A Test of Faith

A controversial San Francisco study is spending taxpayers' money to see if Christian clergy, Indian medicine men, and Tibetan lamas can heal patients with AIDS and brain tumors

The air is dark and cold in Phillip Scott's Novato condo. Scott, a Native American healer and neurophysiologist, has just returned from lecturing a class taught by Dr. Andrew Weil, who is both touted and derided (depending on which camp you belong to) for promoting "integrative medicine," which incorporates spirituality into Western medicine.

It is raining heavily outside, and the lights and heat are turned off. Though he sits on a cream-colored carpet surrounded by a couch, a stereo system, CDs, and books on Native American history, Scott's living room has the temperature, dimness, and slight dampness of a remote cave.

When he is not traveling, the trim and fair-skinned Scott performs healing ceremonies in this room for the participants in Targ's distant healing studies. Each healing is intensely individual, and he begins by arranging an altar on the carpet in front of the couch. Carefully, he places items such as an abalone shell, a broken glass holding water, a candle, and an eagle feather on a bed of animal fur -- each of the objects symbolizing an element of earth, air, fire, or water.

The altar completed, Scott produces a sage leaf and lights it, the smoke billowing for a moment before it releases its heady, earthy scent. Scott reaches behind him, where various musical instruments are stored, and grabs a flat, circular drum. He begins drumming and chanting to summon the ancestral spirits, who will then offer him guidance on how to perform the healing.

From this point on, the ceremony can move in an infinite number of directions, depending on the needs of each patient. Scott says that for AIDS or brain tumor patients, he is often instructed to use the eagle feather like a scalpel to carve out the malignant tumor or disease. He often ends the ceremony with a smoking of the c'anupa wakan, or sacred pipe. This practice of "sending smoke" is akin to floating a visible prayer or healing to the patient, and it is often done for people in more "life-challenging situations."

Scott has been working with Targ since 1996, after meeting her at a medical conference. The results of the study are inconsequential to him, he says, but he agreed to join it because he couldn't refuse an opportunity to help someone dying of AIDS.

"I'm not attached to the research outcomes," he says, after concluding a nearly hourlong ceremony with a song played on a wooden flute. "Favorable results [of the study] would be a blessing for the Western population at large. I honor Elisabeth and the work she is doing because she is attempting to shift a deeply entrenched paradigm. We have had an evolution in Western medicine from looking only at the body, to looking at the mind-body connection. Now we are beginning to look at the mind-body-spirit connection.

"If the results are negative, that would not change my perception. I know it works, and if the results are negative it's not because of the modality -- it's because of the limitation of the research design. I will continue to practice my form of healing. The value of this research is that it seems to be a motion within the scientific community toward greater open-mindedness."

The sage embers continue to glow, the pungent smell swirling in the cool air. The rain pounds on the window.

"The Mystery [of the universe] is, by definition, incomprehensible, and one will never embrace it through rational understanding," Scott concludes. "One's relationship to the Source is based on faith and suspension of doubt. So skepticism will never lead to a relationship with the Mystery. There will always be detractors. But eventually, enough people will come to understand what native people have regarded as self-evident since the beginning of time -- that prayer is a powerful vehicle for healing."

In the 19th century, when modern medicine was in its development, doctors concerned themselves exclusively with the physical body. By the mid-20th century, the mind-body relationship became more important to doctors as evidence grew showing that the mind can sometimes affect how someone physically responds to an illness.

Now there is a fringe movement pushing for the integration of spirituality headed by the likes of Dr. Weil of the University of Arizona and Dr. Larry Dossey, executive editor of the medical journal Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine. Both are dismissed by some skeptics as off-the-map, New Age philosophers.

As much as Targ -- who supports the ideas of Weil and Dossey -- tries to distance herself from the controversy of religion, her research has the effect of pushing medicine toward embracing spirituality.

"If the study shows positive results, then perhaps spirituality issues are something that doctors should attend to," says Jerome Stone, the project manager of Targ's AIDS study. "Then it should be a component of care. And you know, some people might not even want it. I'm not advocating for the abdication of medicine -- I've been working within it for 20 years. But if there are more modalities that we can use to optimize someone's health, all the better."

Though a deep wariness remains, it is undeniable that mainstream medicine has begun to think about and question the role of spirituality in health care. Harvard Medical School hosted a symposium on spirituality and medicine in late 2001, and mainstream medical journals are publishing more articles on the subject. Two-thirds of medical schools now offer elective courses on medicine and religion.

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