Marilyn Schlitz: This is Dr. Larry Dossey, joining us to talk about the power of intention and to tell us a little bit from his own personal perspective about, you know, what intention means, but he starts with a definition. Intention: a thing intended, a purpose, aim, goal; as in wanting, willing and wishing. So, given that, what was the most significant personal experience in terms of intention for you?
Larry Dossey: Well, it goes it goes way back, Marilyn, to even before my professional life. I grew up in Central Texas on a very small sharecropper cotton farm and it was in very humble circumstances and I graduated from a high school which barely existed. We had about 20 or 30 kids in our class. And overnight, I wound up at the University of Texas with about 20 or 30 thousand kids and I developed a huge inferiority complex and I understood immediately that my education had been very meager. I had to make up all sorts of college courses, just to enroll in any kind of major and it was extraordinarily psychologically stressful for me. I got the shock of my life, however, when I discovered that I started making A's, nearly all A's, in almost all courses. I found out that through my willing, wanting, wishing and trying, that I could compete with practically anybody. I began to get academic scholarships all through the four years and I graduated with high honors and even gave the Valedictory Address to my graduating class. This was the most remarkable experience of the transformative powers of intention I think I'd ever had. I went gradually from a feeling of profound inferiority to a sense of real competence in my life. And I … it sounds almost trivial to recount something like that, but it was a tremendously inspiring experience for me in my life and, so, I look back on all of that with a kind of dazzled amazement. It was probably one of the most important periods in my entire life.
MS: And we all have benefited so much from that. You know, you've clearly continued on that trajectory to greatness. I am honored, honored to be with you as you have, in your own unfolding. That's an amazing story. I didn't know that before about you. Thank you for sharing that.
MS: So, then the next question is what scientific experiments or viewpoints have most affected your view of intention?
LD: Well, I… for me the most basic thing is whether or not we have it or not. And I think that has not been at all clear in the history of the biological sciences. You know, by the time we come out of medical school, we're pretty much dragoons of the body idea that free will and anything that you and I would call the fundamentals of consciousness even exist. I've spent a lot of years looking at the literature surrounding the scientific attitude toward free will and whether or not our intentions are meaningful or not or whether what we call free will is along, simply, for the ride and I must say, it is difficult to be a dedicated neurophysiologist these days and believe in free will. People go out of their way to disavow the notion of freedom of the will and any sort of meaningful intentionality. And I'll just give you one example from a recent article which I read, which quotes a National Institutes of Health researcher in Neurology. I've scribbled this down here to have it handy free will does not exist, but it's a perception. It's not a power or a driving force. People experience free will. They sense that they are free but the more you scrutinize it, the more you realize you don't have it. Well, your favorite philosophers, I say with tongue in cheek, Daniel Dennett is on the same page. Dennett says when we consider whether free will is an illusion or reality, we're looking into an abyss. What seems to confront us is a plunge into nihilism and despair.
So, you know, from this point of view, to talk about intention is just the wrong approach. We just should pack up and go home. That, that just really isn't a fit topic for legitimate scientific conversation. I'm almost amused by the irony and the paradox that lies in these kinds of positions, they seem to me to be almost on bordering on silly because what you have is a bunch of scientists who strenuously use their intentions to deny that intentionality is even existent. If people really believe this idea that there's no free will or intentionality to be taken seriously, one wonders why they would even go to the trouble of filling out grant requests or lobbying Congress for their next scientific 'grants' and projects and so on. Why even look at the menu at a restaurant if you don't have free will or some sort of power of intentionality. So, people's lives, who claim to take this view that intentionality is practically nothing, is just riven with paradoxes and contradictions. I think it's almost hypocritical to complain that intentionality doesn't exist in any meaningful way because one can't really carry that over into one's life. So, we were talking about, or you had asked me about the experiments that I find convincing. I've devoted many years to pursuing the healing literature which presupposes that people can use their benevolent and compassionate and loving wanting and willing and wishing to help someone else get well, even at a distance, when that individual doesn't even know this willing, wanting and wishing or intending is being directed toward them. Right now, Marilyn, we have about 22 major healing studies in humans, which operate at a distance, they're what we call remote, randomized, controlled clinical trials and over half of these studies give statistically significant results that show that something's happening. From my perspective in medicine, I think this is one of the most powerful windows onto the question of free will and intentionality that we have.
MS: So, what about this whole thing, the kind of popular movement now around the power of intention, The Secret, the Bleep. What do you think about what's going on there and how do we balance what we know from these scientific experiments with what's really kind of the popular culture fascination with this topic?
