The son of Texas sharecroppers, Larry Dossey had a strong evangelical upbringing. As a boy, he participated eagerly in revivals and played piano with a traveling gospel quartet. He even had plans to become a minister, but abandoned them at the last minute to go to the University of Texas at Austin.
“Under its influence,” he says, “my religious fervor wilted like a central-Texas cotton field in September. I became an agnostic.” He went on to medical school, served as a battalion surgeon in Vietnam, and later became chief of staff at Medical City Dallas Hospital.
During medical school, he discovered Eastern religious philosophies, and by the time he went into private practice, he had begun to meditate regularly. He gradually adopted “an eclectic philosophy” he found “more spiritually satisfying” than anything he had grown up with.
When Dossey first came across experimental data in various journals showing that prayer affected positively the outcome of medical treatment, he wanted nothing to do with it. “Meditation was acceptable,” he says, “but the idea of ‘talking to God’ in prayer was reminiscent of the fundamental Protestantism I felt I had laid to rest.” Even so, the evidence seemed too convincing to ignore. The studies showed how prayer could have a positive effect on high blood pressure, wounds, heart attacks, headaches, and anxiety; how it could alter the growth and production of cells, the size of tumors, and the activities of enzymes. The experiments also revealed that the power of prayer was unaffected by the distance between the subjects, their knowledge of each other, or any other barriers between them.
As a result, Dossey began using prayer in his practice. Before he would put on his white coat each morning, he “would shake several rattles and gourds, paraphernalia used worldwide by shamans and healers to ‘invoke the powers.’ ” One morning, he says, “In my enthusiasm I lit too much incense and set off the smoke alarm in my office.” He would pray for the best possible outcome for his patients, but never mention to them that he had done so. He never conducted any scientific studies of the results. “Did prayer make a difference?” he says. “I do not know. I believe the answer is yes, however, if for no other reason than that I felt more connected with those I served.”
His desire to reconcile science and spirituality has led Dossey to propose that the mind is “nonlocal.” By this he means that the mind is not confined to a point in space, such as the brain or body, or even a point in time, such as the present or a single lifetime. He bases the concept of “nonlocality” on quantum physics rather than the classical Newtonian physics that underlies modern medical science.
Dossey believes that medical science is on the verge of a new era in which the nonlocal powers of the mind, exercised in the form of prayer, will play as great a role in healing as surgery or prescriptions. His fifth and most recent book, Healing Words: The Power of Prayer and the Practice of Medicine, examines the empirical evidence supporting prayer’s role in healing. In addition to writing, Dossey co-chairs a panel on mind-body interventions for the National Institutes of Health.
Going to pick him up for this interview, Ted Braude almost missed meeting Dossey at the Detroit Metropolitan Airport. “I arrived late and was running through the concourse,”Braude says, “when I passed a man who fit Dossey’s description. As he disappeared into the crowd, I shouted, ‘Dr. Dossey!’ And the tall, lanky Texan stopped, turned, and smiled at me with a warmth befitting an old friend rather than a complete stranger. After collecting Dossey’s luggage, we drove to Ann Arbor, settled into a cafe near the University of Michigan campus, and dove into our food and conversation with equal abandon.”
— Andrew Snee
Braude: What do scientists find so disturbing about nonlocality?
Dossey: It seems to be one of those fighting words. It’s been a way of putting down another scientist since Galileo condemned the young Kepler for believing in action at a distance; Kepler had the audacity to propose that the earth’s tides were caused by the distant effects of the moon’s gravity. Galileo called Kepler’s ideas “the ravings of a madman.” The idea that something could be affected by invisible forces at a distance has always been anathema to scientists. They still balk at this. If you really want to humiliate another scientist, all you have to say is “Well, he believes in nonlocality.” Believing in experiences that are nonlocal in space and time is a good way to lose tenure or not get any more grants.
Braude: Yet isn’t quantum physics — the basis for nonlocality — widely accepted?
Dossey: It’s generally accepted. It’s the most accurate science ever developed, period.
In the past fifteen years, experiments have shown beyond a reasonable doubt that nonlocal events do occur at the quantum level. For example, scientists have found that photons change the direction of their spin simultaneously with other distant photons. It’s freely admitted by the people who do these experiments that photons cannot send this information quickly enough to make such change happen. It’s only after scientists examine the record of these events that they even know, in retrospect, that a correlation has occurred.
