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Healing Prayer?

The Early Show takes a look at the power of prayer in its latest Living Longer Better series.

Recent studies indicate that prayer can improve lives, something that is hotly debated in the medical community.

Dr. Woodson Merrell, the executive director at Beth Israel's Center for Health and Healing in New York, tells The Early Show he is a strong advocate that prayer combined with modern medicine can help people heal.

A 1996 studied revealed that Merrell is not alone in his belief in the power of prayer. About 82 percent of Americans believe in it. But what does it mean when it comes to your health?

According to Merrell, more people are open-minded when considering treatment options for a variety of illnesses. He believes that patients are tired of the one-size-fits-all approach to medicine and are seeking a more personal approach. Now there are clinics and doctors that provide patients the broadest array of treatment options from both Western and Eastern medicine.

Merrell believes prayer is one of the most powerful tools we have. He says that prayer is beyond organized religion. Merrell says prayer or meditation is for an individual to recognize that they are part of a grander plan in the world — allowing them to tap into a different energy source. He says it's very similar to what he has found in Tibetan medicine, which focuses on mind science.

According to Merrell, often people are praying for new jobs or more money. This kind of prayer is different than what he's advocating. The prayers he refers to focus on the inner being and help people "find their emotional, spiritual center."

Prayer can be any number of things to people because every person has a different approach to their beliefs or non-beliefs in God or a higher power, according to Merrell. He suggests his patients get back in touch with a religion if they were affiliated with one when they were younger because it seems to help people. Merrell believes it gives them a starting point. He says that he does not expect all of his patients to believe in God, but he does feel prayer or meditation can help people in more ways than they expect.

For those who don't believe in God or a higher being, he suggests various Eastern exercises and meditation — emphasizing the idea of "stress reduction" versus calling it "prayer" because so many people seem to affiliate prayer with religion. Meditation, in his opinion, helps people filter out the regular environmental noise that surround us.

Merrell says prayer/meditation helps people to center on themselves and that helps the mind clear. When he encounters people who aren't ready for yoga or traditional methods of prayer, he teaches them breathing techniques, which is something everyone can do and do anywhere. He says that most patients find the breathing exercises relaxing, and later they are more willing to take on the idea of prayer or meditation.

Prayer or meditation, he finds, helps people reduce their stress. He has seen major life improvements in people, including fewer mood swings, lower hypertension, better sleep and even less stress-induced asthma. He says that even if the stress factors don't disappear, prayer/meditation helps people react differently to their daily stresses.

The doctor believes that lessening stress through prayer or meditation helps people live longer and healthier. He says studies show that people who pray for themselves tend to be happier, more peaceful and healthier than those who don't. Merrell says recent studies have revealed no negative effects of prayer and meditation.

Merrell wants to emphasize that prayer or meditation can help heal, but not necessarily cure.

What is the difference? He says curing restores the condition you previously enjoyed. Healing enables you to be more whole or "moving toward the light," which indicates that you can have an emotional or spiritual healing even if you are dying, according to Merrell.

Critics say studies to test the power of prayer trivialize the religion by putting God to the test.

They argue that we should not deal with the idea of "miracles" and instead focus on the facts and science. Many scientists also dismiss the studies, stating that many of them are too flawed to take seriously.

Merrell says that prayer or meditation is not about "positive thinking" necessarily. He does hopes prayer does give people the strength, focus and energy to deal with their illnesses in a realistic manner and hopefully that can lower stress, which can ultimately, in his opinion, help with the healing of a sick person.