Transcendentalist philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson—a philosophical visionary more complete than any other this nation has produced—identified two components to attaining personal power. One is to “drill.” By this he meant training, rehearsal, education—the repeated application of a skill, over and over, the way a martial artist never stops working his routines. The other is “concentration.” By this he meant you must target the energies of your training at a narrowly fixed aim. A pilot rehearses landings over and over so that he can guide his plane to safety in any conditions. A marksman aims at a bull’s-eye. A dancer trains his or her body to respond to choreography and rhythm and to have second-nature command over fundamental movements.
But the cycle of drilling and concentration, Emerson wrote, is predicated by a more basic trait: physical health. Without physical health, nothing is possible. By “health” he did not mean the absence of disability but rather, the capacity to perform and act without chronic illness diverting your mind and will. If you lack wellness, your pursuit of corrective health will likely require almost all of your energies. This is a tough and unavoidable condition of life. This is why, from the healing ministry of Christ through the advent of the mental-healing movement in mid-nineteenth century New England, virtually every expression of a spiritually based path to self-realization and refinement has been predicated on recovery and health.
So let us ask plainly: Can positive-mind metaphysics cure illness? This is an urgent matter to many people. I wish I could offer a simple affirmative answer or reassurance. I cannot. No honest dealer can. But I can offer insight that brings some perspective to the matter and, I hope, maximizes your chances of wellness.
One of the most alluring and provocative passages in Scripture is from Psalm 82:6-7: “Ye are as gods but ye shall die as princes.” For generations, New Thoughters have embraced the first part and remained mute about the second. But you cannot have the fruit without the pit; the pit is the seed for new fruit, or expanded realization. It does not mean abrogating the metaphysical search to acknowledge that we operate within physical limitations. This fact is made overly complex by some New Thought writers, who make needlessly ponderous (and unverifiable) claims that we exit at the perfectly appointed moment. (Have they ever visited a cancer ward?) Or they claim that all health is subjected to one Mental Super Law, which is ours to wield like a potter‘s wheel. This is unsupportable. We exist under many laws and forces, including physical decline and eventual demise. “Ye shall die as princes”—we are potential princes, but we dwell in fragile and temporary palaces.
So, can positive-mind therapeutics help cure illness? Is there hope? Yes. Firstly, we live in an era of almost miraculous new findings in the field of placebo studies. Researchers from previous generations, even those who experienced the bounding growth of placebo science following World War II, could not have fathomed the surge of insights being experienced in the twenty-first century.
In July 2002, researchers in the New England Journal of Medicine reported the effectiveness of placebo surgery: participants from the Houston Veterans Affairs Medical Center received mock arthritic knee operations—involving just a benign incision—and experienced substantially similar rates of relief, and vastly reduced recovery time, as patients who received standard invasive arthritic knee surgery. (Researchers have speculated that the placebo response might be the only cause for reported relief in such operations.)
In 2010, Harvard Medical School researchers conducted an unprecedented “honest placebo” study in which an openly sham pill brought lasting relief to sufferers of Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Subjects knew they were receiving an inert substance, yet 59 percent reported relief (compared to 35 percent in the control group). What was happening? It may be that a patient’s belief in the very possibility of mental therapeutics is sufficient to enact the self-healing response.
Another Harvard Medical School study in 2014 reported that migraine sufferers experienced improved results from their prescriptions when they were supplied with positive information about a drug. This suggests that the placebo effect is always operative, working not only in conjunction with inert substances, but also affecting a patient‘s experience of traditional drugs and therapies.
In a 2007 study, Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer reported that hotel maids experienced weight loss and reduced blood pressure when taught to understand that their daily work routine had significant aerobic benefits. Once these facts were established, within four weeks subjects lost weight without changes to their work habits or personal lives, and compared to no changes in a control group.
In other studies by Langer (these the subject of later controversy but their results never fundamentally refuted) elderly subjects experienced physical and mental improvements–including increased strength and flexibility, recovered memory and cognitive function, and improved mood and vitality—when immersed in nostalgic settings filled with stimuli from their youth, including vintage books, music, and movies. Settings that evoked feelings of youth actually seemed to summon the reappearance of youthful traits, extending even to improved eyesight.
Clinicians writing in August 2016 in the research journal Nature Medicine reported that by stimulating the “reward system” in the brains of mice—in which a payoff is anticipated—they strengthened the animals’ immune responses. These findings suggest that even a generalized state of positive expectancy may have immunological benefits, and also identify a key link—reward anticipation—in the action of the placebo response.
