“Healing is 80% spiritual and 20% medicine.” – Papa Henry Auwae, a po’okela, or master of Hawaiian herbal medicine.
Spiritual healing is at the root of all medical systems, and is also a core component of traditional healing methods.
This week, in a three-part series, I will take an in-depth look at the realm of spiritual healing and explore what it is.
One of the strongest examples in everyday life of the powers of spiritual medicine is the placebo effect; by itself it asks questions that can’t be readily answered within the framework of modern medicine.
Papa Henry Auwae, the Hawaiian healer quoted above, died a few years back at the age of 94. He had said that to attain his connection to spiritual dimension and spiritual healing, he meditated and prayed everyday in order that he could have a level, free mind.
He said the meditation and prayer work also aided him in maintaining his honesty and integrity, and feeling compassion and love towards others. By practicing these simple ways, he said it enabled him to develop a relationship with the universe that allowed him to access a power greater than himself.
Spiritual medicine is a healing modality that has existed since ancient times and is still a foundation of most traditional healing modalities, such as the medicine of Papa Henry Auwae. It is a form of medicine that is based on an attunement to higher states of consciousness; its use requires a different way of viewing primary reality. In traditional societies it is the way of the mystic and the shaman.
Ironically, some schools of western scientific thought look upon these types of people as delusional madmen.
This just goes to show that one societies mystical way of seeing is a threat to another societies paradigms. It was Sigmund Freud who sounded the death knell for the mystical experience when he proclaimed that it was “infantile helplessness” and “regression to primary narcissism.” Furthermore, he called religion a “universal obsessional neurosis.”
Thanks to the open-minded opinions of Dr. Freud, many psychiatrists have discounted religious and spiritual concerns in people’s lives – or brushed them off as a symptom of irrationality. According to a poll cited by psychiatrist Robert Turner of the University of California at San Francisco’s School of Medicine, 50% of all psychiatrists are atheists or agnostics, while at most only 5% of the general public is. And Dr. Turner says, “There’s been a long-standing practice for psychiatry to pathologize or ignore religious experience.”
So maybe the medical profession doesn’t know what to make of people who hear voices, or have psychic experiences, or claim they can talk to God, or think miracles are a part of life, but the American public, and people the world over don’t care. As Joan Borysenko puts it, “We are a nation of closet mystics.”
We want to believe. We want to believe that life has meaning, that there are no accidents, nor random events. We want to follow the words of Albert Einstein who said, “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”
The floodgates of spiritual acknowledgement have been opened full thrust, leaving Dr. Freud to spin in his grave a couple of rotations.
Many people turn to the spiritual dimension when faced with a life-threatening illness. It is at this point that many people prefer to see medicine’s spiritual side, to comprehend spiritual medicine, and to see if it is possible that a miracle may occur in their lives.
On the other hand, there are people who are not readily suffering from a life-threatening illness but instead are desirous to use the art of medicine and healing as a tool towards self-transformation.
Either way, both of these groups would be inspired by the words of the Arabic physician Ali Pul who once wrote, “The medicine of the soul is the medicine of the body.”
Indeed, the art of healing is first and foremost a spiritual endeavor. Take away all the trappings of technological medicine and what you are left with is a sacred trust between healer and healee.
Yet unfortunately, western medicine has no interest in taking away the trappings and prefers staying within the realm of scientific materialism. This has allowed practitioners of integrative medicine to gain a stronghold in the realm of spiritual medicine.
Spiritual medicine is a much more synergistic fit with holistic medicine, and some would say spiritual medicine is holistic medicine. Yet spiritual medicine is also about being inclusive, not exclusive. Thus, in a perfect world, there would be only one medicine and it would be a spiritually based medicine.
In a spiritually based medicine, one important understanding is that thoughts and consciousness play an important role in healing. This be seen with the placebo effect.
A couple of years ago I went to a Halloween party dressed as a pothead. The key to my costume was the bogus marijuana I was showing off. I had purchased some dried celery, bagged it up, and led everyone at the party to believe I had the real thing. I started rolling joints and passed it around. A lot of the people smoking commended me on my weed; a lot of people got high off the celery.
Now besides the fact it will create an interesting debate if I ever run for President (I knew that party would come back to haunt me, as who will believe my assertions that the stuff wasn’t real – can I just claim I didn’t inhale?), it also creates a lively discussion about placebos. How can people get high off dried celery?
I didn’t realize that I had done a placebo experiment, I was just having fun. But experiments in the placebo effect have used similar methodology.
In one study, participants were given a drink they were told contained alcohol. Even though there was no alcohol in it, many felt and acted drunk and even showed some of the physiological signs of intoxication.
In another study, patients with asthma who were given an inhaler containing only nebulized saltwater, but were told they were inhaling an irritant or allergen, displayed more problems with airway obstruction. When the same group was told the inhaler had a medicine to help asthma, their airways opened up.
The placebo effect always shows up in drug trials; often times the group taking the dummy pill, the placebo, have better results than the control group taking the drug.
And even when the control group taking the drug does better than the placebo group, the results may be explained by the placebo effect.
That’s because subjects of a drug trial often know which group they are in, as people generally will experience physical sensations and side effects from taking the medication. This will lead them to rightfully conclude that they are taking the drug and then have higher expectations that the medication will work. And people in the placebo group, by not having any side effects, will have fewer expectations that the medicine will work, thereby lowering their success.
It may be that the most active ingredient in a placebo is belief. As the Greek physician Galen noted, “He cures most successfully in whom the people have the most confidence.”
For every healer, how to instill that confidence is a matter of choice. Some choose to wear lab coats and stethoscopes, some choose to dress as clowns (think Patch Adams) and give items that they imbue with magic and charisma, some perform rituals and wear the costumes of their culture, and some dress plainly and appear very down to earth.
The practice of medicine is truly an interpretative art in which there is a place for both objectivity and subjectivity, just as there is an objective and subjective realm in our personal lives.
To be continued…Part 2 tomorrow.