At one time or another most of us have tried to send ‘good vibes’ to loved ones in distress.
Or perhaps, when television news brings a terrible disaster into our living rooms, we might stop and say a silent prayer for those affected.
In its simplest form, this is a type of spiritual healing.
It’s a difficult concept to grasp for anyone who doesn’t believe in things beyond which their five senses can perceive. Yet many reputable scientists, in fields other than medicine, suggest that there are energies in the universe that bind us all together and organise our being – spiritually, psychologically and biologically.
Many different cultures have given many different names to this universal energy. The Chinese call it qi, the Japanese call it anma and Hindus call it prana. Hippocrates called it the viz medicatrix naturae.
In the West we have given it similarly exotic names.
Psychiatrist Wilhelm Reich believed it was orgone energy, Franz Mesmer the father of hypnotism, animal magnetisim and scientist Karl von Reichenbach, odic force. In the world religions this force is given various other names such as (God, Supreme Being, Allah, Buddha) and in quantum physics it is known as the zero point field.
In the context of spiritual healing, ‘spiritual’ doesn’t necessarily mean belonging to an organised religion or practising the rituals and styles of prayer that belong to that religion.
Generally speaking, religion implies a sect and traditions, as well as belief systems about the nature of God or a higher being.
Spirituality is a more abstract concept, implying the individual’s capacity for recognising and experiencing an intangible presence or higher power that orders life and makes it feel meaningful.
Channelling this universal energy from its spiritual source to someone in need is generally referred to as spiritual healing.
Science rejects the spiritual
Today, several things stand in the way of spiritual healing being taken seriously. For many years scientists have worked hard to remove spirituality and belief from their theories about what sustains life.
Many doctors consider the concept of a universal force archaic and unsubstantiated, and believe that while medicine may once have been a mixture of science and art, it is now strictly a science.
The powerful influence that drug companies have on individual practitioners, medical institutions and even medical researchers has led to a disproportionate belief in the healing power of drugs.
The rise in private health insurance, which generally only means access to a conventional treatments also mitigates against the freely available power of divine energy.
Healers see mind, body and spirit as interconnected – what affects one necessarily affects the others and all three must work in harmony to maintain good health. The practise of spiritual healing, which uses the power of the spirit to balance and heal the whole person, takes several forms.
Ironically, in spite of science’s rejection of the spiritual, medical evidence continues to show that spiritual healing works.
The two most common are distance healing, where a person or a group of persons (known as ‘intercessors’) pray for another person’s welfare, and therapeutic touch, which paradoxically often doesn’t include touch at all but simple close contact or “stroking” the space, or energy field, around the body.
Evidence of the benefits of religious faith is often used to support the idea that spiritual healing works. Although the two are linked they are not entirely the same thing.
The former, say proponents, is an active process where one person channels Divine energy towards another. The latter has more to do with harnessing the power of belief and convincing a person that they have the ability to heal themselves.
Nevertheless, it may be that for spiritual healing to work all those involved – intercessor/healer and recipient – need to have faith that the process will work. What is more, faith must be a meaningful concept to those involved.
Evidence of benefits
For instance, at Harvard University Dr. Herbert Benson author of Beyond the Relaxation Response described his own scientific experiments to determine efficacy of prayer or mantra. He studied Christians and Jews who prayed regularly and taught some participants to meditate using the word “one” or any other phrase they felt comfortable with.
In another group he asked Catholics to use their mantra phrases such as, “Hail Mary, full of grace” or to use the Jesus Prayer. Jews used the peace greeting, “Shalom” or “Echad,” meaning one. Protestants used the first line of the Lord’s Prayer, “Our father who art in heaven” or the opening of the twenty-third psalm, “The Lord is my shepherd”.
Initially, all these mantras worked equally well in invoking a relaxation response and stimulating the healthful physiological changes in the body. But as the study went on those who used the word “one” or similar simple phrases that had no particular spiritual meaning to them did not stick with the program, whereas those who used prayer-based mantras continued because of their belief.
