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Faith - Does it Work?

by Beata Bishop(more info)

listed in holistic psychotherapy, originally published in issue 89 - June 2003

The other day, during a visit to Mexico, I asked a woman oncologist how her patients responded to the alternative cancer therapy she was practising at her hospital. In all kinds of ways, she replied and added, "The believers among them heal better on the whole than the rest." She didn't mean religious beliefs, only faith in some higher values, in some higher reality that made them feel secure in a very insecure situation. "A kind of lifebelt for the soul," she said with a smile.

I knew she was right. This time I was a visitor at the alternative cancer clinic near Tijuana, but twenty-two years ago I had been there as a very sick patient, and, ever since, I've been interested in the role of faith in self-healing. The subject is age-old. The New Testament records many miraculous healings by Jesus, all of them benefiting people of colossal, unshakeable faith, which is promptly acknowledged with the oft-repeated words, "Be of good comfort: thy faith hath made thee whole". Great - but today we are offered miracle drugs rather than miracles, and hi-tech medicine seems to possess most of the power and the glory. Most, but not all.

Researchers into psychoneuroimmunology, or PNI, have found time and again that positive thinking, confidence, hope and trust trigger biochemical processes, which reinforce the immune system and thus the chances of recovery.

Those researchers don't explore what patients trust and believe in: I do. As a psychotherapist, I have been working with sick people for many years and had the opportunity to discover how they coped with the major shock of a life-threatening illness. Such an illness isn't just a crisis - it is also a wake-up call, forcing patients to look fully and openly at their existence, cope with the shadow of the unknown future, and answer some essential questions never considered before. Questions such as: "What is my life about?", "What is its goal and its meaning?", "What has guided me so far, what are my true values, now that the superficial ones have lost their validity?", "What do I believe in?" Transpersonal Psychology teaches that when we suffer some major blow, the correct question to ask is not "Why should this happen to me?" (the answer might well be, "Why shouldn't it?") but "What is life telling me through this event, what's the message behind it?" Very often the answer is that something is missing from the very centre of life - some conviction, guideline, faith, something of lasting value that no crisis can sweep away.

Clients of mine faced with these questions have answered them in different ways. Some re-discovered the faith they had been brought up in as children, but approached its teachings as adults. Others, uninterested in religion, put their faith in a universal all-embracing order, an ultimate reality, of which they were minute but significant components. They felt they belonged to something that they couldn't define precisely, but it made them feel safe, and that was sufficient. There were other solutions, too, but all of them shared a common factor: the understanding that the visible, tangible, material, body-centred world we live in only represents part of reality, and that there is another soul-centred spiritual reality which can be reached through faith and prayer. The two can't be separated. It seems possible that the non-dogmatic quest of today's seekers will lead to some ancient, oddly familiar inner landscape.

There is nothing airy-fairy about all this. Prayer as a tool of healing, along with the great power of prayers said for others, have long been subjects of medical research in the USA. One classic experiment was conducted in San Francisco by cardiologist Dr Randolph Byrd, involving 400 seriously ill heart patients. All 400 received the same degree of optimal medical care, but 200 of them also had volunteer groups, scattered all over the country, praying for them. This was a true double-blind randomised clinical trial, insofar as Dr Byrd was the only person to know which patients were being prayed for. And the members of the prayer groups only knew the patients' first names and brief case histories. At the end of the trial it transpired that the patients who had been prayed for had done much better than those in the control group. They improved faster, needed less medication, fewer medical interventions (including resuscitation) than the others, and fewer of them had died. And, just to exclude any suspicion that the human element had somehow infiltrated the hospital trial, some researchers set out to discover whether prayer had any influence on the germination of deliberately damaged seeds. It did: the prayed-for seeds sprouted faster and better than the ones in the distinctly non-human control group.

In other words, prayer, which can be seen as non-material energy transfusion, has a positive effect on all forms of life. In non-scientific terms, it is a mysterious, powerful energy, unlimited by space and time, which serves healing and life itself. Hence it serves self-healing, too. All it needs is trust in an invisible but very real dimension, a basic unity of which we are parts. It doesn't matter what we call it or how we imagine it; all we need to do is to accept its existence and allow it to act. We have nothing to lose, except perhaps our habitual view of the world, which until now might have been far too narrow.

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About Beata Bishop

Beata Bishop is a writer, lecturer and psychotherapist in private practice, working along Jungian and transpersonal lines. Her special interests include the role of the spiritual dimension in all kinds of healing, and the body-mind link in sickness and health. Her book, A Time to Heal (First Stone Publishing, 2010), describes her journey from life-threatening cancer to robust health using an unorthodox nutritional therapy. She can be contacted on e-mail: beatabishop@fastnet.co.uk.

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