|Dr. Larry Dossey Interviewed
With his easy manner, heartland looks, and mild Southern drawl, it would be easy to mistake Larry Dossey for a sports announcer or a Sunday preacher. In fact, Dr. Dossey is a former MASH surgeon and intellectual, and one of a handful of medical doctors at the forefront of integrating western medicine with spirituality. Dr. Dossey continues to explore the connection between mental states and physical well-being in his most recent book, Healing Beyond The Body.
Dr. Dossey says that one of the best ways to judge a good doctor is to ask yourself if you feel better after a visit. By his own standard, I would judge Dr. Dossey to be an outstanding healer. In addition to being articulate and outspoken, he is warm and soft-spoken. From OPEN EXCHANGE MAGAZINE, July-September and October-December 2002.
Bart Brodsky: Healing Beyond the Body is an incredibly challenging book, a call to extend our concepts of health and healing. How has your own medical practice evolved to incorporate spirituality?
Larry Dossey, MD: I started out as a conventional physician. Like most of my colleagues, I thought that drugs and surgical procedures were where all the action was. But, I had an interesting experience with illness, dating back to high school and medical school, with a severe migraine headache, which was associated with blindness and severe nausea and incapacitating pain. The solution to that proved not to be drugs. It was a mind-body technique called biofeedback, which was quite radical back in the 70s, using imagery, visualization, and relaxation. That was a career saving discovery for me. From biofeedback and making a difference in one's own body, I then made the leap to look at how our consciousness might be able to affect other people's bodies, such as in this very challenging issue of distant healing and prayer. I began to use that in my practice.
BB: In Healing Beyond the Body, you introduce a term from physics, non-locality. How does healing operate "beyond the body"?
Dr. Dossey: There are a lot of theories that are being advanced by world class scientists now. The bottom line is that no one really knows. But there are many hypotheses that are being floated. My favorite is that of Dr. David Chalmers of the University of Arizona. He says that consciousness is fundamental in the universe, perhaps on a par with matter and energy. It's everywhere. And if you go to this standard, this opens the door to the distant events such as healing and distant knowing, which I've written about in the book. I don't know which among the easily two dozen theories which are out there are going to float to the top, but I think that eventually one of them will, and it's going to open the door to these distant expressions of consciousness.
BB: Carl Jung's own theory of synchronicity was formed in conjunction with physicist Wolfgang Pauli.
Dr. Dossey: Yes, they had a very beautiful collaboration.
BB: And Pauli made a point to talk about acausal and, perhaps from our own point of view, nonsensical connections, that seem to be the fundamental basis for how the universe is put together.
Dr. Dossey: That was one of the most fertile collaborations that ever existed, I suppose, between a psychologist and a physicist. Both of them were really courageous for putting in a lot on the line.
BB: [Speaking of courageous], you write about an unorthodox medical treatment that you once gave yourself, ingesting a piece of paper with shamanic prayers on it. You want to tell us about it?
Dr. Dossey: You had to bring that up, didn't you? That was one of the stranger things in the book. There's an old custom that dates back to medieval days of writing a healing thought or prayer on a piece of paper and eating it, hoping to ingest the power of prayer into your body. I found myself in a remote area of Mexico where I was really sick. There were no healthcare facilities around. My thoughts went back to that old custom and I thought, "why not?" My wife was there, who was a cardiovascular nurse, and a good friend, who was interested in shamanism. I asked him to write a prayer on a piece of paper, small enough so that I could fold it up and swallow it, which I did. I had fun doing it. I didn't die! I gave the paper and the prayer on it credit for that. I have no idea whether it helped or not, but it was quite fun connecting with an old healing ritual.
BB: You wrote that some of the other people who didn't eat prayers, as you did, were sicker than you were.
Dr. Dossey: Actually, they had to be evacuated to the United States for emergency medical care, while I struggled through.
BB: But you have an interesting disclaimer. You wrote that you wouldn't necessarily recommend prayer eating to other people. So I have to ask: How does a consumer know when to use an alternative treatment and when to use a conventional treatment? How do we make that decision?
