As Bernie Siegel, M.D., notes in Love, Medicine and Miracles medical statistics can lead both doctors and patients to assume the worst, at a time when hope is essential. Though the statistical odds may be 99 to 1 against recovery from a particular severe illness, there is no way of knowing in advance which one of the next hundred people will be the survivor. Or which two, or three, or more.
Similarly, when a doctor gives a prognosis (predicted outcome) on any case of any kind, he or she is making what amounts to an educated guess. The truth is that no physician ever knows the course of a patient’s healing process in advance. It is the doctor’s responsibility to share the information he or she has, based on scientific research as well as personal experience. But all patients should remember that each case stands on its own, and its outcome is not dependent on something that happened elsewhere to other people, no matter how large the statistical sample and no matter how compelling the research documentation.
This applies whether we are talking about a surgeon forecasting the life-expectancy of a cancer patient or a chiropractor predicting the length of time a patient will need to recover from severe lower back pain. Patients should, if at all humanly possible, never assume that they are limited to the time-frame in a doctor’s prognosis. Otherwise, the prognosis becomes a straightjacket at best, a death sentence at worst.
But just as negative thinking can limit us, positive thinking can mobilize our healing powers. When this occurs, the effect goes beyond the facilitation of physical healing; an enhanced sense of personal purpose and meaning can emerge as a byproduct.
One of the pioneer works documenting the power of the mind in healing is Getting Well Again, a 1978 book by O. Carl Simonton, M.D., Stephanie Mathews-Simonton, and James Creighton. Dr. Simonton, a radiation oncologist, got his first inkling of the power of the mind in healing early in his career when, as a physician at Travis Air Force Base in California, he ran a research study of 152 cancer patients, and found that “a positive attitude toward treatment was a better predictor of response to treatment than was the severity of the disease.”
This led Simonton in a new direction, in which he combined visualization exercises and counseling with the standard radiation therapy, and found that many of his cancer patients achieved outcomes far better than expected.
After learning a progressive relaxation exercise, in which they mentally relaxed their bodies step by step, the patients visualized their cancers being overwhelmed by “tiny bullets of energy.” Then they pictured their weakened and dying cancer cells being flushed out through their livers and kidneys by their own white blood cells. Simonton’s stunning results generated great controversy within the medical profession, since they confounded the then-current conventional wisdom that cancer was something that “happens to people,” something over which patients can have little or no personal control.
Simonton described his initial results as follows: “In the last four years, we have treated 159 patients with a diagnosis of medically incurable malignancy. Sixty-three of the patients are alive, with an average survival time of 24.4 months since the diagnosis. Life expectancy for this group, based on national norms, is 12 months . . . With the patients in our study who have died, their average survival time was 20.3 months. In other words, the patients in our study who are alive have lived, on the average, two times longer than patients who received medical treatment alone. Even those patients in the study who have died still lived one and one-half times longer than the control group.”
After four years, the status of the patients still living was as follows:
Simonton reminds us to “keep in mind that 100 percent of these patients were considered medically incurable.”
These findings, which were published in the Medical Journal of Australia, stood the test of time. As detailed in Simonton’s 1992 book The Healing Journey, follow-up reports were obtained on 98 percent of the patients in the original study, and their survival times were twice those achieved at the world’s leading cancer centers.
Skeptics have argued that Simonton, a man whose reputation has been built on using the power of the mind to facilitate physical healing in cancer patients, may not qualify as a credible and unbiased observer. And Simonton himself admits that due to limited funds, his initial study lacked “the randomization, and a matched control population, necessary for maximum scientific credibility.”
At the time of Simonton’s initial studies, no scientifically air-tight research existed to demonstrate the powerful effect of the mind in surviving cancer. There is now such a study. In 1989 a controlled, randomized study on women with advanced breast cancer was published by researchers at Stanford and the University of California, Berkeley, led by Dr. David Spiegel of Stanford. They reported that rates of survival among those who received counseling were twice the national average, and their statistics matched Simonton’s percentages almost exactly. This study was conducted by researchers who did not expect that counseling would have any effect on cancer survival rates.
While Spiegel’s research utilized counseling rather than visualization, the results were comparable, and the central point had been made-our thoughts and emotions are intimately related to our health status.
In gradually increasing numbers, physicians and other health care providers have incorporated healing imagery into their work. Psychiatrist Gerald Epstein, author of Healing Visualizations: Creating Health Through Imagery, found that his patients, even those with physical illnesses, responded best when he prescribed imagery rather than medicine. This approach clearly goes far beyond the usual definitions of psychiatric practice, and the results Epstein describes in his book likewise transcend usual expectations.