Distant photons can’t send an energetic signal instantly and simultaneously between each other. But minds can do that. Consciousness can do that.
For example, in the experiments that Robert Jahn and his colleagues have done for a decade at Princeton, people send messages at a distance and the receiver often gets the information up to three days before it’s even sent!
That’s what I grew up with: God as a communications satellite. You send your prayer to the Almighty, who reflects it somewhere else. But that image is based on linear space and time.
Braude: Three days before it’s sent?
Dossey: That’s right. Before the computer even selects the message that’s going to be sent, the receiver gets it.
Braude: How do they explain that?
Dossey: They can’t. But the data are clear.
Braude: Then what’s the holdup with seriously exploring the evidence?
Dossey: The holdup in science is that if you launch into nonlocality you’re going to have to go outside the brain.
Braude: And move beyond the machine model?
Dossey: Yes. You can hang on to the machine metaphor as long as you stay local. You can do all sorts of mind-body theorizing. You can complicate the brain’s relationship to the body. You can bring in psychoneuroimmunology and talk about the brain as neural network. You can make it as fancy as your imagination will allow, but the barrier is still space and time. You can’t get outside the spatial confines of the body or else you’ve said that the mind is more than the brain, that there are things minds can do that brains can’t. The dogma is that brains operate locally within a space-time matrix.
Braude: But hasn’t that dogma been unwoven and disproven?
Dossey: Quantum physicists have gotten out of the conventional space-time matrix by demonstrating nonlocality at the quantum level. But biologists and neuroscientists cannot conceive of going outside it. Therefore they deny data that might force them out of it: data on nonlocality at the level of human beings.
This is the real barrier. This is the line in the sand across which they will not walk because there’s too much at stake. You can’t stay within the brain and the body if you get into nonlocal human experiences; there’s no theoretical mechanism that allows for nonlocal experience. That makes the scientific stakes immense. Where this becomes relevant to medicine is in experiments that have directly to do with healing.
That’s where prayer enters. There are more than 150 studies, most of which have statistical significance, related to prayer and healing. That’s a huge database. These studies of distant influence show that you can do things like heal surgical wounds or change metabolic functions in a variety of species, including humans. When you begin to affect metabolic chemical pathways in living creatures, this becomes the business of medicine.
The statistics were so powerful that for me not to use prayer with my patients was the equivalent of withholding a valuable lifesaving medication or surgical procedure.
Braude: What led you to examine the role of prayer in medicine?
Dossey: What really knocked my socks off was a study that I first found out about in 1987. It showed that people in coronary-care units who were prayed for did a lot better than people who weren’t. This was a randomized, prospective, double-blind, matched, clinical study involving about four hundred patients, done by a board-certified cardiologist, and published in the Southern Medical Journal. It got my attention. I hadn’t known there were any scientific studies on prayer. I began to think seriously about this, to say to myself: You call yourself a scientist, so are you going to deal with this evidence and maybe let it affect how you practice medicine? Or are you going to ignore it?
I didn’t know the answer. The skeptical side of me said, “Well, it’s just one study. It hasn’t been replicated. Are there any more studies out there?” So I began to explore this area and enlarge the concept of prayer to mean the compassionate, caring interaction of one consciousness with another. I began to think in terms of prayerfulness.
Once I expanded the concept to prayerfulness, my search came up with a whole body of knowledge on the margins of science. And I found myself in an ethical and moral dilemma. The statistics were so powerful that for me not to use prayer with my patients was the equivalent of withholding a valuable lifesaving medication or surgical procedure. I had to deal with this. So I allowed the information to bother me, to affect me and make a difference in the way I treated my patients. I began to devise a prayer ritual that I could live with and feel good about.
This realization came about a year and a half before I decided to leave the practice of medicine. Before then, I thought prayer was superfluous, really not in the same category with drugs and surgery. I no longer believe that. I now think it really makes a difference in life and death. I think it can do things drugs and surgery sometimes cannot do. In fact, the evidence is so strong that if we honored it, I can see a day when doctors who didn’t recommend prayer for their very sick patients could be sued for malpractice.
Braude: How are studies in this area conducted?
Dossey: Some of the studies are of what’s been called transpersonal imagery. In such experiments, two people are separated so that they can’t possibly have any sensory contact with each other. The receiving person is wired up to measure something like galvanic skin response. The other person, the imager, makes mental pictures at a distance to try to change this response. The only way the imager will be successful is if he or she really cares about the receiver. I’m talking about empathic concern — love and compassion and caring. If you take that quality out of the experiment, it falls flat.
So love and empathy and compassion and caring seem to be fundamental qualities inherent in all these transactions between people at a distance. They’re the golden thread without which the experiments don’t work.
Braude: Compassion and concern are the qualities that you referred to as prayerfulness.
Dossey: Yes. It’s not like prayer in the popular sense of the term.
Braude: You mean the age-old notion that you pray up to God and something happens and the result is sent back down?
Dossey: It’s not that I’m against that. That’s what I grew up with: God as a communications satellite. You send your prayer to the Almighty, who reflects it somewhere else. But that image is based on linear space and time.
The nonlocal effects that I’m talking about are not in time, not in space. They are outside of Newton’s idea of the universe. These things happen immediately at a distance. They’re not mediated by anything.
Braude: What is your definition of prayer?
Dossey: I think that prayer is communion with the universe or the one mind. You can pick your term: God, Goddess, the Tao, Brahman, Allah, the cosmos. Anything we do in communion or communication with the Absolute — for me, that’s prayer.
That doesn’t say much about how you do it. Prayer can be a conscious or an unconscious activity. It doesn’t even say whether the effects of a prayer are good or bad. I want a simple, wide-open definition.
Braude: There can be different styles of prayer, like contemplative as opposed to evocative.
Dossey: Right. Silent as opposed to vocal. Still as opposed to moving, dancing. There are all sorts of methods and styles that seem to relate to people’s innate psychological styles. One of the best ways of thinking about this is in terms of introverts and extroverts. Introverted people tend to be more silent, with less show, less drama. Their prayers are more nondirected. For instance, they are more likely to pray, “Thy will be done,” instead of telling the universe what it needs to do for this prayer to come out right. Extroverts, on the other hand, are much more comfortable directing their prayers. They want to provide God with not only the diagnosis but the treatment, too: “The problem is cancer; make it go away.” That kind of thing. So a person’s innate psychology heavily influences the style and strategy of his or her prayer. The bottom line in much of the research is that a variety of methods work.
Braude: But what does that mean? If one prays for a cancer to be removed and the cancer is not removed, is the prayer answered or not?
Dossey: When we ask, “Was the prayer answered?” we usually mean, “Did I get a ‘yes’ answer?” There are lots of ways prayers can be answered. In addition to “yes,” prayers may be answered with “no,” “not yet,” or “maybe.”
C. S. Lewis said that sometimes it’s necessary to build the altar in one spot so that the fire from heaven will descend at another. The fire does come down — the request is answered — but the fire doesn’t necessarily strike where you want it to.
One of the reasons that I, an incurable introvert, am much more comfortable with nondirected prayer is that I think human beings are not always smart enough to know what to pray for. It’s like trying to “fix” the environment: how can we be so presumptuous as to think we know how a complex environment works?
Braude: But that presumption has been a cornerstone of science for three hundred years.
Dossey: That’s right. And it’s been a cornerstone of prayer for a lot longer than that. Here’s an example of how we shoot ourselves in the foot with directed prayer: if all the prayers for healing that have ever been uttered had been answered, the earth would be overpopulated and unfit for human habitation. Almost everybody prays to be bailed out of a jam, to be healed. But that’s not smart as a species.
Braude: All this raises fundamental questions about illness, disease, healing, and health. It flies in the face of common belief.
