Spiritual practices. Separate and apart from studies on religious involvement are those on the direct impact of spiritual disciplines such as prayer and meditation. These practices, which tend to have religious roots, can also be taken up as secular forms of self-improvement. I, for example, have been practicing a form of meditation for 37 years. It’s the central component of my spiritual life, and I regard it as sacred. At the same time, many of the people to whom I've taught the practice do it for the same reasons they might take up exercise or change their nutritional habits: because a doctor or a friend told them it would be good for their health.
Motivation aside, thousands of studies have found that contemplative practices can have a profound impact on mental and physical well-being. The primary explanation is that by eliciting "the relaxation response," such disciplines can dramatically neutralize stress and the ravages of our high-adrenaline lifestyles, without the side effects of tranquilizers, antidepressants and other pharmaceuticals. Similarly, medical professionals might once have nodded politely and concealed their cynicism when patients said they were praying to be healed. By now, they have seen the data. Like meditation, prayer turns out to have measurable health benefits.
Here too, discrimination is called for. For many years, researchers did not bother to distinguish one form of spiritual practice from another. They figured if a study was performed on Transcendental Meditation or Vipassana or mindfulness, then the data could be applied to every contemplative discipline, whether it had been in use for thousands of years or just made up. Now, scientists are beginning to realize that even minor differences in practice can produce significant differences in results. In the coming years, we’ll learn much more about which practices produce which benefits for which people under which conditions. In the meantime, buyer beware. It's not just whether you meditate or pray, it’s how you meditate or pray.
A little help from your friends. While the bulk of the research has centered on things that individuals do for themselves, another group of scientists has looked at what happens when people pray for the health of others. It turns out, that patients who are prayed for actually do better than comparable patients without that assistance. One could argue that just knowing that people care enough to pray for you might elicit some type of placebo effect that aids the healing process. But experiments have been done in which patients don’t know that anyone is praying for them, and the results have been comparable. Religious people have taken this as proof that God intervenes, or that angels or other celestials come through when called upon. Others theorize that space is not an obstacle to the power of healing; that feelings of love and compassion are not confined to our heads and hearts, but radiate outward like radio waves.
Whatever the explanation, if the research continues to indicate that thought at a distance can, in fact, contribute to healing, you might be wise to organize a prayer circle the next time you or a loved one gets sick. Even if you’re skeptical, it can’t hurt, can it?
As the data keep pouring in, as they no doubt will, one caveat is worth keeping in mind: let's not trivialize spirituality and religion. Thinking of spiritual disciplines solely as health interventions would be like making love just to release tension or having children for the tax write-off: If that’s all it is to you, you’re missing out on an awful lot. The core purpose of spirituality is to end the separation between the individual and the Infinite wholeness. Connecting with that which we regard as sacred or divine opens us up to a treasure trove of peace, love, joy and unity. But physical health is not a bad fringe benefit.