This may be an important piece of information for Westerners who dabble with exotic religions. The practice of spiritual materialism – collecting (and often quickly abandoning) different rituals of spirituality like so many lipsticks or sports shoes – may ultimately end in disappointment because it is a form of greed rather than devotion.
Plants and animals
In order to try and separate spirituality from religion, believers in spiritual healing often cite experiments in distance healing involving nonhuman subjects.
Such studies often show remarkable results, according to Larry Dossey, MD, an outspoken proponent of spiritual healing, former co-chair of the Panel on Mind-Body Interventions of the Office of Alternative Medicine at the US National Institutes of Health and author of Prayer is Good Medicine.
In his own reviews of over 100 experiments on the effects of prayer/visualisation, most published in parapsychological literature, more than half showed an effect on everything from seed germination to wound healing.
Among the most well known of these are experiments with mice in the 1960s which showed that wounded animals healed much more quickly when a healer held his hands over them for 15 minutes twice a day.
Other experiments have shown that the growth of plants and fungi can be significantly affected by healing. Human cells too have been subjected to the power of spiritual healing. In one study a healer was able to prolong the life of red blood cells in a weak salt solution (a medium that would normally cause them to burst) by up to four times. According to the experimenters the chance of this happening naturally was about 100,000 to 1.
Given that medicine has tried to stringently to separate itself from God and faith there is an astonishing amount of research into the effect of spirituality on health. More than a thousand studies have sought to explore the ‘faith factor’ and what it means to health and healing.
Most of the available evidence shows that prayer is most effective as a complementary rather than a primary therapy. Nevertheless there is reasonable proof that prayer has a healing effect. One analysis of 23 studies involving more than 3000 individuals concluded that more than half demonstrated that that prayer had significant effects. In this review therapeutic touch appeared to show the most promise.
Naysayers point out that no study has ever proven the ability of prayer to stop a person from dying from conditions such as heart disease and cancer. They note, and fairly, that the quality of the studies done into spiritual healing can be very uneven and often do not follow people for long enough to make sweeping statements about its effectiveness. This however appears to be missing the point.
Scientific research by its very nature requires a measurable endpoint – usually focusing on quantity rather than quality of life. Even Dossey has warned that holistic practitioners should not overextend the power of spirituality; we will all die eventually.
Short-term studies do show that prayer can have an effect on longevity (see below) but perhaps more importantly prayer may be a beneficial way to improve the quality of life for those in need. Even researchers who are sceptical have been moved to say that the occasionally remarkable results of studies into spiritual healing are interesting enough to warrant further, and more serious, investigation.
High blood pressure and heart problems
In one of the most widely publicised studies of the effect of intercessory prayer, cardiologist Randolph Byrd studied 393 men and women admitted to the coronary-care unit at San Francisco General Hospital and receiving conventional medical care there. Some were prayed for by home-prayer groups, others were not and because the study was ‘blinded’ neither the doctors, nurses nor the patients knew who would be the object of prayer.
The results were surprising and dramatic. The prayed-for people, for instance, were significantly less likely to require antibiotics; significantly less likely to develop pulmonary oedema (where the lungs fill with fluid because the heart cannot pump properly); and significantly less likely to require mechanical assistance with breathing. They were also less likely to die during the course of the study though the difference between groups was small.
Another study in the Archives of Internal Medicine in 1999 examined the health outcomes of nearly 1000 heart patients, newly admitted to hospital – all with serious heart conditions.
Without their knowledge the people were randomly divided into two groups. For four weeks half received daily prayer “for a speedy recovery with no complications” from five volunteers who believed in God and in the healing power of prayer. The other half were not assigned anyone to pray for them.
When comparing the groups using a comprehensive list of adverse health conditions common to cardiac patients, the researchers concluded that the prayer group fared 11% better – a statistically significant figure suggesting that prayer can be a useful adjunct to the care of heart patients.
More recently, in 2011, Norwegian researchers found a clear relationship between time spent in church and lower blood pressure in both women and men: the more time spent in church, the lower the blood pressure.