Dr. Dossey: It's tough. I think we have to try to inform ourselves as best we can, through self education. We're in a very awkward stage in the development of alternative therapies. A great many of them have not been proven, and we desperately need to do excellent science to sort them out. So I think people need to take responsibility to educate themselves about this. Actually, I think the public is out front of the medical profession on most of these things. It's impossible to go to your doctor in many of these instances and get an informed opinion. So, it's not easy. I think there is no perfect solution.
BB: How much of this has to do with the concept of placebo? And I don't mean to denigrate placebo. I know that medicine tends to say, "It's only placebo," but that seems to beg the question. There seems to be something very powerful going on with the mind's ability to influence the outcome of healing. Sugar pills can reduce the need for morphine and sometimes stimulate cures. What is your professional opinion?
Dr. Dossey: I think the placebo effect is extremely powerful. I can't imagine a medical situation where it doesn't operate to some degree, and I think we sell it short. You're exactly right. We're too dismissive of it. I'm fully prepared to concede that the prayer eating event may have been completely placebo in origin, but there are many instances, however, where we do not need to give it all over to the placebo. For example, this has become an issue with distant healing and prayer, where many of the cynics and skeptics say this stuff can't work, and if it looks like it works, it's all placebo. We can arrange studies where we can rule out the placebo effect and come down to a residue of healing that cannot possibly be explainable by placebos.
BB: You know, there's a million dollar challenge out there for people who can demonstrate [psychic phenomena such as distance healing], to the satisfaction of certain skeptics. Do you know people ready to take that challenge, take that million dollars?
Dr. Dossey: I am fully aware of that challenge. I think that that trivializes good science. That challenge is offered by a stage magician who in many cases would not know a good scientific study if it bit him on the butt. I think that our best approach is still peer reviewed scientific journals that are arbitrated by true scholars and experts in the field, not stage magicians.
BB: Even parapsychologist Charles Tart admits that demonstrations of PSI (parapsychological abilities) are unreliable and that evidence is statistical and, in some cases, weak. Do you know of any experiment that would convince the majority of skeptics?
Dr. Dossey: There are some skeptics whose level of skepticism is so unremitting that no level of evidence would ever convince them. There are an increasing number of peer reviewed double-blind, in some cases triple-blind studies that, indeed, have brought around many skeptics. There's one survey that was published in the journal Nature a couple years ago that found that 40 percent of American physicists, biologists, and mathematicians do believe in a supreme being who would respond to distant intercessory prayer. So, I think that's probably a higher percentage of working scientists who believe in these things than most people are aware of. There are an increasing number of excellent, controlled studies that show distant healing works. I'm content to let these studies play themselves out. There are many people who will never come around; many people will.
BB: It strikes me that whatever PSI abilities may be out there are an emergent faculty. If they're demonstrated at all, they're demonstrated statistically. I suspect that if your world view is correct, there will be more and more studies that will ultimately convince more and more people of the [miraculous] powers of the mind. How might that affect the course of future experimentation and the way medicine is practiced?
Dr. Dossey: Looking at the effectiveness of distant healing, prayer, the studies are statistical. But this is really not a strong deficit at all. The way drugs are tested in the population is totally statistical. It's simply the way we get our hands on what worksdo a statistical study. The statistical studies in distant healing and prayer, for example, have made a tremendous impact on the medical schools. Back in '93 when I first jumped into this area with a book called Healing Words, only three of the nation's 125 medical schools would have anything to do with this field. Now 80 of the nation's 125 medical schools have formal coursework exploring these studies, looking at the role of prayer and religious spiritual devotion in medical health. I think this is a landmark historic development. The fact that the medical schools have come on board speaks volumes about how legitimate these scholars at the medical schools now view this area.
BB: One study that showed that some belief in a higher powerno matter what the religion or faithled to a speedier recovery from illness...
Dr. Dossey: That's right.
BB: ...Does that say something about religious fundamentalism and cosmic consciousness?
