A Higher Power? : Researchers are studying the effects of prayer and meditation on healing. But some have already given their blessings to the mind-body approach.

Times Staff Writer

Imagine you’re part of a scientific experiment.

You’ve been asked to be part of a healing process--but not with chicken soup or get-well cards. Your job is to pray.

Weird science? Just wait.

The project director says the prayers are for fungus cultures. The object is to slow their growth, as if they were an unwelcome infection. In the end, the cultures that received the spiritual attention actually grew slower.


Behind this study and others like it is an intensified search for elusive data that proves prayer and meditation help the healing process. Whoever can come up with “bullet-proof” research--as one doctor calls it--has the best shot at winning over some very powerful skeptics: the ones with the money.

Lately, the rising cost of health care has put mind-body medicine face to face with major health insurance companies looking for ways to cut their costs. At the same time, at least one private foundation is considering doubling its grant program in mind-body scientific research. The federal government is even backing studies on alternative medicine, including spiritual healing.

Of course, these efforts are a tiny slice of the health-care pie. Most members of the scientific community are skeptical--or dismissive. Nonetheless, mind-body medicine is working its way into the mainstream.

“There is a growing sense that traditional medicine is coming to its limits,” says Dr. Dale Matthews, an internist at Georgetown University Hospital in Washington, D.C. “There have been breakthroughs, such as organ transplants. But we’re approaching the technological limits.”


Several years ago, Matthews says, he realized this and started asking patients if they wanted to pray with him. “If there are no atheists in the foxholes, then it is unethical for doctors to ignore a person’s religious beliefs,” he reasons.

Like many other doctors open to the spiritual aspect of health, Matthews sees prayer and meditation as a complement to standard medical practice, not a replacement. More often in the past, the two approaches had been mutually exclusive.

“Ten years ago we would not be having this conversation,” says Matthews, who is one of the faculty members teaching a mini-course on spiritual healing and medicine at Harvard University’s medical school in December. “Now, I tell patients we can have a medical approach, a spiritual one or a combination. My advice is to root the treatment in medical tradition. I frame it so that religion is a resource. I call it the ‘prayer and Prozac’ approach.”

Other doctors see spirituality in a broader sense.

“We’re talking about a generic spirituality, not a particular religious tradition,” explains Dr. Herbert Benson, who will lead the Harvard course. “Spirituality means experiencing the presence of a power, force or energy, or what is perceived as God.”

Benson chairs a professorship in mind-body research at Harvard. He has found that many patients relax themselves by choosing to repeat a word from a prayer, such as om, hail Mary, shalom or Allah. As a result they develop their spiritual side, regardless of their religious beliefs. “This spirituality is associated with fewer medical symptoms,” he says.


“On one level, we’re all part of something larger that connects us all,” Dr. Dean Ornish tells his cardiology patients. He is director of the Preventive Medicine Research Institute in Sausalito, Calif. His 1990 study on mind-body health persuaded Mutual of Omaha to include his 12-week healing program (for $5,500) in its policy.


For his study, Ornish recruited 21 heart patients as a control group. They followed a low-fat vegetarian diet, practiced daily stress-management techniques, did three hours of aerobic exercise per week and took part in a twice-weekly group support session.

Ornish describes stress as “spiritual heart disease” and prescribes yoga and meditation. But that’s not how he explains things to health insurance companies. “I don’t talk about peace and love. I tell them they’ll save $50,000 per patient"--the approximate cost of heart bypass surgery. “If I started talking about spirituality,” Ornish says, “they’d show me the door.”

It was hard statistics that persuaded Mutual of Omaha to support the Ornish heart-care program.

“Dr. Ornish was able to provide extensive scientific data that his program worked,” says Jenny Van Solen, a company spokeswoman. “He proved it was effective not only in slowing but in reversing heart illness, without extensive surgery or drugs.” It is the only alternative medicine program Mutual of Omaha reimburses.

Deepak Chopra--the best-selling author who writes about ayurvedic medicine, an ancient Indian mind-body approach to health--offers an eight-session wellness course at his Institute for Human Potential and Mind/Body Medicine in San Diego. This summer, Sharp Health Plan, an HMO in Southern California, started making the course available to subscribers. Sharp also covers chiropractic care, reflecting an increased demand for non-traditional healing and medicine.

“The alternative treatments we offer are consumer driven,” says Dr. James Kyle, president of Sharp Health Plan. “They’ve been requested by our subscribers. They come out of the grass roots.”

In Boston, Virginia Harris, chairwoman of the Christian Science church, points out that most major health insurance companies now cover sessions with Christian Science practitioners, who see healing as a matter of faith, not pharmaceuticals. Average cost per visit: a modest $20 to $50.

