Walter Alexander Interviews Larry Dossey, MD
Larry Dossey, MD, whose latest book is The Power of Premonitions: How Knowing the Future Can Shape Our Lives (Dutton, 2009), has long been a champion of the reality of consciousness and power of intention in healing and medicine. Walter Alexander, contributing editor for LILIPOH, interviewed him during his book tour.
Walter Alexander: Your first book, Space, Time and Medicine, looked at the influence of worldview on matters of medicine and health, both for doctors and patients. My sense is that it showed that psychological/spiritual issues, belief systems about the cosmos and consciousness are not trivial and can literally make the difference between life and death. What have you been writing about since?
Larry Dossey: Now I’m on book number 11, and everything since the first has been an elaboration on the role of consciousness in spirituality and health. I continue to be fascinated by the subject.
WA: Has the audience evolved?
LD: It’s easier to talk about it now.
WA: But the vignette in The Power of Premonition that grabbed me more than others was the one about the epidemiologist Jeffrey S. Levin who challenged his compatriots at a major Eastern US hospital to admit to each other that they’d all had premonitions related to their patients. They’d all come into his hospital office, closed the door and privately confided to him about their experiences. But then when Levin spoke to them in a group and asked them to “come out of the closet”—they ran back into their separate closets and locked the doors. They couldn’t do it.
LD: I’ve dealt with that kind of event so many times over the years. I used to sanitize my material when I spoke to groups of doctors in medical schools and hospitals. Eventually, I got tired of holding back.
WA: Can you give you an example?
LD: Last fall I gave a lecture to hundreds of physicians and their spouses at a Harvard Medical School continuing education conference that meets every year for a solid week in Sante Fe, my hometown.
I decided I would talk about premonitions, the subject of this new book. I thought maybe this would really cook my goose for good—but the opposite happened. During the Q and A session, after kicking at me a bit, they started asking me to tell about my most amazing premonition. And I did—and then they opened up. One woman, a female internist, stood up and said, “I see numbers in dreams. I see the precise, exact laboratory values of my patients’ lab tests before I even order the test.” I think that’s pretty good! And then it went on from there. People said all these kinds of things that they usually have difficulty feeling safe talking about.
WA: What made this different?
LD: They knew that I would not put them down or humiliate or embarrass them. It was just another lesson to me that if we can find some sort of context in which honest dialogue can exist and people don’t feel threatened, I think most people would be astonished by the experiences people actually have that do not conform to the way we think that consciousness should work or can work. Taking them seriously would revolutionize modern neurophysiology. It’s as simple as that.
WA: How can we promote that shift?
LD: For some, the shift is here already. I conclude with an appendix with statements by a Nobel physicist and biologist and other scholars affirming their views on what many of them call the universal mind or the One Mind. These are not freshman physics students who have lost their way.
WA: Discussing their drug experiences.
LD: Exactly. These are people who are beyond that kind of criticism. They are Nobel laureates. They’re not looking for tenure. They have nothing to lose. When such outstanding scientists achieve that level, they will start to open up about their private ideas about consciousness. I’m talking about people like Schroedinger, Bohm, Jean. You can make a long list of these people. So, my point is that this recognition of an underlying universality that transcends our Western obsession with individuality is a point of view that has been arrived at by some of the keenest minds within hardcore science of the West who have ever lived.
But on the other hand, in the public forum the pretense is that there is no need for a shift. If you listen to the skeptics who grab the microphone and hog the media—you know, we’re all fools, we’re just lost in la-la land. I came across a Gallup survey that dates back to the late 90s. It asked academics and scholars at universities and colleges how they feel about ESP. Fifty-five percent of biological scientists say that ESP is either already a proven fact or is likely to be proven. As you go up the echelons in the arts and humanities, by the time you get to scholars, the believers are up to 75%. The skeptics who think we’re trying to take science and medicine back to the Dark Ages are in the minority now.
WA: The world is dividing in a rather shocking way now in this respect, don’t you think?
