The Mystery of Healing: Journeys Through Alternative Medicine

The Mystery of Healing: Journeys Through Alternative Medicine

by Stephen A. Appelbaum

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781571290625
Publisher: Brookline Books, Incorporated
Publication date: 01/28/1999
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 6.16(w) x 8.94(h) x 0.69(d)

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Chapter One


The Mystery of Healing


I have been a healer, specifically a psychoanalyst, for over three decades. I know that people get healed — not all of them and not in every way, but healing is real and blessed. Still, on my desk as I write this is a brochure advertising a conference entitled "How Change Comes About in Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy." with all the years of experience with people's being healed, with all the panoply and superstructure of degrees, professional organizations, academic appointments, scientific studies, insurance support, and prestige accorded its practitioners, we are still having conferences to try to understand healing. And such a conference need not be restricted to psychological healing; it could just as well be held with respect to physical healing. It could be held in any one of the thousands of years of healing, and with respect to such healing interventions as incantations, eating animal entrails, bloodletting, laser beam surgery, and talking while flat on one's back on a couch. Such is the mystery of healing.

    Healing is mysterious not only because it comes about through so many modalities, but because its effects are so unpredictable: people get better who, according to medical experience, should not, and people succumb who should get better. Diseases follow varying courses as if they have a life of their own.


A young woman consulted me with complaints of intestinal pain from alleged endometriosis (inflammation of the lining of the uterus) which continued despite supposedly successful surgery, leaving her witha recommendation that she take painkilling drugs for as long as necessary.

    While she had been in the hospital, a psychiatrist had appeared in her room without her prior knowledge and permission, asked to be there by her physician, at the instigation of her mother. The psychiatrist, according to her, had only discussed her mother's complaints about her, in an apparent attempt to convince the patient that she needed psychiatric treatment. She and I had one interview, and then arranged to meet again for a battery of psychological tests. At that second meeting, four days later, I occupied myself with the test materials and with thinking about her in psychological rather than physical terms — and so she had to volunteer the information that she no longer had physical pain.

    How to understand this apparent healing? One way would be to consider what I had said, the content of the initial interview. That content included nothing apparently complicated or "deep." In addition to learning superficially about her physical symptoms, her occupation, her social life, I took up her use of the word "problems" with respect to herself. I told her that I tried never to use the word, nor its associated words such as "pathology," "sickness," and for that matter, "health." I figure people always do the best they can, and have reasons for whatever they choose to do. If we had all the information, we could see that their decisions made, in their own terms, a kind of sense. "Problems" exist only because they or others don't like what they choose, for social, religious, or legal reasons, and because the observer does not understand the purposes for the behavior. I suggested that a more helpful way might be to decide what one wanted for oneself, and then judge one's behavior according to whether it was likely to help achieve one's aims. It was her business after all to decide how she wanted to live, what in effect was "healthy" for her; neither I nor anyone else could be sure what made for another's happiness in the long run, or what life would be like if she did something different from creating her particular symptoms. As to her physical pain, I said that physical illness was a language; her pain was a way of saying something. If she could find the right words and feelings, she would not need the pain to speak for her.

    Another way to try to understand her apparent healing is what the fact of the interview meant to her regardless of its content. When the patient's mother called me to make an appointment for the patient, I asked that the patient call me about the appointment. So in contrast to the unexpected appearance of the psychiatrist in the hospital (engineered by her mother and surgeon), she made her own arrangements to meet with me in my comfortable office instead of a hospital room. She might have gotten the idea from our meeting that help was available. She might have liked me. As a young child she had lost her father, and may have sensed in me a replacement.


I have hardly exhausted the list of possible explanations of this seemingly miraculous healing. Even if I had, we would still be left with the mystery of how any meanings had stopped her nerves from sending to her brain signals which she reported as pain — or why she no longer reported and presumably experienced pain, whether or not pain-conducting nerves had anything to do with it. When one frees oneself from the well-worn pathways of the mind that accept the ways of healing unquestioningly, healing stands revealed as humbling, awesome, and mysterious. And so I set out on an odyssey to enjoy the awe, and perhaps dispel some of the mystery.

    I selected stops along the way with the understanding that healing was bigger and broader than conventional Western medicine. Healings have not only been brought about by "designated" doctors, now and certainly in the past. Healers have included Jesus, kings such as Edward the Confessor and Charles II who were said to possess a healing "royal touch," and less sung practitioners including countless grandmothers. I determined to study the unconventional, the extreme, as a means of understanding the less extreme. One learns much about how the body normally works through studying its pathology. For example, studying the delusions characteristic of what is considered to be severe mental illness and the apparent bizarreness of dreams sheds light on the less conscious aspect of the normal mind. By that token, learning how the laying on of hands, for example, works may contribute to the understanding of how penicillin and surgery work.

    I selected diverse healings to explore. If people can be healed through diverse (as well as seemingly improbable) procedures, then these procedures likely have elements in common, elements that might turn out to be the essence of healing.

    I expected to have a lot of fun on this odyssey. Whether the trip for the reader is a pleasure trip or a business trip depends on the passenger's interests and sensibilities. As a pleasure trip, the tour is a geographical, psychological, and vicariously experiential voyage to places, people, and activities not ordinarily available to most of us. How many of us are familiar with healing by way of surgical passes done by a surgeon in a trance guided by long-dead physicians? Healing by breaking the neck of a chicken and dropping its blood and other excreta on the patient's head? Healing by having matter apparently taken from the body through apparent incisions made by the bare hands of the surgeon?

