[One] method of harnessing the healing powers of the body in an indirect or passive way is the use of placebos. As commonly used a placebo is an inert substance, prepared to resemble an active drug and given to patients in experiments so as to have a basis of comparison for the results of that drug.
Usually the placebos have an effect as well, and the difference in degree between this effect and that of the drug is taken as a measure of the drug's effectiveness. For a drug to be marketed, it must outperform the placebo. If the investigators find no difference between real pills and placebos, they are led to believe that the physical medication was ineffective.
There is room for question here, however, because placebos can have powerful effects. In fact, a considerable part of the effect of most prescriptions is considered to be the placebo effect.
Placebo effects are real and powerful. Who is doing the healing when one takes a placebo? Why can't we just say to our minds, "repair this ailing body"? Why must we fool our minds in order to enlist our own powers of self-healing?
Placebos, hypnosis, autosuggestion, faith healing, visualization, positive thinking, bio-feedback are among the many ways we have learned to invoke these powers. Each can be seen as a device for changing mindsets, enabling us to move from an unhealthy to a healthy context.
The more we can learn about how to accomplish this mindfully and deliberately, rather than having to rely on these elaborate, indirect strategies, the more control we will gain over our own health.
The treatment of warts makes a graphic illustration of this self-healing power. Believed to be caused by viral invasion, warts qualify as a "real" physical condition: they are visible, touchable, and lasting. Yet they respond to hypnosis. As the biologist Lewis Thomas wrote, "warts can be made to go away by something that can only be called thinking or something like thinking ... It is one of the great mystifications of Science: warts can be ordered off the skin by hypnotic suggestion."
Despite the part we play in the healing that takes place under hypnosis, the process still feels somewhat passive. What are the ways we can work on our health more actively? First of all, we have to regain the control taken away by the experience of consulting an "expert" in a mindless fashion.
Ever since we relied on our mothers to make a bruised knee better with a Band-Aid and a kiss, we have held on to the assumption that someone out there, somewhere, can make us better.
Whenever we try to heal ourselves, and not abdicate this responsibility completely to doctors, each step is mindful. For example, we question destructive categories of disease (such as the image of cancer as a death sentence). We welcome new information, whether from our bodies or from books. We look at our illness from more than a single perspective (the medical one). We work on changing contexts, whether it is a stressful workplace or a depressing rather than a positive view of the hospital. Finally, the attempt to stay healthy rather than to be "made well" necessarily involves us with process rather than outcome.
Consider how you learned to ride a bike. Someone older and taller held on to the seat to keep you from falling, until you found your balance. Then, without your knowledge, that strong hand let go and you were on your own. You controlled the bicycle without even knowing it.
The same is true for all of us for most of our lives. We control our health, or the course of our diseases, without really knowing that we do. On the bike, however, at some point you realized that you were in control. Now may be the time to learn how to recognize and use our control over illness.
In a sense, we should be able to "take" a placebo instead of a pill. Conceiving of the mind and body as one means that wherever we put the mind, we may be able to put our bodies. For most of us, at present at least, the mind may have to be fooled to reach a healthy place. Once we learn to put it there consciously, the evidence suggests that the body may well follow.
Mindfulness, p.188, 189, 190, 191, 192, 193, 194, 195
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The Power of Context
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