Recovery from surgery
A study at the University of Michigan analysed two questionnaires completed by 151 heart patients. The questionnaires looked at symptoms of depression, general distress, health care practice after surgery, perceived social support and chronic conditions other than cardiac disease.
An amazing 85% of the sample practised complimentary health approaches, in particular prayer, exercise and lifestyle-diet modification. The study concluded that those who pursued complementary approaches after surgery, especially prayer and exercise, experienced significantly improved psychological recovery.
Depression often accompanies hospitalisation, and researchers at the Center for the Study of Religion/Spirituality in Medicine, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina, have conducted several studies into the ability of prayer to alleviate this problem.
In one, involving 850 men aged 65 years and older, what was termed “religious coping” – in other words employing strategies such as prayer to deal with depression – was not only common but related to significantly less depression amongst the hospitalised men. Another study from the same centre showed that depressed individuals who have a strong religious faith recover 70% faster from depression than those with a less strong faith.
While not strictly proof of the efficacy of spiritual healing, the overall conclusion of studies into faith is that people who practice religion appear to live longer.
In one large analysis of 21,204 US adults, those who regularly attend religious services outlived those who did not attend church. People who went to church more than once a week lived on average to 62.9 years compared to 55.3 for those who did not. Those who attended once a week and those who went less than once a week had an average lifespan of 61.9 and 59.7 years respectively. Other studies have found similar results.
Another study of 91,909 people in the US found that those who attended religious services weekly were less likely to die during the study period than those who did not. The figures were startling with attendees 53% less likely to die from coronary diseases, 74% less likely to die from cirrhosis (liver disease) and 53% less likely to commit suicide – figures very similar to those for people who regularly engage in meditation.
Conversely, loss of faith can shorten life. Researchers at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, questioned 596 hospitalised patients over the age 55 about how they were using religion to cope with the stress of illness. The vast majority were of Christian faith.
Some expressed negative religious feelings included feeling “abandoned or punished by God” or “questioning God’s love.” Feelings of doubt and anger towards one’s faith are natural and normal when dealing with serious illness. But by the end of the 14-month study period those who said they felt “unloved by God” and “attributed their illness to the devil” were found to have a 19-28% increased risk of dying within 2 years.
Because of it associations with relaxation and focused awareness, spirituality may also have a beneficial effect on the immune system. One trial, for instance, found that therapeutic touch could improve the immunity of stressed out individuals.
According to another study those who regularly attend church have a measurably healthier immune system than those who do not. The researchers looked at a range of biological indicators of immune function including levels of interleukin-6 (or IL-6, a protein released by the body during an immune response) in elderly adults. Regulation of IL-6 tends to be impaired in elderly adults and high levels are linked to stress and depression and the development of conditions such as osteoporosis. In this study, attendees were around 50% less likely to have high levels of IL-6.
How does it work?
Believers in distance healing and therapeutic touch are not sure how these therapies work, though several theories abound. Some say it involves sending some kind of subtle, as-yet-unidentified energy to the person in need. Others say quantum physics and the theory of the zero point field – which postulates that everything in the universe, including human beings, are made from the same energy, comprised of highly organised sub-atomic particles that are able to co-operate and communicate with each other – may play a role.
The other kind of prayer, in which sick people pray for their own recovery, is somewhat easier for scientists to understand. Given the way that meditation can restore health – for instance by lowering blood pressure and stress – it’s not difficult to see how prayer, which is both meditative and relaxing, might bring about the same effects.
Prayer, like meditation, may induce a sense of calm, and so inhibit the secretion of stress hormones such as epinephrine, and norepinephrine, released by the adrenal glands in response to stress. Continual high levels of these fight-or-flight chemicals, can compromise the immune system, increasing the risk of developing any number of illnesses, including heart disease, stroke, peptic ulcers, and inflammatory bowel disorder (IBS).
Many people turn to prayer or the inexplicable world of the spiritual as a last resort when they are ill. But with increasing amounts of research showing positive results perhaps it’s time to incorporate it as a facet of our first response to illness and pain.
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