June 2013 we meet to discuss the topic of meditation and healing. Specifically, with all the current crop of magazines sporting outrageous claims of meditation being the key to health, healing everything from headaches to cancer we need to ask how much of a connection there really is.
On the one hand we can measure the effect of meditation on traditional stress markers such as the hormone cortisol or blood pressure. On the other hand, It is not ‘all in your head’, and proper science and medicine needs to be applied. Science means methodical research, in a professionally conducted manner – it does not mean evil corporate scientists trying to wrangle your money off you by concealing more natural cures, such as suggested in many pop magazines and websites [Example – Chinese plant found to wipe out cancer]
It would be really nice if there truly are miracle cures out there that can wipe out illnesses that have baffled science. But we should hope that when one is found, it is rigorously tested first. ‘Cures’ not rigourously tested have a name – Quack Cures. A good example is the Radithor craze of the early 1900’s when people believed that doses of radiation were actually good for you and began taking it, even to the point of it causing death [article]. The same era applauded Serge Voronoff for his now infamous ‘Monkey Gland’ surgery where monkey’s testicular tissue was grafted onto humans to promote general rejuvenation. [Article – makes an interesting short read]
Voronoff claimed effects such as general rejuvenation, increased sex drive, better memory, ability to work longer hours, possibly removing the need for glasses, and longer life. All on a ‘treatment’ that ranged from harmless to potentially very damaging. Do we know better now?
“What is the #1 most important key factor to achieving and maintaining optimum health, energy, longevity, vitality, and wellness? Is it genetics, diet, exercise, hydration, sleep, mindset, environment? Certainly all of these factors are very important, but in fact they are all secondary to something most doctors and lay-people alike completely overlook. Think about this: what is the most important thing in your life? … You are even doing it unconsciously right now while reading this. It’s something so crucial to your health, longevity and wellness that ceasing for even a few minutes results in certain death! The one and only undeniable answer is Breathing. To breathe is to live and without breath there can be no life.“
The above is a modern advert for Pranic Breathing – suggested as the number one most important factor for health!
We can’t blame them for doing a bit of PR. But This kind of advertising is little better than 19th century snake oil adverts. Yes, attention to breathing will likely affect your body in some positive ways, but lets keep it in proportion.
Can we really say, “Most people walk around on half-power their whole lives, chronically starved for oxygen, wide open to disease, shallow staccato chest-breathing their way to early graves…” in the modern era of enlightenment?
One factor we did not consider above, that is touched on in the video below, is the nocebo effect. This is the dark cousin to the placebo. Nocebo is the power of the mind to create illness, where the latter is a real and genuine power of the mind involved in healing. It is true that if we believe something makes us ill – then it might do so. Patients given a placebo in a bottle which includes a list of side effects, often go on to develop those symptoms – even in the case of placebo chemotherapy.
Could expectations be causing some of our illness? Maybe asking people who live near power lines to give a health history, suggests to them that they should have symptoms. Does your home WIFI signal cause you medical problems [article – Is Wifi Damaging Your Brain], your mobile phone damage your neurons, or local wind turbines cause a bad night’s sleep? Some years ago planes were thought to make people nauseous, and so many people were sick (I myself threw up 10 times in an 8 hour flight to Gambia as a kid, but now have no problems on a 12 hr flight to Hawaii). I met a Western monk who had spent years being a careful vegetarian. He swore that if he ate white rice (which is admittedly about as good for you as cardboard) he would pass blood with his faeces. Another blamed his poor meditation on the ‘non-mucas forming diet in the monastery’. Which goes to show – don’t ask monks for medical advice!
A Tidy Mind
After researching (well, Googling …. ) this topic for a week in preparation for our Cappuccino Club meeting, I still have not really found myself with a firm view point.
We do know that there is a real connection between our expectations, and our health – so much so that we might call psychosomatic illness ‘Expectational illness’ and the placebo ‘Expectational medicine’. Are reiki, chakra healing, qi kong etc… advanced forms of placebo? Or put another way, are they tapping into the mind’s self healing power of the body?
But we also do not want to be writing snake oil adverts based on our beliefs. Or suggesting cures and mental tonics based only on anecdotal evidence.
Further, even if an illness has a psychological cause, it does not mean that is is easily changed just by a shift in attitude [article: mother’s flu exposure increases risk of bi-polar disorder in offspring]. Psychological roots go deep; much deeper than our ego can affect. Over-linking emotional states and physical illness, makes it your own fault when you get sick! That means all of us will fail, as we all get old, sick and die.
For Buddhist meditation, we find the Buddha made very few claims of spiritual healing of the body. In fact, there is a lot of poor advice in the scriptures, such as the reliance the Bhikkhus are supposed to cherish on medicine made from urine.
But if you sit for any time, you will see just what a mess your own mind is. Wisdom arises by itself, and a desire grows to put things in order. This are testable directly by anyone, and for some, it will be immensely interesting and worthy of pursuit, irrespective of the effects on health. Many monks even continue to live in poor conditions just to further their meditation – one monk I know lives in Kanchanaburi province, and contracted Malaria twice – but has not moved from the area. And he is by no means atypical. The Buddha described the body as “a tumour, a disease, a dart”, but also said that health is the greatest gain. [Magandiya sutta]
But meditation is an end in itself, and does not need recourse to health benefits to make it worthwhile.
Following is a really excellent documentary on the power of the placebo and how to enhance it for some really startling results: