It was a pleasure and a privilege to conduct an interview with Dr. Larry Dossey on the mechanics and meaning of intercessory prayer. Let’s start with his bio:
Dr. Larry Dossey’s eleven books include The Extraordinary Healing Power of Ordinary Things, Reinventing Medicine, Prayer Is Good Medicine and Healing Words. He is also the executive editor of EXPLORE: The Journal of Science and Healing, a peer-reviewed, bimonthly publication. Dr. Dossey has become an internationally influential advocate of the mind’s role in health and the role of spirituality in healthcare.
Click on the audio player below to hear our thirty-three minute interview.
Click here to visit Larry Dossey’s website.
TRANSCRIPTION OF MY AUDIO INTERVIEW WITH
DR. LARRY DOSSEY
Let’s start by defining some basic premises. Intercessory prayer is commonly defined by westeners as asking God to intervene and help the person being prayed for. But that isn’t necessarily the view of the rest of the world, is it?
No, it isn’t. As a matter of fact, there are some religions that pray incessantly—and to whom prayer is really precious—who don’t have the idea that prayer is offered to a supreme being. I know this is very difficult for people in the west to comprehend, because with their definition of prayer we have a view of a supreme being, and so prayer and a supreme being go hand in hand in the west. But if you look at certain religions in other parts of the world—Buddhism, for example—you see that intercessory prayer is not offered to God because Buddhism is not a theistic religion. So Buddhists are very comfortable in praying without addressing their prayers to a supreme being. So I think we ought to be really careful about narrowing and limiting our views of what prayer is, because if we make them too narrow, we’re going to set a lot of people outside the prayer circle and that really makes me uncomfortable.
You mentioned that the Buddhists are not theistic so they do not pray to God. What is their intention in prayer then?
It’s to develop a sense of connectedness with the transcendent. But the transcendent doesn’t take the form of a personal God for many Buddhists. They simply offer their prayers to the universe.
This gets very interesting because there are a great many studies now looking at the role of intercessory prayer and proving clinical outcomes in sick people. Many of these studies have used Buddhists as the people doing the praying just as they have used fundamentalist Christians. And there isn’t any evidence that anybody’s prayer works any better than anybody else’s. I know that may sound rebellious and even heretical to a lot of people in our culture but I’m impressed by these studies. I think we ought to pay more attention to them because they show that prayer does work and that nobody’s cornered the market on prayer. I think it points like an arrow to the need for religious tolerance. If there’s one thing our culture is in great need of now, it’s tolerance between religions. So one thing I like about these studies is they really do stand up very strongly for religious tolerance.
I’d also like to address free will as it relates to intercessory prayer. As I understand it, free will, by definition, means that God does not interfere with human affairs. Do you agree with that definition and do you believe that human beings have free will?
I agree with it partially. I certainly do believe that humans have free will within certain limits. It gets to be very tricky. For example, a lot of people take the stand that God can’t interfere with human affairs because that would be a violation of human free will. But there is another view that has been taken historically, and it is the fact that God’s will may be done our own choices and intentions. So in that view, we align our will and our intentions and our wants and our wishes with God’s plan, and so free will and God’s plan operate in tandem or go together so there’s no violation of God’s will in that way of looking at things.
So I personally have come to terms with free will in a slightly different way. In my research on prayer, I’ve looked at the different ways that people pray. A lot of people pray for something really specifically; they really put their own will up front, their own intentions and wishes are what they pray for. Now then, a lot of other people are not very comfortable with that approach to prayer, which emphasizes their own personal free will and choices and wants. They feel more comfortable in taking a backed-off, thy-will-be-done or may-the-best-thing-happen approach in prayer.
I like this myself. I’m one of these people who really gets uncomfortable telling the world what to do. I don’t feel very comfortable in trying to micromanage the world, and therefore, I’m one of those people who feels much more comfortable appealing to a higher wisdom, asking, “May thy will be done” or “May the best outcome prevail in this situation” with actually not spelling it out. I feel more comfortable appealing to a wisdom that’s higher than my own when I pray for certain things. I know that a lot of people feel this way. But I would also emphasize that there’s no one way to pray. I would not want to suggest that there’s a specific formula that works better than any other way. I think everybody should look into their own heart and find out what feels right and authentic and genuine for them and go with that.
I’d like to elaborate on something you said, that God’s will and free will work in tandem. How does that work in your view? Are you saying that God or divine intelligence subtly influences human will through perhaps our conscience or intuition and it’s our choice whether to listen to it?
I would approach that with the view that there is such a thing as inner divinity. I think that you can find even in the Christian bible—verses from the Psalms, for example— in which it says that “Ye are Gods,” suggesting that in some form and at some level we do contain the divine element. Even I the New testament, we see that Jesus said that the Kingdom of Heaven is within. So it may not be that we are totally divorced from the divine; we may contain elements of the divine within. Therefore, there may be a coming together of our own intentions and wishes with the divine identity or the divine will.