The only commentators who truly have no idea what is happening in this field are those who are certain that they know what is happening. The one certainty we can derive from the new findings in placebo science is that the energies of the mind play a greater and more varied role in health than clinicians previously realized. The data stream allows us to document this phenomenon but not fully explain it. The common denominator in all placebo experiments is the presence of hopeful expectancy. Whether this arrives through moral support, credible encouragement, education, religious belief, anticipation of reward, or a combination, the arousal of expectancy is the catalyzing event. Belief is the fee of actualization.
Critics call belief a delusion. But they misunderstand what is occurring. A delusion is a limiting, diverting mind-set. If your belief does not deter you from using recognized medical means—in other words, if it does not proscribe your therapeutic possibilities—it cannot be called delusion. It is, rather, a complement. My recommendation is to use the best in allopathic medicine, pharmaceuticals, validated alternative therapies, and palliative care—along with prayer, meditation, visualization, and affirmation. Take a D-day approach: throw everything at the problem.
Traditional religion has long affirmed this outlook. In her 2009 study Medical Miracles, hematologist Jacalyn Duffin noted, “To my surprise as a doctor and a historian, I quickly learned that the Vatican does not and never did recognize healing miracles in people who eschew orthodox medicine to rely solely on faith.”
The early days of positive-mind metaphysics were dominated by health concerns. The quality of medical care in the nineteenth century was often abysmal, even by premodern standards, something I consider in my One Simple Idea. But many patients today continue to seek faith-based complements to medical treatment. What can positive-mind metaphysics offer? I replied to the following letter in July 2015:
I was just wondering if you had anything to help someone with a spinal cord injury. Have you ever used your methods to heal or improve a spinal cord injury?
Thank you for the information.
I’m a firm believer in taking an “all and everything” approach—combining prayer, affirmations, meditation, and the best in mainstream and (if appropriate) alternative medical care. For meditation my personal choice is Transcendental Meditation, which I highly recommend. You can locate a teacher online. For affirmations, I admire the work of French mind theorist Emile Coué. If you like, I can send you an info sheet on his method—which is very simple. Regarding prayer, I endorse a very ecumenical approach and work with varied traditions. I recommend the Divine Mercy devotion (you can find this online) and the Miraculous 54-Day Rosary Novena. (I can send you info or you can find it online.) And, of course, always use the best available medical care.
I think we live under many laws and forces—spiritual, physical, emotional, mental—and I would enlist all of these forces in pursuit of recovery. I wish you every good thing.
I will be saying a prayer for you tomorrow at 3 pm EST.
I share the perspective of Norman Cousins who wrote in Anatomy of an Illness in 1979: “Not every illness can be overcome. But many people allow illness to disfigure their lives more than it should. They cave in needlessly. They ignore and weaken whatever powers they have for standing erect.”
Now, I do not discount the possibility of extraordinary—even miraculous—episodes of recovery pertaining to the mind. And when I write, “mind” I use an open-ended definition. If the mind has extra-physical dimensions, if it goes beyond cognition and motor commands, which I argue that it does, then the mind opens onto vistas that the human search, while millennia old, has only begun to detect.
Since the mid-1960s, a handful of physicians and clinicians have been making an effort to document one of the most astounding yet verifiable facts in the field of cancer research: spontaneous remissions of terminal cases (See Spontaneous Regression of Cancer, T. C. Everson and W. H. Cole, W. B. Saunders, 1966).
In researching this question at the New York Academy of Medicine library, I found that about twenty such cases appear in world medical literature each year. Many cases, clinicians agree, are probably unreported. Based on estimated spontaneous regression rates worldwide—about one out of every one hundred thousand cases of cancer—it can be extrapolated from the number of new cancer cases reported annually in the United States that about fifteen episodes of spontaneous regression occur here each year.
There is no consensus around the causes of spontaneous remissions. Clinicians hypothesize that in rare cases patients may have been misdiagnosed, or patients may have been suffering from a severely impaired immune system, which, for reasons unknown, was restored to normal or exceptional functioning, perhaps due to the healing of an undetected virus or infection. Clinicians also acknowledge the possibility of mental therapeutics.
“Of all possible mechanisms cited for regression,” wrote G. B. Challis and H. J. Stam in the journal Acta Oncologica in 1990, “the psychological is the only category which is not clearly biological.” In surveying the extant literature, these researchers found that “only three authors are primarily responsible for reports of regressions by psychological means in the scientific literature”—and only one, Australian psychiatrist and researcher Ainslie Meares, “provided sufficient information to be able to include the cases in our tables.”