Dossey: That’s right. The common belief, the common wish or desire, is the perfect life lived in bliss. Look at the mailers you get for workshops: the top three subjects are health, prosperity, and relationships. In other words, we want to get rid of the rough spots in life and make it perfectly glassy smooth. But this is a prescription for disaster. Carl Jung said, “A fate worse than death would be a life lived in perfect health.” The only way human beings ever know anything is through contrast and difference. You wouldn’t have a concept of health without an occasional experience of illness. You wouldn’t have a word for prosperity unless you had an occasional exposure to poverty. The human nervous system and perceptual mechanism require comparison for apprehension. Otherwise it would be like living in the middle of a vanilla ice-cream cone. There would be no perception. It’s like Bertrand Russell said: “We will never know who discovered water, but you can be sure it wasn’t a fish.” This is basic epistemology.
I question . . . the new-age equation between spiritual achievement and physical health. . . . Many, or even most, of the wisest, most spiritually advanced people in history have died of some horrible disease.
Braude: But it’s not common sense to most people.
Dossey: No, it’s not. The common belief is that you can have it one way.
Braude: And almost everything in modern culture points people in that direction. Just think of advertising.
Dossey: That’s right. It’s insane. Not only is it bad psychologically, it’s also very bad biologically. The only reason any of us are alive is because we’ve been sick a lot. We develop an immune system through exposure to illness as a child, through constant invasion of viruses and bacteria and fungi. That and a little bit of breast milk early on. Without that you’re sunk. That’s why I really take issue with the idea of “perfect health.” Perfect health is impossible in principle.
The other thing that I question is the new-age equation between spiritual achievement and physical health; that if I can just get wise enough, or enlightened enough, I will have perfect health. That’s the new-age anthem.
The slightest look at history denies that possibility. Many, or even most, of the wisest, most spiritually advanced people in history have died of some horrible disease: Krishnamurti, pancreatic cancer; Suzuki Roshi, gallbladder cancer; Ramana Maharshi, the most beloved saint in modern India, cancer of the stomach. Go further back in history: Saint Bernadette died of disseminated tuberculosis at the ripe age of thirty-three. The Buddha died of food poisoning. Tremendous levels of spiritual realization are no guarantee of a nice life with perfect health. Yet people continue to believe that if they just fix themselves up, just have enough positive thoughts and spiritual achievement, then they will have a really nice life. It just doesn’t work out that way.
Unless people understand this, the stage is set for an epidemic of new-age guilt. People who are on the spiritual path will have biopsies come back positive. Then they’ll begin to beat up on themselves, engage in self-blame, feelings of guilt. They’ll say, “If I had just been spiritual enough, the biopsy would have come back negative.”
Yet dispelling this new-age dogma is daunting. People will go to any length to explain away exceptions, like the saints and mystics who get sick. They’ll attribute it to karma, saying that they were just paying back for past mistakes. Another explanation is that they weren’t protected and took on the illnesses of their followers. Or some people will say that these spiritual leaders deliberately chose their sicknesses as a challenge to burn off any ego or attachments that might have been remaining. I actually had one person tell me the other day that “Buddha and Jesus just weren’t as spiritual as they looked.”
Braude: You describe the new age as reductionistic and simplistic, much like classical science.
Dossey: It’s narrow. And let me tell you another way that I think it really needs to clean up its act. The Buddha claimed that the cause of suffering is attachments. New-age beliefs are a prescription for attachments. Attachments to health, prosperity, perfect relationships, perfect lovers. A life without complexity, without any differences and contrasts. And because the new age is a prescription for attachment, it’s a prescription for suffering. I believe the new age has caused a lot of suffering for an awful lot of well-meaning people because of the inherent attachments it fosters.
It’s easy for me to come across as kind of a malcontent about the new age, just as it’s easy to see me as a malcontent challenging my colleagues in science. But I think people are ready for a more complex message.
We’ve done the easy part. We’ve looked at mind-body relationships over the past thirty years, and now it’s almost uncontested that thoughts, emotions, behaviors, and attitudes affect the body. But we ought to stop saying that the effects should always be positive. And that if you do it right you’re guaranteed bliss, peace, and heaven on earth. That’s just baloney. Mind-body insights have brought us to at least the adolescent level. Now it’s time to kick the adolescent in the fanny and say, OK, let’s move on to the hard work.
Braude: With Meaning and Medicine, you divided modern medicine into three eras.
Dossey: Era I is mechanical medicine. That’s been in place since the 1860s. Era II, the psychosomatic era, which is now called the mind-body approach, includes the influences of one’s thoughts, emotions, and attitudes on one’s own body. Mechanical and mind-body medicine are both local in concept and experience.