So again, I just simply don’t think that it’s obvious that there’s a conflict between God’s will and our own intentions and wishes. Our goal, of course, should be to transcend the wishes of the ego and our sense of selfishness and to align ourselves with the divine will to the extent possible. I think this is one of the goals of authentic spiritual work; it’s to realize the divine connection, and to the extent possible, embody a sense of the transcendent in our own life. And to the extent that we can do that, there is a decrease of potential conflict between God’s will and our own.
I like that very much about aligning with our inner divinity and essentially living your whole life as one long prayer, essentially praying, “Thy will be done.” Am I correct in interpreting it that way?
That’s certainly the way I see it. People line up differently about what they think prayer is. I personally have a very broad definition. I simply think prayer is communication with the Absolute; whatever term we attach to the Absolute, whether it’s God, Goddess, Allah or something else. I also think the term “communication” should be defined extraordinarily broadly. But the point is, If we are able to authentically and genuinely communicate with the Absolute, however we view that, then again, our will and God’s will come together so there’s a diminution of conflict between the two. That’s one of the unstated goals, at least in the esoteric side of almost all the great religions. It’s epitomized in Jesus’ saying, “Not my will but thine be done.”
Given what you just explained, how do you view the mechanics of intercessory prayer? Is one person transmitting love and healing energy to another, or does it come down to the power of intention?
Let me say first of all that that’s a theological question. I don’t think it’s a scientific one because of this reason: We don’t know how to measure consciousness, we’ve never been able to find any sort of energy that’s connected with sending thoughts—or sometimes what we call vibes or good intentions—and love and compassion to other people. We talk as if there’s some sort of energy going between you, who is doing the praying, and the object that you’re praying for. We talk about sending energy but I think those are all metaphors. People have looked for energy that is sent between one person having a thought for another person, and that recipient. And nobody has ever been able to find any sort of measurable energy that mediates the two.
I happen to think that although our intentions and thoughts and prayers do have an impact at a distance—this has been verified in scores of experiments—I don’t think that there’s any actual physical energy that mediates that. So I don’t think that we send energy; I think there’s no need for any so-called energy to be sent. In my books, I go into why I believe this. I think that mind and consciousness are what I call nonlocal, which means that they’re everywhere in space and time. So if you think through this, there’s no reason for anything to go anywhere or for anything to be sent because it’s already there. I know this sounds really strange and sort of woo-woo for people who bump into this idea for the first time, but I think that this image of nonlocal mind—mind that’s infinite in space already—is the image that’s going to carry the day, because it’s the only image that I know about that actually squares and fits with scientific evidence.
One thing you brought up that is extremely important is the issue of love and compassion. In the studies that look at healing intentions, we can see that they don’t work very well if they’re not connected with love and compassion. This has been recognized by every major spiritual and religion tradition: this idea that if you want to affect someone at a distance–for example, help them get over an illness—compassion and love are essential factors in the mix. I want to emphasize that. Prayer is not just a matter of using words like “thou” or “thee” or whatever; it’s what you feel, it’s what’s in the heart. If compassion and love are missing, then prayer usually falls flat.
It sounds like you do believe that prayer does influence healing in some way because, as you said, many studies show that it does.
Yes, and I think it’s high time that we pay more attention to these studies. They exist not just between people, but they’ve been verified in experiments done all over the world looking at our abilities to influence things like the growth rates of tumors in animals, the healing rates of physical wounds in animals—even the growth rates of plants and the germination rates of seeds and the growth rates of bacteria in test tubes and yeast in petri dishes in laboratories. All of these things have been influenced by people’s intentions and wishes and prayers. I think that there’s compelling evidence that when we talk about prayer working, we’re not talking theoretical stuff here; we’re talking about evidence that’s been nailed down in many experiments which I and others have written about.
It sounds like you’re saying that it all comes down to loving intention.
Well, I think so. This seems to be a pretty sterile view for a lot of religiously oriented people. It sounds like we’re leaving God out of the equation, but I don’t think we are. Even the Christian Bible said that God is love, so you could say that God in the form of love is at the focal point of these experiments showing the importance of love and compassion and the workings of prayer. I think we’re at an interesting point in religious and theological debate over the nature of prayer. Not only do we have theological positions supporting prayer, we also now have empirical evidence and solid scientific studies showing that when we talk about prayer working, we’re not fooling ourselves. This is more than theological proof, this is empirical scientific proof. And when you match up empirical findings with philosophy and theology, you’ve got more than when you try to rely on either one alone.
Let’s say an intercessory prayer does not produce the outcome we had hoped for. In cases like that, what benefits did the intercessory prayer provide?