    I travel with a romantic indulgence which decrees that anything might be true until proven false. I pack also a classical-scientific horror at the unsubstantiated which decrees that anything that might be true isn't until it has been shown to be so. (As Oscar Wilde said, the purpose of an open mind is occasionally to snap shut.) If this romantic-classical juxtaposition generates tension and improbability, then welcome to the ambiguous, perplexing, and endlessly fascinating world of healing.


One can consider all of life as a series of attempts to heal: people are engaged in healing whenever they try to find ways to move from disagreeable conditions to more agreeable ones. We try to heal ignorance through education, loneliness through sociability, hatred through love. Attempts to heal designated physical or psychological illnesses are but special instances of healing. Because such illnesses tend to be grave and frightening, they reveal much about all of life's healing efforts, and indeed much about life itself, what may seem on the surface like a routine trip to a healer for a routine symptom or examination is experienced, at least in the dim reaches of ourselves, as an issue of mortality and consequently of life's purpose.

    Zealots tend to believe in single causes for complex events — it is all the fault of the labor unions, the economy, sunspots. Healing efforts and philosophies can make the same error, substituting simple-mindedness for complexity. Thus, one gets sick from overwork and is healed by drinking chicken soup. Healing includes a technology, those healing measures taken designedly in order to bring about cure, such as the administering of a medicine. And healing includes a context, which refers to other factors in the healing situation of which one may or may not be aware. Notable among such factors is the suggestion-placebo effects of, for example, receiving a healing agent derived from gleaming machines and administered by an impressively trained person whom society has designated as one who can "make it better."

    Here is the case for open-mindedness with respect to unorthodox healing: nothing is known absolutely; we are all children of our time. Even science, so far the best way of making sense of the everyday world, claims only to approximate reality and stands ready to change its views as necessitated by new information.

    Anyway, we cannot afford to be closed-minded about healing unorthodoxy when healing orthodoxy has failed us in many ways. Our health care system has produced at best mixed results, at increasingly unbearable costs. Successes in the treatment of infections and accidents are counterbalanced by failure in the treatment and prevention of cancer, diabetes, arthritis, and other chronic degenerative diseases. Deleterious side effects from medicine and hospitalization, iatrogenic disease, and medical errors are scandalously prevalent. It makes sense to consider alternatives.

    One way to keep one's bearings amid the panoply of diverse healing procedures is to categorize them in terms of their emphasis on body, mind, and spirit. In modern Western medicine the body is the center of attention, as befits a culture saturated with Descartes's separation of mind from body which likens the body to a machine. According to that philosophy, ills of the body should be treated by actions on the body, such as surgery, radiation, or drugs.

    Mind refers to consciousness. We use mind to heal by thinking inspiring and encouraging thoughts. We also use consciousness to heal body and mind with meditation, as yogis did for thousands of years. Freud turned our attention to the unconscious as a source of healing by making the unconscious conscious.

    Spirit in healing is more tricky and elusive. In unorthodox healing circles, spirit is a fashionable concept and encourages feelings of elevation and trust. Spirit helps with the increasing condensation of religion and psychotherapy, as can be seen for example in pastoral counseling (probably more psychotherapy is done by pastors than by official psychotherapists). Spirit also refers to experiences we label rapture, glow, revelation, or epiphany, whether these accompany a healing or are experienced in church, when in love, or when communing with nature. Such moments are experienced as being apart from one's workaday self — as transcendent. Many people consider such experiences to be evidence of the Divine. Others consider them solely psychological. Many unorthodox healers see themselves as merely mediums, channels for the healing that comes from God. Whether psychological or supernatural, spirit plays a major role in many unorthodox healings.


In his presidential address to the American Psychical Society in 1896, William James likened the study of the paranormal to a search for a white crow. If one could just find a single white crow, one would have to think differently about crows. If only one fully substantiated instance of the paranormal could be found, he said, then our ideas about reality, about how we know things, about the nature of the universe are open to question.

    Orthodox healing practices can be considered black crows, for as anyone can see crows are black, and all are presumed to be that way (except for a few albinos). Instances of unorthodox healing, and the unorthodox version of reality in which such healing may be embedded, could be considered white crows, for they are believed to be impossibilities. To countenance a healing practice like the laying on of hands, for example, is to see a white crow.

    Physical, psychological, and spiritual contributions to healing, singly or in combination, make for a complex problem — and moreover one that requires a suspension of disbelief, as we now consider what for most modern Western persons are alien ideas and strange events. But to spur you on there is the beckoning seduction that if you look quickly, if the light is right, and if you are willing to believe your eyes, you just might see wheeling across the sky a white crow.

Table of Contents

CHAPTER ONE The Mystery of Healing1
CHAPTER TWO The Spirit Is Willing: Meetings with a Medium7
CHAPTER SIX But Faith In What? God's Healing Delegates85
CHAPTER SEVEN Dealing with a Dread Diagnosis109
CHAPTER NINE That Old Black Magic: Voodoo Healing in Haiti159

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