Era III is a different kettle of fish. It’s nonlocal medicine. Era III acknowledges that there can be distant effects of one mind on other bodies. Things like retrocognition, precognition, effects coming before causes, or healing resulting from prayer, where the people praying are far away and the patients don’t even know they’re being prayed for.
I have friends in the alternative-health-care movement who think that mind-body effects are just about as exotic and far out as healing can possibly get. But Era II mind-body medicine is only the tip of the iceberg. We haven’t seen anything yet. We really ought to hold on to our hats.
Braude: So you believe Era III medicine can be implemented today?
Dossey: I don’t think that it would be really difficult. In fact, I think it would be drastically simple for the doctor to go home and pray for the patient after prescribing a pill, or providing any other treatment. As a matter of fact, I think it goes on all the time, anyway; we just don’t acknowledge that we’re doing it. And because we don’t acknowledge it, we dilute the power of these things, we deny that they go on. We fight these influences.
I also want to up the ante here. Although Era III is relevant medically, its real importance is not whether we can use our minds at a distance to make somebody’s tumor go away or their heart get better. Its real importance is what it says about our own nature, about who we are. With Era III, we acknowledge that minds can reach out in space, that they can reach forward and backward in time. This implies that there’s something nonlocal about the human mind. We next have to say that nonlocal really means infinity within space and time. Nonlocal doesn’t just mean really far off.
Braude: Like from here to Saturn.
Dossey: Or even Uranus. It doesn’t just mean a pretty long time, either. Nonlocal implies infinity. If you say some aspect of the psyche is nonlocal, you’ve said a spiritual mouthful, brother. You’ve said that something about each of us is omnipresent, eternal, and immortal. When you’ve said that, you’ve reinvented the soul, something that was never born, never dies, and doesn’t sign off with the death of the brain or body.
From a local perspective, if I’d been diagnosed with cancer, I’d be quite happy if the cancer went away when you prayed for me at a distance. But even if it didn’t, it would hardly matter from the nonlocal perspective. This Era III perspective allows us to think in a different way about our relationship to the Absolute. It helps us understand that there’s some divinity within us, because it’s divinity we’ve always talked about as omnipresent, infinite in space and time, immortal, and eternal.
Braude: But outside of us.
Dossey: Yes, but now we’re applying the same qualities to us. These studies of nonlocal phenomena provide indirect empirical evidence that there is something about us that is nonlocal, infinite in space and time, immortal, and eternal. So we wind up describing something about ourselves that’s divine.
This is not a strange idea to most of the world’s religions. They acknowledge an aspect of divinity within human beings.
Braude: In Hasidic tradition, when God created the world, all of God’s light filled a glass. When it broke, the glass scattered, leaving within each person one shard with the light. That’s divinity.
Dossey: Yes, but it doesn’t stop there. We can take the implications of the Era III perspective even further to enlarge our ideas about the relationship of good and evil, health and illness, light and shadow. Suppose we do contain the Absolute, something of the divine within. The Absolute contains everything; nothing is outside of it. If that weren’t the case we wouldn’t call it the Absolute.
We talk a lot about who sits on the right hand of God, but nobody wants to mention who sits on the left: the devil. Lucifer was once a resident of heaven. The light and the shadow belong together in the Absolute. So that means if you want to claim your divinity within, your nonlocal nature, you have to take the bad with the good.
There’s another tradition in Judaism, the principle of the yezer hara, the negative principle in human beings. God put it there because it’s valuable to have it; you have to have a little of it in order to be fully human. It’s sometimes translated as “the principle of irreducible rascality.”
Braude: Sounds like the trickster.
Dossey: Yes, it’s the trickster. It’s the salt in the stew that’s necessary to bring out all the flavor, because without it there’s no contrast. So if you want to claim your nonlocal nature, you get the whole package.
This is another reason why when people really understand what’s implied by Era III, some back away and say, “Oh, this is too hot to handle. I think I want to try just the nice stuff.”