Dr. Dossey: I think this is one of the most important contributions this whole field has made. Prayer studies, studies in distant healing, show clearly that religious affiliation really isn't that crucial. No religion has cornered the market on any of this. These studies show that spirituality is universal. It doesn't shake out in terms of specific religions. All this points toward the need for religious tolerance. That's a crucial message, particularly at this time in history. Our world could use a lot more religious tolerance....
BB: Many of us have felt a lot of anger and fear and depression as a result of the September 11 events. You'd been a MASH doctor in Vietnam. You saw the brutality of war and inhumanity first hand. From that experience, what lessons can you share to help us all cope? We're literally at war now, and there's a great feeling of division out there.
Dr. Dossey: Consciousness, empathic, loving intentions, can literallyand I mean literallychange the state of the physical world. So, this gives us an option other than war. We can always use our thoughts and intentions to try to change things. It's important to recognize this, because we are hard-wired toward a lot of aggressiveness. It's our nature to be aggressive. But recognizing that there are other options, we can use our consciousness to try to change things that need not necessarily proceed down the path of aggressiveness, retaliation, and war. It simply opens our options a great deal more widely than a lot of us believe they are.
BB: How do you define a healthy lifestyle?
Dr. Dossey: A healthy lifestyle is one that permits us to find meaning and fulfillment in our lives, and to live a long and healthy life in the process. This is directly related to what I've written about spirituality. There about 1,600 studies in the epidemiology of religion that shows that the people who follow some sort of spiritual pathand again, it doesn't seem to matter which onelive, on average, seven years longer than people who do not follow a spiritual lifestyle. People have a lower instance of all the major diseases in the process. This compelling dataanyone who's interested in living a long and healthy life ought to pay attention to this evidence.
BB: By spiritual lifestyle, does that necessitate a formalized religion?
Dr. Dossey: Absolutely not! Absolutely not. It means connecting with a sense of purpose and a higher power, generally speaking, but the form this takes simply doesn't seem to matter. But it does mean affiliating with something that exists beyond the individual self, whether people call this god, goddess, Allah, or the universe, doesn't really seem to matter. This infuriates fundamentalists, as you might imagine, but that's simply what the statistics show. There isn't a whole lot that doctors can recommend to tack on seven extra years. As you pointed out, there's no guaranteewe're talking statistics herebut if you want to give yourself the best chance of living long and well, and having a nice healthy lifestyle, better pay attention to these facts.
BB: Seven yearsthat's even more significant than quitting smoking, isn't it?
Dr. Dossey: It is. The average gain is stopping smoking is not nearly that long.
BB: You write about diets in your latest book, too. Tell us about the "one size fits all" approach to diets and your approach of eating with the right attitude.
Dr. Dossey: One size doesn't fit all when it comes to diet. The old minimum daily requirements, which we were hypnotized with during the last few decades, were a good start, but in some sense they were deplorable because they reduce us to the level of a machine. Unfortunately, diets become a matter of what goes in one end and what goes out the other, and what happens in between, which we say you can't influence. You can influence it. It isn't just a matter of what you eat. There are factors of consciousness which modify how your body actually handles the stuff you ingest. There are compelling experiments now on animals which show that whether cholesterol and fats do damage to the blood vessels in the body depends on the emotions and attitudes and the peacefulness and the joy you experience while you're eating. Unfortunately, modern nutrition has not caught up with this yet. And we're still terribly
BB: So, rushing your food and eating when you're angry are not good for your health?
Dr. Dossey: If we believe the animal studies, a serene and peaceful attitude while you're eating can seriously diminish the avidity with which the blood vessels take up fats. My point is, we're more than machines, and the attitudes and emotions we experience when we eat effect how our body handles it.
BB: In the emerging new medicine, the combination of alternative and traditional treatments, how is a healthcare consumer to judge the quality of the healing experience?
Dr. Dossey: I have a no-brainer of a rule in that regard. If you leave your doctor's office feeling worse then when you went, you probably better change doctors. We go by feel here. It's more than whether your doctor is board certified or not. Irma Bombeck once said, "Never go to a doctor whose office plants have died."