And the federal government increased its support for research in spiritual healing when the National Institutes of Health opened its alternative medicine department three years ago. Among 30 research programs being funded ($30,000 each) is one under way at the University of New Mexico on prayer’s power to heal substance abusers.


How did the university get past the questions about separation of church and state?

“It’s an interdenominational prayer group,” explains Anita Greene, public affairs officer for the NIH.


Dr. Howard Fuerst never considered himself a particularly religious man--until he learned of his inoperable cancer four years ago. Doctors gave him two years to live.

Fuerst, a 72-year-old retired internist in Hollywood, Fla., recalls how his wife and children immediately put him on the roll call of prayer groups across the country. Fuerst helped the groups along by praying for himself, as part of a self-taught fitness program modeled on Chopra’s physical and spiritual regimen.

“I’m convinced prayer has a significant place in treatment,” he says. “I’ve lived twice as long as was expected.”

His recovery process hasn’t been entirely ethereal. He followed his doctor’s recommendation and had chemotherapy. He is faithful to a nonfat, non-dairy, vegetarian diet. He meditates, meets with a cancer therapist and prays. The result is a home-grown, eclectic, custom-made treatment program that is part of the massive self-help movement now affecting every aspect of American culture.

Fuerst is convinced that “patients have got to take charge of their own care. Dig through the books,” he advises. “It’s your life. Drop everything and do what needs to be done.”


As spiritual and physical traditions try fitting themselves together, you have to wonder how scientists became so mistrusting in the first place.

In the Bible, the Levites were priests who prescribed medical treatments. Christ was called a rabbi and a healer. In Eastern tradition, mind and body have remained inseparable since before the birth of Buddha.

In the Middle Ages, hospitals were contained in monasteries. From the 7th to the 12th centuries, biblical psalms were put to Gregorian chant, with healing effects.

“In the mystical [tradition], the groups of notes were believed to resonate with the human soul,” explains Father Luke Dysinger, a medical doctor turned Benedictine monk who last week demonstrated the system at UCLA’s Rhonda Mann Resource Center for Women With Cancer. “The words express the whole range of human experience, from exhalted to humiliated. Put to chant, they are a memory of what God does in the world, and of our own spiritual journey.

“Interest in the subject suggests that people are aware of the need to take prayer seriously, and recognize there are many different kinds of praying. Some kinds are more appropriate at certain times in life, including near death.”

Many scholars date the mind-body split to the 17th Century, the Age of Enlightenment, when the French philosopher Rene Descartes argued that they should be kept separate so that emotion would not interfere with objective truth. Science got the body, religion got the soul.

Efforts to put the two back together have caused many to advise caution.

“It is the policy of the American Medical Assn. to publicize the position that prayer as therapy should not delay access to traditional medical care,” the AMA Policy Compendium notes.

“It is asking too much that the mind overwhelm the body if a disease is already far advanced,” says Ka Kit Hui, director of Center for East-West Medicine at UCLA. Rather, Hui sees spirituality as a means of health maintenance. Two effective techniques are prayer and qi gong, an ancient Chinese meditation. Both promote physical health because they generate neurotransmissions that reduce stress, Hui says.

But, he finds that spiritual healing doesn’t work for everybody. Hui compares the limits to those of traditional medicine.

“Valium sedates, but in some people it causes added excitement,” Hui observes.


Financial supporters of mind-body research are among the most cautious of supporters. The John Fetzer Institute, with a $200-million endowment, grants about $1 million annually to research in alternative healing. It is considering doubling that amount, says Kenneth Klivington, vice president of science for the Kalamazoo, Mich.-based institute.

The foundation helped fund Bill Moyers’ PBS series “Healing the Mind,” which aired two years ago.

“We look at scientifically rigorous mind-body health research projects,” Klivington says. Many of the studies he has reviewed do not measure up. “The science is seriously lacking.”

Dr. Larry Dossey, a Santa Fe, N.M., internist, is a scientist who searched out “bullet-proof” data for his new book, “Healing Words” (Harper San Francisco).

In one study, 10 volunteers tried to influence the growth of fungus cultures in the laboratory by concentrating on them for 15 minutes from a distance of more than one yard away. Of 194 culture dishes, 151 showed retarded growth. In a related experiment, the volunteers were 15 miles away from the cultures and the results were about the same.

Dossey is interested in distant prayer. In human terms, he might ask how a prayer group in Southern California could affect the health of Fuerst, at the other end of the country.

“There’s a tremendous awakening and the chance for all of us to play with these ideas without giving away our scientific credentials,” Dossey says.