Epstein gave a patient with warts an imagery exercise in which the man was to remove his face, turn it inside out, wash it in a crystal-clear, fresh-flowing mountain stream, hang it out to dry in the sun, and then turn it right side out and put it back on, with no warts remaining. This visualization was to be done four times a day for three minutes each time, for a period of three weeks. At the end of that time, the patient’s warts were gone.
People with glaucoma, mononucleosis, enlargement of the prostate gland and numerous other physical ailments experienced similarly impressive healings under Dr. Epstein’s guidance. A woman with a fractured bone in her wrist, one notorious for healing slowly, used an Epstein imagery exercise called “Weaving the Marrow,” in which she visualized the broken bone, and then pictured “white marrow carried in blue channels of lights flowing through the red bloodstream, seeing the arterioles flowing back and forth between the two ends, forming a woven net that brings the two ends closer.” She then visualized the two ends knitting together perfectly. Her orthopedist was stunned to discover that the bone had healed fully after three weeks. The usual healing time is three months.
Directed and Non-Directed Methods
How can you use this encouraging information in your own healing process? There are many books available on affirmations and visualization; You Can Heal Your Life by Louise Hay and Creative Visualization by Shakti Gawain are among the best known. Likewise, the books I’ve mentioned by Drs. Simonton and Epstein offer excellent visualization methods. (See Appendix A for sample visualization exercises).
But before beginning your own visualization work, there are some important questions to consider. First and foremost is this: Is it always appropriate and necessary to visualize a particular, detailed outcome? Most of the literature on the use of affirmations and visualization, including the Simonton and Epstein work we’ve just seen, assumes that specificity of imagery is all-important. But this may not be the only way to harness the powers of the mind for healing.
Larry Dossey, M.D., suggests that there are two main ways of doing affirmations and visualization-directed and non-directed. The directed approach is the one utilized by Simonton, Epstein, and most other recent writers on the subject.
With the directed method, you aim for maximum feasible specificity. If you are visualizing an end to your lower back pain, for example, you would learn as much as possible about the anatomy and physiology of the area, and then visualize in great detail the restoration of smooth gliding motion between the vertebrae, and the easy and relaxed stretching and contraction of the muscles. You might also picture the blood vessels in the area swiftly transporting toxins away for efficient elimination through the urinary system.
As Simonton’s work demonstrates, this directed approach can be very effective. But it is not the only way. You could also choose, as an alternative, to enter a deeply relaxed, meditative state, and then surrender to the will of God, with an affirmation such as “Thy will be done.” (A non-religious alternative could involve entering the relaxed state, and then affirming your oneness with all life, and asking Mother Nature to enfold you in her arms.) As part of a non-directed approach, you might also ask to be restored to health in order to have the opportunity to do works of service for others.
Dossey cites a set of highly unusual double-blind experiments in which directed and non-directed methods were used in an attempt to influence simple living systems. The researchers measured parameters like the growth rate of sprouts, after groups of directed and non-directed “prayer practitioners” attempted to influence these processes, each with their respective methods. The directed group was able to increase the growth rate, but the non-directed group was more than twice as effective. Dossey theorizes that directed strategies are most appropriate for extroverted, assertive people, while non-directed strategies are best for introverted, self-reflective individuals. He urges each person to find his or her own way, and not to feel compelled by “authorities” to follow any set of rules.
“Most of the books being written in this culture on how to visualize, image, and pray are being written by extroverts,” Dossey said when I interviewed him. “If you’re someone who is introverted by nature, and you don’t feel that comfortable telling God how to fix a problem, you’ve got a lot of scientific data on your side. There are people who, when they’re sick, would just as soon commit to the Absolute, and go up like a jungle cat, crawl into a cave, and wait to see what happens. On the other hand, if you are someone who really needs to be aggressive, specific and energetic, you’ve got data on your side too. Both approaches are successful.”
In determining which approach to pursue, there is an additional factor I think is worth considering. It may well be that not all people think alike. The developers of Neurolinguistic Programming hold that most people are primarily visual in their thought patterns, while others are mainly auditory, and still others orient their awareness most easily through the kinesthetic sense (touch). This theory makes a great deal of sense to me, since I am someone who is less visually oriented than most.
For those who do function primarily in a visual mode, specific directed visualization is made to order. But a substantial number of people, perhaps because they are in the auditory or kinesthetic minorities, find it more difficult to visualize specifically. For them, attempts to perform detailed visualizations can prove a source of great frustration.
