CAN PRAYERS AND MEDITATIVE MANTRAS REALLY IMPROVE HEALTH IN THE MODERN WORLD?
Matters of spirituality and belief systems are not easy discussions for mixed company. But where it comes to health, it sometimes can take on a certain urgency.
Naturally, anyone facing a life-threatening condition may be inclined to take up prayer, even if he or she never did it before or rejected it many years back. Famed atheist and writer Christopher Hitchens, suffering from esophageal cancer, has said that instead of prayers he wishes people might send him a good book or a bottle of wine. But he could well be the exception — the phrase “there are no atheists in foxholes” didn’t come from nowhere.
One could argue that a meditative practice such as prayer need not be tied to a belief in the supernatural. Practitioners of nonspiritual and spiritual meditation agree that the physiology of mental focus is part if not all of the cure, so to speak. Simply dedicating time and mental focus can enable someone to get through a physically or emotionally challenging time.
On a very simple level, I think about a difficult triathlon in which I recently participated. It was my 49th lifetime race and probably the hardest, with temperatures in the 90s (Fahrenheit) and at least half the competitors walking, not running, the third leg of the event. I was able to keep running, albeit at a slow pace, because my run is always meditative: I inhale for two steps, then exhale for the next two, over and over for the 10-kilometer distance. During the last half of that run, the idea of walking seemed tempting, but that would mean falling short of my goal (to finish in under three hours). So I shifted my thoughts back to breathing: In-hale, ex-hale, in-hale, ex-hale … Eventually, I crossed the finish line with a respectable time.
Triathlons are not cancer or heart disease, of course. And meditation is not prayer. But whether you subscribe to a faith tradition or not, both offer similar benefits.
Longevity and religion
Researchers frequently point out a correlation between churchgoing and longevity. Dale Matthews, M.D., author of The Faith Factor: Is Religion Good for Your Health? (Penguin, 1999) and associate professor of medicine at Georgetown University School of Medicine, writes about the importance of integrating religion with the science of medicine. He applauds medical professionals who encourage patients to meld the physical with the spiritual.
Important to note are the Seventh-Day Adventists, whose faith includes remarkably healthy habits: largely plant-based diets, daily exercise and abstinence from smoking and alcohol.
But the Adventists also reveal a flaw in examining faith as a factor in health. Most religions are a function of culture and genetics — our religions tend to be the faith of our fathers and mothers, reaching back through the generations from whence they came. Lifestyle factors also tend to be similar, and churchgoers are less frequently engaged in riskier or chronic, self-destructive behaviors, such as drug and alcohol abuse.
If we are to look at the power of prayer, it needs to be separated from religious populations — which is in fact what at least one broad-based study conducted by Harvard Medical School did. About 1,800 patients at six medical centers, all receiving heart bypass surgery, were broken up into three groups:
- Group 1 members were told that a Christian group would pray for them from a distance.
- Group 2 members were told that it was a possibility a group would pray for them, and in fact they were the focus of prayer groups.
- Group 3 members were not prayed for but were told it was a possibility.
The results may have been disappointing to some. It turns out the patients who were recipients of prayer had no greater rates of recovery. In fact, there was a slightly higher rate of complications among those from Group 1, the group that was aware they in fact were being prayed for.
So does that mean it’s all bunk? Of course not, says Dr. Harold G. Koenig, director of the Center for Spirituality, Theology, and Health at Duke University Medical Center. Science, he says, “is not designed to study the supernatural.”
Which is another way of saying you have to take it on faith, a point that makes the areligious sigh in exasperation.
Atheist prayers and meditation
The Web site Got Atheism? (gotatheism.com) makes some suggestions regarding prayer and facing the challenges of life, including health problems. The site authors are very action oriented. They suggest that the person who is not religious, instead of praying for a sick person, should visit him or her or send flowers or contribute to research on the disease afflicting the individual. Where it comes to personal health, they sound almost like Seventh-Day Adventists: “Get up off the sofa and exercise … change your diet, eat healthier foods … get proper rest and stop smoking.” If seeking advice — “Should I have the operation?” for example — the atheists encourage people to talk to other people, read up on the topic in books or on the Internet and then meditate on it.
Which brings us back to meditation. Can it have a health-giving effect?
The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, a part of the National Institutes of Health, has funded studies (yes, the federal government actually is willing to give alternative medicine a chance) on meditation for stress management and its ability to enhance mental information processes. At an agency-sponsored workshop in 2008, attendees called for more evidence-based assessments of meditation efficacy in both physical and mental health conditions. Their goal is clearly focused on the prevention and modification of diseases.
Of course, that’s through the bureaucracy of a federal agency. But still, it suggests that the health care system in the United States is looking at meditation as a valid part of wellness and health care. With evidence, it transcends being an article of faith or intuition. When meditation is proven to make you healthier, it becomes more of a science.