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Spirit, Mind and Medicine

The word “spirituality” has become part of the lexicon of holistic/alternative medicine, part of the “mind-body-spirit” approach to total healing. Most people, when consulting with healthcare practitioners, appropriately place their symptoms and illness first, leaving it to the “healer” to ask important spiritual questions.

The science of spirituality and medicine lurched forward with a groundbreaking prayer study done by cardiologist Dr. Randolph Byrd in 1983 at San Francisco General Hospital. The research involved a group of 400 hospitalized cardiac patients. Half of the patients were prayed for and half were not. This was a true controlled double-blind study. Neither the patient, the doctor, nor hospital staff knew who was being prayed for. Prayer groups around the country prayed for individual patients.

The results of the study were so dramatic that if it had been a study of a new drug, it would have been heralded as a major medical breakthrough—a new miracle drug. What was so dramatic? The “prayed-for” patients were discharged from the hospital sooner, had fewer complications, required less antibiotic treatment, and had less pulmonary edema. The “prayed-for” group had fewer deaths, fewer instances of CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation), less need for mechanical ventilation (attachment to breathing machines), and less need for diuretic medication.

Inspired in part by Dr. Byrd’s study, in 1995 Dr. Larry Dossey wrote “Healing Words: The Power of Prayer and the Practice of Medicine” in which he looked at the scientific studies on prayer. Dossey’s book became not only a bestseller but also caught the interest of medical schools around the country. By 2000 Dossey had been invited to set up courses on spirituality and healing in more than 100 American medical schools. On the heels of this success, and based on the “prayer studies,” an ER nurse in Boston approached the medical director of her hospital with a novel idea. She proposed setting up a system whereby anyone entering the emergency room could request being prayed for. The nurse’s idea was to set up a system involving prayer groups around the world. If the patient said, “Yes, have people pray for me,” a message immediately went out via computer to prayer groups around the world. The nurse told the medical director, “The scientific evidence for prayer is now so strong that not implementing this idea would be unethical” (paraphrased). The ER computerized prayer system was implemented.

Medical Education Malnutrition

While not being very conscious of being conscious, by the time I’d finished medical school and entered my psychiatry residency, I was already interested in spiritual and paranormal components of mental illness. After more than 25 years in private practice, it became clear to me that medical school was severely lacking in teaching future doctors anything about nutrition, sexuality, and spirituality. Nutrition is food for the body; sexuality is food for relationships; and spirituality is food for the soul. In these three areas doctors lack the training and experience to be of help to patients. More than that, most people are afraid to talk to doctors about these issues, although the public began talking to doctors about nutrition in the 1990s.

Why is spirituality important in medicine? Spiritual experiences are the most profound, important, life-changing experiences people have in life. These profound experiences are common, but even with well-known spiritual experiences like near-death-experience (NDE) people are afraid to discuss the experience with family and friends, and more afraid to tell a doctor, who might dismiss the experience as “imagination” or a sign of insanity. 95% of Americans believe in God. If your doctor does not, the spiritual mismatch is great, and you are unlikely to even use the words “God,” “prayer,” or “NDE.”

The most important shift for a doctor is internal. As my own spiritual practice and curiosity deepened, my patients could sense that, and it has not been uncommon for people to share a life-changing spiritual experience in the first half hour into our first meeting. Years ago I worked at Scripps MacDonald Center for drug and alcohol treatment. I was meeting with a 50-year old alcoholic man and, in the first session, asked him about any spiritual experiences. He got choked up, teary-eyed, and said, “I was 13 years old, riding my bike at dusk. I came around a corner and saw the Father and the Son.” I replied, “As in God the Father and Jesus?” He said, “Yes,” and then he sobbed for a while. I was the first person in his life that he had shared this experience with.

What Is Spirituality?

After more than 25 years in private practice, I decided to write down my thoughts about spirituality and psychiatry, and wrote Are You Getting Enlightened Or Losing Your Mind? — A Psychiatrist’s Guide for Mastering Paranormal and Spiritual Experience. In writing the book I thought that defining “spirituality,” a word that everyone seems to understand, was important. It proved to be quite a challenge. I read the major authors on spirituality, psychology, psychology, parapsychology, and comparative religion. I was surprised at the absence of a good definition, although I’m sure that spending years more studying the world’s great spiritual texts would have been useful. I then turned to friends and patients for their definition, and found one that resonated. The broadest definition I found is, “Spirituality is sacred awareness.” Out of sacred awareness flows sacred action and spiritual connection. I don’t claim to have all the answers about what spirituality is, but the task of spending a half-year trying to define it has been helpful.

Before exploring this definition further, let’s look at the interface of psychology and spirituality. When working with a client or patient, spirituality “trumps” psychological health. Standard psychotherapy modalities keep people looping around in the mind. By introducing spirituality as a central focus, it’s not hard to help someone step out of ordinary, linear mind, and take a small step into a spiritual approach. For example, simply by teaching my patients a meditation practice, they become the witness of their mind’s activity, and instantly, that person is no longer identified as “being their mind.” If they can witness their mind, they “are not” their mind, not the 5,000 noisy thoughts that people churn out every day.

Unity In Diversity

Now, back to “sacred awareness.” The heart of every religion speaks of the interconnectedness of all beings, all life. The Native American phrase, “Mitakuye O’Yasin” means “all my relations,” but the deeper meaning is, “Everyone and everything is part of the interconnected web of life.“ As the mind develops, we learn to compare, separate, and judge. The mind asks, “Who is us and who is them?” We can learn to use our minds in a healthy, productive way, but the taming of the mind, the reduction of comparisons, separation, and compartmentalization — the jobs of the mind — allows our spiritual core to emerge. As the mind loses its negative grip (which cannot be accomplished through the use of psychiatric medications), our inner walls fall and we begin to experience the unity of life.

One Eastern view of spirituality is that spirit and God are made of the same “stuff.” God is the ocean and we are the rivers, all making our way back to merge with the sea. In an Eastern view, God is not some distant figure hanging out on a cloud passing judgment. Rather, s/he is closer than close, and that infinite ocean of consciousness is present in all of us. Out of the sacred awareness of unity, we treat all as brothers and sisters, and it becomes impossible to harm another individual once we have that realization.

In private practice I have found several nonmedical, non-psychiatric qualities that have everything to do with happiness as well as speed of recovery from illness. Those qualities are: 1) a deep, growing spiritual connection, 2) a sense of purpose or meaning, 3) optimism, 4) faith, and 5) gratitude. A person can have a serious illness but their ability to handle the illness and their healing journey is vastly easier if they are grounded in these five qualities. The absence of these makes healing slower. “Faith” can mean “faith in God,” “faith in oneself,” and/or “faith in one’s internal healing resources.” These five spiritual qualities can be learned. Not only do they make for a happier life, they speed healing from illness.

In the next issue, you’ll find out how to know if your spiritual or paranormal experience is a sign of miracles or madness.

David Gersten, M.D. practices Nutritional Medicine and Integrative Psychiatry out of his Encinitas office and can be reached at 760-633-3063. His book Are You Getting Enlightened Or Losing Your Mind? is now available in bookstores and online.