Dr. Dossey: She was struggling with this question: How do you find yourself a doctor who you can feel good about and trust? I want my doctor to be technical superb. But more than that, I want to have a good feeling about him, a real emotional connection at the gut level, at the heart level about him, also. Sometimes it's impossible to find that combination, but we ought to do the best we can.
BB: You had a really interesting distinction in Healing Beyond the Body between having a good healing experience with your doctor and "getting well." Please elaborate.
Dr. Dossey: The very word "healing" comes from the root word meaning "wholeness." And if we feel fragmented after we're in the presence of our doctor, bells and whistles really ought to go off. We ought to shop at that point. I faced that situation a few years back. I had a herniated disk, and I had to find myself a surgeon. I could not find the type of doctor I wanted who could handle psychological, emotional, and spiritual issues as well as do an excellent operation. So, I told my physician, "Look, you handle the surgery; I'll handle the other stuff." It's going to be easier in the future for us to find physicians who can cover all those bases, but often we cannot. The main thing is to cover the bases regardless of who has to do it. It's not always necessary that somebody in a white coat and a stethoscope 'round their neck do everything. But we ought to try to find that complete physician if we can.
BB: You also mentioned that sometimes healing doesn't necessarily mean getting well. Sometimes the course of an illness is terminal. Yet, you can still find peace and wholeness.
Dr. Dossey: Sometimes the best outcome of an illness is death. Completeness in life does not always mean that the disease goes away. We're all going to die. The statistics are overwhelmingly convincing! So, it's not always the best outcome that the disease goes away. Statistically speaking, if all the diseases that people tried to pray away suddenly vanished, the earth would have become overpopulated years ago and there would be no place to stand! Everybody wants their disease to go away, but it's a blessing in disguise for the human race that they don't always go away. So, it's a tough lesson for us to learn. But we can heal into death.
BB: I had that experience recently. A dear friend, who was overcome by cancer, emanated an almost spiritual glow toward the end. It really and truly amazed me. I always knew that he had a very strong moral fibera "moral compass." I hate to use cliché, but he almost became saintly on his deathbed. So much was communicated that was simply not spoken. He found a peace, and a fulfillment, that I don't think even he'd known through his life.
Dr. Dossey: You know, Bart, people who are young, vital, and healthy often have trouble understanding what we're talking about now. A lot of people cynically think that we're just trying to put a good face on something horrible and rationalize illness. I think people who have a hard time understanding that death can be the proper outcome ought to hang out at a hospice in a major hospital some time. As people approach death, they can become our great teachers, as your friend was. And they understand these things and often do not struggle with them. An exposure to people who are dying can make us, paradoxically, much wiser while we're yet alive.
BB: Yes, and it can teach us how to live a good life, which is really what it's all about, isn't it?
Dr. Dossey: Yes.
BB: You've been very generous with your time. Is there anything you'd like to add for our readers?
Dr. Dossey: The most important essay in the book is the last one on immortality. I think that's a term that we've shied away from. We can't get our modern minds around it. It sounds too religious to talk about the soul any longer, but the implicationsthe most majestic implicationsof all of the healing studies are for immortality. They seem to point to some quality of consciousness that is infinite in space and time and, therefore, eternal. So, I really do want to bring that issue into people's awareness as best I can. It's time we took another stab, as modern scientifically oriented people, toward the whole possibility of immortality. I think that these studies affirm some immortal, eternal quality of who we are. It would be shameful not to emphasize this.
BB: Would you say that's more faith than science at this point?
Dr. Dossey: No, I don't. I see it exactly the opposite. It once was a matter almost exclusively of faith, but now I think science can say something decisive. We don't have any soul meters, obviously, to get a good readout on immortality, of an immortal element of who we are, but we have got the next best thing. We have indirect scientific evidence which points to a non-local, infinite quality of who we are. If something's infinite in time, it's immortal, it's eternal.
BB: I started by saying there's a lot of very interesting and compelling writing in your new book, and you certainly proved it with your last statement! I recommend it to our readers.
Dr. Dossey: Thank you so much.