Someone asked me today about my thoughts about the mystery of the placebo effect, which I wrote about at length in Mind Over Medicine and which scientists do not understand but have theories about. I thought some of you might be interested in what I wrote. In the original version of Mind Over Medicine, I defined the placebo effect as a combination of positive belief and the nurturing care of someone in a position of authority who we have been conditioned to respond to with better health. My point of view about placebos has changed over the years, and I’ve updated my thoughts in the new revised Mind Over Medicine.
I used to think it was that simple—positive belief + nurturing care—but now I think the placebo effect has much less to do with sugar pills or even positive belief and far more to do with consciousness. The presence of a true healer (whether that healer is a doctor, psychotherapist, acupuncturist, or energy the placebo effect as a combination of positive belief and the nurturing care of someone in a position of authority who we have been conditioned to respond to with better health.—may impact the patient in a way that causes symptom relief and, in some instances, actual cure. So while you might suggest that people can imbue any old sugar pill with positive belief, the impact of the healing presence may be far more of a factor than we previously recognized. As I say in Mind Over Medicine, it’s one the paradoxes of healing; you can heal yourself, and you can’t do it alone.
Make Anything A Placebo
With that disclaimer, one thing people can do on their own is use their intention to charge anything with healing. Researcher William Bengston, PhD, is doing this with water. He’s been curing cancer in mice with hands-on healing in his laboratory for thirty years, and now he’s using the same healing practice to study treating humans with charged water. But there’s no reason we can’t charge our own water with healing intention—or our green juice, our food, or any drug or supplement we take—to amplify its impact. Why not imbue everything we use for medicinal purposes with the consciousness of healing. As I’m writing in Sacred Medicine, everything can be Sacred Medicine, if we use it with sacred consciousness.
Here’s a practice you can try to make anything a placebo:
Ground into the earth and allow yourself to plug in deeply to the core of the earth. Then open a portal at the top of your head and invite healing energy to enter the top of your head. Let earth energy seep into your body through your feet, like you’re drinking it like a straw, then let cosmic energy drop into your body through the top of your head. Invite them to meet in the heart, where you can focus on something that evokes gratitude, like your child, your pet, a beloved, or even the healing you anticipate receiving. Imagine letting earth energy mix with cosmic energy in the heart, like coffee and cream swirling around, then offer a prayer, something like “Let us pray for that which is most right,” getting out of the way altogether and letting healing happen naturally. Allow this flow to move into your hands while you hold your water or whatever you might wish to charge with healing. It’s more surrender than intention. This is not a way to control healing but to allow it and receive it if it’s meant for you at a soul level. Assuming you’re not blocking it with the unconscious desire to stay sick (which is far more common than most people realize), healing can find its way to what is needed. Remember, healing and curing are not the same thing. You can be healed without being cured, and you can be cured without being healed. But when healing happens, cure becomes far more likely.
You Can Heal Yourself & You Can’t Heal Alone
While this is a potent do-it-yourself practice for invoking placebo benefits, healing is, almost by definition, relational. Even if we’re only in relationship with God (or whatever you call the great force of love that creates life and is within us all), healing is not a solely self-help practice. Healing and love are impossible to separate. So while it may sound simplistic, if you want to maximize the placebo effect for your own purposes, find an “other” to relate with, whether that is choosing a doctor or therapist or healer you love, practicing your healing arts with a trusted friend, or practicing devotion with whatever you call God/Goddess. The kind of love involved in healing is transpersonal since any good healer is just a conduit for the unconditional love of the Universe. In spite of what they teach us in medical school, it is not in any way unprofessional to love your patients. Quite the opposite. Love heals, and there’s loads of scientific data to support that statement.
Rituals Of Healing
The rituals of medicine are also powerful—the waiting rooms, the latex gloves, the surgical garb, the handwashing, the charts, the power we imbue doctors with. But you can create your own rituals of healing outside a doctor’s office or hospital. Create a home altar you associate with healing. Make tinctures and aromatherapy blends and anoint yourself during your healing meditations and prayers. Imbue your herbs, supplements, and pharmaceuticals when necessary with your own rituals—sage them, wave incense over them, pray to them. While rituals done to you seem to be more potent than those you do yourself, if you’re sincere about the way you engage in ritual, rather than performing the rituals in a rote fashion, rituals can put you into altered states that change your brain waves and make natural healing processes more accessible. This is true on a physiological level as well. Positive belief, meditation and prayer, ritual, and the loving presence of a true healer all relax the nervous system, taking us out of the chronic “fight or flight” that causes disease and activating the body’s natural self-healing mechanisms so the body can do what it does best- heal itself.
Prayer As Placebo
My favorite prayer for someone feeling anxiety about treatment or surgery is a practice of spiritual surrender. Ask your doctor if you can say a simple prayer together—”Let us pray for that which is most right.” This takes you out of feeling like you have to be in control (it relieves the doctor of that pressure to stay in control as well) and invites in Divine intervention. My mentor Rachel Naomi Remen, MD, once told me that a surgeon who was asked to pray this way said afterward, “I felt like Something Larger than me was using my hands, my mind, my skill to perform the most elegant, effortless surgery I had ever performed. And I knew that even if the patient had died, it would somehow have been ‘that which is most right.’ It took all the pressure off, and the outcome was the best I could have expected.”
Just think about it neurologically and physiologically, not to mention spiritually. If we have an abiding trust that we have just invoked “that which is most right,” there’s no reason to try to micromanage life. We can just let go of attachment to outcomes, surrender to what is, and trust that a benevolent presence is always here to help guide us into “that which is most right,” which, of course, is always a great mystery to our small human minds.
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