LD: Well, I think The Secret is hardly a secret. I think almost all of us affirm in our lives that there is something called a power of attraction, although I think that's an overblown phrase, that embodies the power of intentionality. But to me, this has been carried to almost a trivial level in the culture. Basically, The Secret, Rhonda Burns book and several books and movies even before that, such as What the Bleep and one even before that, back in 2000, was a runaway best seller book called the Prayer of Jabez, the subtitle: Breaking Through to the Blessed Life. Basically appeals, in some sense, to people's narcissism and sense of acquisitiveness. I think that this is a very low level approach to the power of intentionality, if I can just be blunt. Basically, it really does appeal to people in terms of getting what seem to be the big three things in most people's lives. Prosperity, good health and fulfilling relationships and there's some deeper levels of wanting and wishing and willing, that I think we should consider. One is whether or not all of these things that we say we want are good for us and, not only that, whether or not they're good for the environment and for the earth in general. I think many of the approaches embodied in The Secret and these other books and movies, really contain some subtle and harmful implications.
For example, if you're unable to pull off acquiring these sorts of things, the implication is that you're just somehow deficient and there's really a blamed victim kind of thread that runs through some of these approaches that's really been criticized by, I think, some pretty smart people, such as Ken Wilber. I think these books and movies such as The Secret, What the Bleep, begin with a profound understanding that consciousness matters in the world, we can use it for good or ill but I think that there's some messages that are far from complete and we ought to use a good deal of discernment before we become involved with some of these approaches.
MS: Thank you. So, in the context of that, you know, there's this emphasis on cultivating certain kinds of capacities or practices that would help us to, you know, manifest our intention at the highest level. What would you say about that?
LD: Well, the highest level is certainly what we should shoot at and I guess what is the highest level is different for each of us, but I can only say what it is for me. I believe in asking and willing, wanting, wishing, intending, for what I considered to be the highest good. I'm a dedicated intender. I begin my day every morning with a prayer of gratitude that here it is another day and I begin my day with giving thanks for all the things that we're blessed with in this society. But, when I was practicing internal medicine, I carried this into my office every morning. I would go to my office earlier than usual and have a prayer ceremony in solitude for patients I would be about to see in early morning hospital rounds and for the people who would be coming to my office that day. But, never once did I pray for somebody's cancer to go away or a heart attack to get well. My intending took the form of asking for the highest good for my patients and that “thy will be done” or something like that. It was an open ended, non-directed kind of prayer that certainly asked for something and intended a certain benevolent action but I felt compelled to leave the specific outcome of my requests up to a higher wisdom. So, for me the highest level of intentionality is… involves that kind of approach, where we do not try to micromanage the universe and tell nature and the rest of the world how to get along and how to behave. For me, it's almost arrogant not to do that and I would hate to substitute my puny awareness and knowledge for a higher wisdom that's available.
MS: Oh, I love your...you've written this that “it's what we give, not what we get that's the true test of our intentions.” I think that speaks well for who you are. And all --
LD: Well, bless you, Marilyn. Thank you.
MS: Yeah. Thank you. So, then, you know, IONS was created out of a collective intention. You know, the Apollo program was a way in which the whole country galvanized around getting to the moon and back and, you know, that's to me a really clear example of a collective intention. If we were gonna, today, really focus our collective intention on one thing, what would it be?
LD: Well, I think that's a crucial question. I would resort to the deathbed comment of one of the great novelists of the 20th Century, one of my heroes, Aldous Huxley. When he was dying from cancer, all of his friends and relatives were gathered around and someone asked him if he had any advice for the living and he said, yes, he said, “Be a little nicer to one another.” And, for me, this captures so much. I think that if we were to be able to follow through with that kind of advice the domain, the breadth of our intentions would spread to, not just what we want or even… it would not even be limited to our immediate circle of friends or family or even their community, it would involve everything, every living creature on earth, including the earth itself. This may sound grandiose, but I don’t think so, I think that we are at a pivotal junction in human history where we better get it right about what we want and how we permit what we want to affect how we behave on this earth, currently, or we may not have an earth to live in, shortly down the line. There are already several respected scientists, including James Lovelock, who say that we have already passed several tipping points toward environmental degradation and destruction beyond which we cannot return. I find this kind of thing very sobering. I don't think humans have ever been faced with the urgency that we're faced with now in terms of the ethics and morality of how we live our lives. So, for me, being nicer to each other, as Huxley recommended, involves extending our sense of interconnectedness to everything there is. And I think that this is an urgent thing for us all to consider.
MS: So, then in segueing from the intention into meaning, if we could, it seems like a natural progression as we think about where we put our intention. That is shaped by what has meaning for us in our lives and you've written, you know, your book Meaning in Medicine was so much a landmark book for many, many people and, you know, you continue to voice the importance of these kind of human qualities of meaning, our capacity to be meaning makers. I just wonder if you could talk a little bit about what is the role of meaning in healing and healthcare, in medicine. Why should we care about meaning?
