Power of the Mind & Spirit

Nature of Healing
Intentionality versus Unconditionality

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Two important essays written by Teri O'Brien (yoorami@hotmail.com).

  1. The Nature of Healing
  2. Intentionality versus Unconditionality

The Nature of Healing

Healing is not easy to define, though people have an innate sense of what they mean by it. For the majority of Westerners, their notions are likely to be based on early experiences with childhood diseases and illnesses. If grandma's home remedies haven't worked in 24 hours or so, or if a fever or other symptoms develop that mum/dad feel are worrisome, the child is taken to the healer, most often in the West a person we call "Doctor", a general practitioner. Many honest GP's will tell you that what they prescribe for these situations will produce a healthy state in a week and that the patient would take seven days to recover if they did nothing! In short, unless challenged very seriously, our bodies have remarkable capacities of self-healing. This point is not appreciated as much as it might be.

The overall effect of these early experiences in our Western lives leads us to think that Health is a state that only external influences cause us to lose and that we can be returned to Health only by the action of different external influences.

Some tribal peoples hold very different views. For them, disease is due to malign spirits, which need removing or placating in some way. Such cultures may believe that a malicious human has caused this spiritual effect and that it will take a powerful shaman to counteract the malign influences, both human and spiritual. Members of other cultures may regard such beliefs as superstitious nonsense but for those in the culture that has such belief structures, the experiences are real enough. Again, note that Health is seen as something that can be lost and which may need help to regain.

Between these two extreme views of the nature of Health viz., due solely to either physical or spiritual influences, lie those therapies, often called "alternative therapies", that see Health as an outcome of interactions between one or more invisible bodies, and the physical body. These invisible bodies are often characterised by names such as Mental Body, Etheric Body, Emotional Body, and Spiritual Body. They are often represented as an interactive set of "energy fields"(see the beautiful illustrations in the works by Brennan 1988). Here it is usually asserted that when the fields are "well balanced", the physical expression of those fields will be a healthy Physical Body.

This appears to be a very old idea. Certainly elements of it are to be found in Chinese medicine, shiatsu, acupuncture, naturopathy, and homeopathy, and it underlies the old Latin dictum "mens sane in corpore sano", "a healthy mind in a healthy body". It is implicit in much of psychotherapy where debilitating dysfunction in the physical may be traced to mental or emotional disorders. Because psychotherapeutic drugs may often ameliorate such disorders, there is certainly a link between biochemistry of the body and mental/emotional states in some circumstances.

To summarise, there is a wealth of evidence, some anecdotal, some quite hard core, of a connection between the biochemistry of the body, biochemical effects of drugs, emotional influences and the Health of human beings. But what are we to make of the "energy fields" and "energy bodies" that form a key part of the way alternative therapies are often discussed and practised?

The use of the word "energy" in these discussions opens the door to a lot of confusion and even to acrimonious debate. The word is not being used in its normal physical sense to mean the "E" of E=mc2, or the energy of an electrical current, or the energy in a rolling billiard ball, or the potential energy of water at the top of a water fall. It most definitely does not have the units of power, like the energy rating of electrical appliances.

The whole matter is made even more difficult by the fact that many speak of these energies as "positive or negative", that there can be "blockages in energy flow" and that such blockages can be highly detrimental to the Health of the physical body. It is further stated that these blockages can be felt, released, manipulated, etc. by therapists skilled in "energy adjustments".

It is widely agreed by practitioners in these areas that negative emotions can influence one or more of the invisible bodies. I have elsewhere adopted the view (O'Brien 1989) that in this Universe, all physical entities have an etheric construct whose structure is responsible for the physical manifestation of the entity. For present purposes, I shall call the invisible energy body the etheric body, recognising that this does not correspond entirely with the beliefs of some other practitioners (see Brennan's 1988 views as an example).

Most practitioners in this area believe that negative emotions are stored as "negative energy" in what I am calling the etheric body, causing it to be out of balance. They say this lack of balance leads to chronic disease states in the physical body. A strong supporter of this view is Louise Hay, whose books on the relationships between chronic disease states, negative emotions and the use of affirmations to help heal those negative emotions are well known (see Hay 1988). Many practitioners, especially of homeopathy, go further than Ms. Hay since they argue that all disease, even what Western medicine would label clearly as disease due to infectious agents, is due to the effects of emotions on/in the etheric body, or physical influences encountered in earlier stages of life.