Well, I think it depends on what we mean by “work.” When we say that prayer doesn’t work, when it doesn’t achieve what you want, what’s to be made of that? I go back to my definition of prayer: communication with the Absolute. We could say that if we manage to communicate with the Absolute, or draw closer to our view of God or divinity, then that’s prayer that works. And I think there’s a possibility always for that kind of prayer to work even though we don’t see the results that we often wish. For example, the person that we’re praying for doesn’t get better. But that’s only one criteria for prayer working. So I think that there’s a view which says that prayer can always work regardless of whether you see a physical outcome in the world. I’m not trying to rationalize ineffectiveness of prayer here, but I think that there are an awful lot more ways that prayer can work than if people find the parking spot they’re praying for or win the lottery or something like that.
The fact is that we pray for some pretty goofy things that are really egotistically oriented and very selfish. Sometimes it’s almost a blessing that we don’t get that sort of answer to prayer. To give you one example, a lot of people pray to win the lottery. But winning the lottery can be a devastating outcome if you watch what happens to the lives of people who actually win the lottery. Their lives usually fall apart. So you could say that the most benevolent thing in that situation is for your prayer not to be answered. It’s a complex issue and people are just going to have to make up their minds on their own accord about what answered prayer is. But for me, it has a lot more to do than with whether or not you actually get the physical outcome you’re asking for.
I certainly agree with you that intercessory prayer benefits the person doing the praying by helping them feel closer to God and offering some measure of comfort and hope. But does that person’s compassionate intention always reach and have an effect on the person being prayed for?
No, I don’t think so. I think that there’s a spectrum of effects on the person who’s downstream, so to speak. But let me offer this: It’s not necessary always for that individual who’s being prayed for to know that they’re being prayed for. A lot of people want to dismiss the effects of prayer as just the placebo response; the person knows they’re being prayed for so they think positively and sort of go along with the prayer and try to help it work. So therefore, if we see prayer working, it’s just a matter of suggestion and expectation and all that sort of thing, just the placebo response.
Earlier, I mentioned that there are studies in animals and plants and even microorganisms which show that our thoughts and prayers can affect them. This very strongly suggests that it’s not necessary for the recipient of the prayer to know that they’re being prayed for, because as far as we know, plants and bacteria and animals don’t know they’re being prayed for. So if prayer works in those situations, we see clearly that it’s just not a matter of thinking positively and knowing that you’re being prayed for.
I’d like to chime in with you, however, on something you said earlier, that even though the prayer may not achieve the results we ask for in the physical world, it does have an effect on the person who’s doing the praying. I think that it does give hope and meaning and comfort to people; and these are not just clumps of emotions that float around in people’s heads, these have real physical effects. If you can achieve positive meaning and hope in the individual who’s doing the praying or in the person who’s being prayed for, that can have a positive physical response. Hope is essential, positive meaning is essential in the perpetuation of life; and to the extent that we can help bring that about through the hope and meaning we find in prayer, I think that’s a good thing.
Is it fair to say that no matter what the external outcome of intercessory prayer, your loving intention may ease the recipient’s pain, comfort their soul, and bolster their strength and resolve?
Well, I think that that’s exactly true. There have been a lot of treatises and studies now, particularly in the last twenty years or so, looking at the role of hope and meaning in people’s lives. It’s a hot topic now in psychosomatic and mind-body medicine. And hope alone, regardless of any other physical outcome, is associated with an increase in immune competence in the body. The experience of meaning and positivity and hope jacks up the activity in the immune system. It calms the cardiovascular system; we’re less open to cardiac arrhythmias and instability of the heart rhythm if we experience serenity and peace and hope. So these things are not trivial. A lot of people intend this as a put-down; they will say that prayer is just a matter of thinking positively, that it is a placebo response. It is that, but that’s not trivial. So all of these things can make the difference in life and death. You take away hope and meaning and that’s a death sentence for people. So we should not say that prayer offers only hope. That’s a big only; that’s a huge factor. Even if that is all that was conveyed and conferred on people by prayer, that would be something to strive for.
That reminds me of a wonderful quote by Eckhart Tolle: “The more consciousness you bring into the body, the stronger your immune system becomes. It is as if every cell awakens and rejoices.”
Well, that’s a beautiful way to put it. I’m glad he said “every cell in the body” because that takes these feelings of serenity and hope and meaning out of just the brain and spreads them around the body. I suspect that there’s no area in the body that is out of touch with the effects of hope and serenity and peace. These things penetrate the body. So this is not just something psychological that affects you just somewhere north of your clavicles, this is a body-wide process, as many people, from Candace Pert to many others, have pointed out in the field of psychoneuroimmunology these days.
You said that prayer brings us closer to God. Do you believe that praying for someone else can also strengthen the bond you share with that person?