LD: I do. I often go to conferences where the goal is to bring together people from opposing views—and I’ve never seen it work. The other day I was trying to think—have I ever seen anyone who was a visceral militant opponent of parapsychology have their minds changed by the data. Walter, I’m not sure I have!
WA: But at the same time, Steiner and others like yourself are saying, “We want spiritual science, we don’t want hocus pocus.” Although it may be a science which tests itself with slightly different measures than the randomized clinical trial—a method by the way that can kill almost any effect that involves human interactions—it has to be science.
LD: I understand that.
WA: James Dyson, a physician I interviewed earlier insisted that ultimately it has to be a leap. You have to entertain certain thoughts in order to go there. There is no way you are going to prove something that is alive and not a dead fact.
LD: I used to think that if we did our homework in this field of consciousness, spirituality and science and medicine—we could eventually become so persuasive that we would just bring everybody over to this side. I gave up on that idea an awful long time ago. I have a perverse pleasure in collecting comments from diehard skeptics. And my favorite, a comment from a famous person in the field of engineering, went like this: “This is the sort of thing I wouldn’t believe, even if it were true.” They say just show me the evidence and I’ll make the right choices. But that’s a fiction.
WA: At the same time, I still believe we need to arm people against the struggle with their external and internal skeptics. For example, we need to support parents sending their young children to Waldorf schools to get them to turn off the TV and to stay away from all that destructive premature pushing of intellectual development. So that when the mother-in-law calls and says—“Cousin Joey’s kid is already multiplying and reading and he is only four”—they can feel confident in what they are doing and won’t fold when the critics appear.
LD: Absolutely. The great saints and mystics and healers in history did not sit around waiting around for the results of a randomized, controlled, double-blind trial. But we live in an era and culture where science is the most powerful metaphor. We are compelled to play the game. And actually, I do consider it kind of a game—and I enjoy playing it. I love science. The fact is, we do have science on our side. I think we can predict how the game is going to end. We’re going to win—and we’re going to win because we are speaking to the truths that are primordial and eternal. Ultimately, the randomized double-blind trials will show that what we contend actually happens in the real world. I think people are bamboozled by the skeptics. They hog the media!
WA: Getting back to the randomized controlled trial as a way of proving so called “paranormal” capacities, when I spoke with quantum physicist Arthur Zajonc, he pointed out that while statistics will tell you the likelihood, the odds, that a particular atomic particle will decay in the next year, it will never tell you which particle is going to decay when. If we use statistics, which is part of our scientific model, then we run into the whole question of individuality and the fact that the transformation of consciousness will not, does not occur en masse—it occurs only individually. Premonitions do not occur randomly. That doctor did not picture the lab values for a random patient at any old hospital—it was her patient that she was concerned about now.
WA: It’s the personal side to this question—the premonitions are always personal—unless it’s a huge event like 9/11.
LD: Okay—I think that’s one thing one needs to accept—that from the get-go you’re going to bump into paradox here. One day a premonition of 9/11 and the next day—about where the lost glasses are. There are all sorts of hypotheses that I find intriguing—among which is a Jungian claim that premonitions pop up because an archetype is activated. These primordial patterns that transcend culture and time are eternal in the human mind, and so when one of those is tweaked you have an experience of meaning and emotion and a dream shift from being ordinary to really vivid—realer than real—and in this context premonitions often occur. Jungians will claim that the most fundamental, elemental archetype or patterning consciousness is the mother/child relationship. You see this across all cultures, stories of mothers who know their child is in danger ahead of time and at a distance. Then there’s the dream about where you lost your glasses. Jungians will say that if you go to shamanic or pre-modern cultures, they always relied on clairvoyant premonitions to find lost animals and to know where to hunt, where to find shelter and so on.
WA: What thread joins most of the premonitions you’ve learned about?
LD: For starters, premonitions do happen in health care environments very commonly. I think that it helps to get back to what evolutionary biologists suggest that the purpose of premonitions serve. They are simply overwhelmingly about survival. The thinking of evolutionary biologists is that if a survival oriented organism—a human being—had just an edge on what was going to come up—even though it was just seconds in the future, this would give this organism an edge on staying alive and procreating—which is their evolutionary imperative.
