Since first encountering his work, I have been a great admirer of Larry Dossey, M.D. -- a New York Times bestselling author of several books, as well as a pioneer in the intersections of spirituality and medicine. I recently had the privilege of speaking with Larry about his thoughts on health challenges and the suffering that goes along with them. Here are excerpts from our conversation:
MF: How do you define "spirituality"?
LD: The sense of connectedness with "something higher" -- an absolute, immanent, or transcendent power, however named -- and the conviction that meaning, value, direction, and purpose are valid aspects of the universe.
MF: When did you become clear on role of spirituality?
LD: Beginning in my mid-teens, I had a severe illness -- classical migraine headache that included nausea, vomiting, incapacitation, and partial temporary blindness. Nothing helped until I tried biofeedback, which offered profound relief and opened a new world to me -- the role of consciousness in health. It was a natural segue to meditation. Then in the late 1980s, controlled clinical studies began to surface, showing that healing intentions in the form of prayer exerted clinical benefit. I immersed myself in this literature and discovered around 130 additional studies in humans, animals, plants, microbes, etc, confirming these effects. I wrote a book about it, Healing Words, in 1993.
MF:What is the point of health challenges?
LD: Health challenges are a natural aspect of being human. Illness and physiological malfunction appear universal in perhaps all forms of life. Some life forms such as sea urchins appear almost immune to sickness, but even they are subject to trauma and death. The point? It's what we make it. We can choose to view health challenges as pointless, as random events in the evolutionary process, or we can view the suffering that comes with health challenges as opportunities for gaining wisdom, in the words of mythologist Joseph Campbell.
I do not believe health challenges correlate with spiritual achievement. Many God-realized saints and mystics have died painful deaths from illness: Ramana Maharshi, Bernadette, even the Buddha, who died from food poisoning. The opposite also happens: Spiritual reprobates often live long, healthy lives. Clearly good health does not always correlate with spiritual achievement. We must be careful here, for people who get sick, yet are spiritually advanced, have a tendency to shame and blame themselves for getting sick, seeing it as spiritual failure.
MF: Why do people suffer, and why might a divine Creator set up this kind of experience?
LD: This is the eternal question of theodicy: Why would a benevolent, caring God permit suffering? I don't propose to speak for God. I prefer to focus on the fact that we are here, alive and kicking, and conscious. This for me dwarfs the experience of pain and suffering. The great miracle is life and consciousness, not the small stuff. I further think that consciousness is immortal, for empirical reasons, which further deepens the miracle.
Joseph Campbell wrote that we can gain wisdom in two ways: first, by experiencing an epiphany, and second, by suffering. The second way, he said, is vastly more common. Suffering can lead to an awareness of the collective consciousness. When Ramana Maharshi was dying from painful cancer, he told his devotees, "There is pain, but there is no suffering." I personally believe, however, that the experience of painful health challenges are a very difficult period in life to grow spiritually. Pain, severe pain, is just terrible. Better to get our spiritual growth in before going through painful periods of life!
MF: Why does conventional medicine seem so resistant to the idea of embracing spirituality as part of healing?
LD: The materialist perspective prohibits spirituality. Consciousness and the mind are viewed as equivalent to the workings of the brain. When the brain dies, the thinking goes, all we are is therefore annihilated. It's a gruesome view devoid of meaningful purpose and hope. It's depressing to those who perpetrate it, as well as those on whom it is perpetrated. This emotional and psychological state can be deadly for healing, literally. Hope helps one to heal; stripping people of hope does the opposite.
MF: What will it take to move from a "quick fix" model to a "slow medicine" model, which embraces spirituality as an essential part of healing and wholeness?
LD: We need to transcend and break free from the materialist credo that has shackled us for nearly three centuries in the West. We are beginning to do this as a consequence of consciousness research, which I have written about in One Mind. Spiritual practice in some form is required. Also, paying attention with an open mind to the revelations of the nature of consciousness, coming from empirical research, will be extremely comforting to many others. For me, both vectors have been fruitful.