I remember that day as if it were yesterday. Right before I left my hometown of Lima to study abroad, I went to see the doctor who had been treating me for severe asthma since childhood and shared my struggle.
I was at his office in search of more medication to control the problem and for an action plan in case the weather conditions affected me once I arrived in Spain. Instead, I received a "prescription" from my pulmonologist that still resonates in my memory: "Why do you want to take the disease with you, Grace?" he asked, to my surprise. "Leave it here."
And that's what I mentally did that day, apparently. Asthmatic flare-ups disappeared, as did the symptoms associated with genetic factors and weather conditions.
I could not quite understand it at the time, and yet something about the connection between the disappearance of the disease and a changed mentality stayed with me. The doctor's statement had cut deeply into my thought, opening my mind to the possibility that an illness I had grown so used to was not so much a biological condition as a mental one.
Harvard University professor of psychology, Ellen Langer, provides a hint as to what might have happened. Her research, published in 11 books over the past 30 years, has focused on exceptional patient cases. Langer challenges some traditional notions about health.
"Over time I have come to believe less and less that biology determines destiny," she says in Counterclockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility.
Her research suggests there is a greater cultural context at work, and that conditioned patterns of thinking need to be taken into account. And she presents the premise that "if the mind is in a truly healthy place, the body will be too, so we can change our physical health by changing our mindset."
Over the last few decades, scientists have increasingly been recognizing the mind-body relationship. They are trying to understand the potential of spirituality to enhance the human mind and how this can, in turn, affect the action and condition of the body.
My own search for spirituality was immensely helpful 12 years ago, when I was once again sitting in the patient's seat suffering from another disease that was difficult to cure. In this case, I found that a positive attitude and expectations were not enough to heal me by themselves.
For some time I had considered myself an agnostic. But facing such a diagnosis, I began to explore. To rethink. And over the next few years I pondered religious teachings, cultivated a practice of reflection, asked profound questions about God and noticed the implications of paying more attention to the spiritual aspects of life.
I came to recognize that the spiritual dimension of our existence is not limited by our physical experience. This opened my eyes to the possibility of achieving a practical understanding of God as the ultimate good that can bring healing, and I tried to increasingly live this out in my day-to-day experience.
This brought health back to my body once more, and I had a sense of peace that I did not remember feeling since childhood. But even more than that, it also helped me to cultivate a habit of paying more attention to the things that matter to me most in life.
In the past, I had tried to solve the problems of an organic body and believed that love was an external issue unconnected to my physical, mental and emotional well-being.
Now I see things differently.
After an extraordinary inner journey applying the teachings of Christianity, a major achievement has been learning to honor the desire to give and receive love as a natural expression of my spiritual being. Expanding my thinking beyond a material view of existence has proven to be an effective method for the comprehensive care of my health.
But my case is not unique. That may be why prayer has become the subject of increasing scientific investigation. Researchers are asking questions related to its healing action: Does it have to do with the effect it has on the individual's religious beliefs? Does it work by decreasing stress that would otherwise accelerate the progression of disease? Or does it actually have to do with some form of deeper interaction between man and a greater power, as some recent neurological studies show?
This is only the beginning of serious and necessary scientific research into the benefits of prayer and spirituality. But we do not need to wait for scientific results to test that we can experience the sacred.
We can prove in our own lives that, whether or not we are aware of it, our spiritual practice can help us achieve better health.
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