Ainslie Meares (1910–1986) presented a special case in point. In the 1970s and ’80s, Meares oversaw and published research on the practice of intensive meditation by terminally diagnosed cancer patients for whom traditional treatments, such as chemotherapy, had been discontinued; in other cases he employed intensive meditation (sometimes three hours a day) with patients who had “advanced cancer” but were still undergoing treatment. He documented notable therapeutic episodes in both groups.
In a 1980 report on seventy-three patients who had advanced cancer, Meares found that intensive meditation helped relieve pain, depression, and anxiety, and contributed to a more peaceful and dignified death when cases proved terminal. In addition, Meares wrote of cancer patients who undergo intensive meditation: “There is reason to expect a ten percent chance of quite remarkable slowing of the rate of growth of the tumor, and a ten percent chance of less marked but still significant slowing. The results indicate that patients with advanced cancer have a ten percent chance of regression of the growth.”
Meares also documented a small, but not isolated, number of cases where terminally diagnosed patients spontaneously regressed while following a protocol of intensive meditation. In an article in Australian Family Physician in March 1981, he described the case of a fifty-four-year-old, married woman with two grown children, who had recovered from breast cancer following meditation. When a mastectomy failed to check her cancer growth, the patient had refused chemotherapy and embarked on a program of anabolic steroid use and natural supplements (which Meares neither studied nor endorsed). She began to show healing after seeing Meares for meditation sessions each weekday for one month, using a technique of sitting still and experiencing her “essential being,” as he described it, without concentration of any kind.
(In general, Meares restricted his research to subjects who had seen him for at least twenty meditation sessions of one hour or more daily. Although he does not specify the length of time this fifty-four-year-old woman sat daily, some of his patients meditated up to three hours a day.) He wrote of her remission:
A single case, considered by itself, may not be very convincing. But if we consider the particular case in conjunction with other patients who have responded in similar fashion, the relationship of treatment and outcome becomes more clearly established. In other words, the present case is not an isolated incident. It is one of a series of cases of regression of cancer following intensive meditation in some of which the regression has been more complete than in others.
I was informally describing all this one evening in 2016 to a research pathologist at Harvard Medical School who specializes in breast cancer. I broached the topic with him of these rare but documented cases of spontaneous remission. Some cases, as noted, are evidently autoimmune related; but we also talked about the correlations with intensive meditation. The researcher’s response: “I have to be objective. But I have noticed that patients who display a positive attitude toward their treatment tend to do better. My colleagues have noticed this too. We don’t know why that is.”
It is difficult to write about this kind of subject, even inconclusively, because it tends to polarize. Readers with New Age sympathies are apt to seize upon such discussions as validation that mind-body medicine, perhaps coupled with some kind of detox program, represents the royal road to health. Meares said no such thing, and he was scrupulous, as any responsible researcher would be, not to plant false hopes. Yet there is an equal and opposite extreme, in which a physician or a skeptic (usually a journalist) approaches such a discussion without a sense of proportionality, assuming that any such talk is akin to propagating groundless “miracles” or wishful thinking. (Indeed, after I had noted the Harvard researcher’s remarks on social media, another research physician I know objected that we were entertaining rash conclusions; he missed our expressed intent to avoid conclusions or leading questions but rather to frame a discussion.)
I want to give the final word to Meares, because his tone and carefulness exhibit what is needed today in the body-mind-spirit and New Thought culture. He wrote this in “Cancer, Psychosomatic Illness, and Hysteria” in the Lancet of November 7, 1981:
In medicine we no longer expect to find a single cause for a disease; rather, we expect to find a multiplicity of factors, organic and psychological. It is not suggested that psychological reactions, either psychosomatic or hysterical, are a direct cause of cancer. But it seems likely that reactions resembling those of psychosomatic illness and conversion hysteria operate as causes of cancer, more so in some cases than in others, and that they operate in conjunction with the known chemical, viral, and radiational causes of the disease.
This is, to me, the kind of voice our society needs to cultivate generally—in politics, spirituality, and medicine. It is the voice that sustains a question, which is the vantage point from which all new understanding is gained.
Excerpted from the author’s new book Miracle Club—How Thoughts Become Reality, (Inner Traditions). Reprinted here with the permission of the publisher.