Worst of all, if they are unaware that the non-directed method exists, and assume that specific visualization is the only game in town, they may decide to opt out of the process altogether, at potentially great cost to their health. Just as left-handed people should not be forced to become right-handed for the convenience of others, I feel that auditory, kinesthetic, and introverted people should be informed of alternatives to assertive, sight-oriented visualization methods.
Edgar Cayce on Visualization
The Edgar Cayce readings address the directed vs. non-directed question numerous times. Cayce recommended the use of specific visualization for one reason only-physical healing for oneself. He also frequently recommended healing prayer for others, seeing it as an act of value and service, but he emphasized that healing prayer for others should be done only in a non-directed fashion.
Cayce’s stance is consistent with the work of Simonton and Epstein. It is not in agreement, however, with methods in many of the popular books on visualization and affirmations, in which readers are advised to use these methods not only for healing themselves, but for visualizing everything from buying a fancy car to finding a spouse. The Cayce readings consider this to be a form of idolatry.
This is a highly charged, controversial topic in some circles, and this book is not the place to air out the debate in detail. I just wish to make it clear that while I recommend visualization exercises for self-healing purposes, I am not endorsing adaptations of the technique for less high-minded purposes.
Healing From a Distance: A Scientific Study on Healing Prayer
It will come as a surprise to many that a randomized, double-blind study, published in a mainstream medical journal, demonstrated that prayer had a profound, statistically significant healing effect on hospitalized heart patients. I first learned about this study at a talk by Larry Dossey. Here is Dossey’s description, from his book Meaning and Medicine:
“Dr. Randolph Byrd, a cardiologist and faculty member of the University of California Medical School at San Francisco, studied almost four hundred patients who were admitted to the coronary care unit of San Francisco General Hospital. Most of the patients had had or were suspected of having had a heart attack. They were divided roughly into two groups. Both receved state-of-the-art medical care; however, one group was prayed for as well. Their first names and brief sketches of their condition were given to various Protestant and Catholic prayer groups throughout the United States, who were asked to pray for them.
“This was a double blind study, meaning that neither the nurses, physicians, nor patients knew who was and who was not being prayed for. This meant that preferential care could not unconsciously be given by the health care professionals to one group; nor could the prayed-for group “try harder” to get well, knowing that they were being prayed for. Neither was one group sicker than the other; there were no statistical differences in the severity of illness between the two groups.
“When this meticulous study was over, the prayed-for group appeared to have been given some ‘miracle drug.’ They did better clinically in several ways:
(1) They were far less likely to develop congestive heart failure, a condition in which the lungs fill with fluid as a consequence of the failure of the heart to pump properly (eight compared to twenty patients).
(2) They were five times less likely to require antibiotics (three compared to sixteen patients), and three times less likely to need diuretics (five compared to fifteen patients).
(3) None of the prayed-for group required endotracheal intubation, in which an artificial “breathing tube” is inserted in the throat and attached to a mechanical ventilator, while twelve of the other group required mechanical ventilatory support.
(4) Fewer of the prayed-for group developed pneumonia (three compared to thirteen).
(5) Fewer of those prayed for experienced cardiopulmonary arrest requiring resuscitation (CPR; three compared to fourteen).
(6) None of the prayed-for group died, compared to three deaths among those not prayed for (this difference was not statistically significant).”
After describing Byrd’s amazing study, Dossey comments, “If the therapy being evaluated had been a new drug or surgical procedure, it would undoubtedly have been heralded as a medical breakthrough. Even a noted skeptic of “psychic healing,” Dr. William Nolen, author of The Making of a Surgeon, remarked [after reading this study] that perhaps physicians should be writing in their orders, “Pray for my patient three times a day.”
When I asked Dossey what conclusions he thought were justified by Byrd’s study, he said:
“At a bare minimum, the study is very strongly suggestive that prayer has a phenomenal effect, that it has a life-and-death influence on people, even when they do not know they are being prayed for. This is good old classic Caycean action at a distance.”
Conscious efforts to use the power of the mind as an aid to healing are an important part of the emerging holistic paradigm, perhaps the most important part. The true miracles of healing occur because a profound shift has occurred within the individual, not only on a physical level but much deeper. The most important aspects of healing have to do not only with the disappearance of physical symptoms, but with the transformation of mind and spirit. I believe that the degree to which a society recognizes this is an excellent marker for determining the state of its cultural evolution and advancement.