I certainly do, particularly if they know that you care about them to spend time and emotional and psychological effort praying for them. Simply to acknowledge that someone cares for you and values you enough that they’re willing to devote their compassion and love for your behalf is a very potent thing. I’m all for this sort of thing. A lot of people who are not too religious these days sort of bristle at the term “prayer” because they think it smuggles too much religiosity into their lives and they don’t want to go there.
In our conversation several times, we’ve made the connection between prayer and love. So people who are nervous and agitated about the term “prayer,” forget the term “prayer.” Just love someone. It’s probably an equivalent effect. I’ve never seen anybody turn down love, although they might experience a little bit of indigestion about being prayed for.
Even if the person being prayed for does not know they’re being prayed for, since we are connected to each other beyond space and time, wouldn’t that strengthen the bond we share energetically or in some way?
Absolutely. This is not just a mere metaphorical, poetical talk we’re engaging in here. There are actual studies now showing that that individual on the receiving end of the compassion experiences measurable physical changes in their body in spite of the fact that they don’t even know that that compassion and love and prayer are being offered.
One of the studies I keep referring to is about four years old now. It was done by Dr. Jeanne Achterberg in Hawaii looking at the ability of native healers to affect the FMRI (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) brain scans of distant subjects who did not even know when the healers were doing their thing. During the period when the healers were sending compassion or prayer or love or caring, the brain scan of the distant individual lit up, indicating that it was undergoing increased metabolic activity only when the praying person was sending compassion, love or prayer. These are measurable changes. These kinds of studies have been done at least a dozen times with consistent results. So I think people should understand that when we talk about influencing people at a distance, we’re talking about influence that can actually be measured. This is not hocus-pocus, this is not California New Age woo-woo, these are actual experiments that show that our thoughts do something in the world.
I remember reading in your book, Reinventing Medicine, that because studies showed prayed worked on individuals who were ill far beyond what placebos could account for, that doctors who do not pray for their patients could be sued for malpractice. That’s quite a concept.
Yes, I remember writing that. That sort of got me into a little hot water. Actually, I had my tongue in my cheek a little bit about that, but not entirely. I still think it’s a reasonable thing to say. Malpractice is defined according to the standard of practice that’s common in a given community. So I raised the idea that if the evidence favoring prayer continues to increase, and the majority of physicians in a given community begin to adopt that as their standard of practice, then what about that doctor who refuses? He’s in the minority; he’s not following the standard of care for the general physician community. And if so, would he be guilty of malpractice? I don’t know where the culture’s going to go on this question, but I think it’s one that’s reasonable to ask.
On the other hand, I by no means want to dictate to physicians whether or not they should pray, or if so, how they should pray, and so on. I think that’s every physician’s choice to make. It’s not mine to make for them. But I do insist that doctors should look at the evidence before they decide whether or not they are justified in praying for their patients. There’s no excuse for ignorance here. The evidence is public, it’s not hiding from anyone; and I think doctors are obligated to inform themselves about these issues before they take a stand.
Do you believe that healing on some level always occurs when you initiate a loving prayer and allow divine intelligence to do with it what it will?
Well, I think that that’s the case. If you look at the origin of the word “heal,” it comes from the Greek word that also is the root for “wholeness.” And wholeness for me means several things. It means the integration of our own mind, body and spirit. It also, in my judgment, implies a coming together between ourselves and what we call the Absolute or the transcendent, whatever name we attach to that. So certainly, I believe that wholeness and healing are related and that wholeness and healing can come about in spite of the fact that a disease might get worse.
Let me add this also: I think there’s one further step in the logic here we ought to acknowledge, and that’s the fact that if our minds, our consciousnesses are what I call nonlocal in space and time, that means that they’re infinite in time. And if they’re infinite in time, they’re immortal. So I think the recognition that comes from all of these considerations is that eternality and immortality for some aspect of who we are is very real. So if we pray for someone, probably even for ourselves, to be healed and we don’t get what we want and the disease gets worse and we die, we’re just going to have to settle for immortality. I think that’s a pretty good consolation prize.
If we can keep this in mind, that immortality is our birthright, it’s part of who we are, we don’t have to acquire it, it comes factory installed, then I think this takes the pressure off of the need to think that prayer always has got to work. If we continue in that desperate perspective and we hold in the back of our mind that death is the end of everything and leads to annihilation and so on, we’re always going to be living with a state of inborn tension and anxiety because everybody knows sooner or later they’re going to die. But if we can think beyond that and keep our eyes focused on the long view, which involves immortality and survival of some aspect of who we are, I think that takes a lot of the pressure off.
I echo those sentiments. Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom and your time today, Larry. I thoroughly enjoyed the discussion and am confident that others will as well.
Well, let’s hope so, Phil, and let’s have another chat one of these days.
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