LD: Well, we ought to care about it, Marilyn, because where healthcare and healing and health and illness are concerned, it really is a matter of life and death and we ignore the power of meaning at our own peril. Meaning is simply what something symbolizes or represents or stands for. Meaning is always individual. Every illness event, every health event conveys some sort of meaning. And meaning is not just a feeling or a sense that floats around in our brains, it's channeled into our bodies and probably effects every major organ system. Since I wrote Meaning in Medicine, the evidence for a role for meaning in health has just become an avalanche. You can hardly pick up a medical journal these days without finding something relevant to the topic.
One of the most dramatic examples, still, is one that surfaced about 20 years ago when people looked at the distribution of heart attack in the United States. As it turns out, there are more men in this country who have their first heart attack on Monday morning around nine o'clock than at any other time of the week and this has to do with going back to work. We know this because other surveys show that one of the best predictors of heart attack is the level in somebody's life of job dissatisfaction. So, what's the meaning of Monday? When it comes time to go back to work on Monday morning, what does that symbolize or stand for in our life and if it's a negative meaning, this ought to make bells and whistles go off. We ought to look at the meaning of our occupation, how we live our life, what we do for a living. As a kind of risk factor for heart disease, it's just as real as cholesterol, blood pressure, smoking and so on. There are cases on record where people have had an erroneous meaning for a medication. For example, when they have been given a placebo, but are told that they were given a penicillin tablet, to which they are allergic, people have been reported to go into anaphylactic shock. Just simply on a misperception of meaning. There are scores of examples of this sort that show that meaning is channeled into our bodies and that it can, indeed, literally make the difference in life and death. I think we cannot live our lives and be healthy without paying attention to meaning. I mean this not in a metaphorical sense, but literally.
MS: And it's not only that you would say it can have a detrimental or negative effect on us but, also, with the whole turn in positive psychology and… positive meanings can actually promote healing. Would you say that?
LD: Oh, I would say that. As a matter of fact, I wrote a chapter on the power of optimism, bringing positive meaning into our life in my latest book, The Extraordinary Healing Power of Ordinary Things. When I began to look at the power of positive meaning in the form of optimism, I was just sort of floored. I had not looked at that literature before. It's extensive. The health promotive power of optimism and positive attitudes in life is one of the most consistent bodies in clinical science I've ever seen. And I'm afraid it sort of does come down to a cliché, Marilyn, I mean we … you know, we say optimism is seeing the glass half full instead of half empty. That's right. The ability to take an optimistic appraisal of a situation correlates strongly with longevity and with a lower instance of illness. There's a huge area in social psychology looking at the predictive power of what one thinks about one's health and in many of these studies, the best predictor of longevity over the next decade was the answer that people gave to the simple question of what do you think about your health. If people gave a positive response to that, if their health conveyed a positive meaning, they were much more likely, statistically speaking, to be alive at the end of a decade. So, once again, meaning and the sense of positivity can make a huge difference in staying alive and being healthy.
MS: You've done --
LD: You're an optimist, aren't you? Marilyn?
MS: I am an optimist and it takes one to know one. [laughter] So what about this area of psychological hardiness? That seems to fit into this conversation.
LD: Yes, that was a landmark study back almost, well, over 20 years ago now, in which Suzanne Kobasa, a brilliant social psychologist from the University of Chicago, was asked to figure out why all these people were actually dropping dead on the job at AT&T headquarters in Chicago. This was one of the most stressful environments that you can imagine. There were so many people having heart attacks on the job that they even installed a coronary care unit in the building, so that people wouldn't have to travel to the hospital. They spent months investigating why some people were having so much trouble under these stressful conditions and why other seemed to be immune to the stress. They never got sick from it, they even thrived on it. They came up with something now that is a quite famous concept called psychological hardiness and they came up with something they called the three C's that made people immune to stress and the three C's are control, challenge and commitment. Control was the idea that you can control the situation and you don't have to let it control you. The challenge was a sort of bring it on attitude. You know, confront me with something that's really challenging. I can handle that. And another C, the final one, was commitment. It was a commitment not just to wanting to do an excellent job at work, it was a commitment to family, to community and even to country and, so, people who had these three C's, simply didn't get sick under this hugely stressful work situation. And they boiled the three C's down even farther to what they called the ability to make an optimistic appraisal of any situation, the ability to see the glass, again, as half full and not half empty. So, again, this is a dramatic example of the power of meaning to shape our lives and to even effect us at a life and death level.
MS: It's all so simple, really, isn't it? If we could just change our minds and yet it becomes the most difficult thing we can possibly do. [laughs] Old habits die hard I guess.
LD: Well, I know. But it's work like IONS is doing that continues to call to the attention of everybody the importance of these issues. I think it's really difficult for people to make a change unless they perceive the urgency that they should do it and that's where education and public awareness comes in and no organization has fulfilled this function in our culture better than IONS.
MS: And thank you for all the ways that you contribute to that. Well, Dr. Dossey, thank you so much for taking your time to share your meaning system with us.
LD: It's a pleasure and my best to you and to IONS.
MS: Lots of love to you, my friend. Talk to you soon. Thank you.