WA: But then, talk to people who are in hospice. You already know that it’s not about survival.
LD: Or procreation.
WA: To me, science often cripples itself with this idea. I picture a steeply tilted pool table with one pocket—and no matter what you do with the balls they all go to that same pocket—which is labeled “survival.” It really no longer says anything. The proof of “fitness” is survival, and survival proves “fitness.” To what extent do you really go for that?
LD: Well, there are levels of explanation. You can structure your hypothesis about what purpose premonitions serve if you just want to do biology. That’s one level of analysis.
WA: And the physician’s career survives because she helps patients? Isn’t that the tilted pool table with the one pocket?
LD: But as people get older, it’s about ultimates and origins and destiny. I think as people get older it’s no wonder that their premonitions may shift in terms of quality and content. Intuitions of meeting other beings in near-death experiences are absolutely common in hospice settings and in settings where people are dying. Unfortunately, we haven’t made it safe for people to talk about those things. But the eye-popping, jaw-dropping premonitions still tend to be the mother who just knows the kid is about to fall off the swing or into the pool and runs out and pulls her out. Those are the ones that get talked about, and it creates a false impression about premonition content. To get further acceptance we do need more of the kinds of elegant studies that show how such capacities make a difference in the “real” world.
WA: My theme a recent series of interviews has not been so much about winning the battle of convincing people, but about what happens after people have been convinced—how their actions change. Do you have picture—if someone asked you, “All right, Larry, here’s $ 300 million or more—I’m not sure—whatever it takes—set up a hospital along guidelines that meet your standards for a truly human and humane medicine.” What’s going to be different?
LD: There are moral and ethical dimensions that can be built in—that recognize how consciousness operates universally and nonlocally. For example, you can revise the golden rule. The current take is really very individualistic—do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
WA: Yes. What if I love limburger cheese with liver? Poor you!
LD: Exactly. So you can transform that into “Honor others because in some sense they are you.” And that emphasizes the unitary connectedness that we all have—the universality. Can you build a healing institution on that kind of principle? I certainly think so. Actually, my physician friend Mitchell Krucoff had his life turned around when he went to India and visited a hospital that had been built by the wealth of Sai Baba, one of the highly respected Indian teachers. When he came back, he said, “We have to do this in the West.”
WA: What do they differently?
LD: Well, the wellspring of care isn’t evidence-based medicine. It isn’t algorithms. It isn’t drugs or surgical procedures alone, although they do a lot of that and they’re as good as anybody. It’s compassion. And it’s love, and it’s honoring the god within. In our hospitals, we practically do everything to prevent that from happening. For one thing, we underpay and undervalue our nurses. We have no selection criteria in hiring or in training that look at empathy and compassion and deep genuine caring—we don’t even have the tools for measuring them.
WA: The studies all show that first year medical students have better bedside manner than fourth year.
LD: We do everything we can to drive it out of the consciousness of medical students. The universal and feeling side of medicine can be emphasized. We have made a start. I’ll give you one example. When I wrote Healing Words back in ’93 only three of the nation’s 125 medical schools had any courses looking at the role of spirituality in health care. And now there are around 90. Now, everywhere I go people throw around this term “non-local mind” as if it’s been around forever. I happen to have coined that term in my book called Recovering the Soul in ’88. Just 15-20 years ago talking like that could have gotten you kicked off a medical staff. I’ve got a bunch of letters from doctors who were caught and kicked off staff for praying at the bedside of a patient. We’re making a difference, but we’ve got a long way to go. We don’t have a health care system. We have a disease reward system that is stacked against true caring—and against prevention, too.
WA: When I spoke to Dean Radin at IONS (Institute of Noetic Sciences) about psychic research, he said it could be the next trillion dollar industry. Commercialism in spirituality. Sends red flags up?
LD: I know.
WA: Remote viewing can be used for spying…
LD: …by good guys as well as bad.
WA: And then there’s the whole issue of beings. It may be the hardest one. In an era where the notion that we’re a delusion created by our brains or DNA has played rather well, the idea that the world is made up entirely of beings will surely get you run out of town. That’s the one where they have the straitjacket waiting—even for you, Larry.