There is a passage in the Bible where God says, “I create light and darkness. I make good and evil. I, the Lord, do all these things.” Now, that’s the Absolute. That’s everything. But the new-age passion is for health without illness, prosperity without poverty, and so on. I think that’s partial spirituality. That’s misleading.
As part of our wholeness, we need our woundedness. I think the healer needs it in order to know illness, to gain power as a healer. . . . It seems written into spirituality that there’s a dark side to which we must expose ourselves.
Braude: The light and dark sides both play a part in our wholeness.
Dossey: Exactly. As part of our wholeness, we need our woundedness. I think the healer needs it in order to know illness, to gain power as a healer. This seems to be a basic principle. Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness in titanic struggles with the devil; the shaman goes through the call and is left either deformed or slain by the ordeal. It seems written into spirituality that there’s a dark side to which we must expose ourselves, which is one of the reasons why I bridle at the idea of perfect health, of heaven on earth, and so on.
There is a point in the nonlocal perspective at which things like illness and poverty cease to be so important; they almost cease to matter. It’s as if physical health and prosperity become irrelevant in the nonlocal perspective.
Braude: What about to someone who has cancer, or their family members?
Dossey: You frequently see this understanding in children who have fatal illnesses. They don’t have all of these attachments. They’re not into prosperity and they don’t understand all these things to which we’ve become attached. So they appear to be very old souls, wise people in little bodies. It’s incredible to see these kids who know they are going to die and are already somewhere else. And the grown-ups who come under the influence of these children frequently come away transformed.
Braude: So illnesses can lead to lessons in the divine?
Dossey: That’s the payoff. If I didn’t think so, I wouldn’t be writing these books. I’m not looking for a more effective therapy. I’m not looking for a psychological tool that can be dressed up as the next miracle drug.
Braude: You make it clear in your books that Era III doesn’t have a treatment formula.
Dossey: Basically, I’m not much interested in how long people live, or whether they achieve prosperity, or if they find their perfect relationship. I can’t say that I don’t care at all, but my level of concern is extremely low compared to whether or not the larger lessons are learned. And the larger lessons are the answers people struggle for, the answers to the big questions: Where did I come from? Where am I headed? Is there anything else after I die?
My books also have another strategy, part of which is to legitimize these lessons by appealing to science, which is still the most powerful metaphor in our culture, whether we like it or not.
I think that most people who go to universities — particularly for a degree in science — come out thinking that there are basically two ways to live a life. On the one hand, you can choose to be intellectual, rational, reasonable, scientific, left brained; on the other, you can choose the path of the mystic, the poet, the artist, the intuitive, the spiritual — the flaky, basically.
Braude: And the poor.
Dossey: Right, and the poor. But I think this is a schizophrenic divide. I don’t think it’s fundamental; I think it’s an illusion that causes immense pain. So one of my tasks is to try to bridge that split and show that you can have it both ways. You can be a mystical scientist or a scientifically oriented mystic. I think now is a fabulous time in this culture because of the way that science is playing into the hands of the mystic, if you will. How anybody can look at these studies in nonlocality and not see spiritual implications is absolutely beyond me.
Spiritual attainment or enlightenment is, in essence, a nonlocal concept. It’s the idea of the God within, which has always been there. So the relationship between nonlocality and spiritual understanding is extraordinarily profound. That’s why nonlocality in Era III medicine has a lot more to do with spirituality than it does with cancers going away.
I have a lecture in which I propose a new category of medicine, in contrast to the prevailing temporal kind — the one where people get well, live into the future, overcome illness, and improve their health. The starting point of temporal medicine is the assumption of tragedy. Regardless of how effective the tools and medicines and therapies, we know they are eventually going to fail; you’re going to die. Everyone has so far. You can’t escape tragedy in temporal medicine, no matter how good the medicines get.
Instead of this temporal medicine, I propose we think about eternity medicine. Eternity medicine is not in time. It recognizes that at some level you are perfect already. You don’t get better in eternity medicine; you don’t improve. At some level you contain everything, both perfect health and illness. There is nothing you don’t contain. You know that the most essential aspect of who you are can’t die. It turns the whole feeling of the medical endeavor around. It becomes one of celebration, joy, glory. You can’t die; you can’t even be born. The starting point in eternity medicine is not tragedy, but celebration.