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Our Search for Religion and Spirituality

New Agers are returning to church -- but keeping meditation and yoga classes on their schedules.

A Need for Healing

The mind-body connection has been well documented, Koenig says. "Certainly our brains are wired to be connected to health, healing. Our central nervous system and hormone system are tightly regulated by our emotions. Those two systems directly connect to our central healing systems -- the immune and cardiovascular systems."

Our brain, therefore, is healing our body constantly, he explains. "It would seem that having faith is directly wired to the healing process. That is very scientifically acceptable. Is the brain connected to God? We have to be able perceive God in some way, so it has to be through the brain. It has to be some part of the brain that does that."

Indeed, our lives are also enriched by the New Age movement, says Tippett. Whereas we once dabbled in many religious and spiritual practices, "the new movement is moving beyond dabbling, bringing some pieces of traditions together -- but in way that's not so casual."

Numerous studies show that meditation lowers measurable markers of stress, like cortisol (a stress hormone) and blood pressure levels. "A lot of people who are profoundly Christian, or Jewish, are doing yoga and meditation. There's now something called 'Torah yoga,'" Tippett tells WebMD.

"These studies reflect the intention to connect body, mind, spirit," she says. "Meditation is one piece of 'spirit technology' that Buddhism has taken seriously, really refined over a long, long time. What's happening now is people with other traditions are looking at how Buddhism works -- rediscovering it, and adding it to their own practice."

A Need for Hope

But when should religion and spirituality enter into patient care?

Some 80% of patients want their doctors to talk to them about spiritual issues, says Jerome Groopman, MD, chief of experimental medicine at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, chairman of medicine at Harvard Medical School, and author of the book The Anatomy of Hope.

"Patients ask me to pray with them," Groopman tells WebMD. "On one hand, I want to reach out to them. But should a patient be exposed to a doctor's religious beliefs? It's not a simple question. The doctor's beliefs may or may not coincide with the patient's. If they come from different faiths, they have different attitudes. Even if they're from the same faith, they may have a different interpretation of the role of prayer."

In his book, he recalls one of his first patients -- a young woman with breast cancer. "She had a breast mass the size of a walnut. I come from a traditional Jewish background; I thought would befriend her, find out how a smart young woman could allow a tumor grow to this size without seeking medical attention."

Her story was more complicated than Groopman expected. "She was in an unhappy arranged marriage, having an affair with her boss -- who she had no illusion loved her -- but it was the only way to escape this marriage. Her interpretation of her breast cancer was that it was a punishment from God.

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