LD: Well, here goes. Just give me the right size—give me one of those jackets that’s going to fit. Actually, I think there’s an even more fundamental question—it’s whether the beings have an external independent existence or whether the beings are projections of our personal or collective unconscious. I do not know how to answer that question. But as to whether there are beings—I would give a YES in capital letters for that.
WA: You are recognizing a boundary between what you understand and what you still have questions about reflects something I feel exuding from your book—and that is a sanity for which I am very grateful. You honor the opposing view. It’s so easy to ignore that step and feel that we’re the guys with the right answers. So let’s get back to commercialism—how do you deal with it yourself? I’m sorry for handing you such a vague question but it’s one that is right here in front of us with this economic crisis. People are profoundly troubled.
LD: It’s a central question. I try to tackle the ethical and moral issue of premonitions by using the Wall Street collapse in the fall of ‘08 as a focal point. I resurrected some excellent studies that had been done back in the 80s and 90s looking at the ability to use premonitions to forecast markets, particularly the silver futures market. There were several tests done—one was featured on the front page of the Wall Street Journal. It seemed that if the goal of the experiment had nobility and purity of purpose, it succeeded. For example, one tried to use premonitions to intuit the directions of the market and make enough profit to fund further research. Another intended to raise funds to build a Waldorf school. These things worked beautifully and in one, the psychic was correct on nine out of nine predictions about the silver futures market and made the intended $100K. They stopped the experiment and funded the research. Then the people involved, including some investors and Stanford Research Institute physicist Dr. Russel Targ went at it again purely for profit—and some personal animosity entered over who got what share, as well. Then the next 10 calls were all wrong and they lost their shirts. That kind of scenario has been played out in several other controlled studies. It seems as if there’s some built-in mechanism where higher powers don’t tolerate greed or hubris.
WA: How do you balance thy Will be done with premonitions that can be acted on?
LD: I think you need a starting position of humility that embodies thy Will be done, a sense that says that there is a wisdom out there greater than my own. And I want to rely on that, not my own stupidities. That sets the stage for whatever you do as far as using premonitions. And allied with that naturally comes compassion, empathy and great care. There do seem to be corrective mechanisms—as I just mentioned—where if you don’t do that—you better watch it, because this stuff can come back to haunt you. I mean that literally. Going back to prayer and healing intentions, there’s a tradition in Hawaii among the kahuna healers that’s actually called the death prayer. The shamans who use black magic curses, spells and so on understand this. And when they try to use this to harm somebody at a distance—and they sometimes are successful—they also have rituals to protect themselves from boomerang effects. The lore is that whatever you send out can circle around and come right back at you. Anthropologists have witnessed the death of shamans who did not do the protective rituals. Apparently, there are built-in ethical and moral guidelines that work to keep these things on track. In the same sense, what happened to the American economy is no secret. It’s greed that happened on Wall Street.
And greed enters into medicine, as well, even into alternative and complementary medicine. Then look at what’s been done to poor old yoga? One of the greatest spiritual paths ever developed probably, and now it’s all about weight loss and stress management.
WA: Do you have some key questions of your own that you’d love to know more about—and could you say a final word about your biggest fears and greatest reasons for hope?
LD: Actually, my own human concerns are for us as a species and for our planet—both of which are facing challenges that are new. I think we are in a precarious position, and our fate on this planet is going to be determined in the next few years. I would love to be around to see how it gets played out. My curiosity is just killing me—about what the creativity and sensitivity of this younger generation is going to bring to the problems. I’m not hopeful that the old codgers in my generation are up to it. I think most of them would ride it down to the bottom, always seeking some financial advantage or to game the system to come out on top. I’m ashamed of that. My question is what’s going to happen with the consciousness of the kids? And will there be a transformation in how we approach our planet—and if it occurs, is it going to occur in time? I hope that reincarnation does happen, because I want to come back and be part of it. But I take immortality as a given. I guess that’s my greatest piece of optimism.
WA: Thank you—It’s been a pleasure.