will correlate with healing — and whether the patient’s own beliefs about these healing intentions make a difference.

In other words, we don’t have any data to talk about, and yet we are already front-page news. Should the NIH, funded by federal dollars, be sponsoring research that touches on spirituality? Is science degrading religion? Can one really study subjective experiences, such as prayer or contemplative practices, using the methods of science? And how can distant healing work when it appears to violate certain assumptions about cause and effect?

My response? First of all, it is clear that a large number of us make use of prayer at one point or another. Indeed, a recent survey sponsored by the NIH found that prayer is the leading form of complementary and alternative medicine used in America today. Given this reality, how can government agencies not fund research into such an important part of our medical toolbox?

As to how it feels to be in the thick of things: It is exciting to have a voice in a debate that triggers such strong reactions. After many years in the margins of mainstream thinking, it’s thrilling to see our work find its place in the current cultural landscape. But to be honest, it sure would be great to be able to present data in this field like scientists in other fields — without all the name-calling. Like an old detective show, I’d love for someone to tell me "Just the facts, Ma’am." Then we could talk about whether the experiment proved anything or not.

While a little battle weary, I remain hopeful that our work can help build bridges between science and spirituality. What is needed is rigorous research that broadens the domain of science while expanding our understanding of who we are and what we are capable of becoming. From this perspective, my personal truth and my work are never at odds.


Marilyn Schlitz, Ph.D., is vice president for research and education at the Institute of Noetic Sciences and senior scientist at the Complementary Medicine Research Institute of the California Pacific Medical Center.


And on a related front . . .

What’s the Best Way to Pray When Facing Surgery?

In the anxious days before heart surgery — a life-or-death event where the outcome is out of a patient’s direct control — many people use prayer to cope.

University of Washington psychologist Amy L. Ai and three colleagues from the University of Michigan wanted to explore what heart patients pray for and how it helps. Does prayer allow patients to feel more in control, because it’s something they can do for themselves? Or does it enable them to feel more at peace with being out of control, since through prayer they can surrender to God?

After administering interviews and questionnaires to 202 middle-aged and older patients awaiting surgery and analyzing the data, the researchers found that the patients in their group used both mechanisms, and that both eased the anxiety of feeling out of control.

They hypothesize that the combination of control and surrender, while it may sound contradictory, actually represents a healthier balance than either approach by itself.

This article originally appeared in Spirituality & Health magazine, For subscriptions call 1-800-876-8202 or see Editor Stephen Kiesling and his staff contribute weekly columns, features and articles published every Friday as "Spiritual Caregiving" at Contact staff directly via email at

© 2005 Pederson Publishing, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Commercial use, redistribution or other forms of reuse of this information is strictly prohibited without the prior written permission of Pederson Publishing.

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