Should doctors pray with their patients?

The better question is how should doctors support their patients who use prayer, meditation, centering, and guided imagery to help heal?

Religion and medicine are two different domains, but that is not to say that prayer has no place in medicine.

Even the medical literature now by and large recognizes that religion has at the very least a hugely supportive role in health and healing. In ancient times, doctors and priests were the same but now the roles are usually distinct. In fact, the use of the title "healer" even raises legal questions concerning unlicensed practice of "medicine."

Nonetheless, physicians have an obligation to not only do no harm, but also support patient autonomy and promote health and healing (beneficence). They can meet these ethical obligations by supporting the patient's search for healing through prayer and religion.

A new article in the Washington Post, Doctors can be Doubters, adds the latest bit of punditry to the debate, arguing that it is confusing for doctors to get into the religious domain. As just one snippet:

I asked my neurosurgeon friend how he prays with patients who are Jewish, Muslim or Hindu. Does he end with the phrase about "our Lord, Jesus Christ"? He paused and then told me that it depends on the patient. I suspect that there is a selection bias and that he is more likely to offer prayers to Christian patients than others. He admits he feels uncomfortable offering a prayer in another faith or using the words "Allah," "Om" or "Shalom" because for him the prayer would not feel authentic.

This is very rigid and limited view of religion, and makes an odd argument. No one is suggesting that medical doctors and other health care providers ought to be coerced into adding a particular pass phrase from one specific religion or another in order to demonstrate religious empathy.

But of course, almost everyone has their own quirks, fantasies, predilections, preferences, dogmas, assertions, invocations, and legitimate striving for authenticity when it comes to religion. So far be it from to intrude to far into this very personal and highly charged domain. Except to say that I do no like poorly thought-out, "straw man" arguments. And that for those who want more thinking on the subject, I have written Healing at the Borderland of Medicine and Religion, as well as Friend of all Faiths.

There are many, many ways for medical caregivers to support patients' religious preferences, while remaining themselves in an entirely secular domain. This is where the medical literature is trying to encourage physicians, providing tools about how to create a neutral, yet powerfully supportive role that neither intrudes on the patient's perspective (thus, respecting autonomy) nor, coerces the physician religiously. There is a respectful balance. Of the many writers, Harold Keonig, MD of Duke has made an enormous contribution to this literature.

And now for an anecdote.

Last night, during meditation, I received information (call it a suggestion) that the single most important thing Obama could do as President for foreign policy, would be to take 20 minutes a day and sit in silence. Whether he recites Lord Jesus as he breathes in and Christ as he breathes out, practices TM, thinks world peace, surrounds the world in a bathing hug of pink and purple light, or just focuses on the inhalation and exhalation, this practice will take him deep into his spiritual interior where the answers to the load he is carrying will become clear.

I want to say, Brother Barack, do not do what is popular. Go within. Do what is right as it bubbles up from the interior.

I am reminded of the JFK Museum where I was very struck by framed yellowed sheets containing Kennedy's doodles during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Maybe it was some select foreign policy advisor whose back channel to the Russians saved the world from extinction; then again, maybe it was those doodles. Maybe right conduct came from the unconscious--not from the irrational overblown id, but from the source of wisdom beneath the tempest of thoughts.

As Pantajli writes in the yoga sutras, when the mind is clear, our true nature is revealed.

Actually, to enrich this practice, the idea that came to me was one day he would enter this meditation or contemplation using a technique from the Christian contemplative tradition; the next day, from an Islamic contemplative or meditative tradition; the next day, from Judaism; and the next day, from a Hindu tradition; and so on. Energetically, what this would do is to put the very powerful prayers of a very powerful person, one given the chi or energy of world leadership, and spread good karma, if you will, by placing that powerful intention into the good prayers of all peoples. It would truly be a universal practice, and energetically, this would spread universalism, tolerance, and all the values that Obama espouses.

Would it heal the world? Potentially. Would it offend someone's religious sensibility? Probably. These are judgments we have to make. I offer no orthodoxy to replace someone else's orthodoxy. I can only report what bubbles up from my own interior, so that in the spirit of sharing that wisdom, others can be encouraged to pursue their own inner journey, and to help learn to balance interior and exterior--the manifest and the unmanifest, the space of authenticity from the keenest spaces of perception, and the tangled threads of physical existence as they continually reveal the highest moral choices that cannot be avoided, that must be made as our shared and destined mandate.