They point out that even the most contagious of infectious agents does not infect everyone; there is always resistance to infection in any population, and they argue that this resistance is developed best in those whose etheric bodies have no emotional energy problems that open the door to infection. Such practitioners often state that it is specifically the immune system which is affected by "negative emotions". Infection is therefore seen as the result of a deficient immune system, caused by the impacts of the emotions on it, among other negative influences to which the immune system is sensitive.

There is a growing body of quite hard-core scientific evidence that links the emotions to the strength of the immune system. A whole new field, psychoneuroimmunology, has developed around research in this area, and I am much indebted to Dr Stephen Kent of the Psychology Dept at LaTrobe University for leading me into this literature. The immune system responds to infection by launching an inflammatory response, primarily mediated by three cytokines. Two of these cytokines produce changes in sleep patterns and all three induce a fever response and influence eating and social behaviour, including induction of behavioural depression. So the idea that the immune system is linked to the emotions is no longer untenable.

Specific examples may help to clarify these beliefs. A person with a long-repressed anger over childhood experiences is thought to store this anger in that area of the etheric body that controls the functioning of the stomach and duodenum. If long continued, the effect will be to produce ulcers. If the anger is released, then it is argued that the ulcer will self-repair.

Sadness, especially over someone much loved, can be stored in that part of the etheric body that manages the heart. If not processed and released, the emotional stress leads to "heart pain", which can be ameliorated by nicotine. But taking nicotine is palliative, not curative, and eventually produces its own side effects, one of which may well be a heart attack. If the heart pain is released, the need for nicotine can be reduced making withdrawal from smoking easier.

We need a lot of research to examine the clinical basis of what has led to the idea that "energy" is involved in Healing and in Health. We also need to examine in people the clinical symptoms which have led to concepts such as "energy blockages", and to what happens from the point of view of clients and therapists when these "blockages" are "released", as in bodyworking or shiatsu.

It is my considered view that something which can be felt as warmth, tingling, or in a few cases as cold, both by the practitioner and the client, may be involved in "energy healing". I can produce and feel this effect myself and am aware of it in the hands of some others. I also know from personal experience that tissues can present with knots, cords, lumps, etc. in them which can be quite painful to the touch. They might well be called "fibrositis" or "muscles in spasm" in some cases if they were examined by traditional western GP's, or a sports physiotherapist.

Such tissue lumps can be urged to "let go" and can disappear instantly, often with quite profound benefits to the client. Sometimes this "letting go" is accompanied by severe emotional side-effects. At first sight, the magnitude of these side effects seems to be out of all proportion to what has been done physically with the patient. Not only does this suggest that there is indeed a connection between the presence of the lumps and knots and the emotions, it means that such a treatment must be carried out in an environment that allows this potential outcome to be handled carefully and sensitively. The strength of the reaction shown by some patients to these very simple procedures can include nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea, severe tiredness and lassitude, and a total inability to function in their normal duties for several hours or even for a day or so. Emotional outbursts with floods of tears that may be hard to control are also possibilities. Similar patterns of emotional release sometimes accompany shiatsu treatment, rebirthing sessions, deep connective-tissue massage and certain kinds of bodyworking.

So much for the down side; the up side is often very substantial improvement in the patients' sense of well-being. It would hardly be fair to call this process "healing" if that were not the case! In the specific case of "heart-nail removal", patients usually report a greater freedom to breathe deeply, reduction in need to smoke cigarettes and greater ease in giving up smoking

All masseurs, physiotherapists, and bodyworkers know that clients' bodies present with knots, cords, and sore spots. They also know that what is loosely called "tension" is associated with them and that particular people tend to "hold their tensions" in particular regions of the body. For some, perhaps a majority, it is the neck and shoulders, for others the back, or the scalp, or even the limbs. Traditional techniques of massage are directed at releasing these "tensions", a process often assisted by appropriate music and anything else that encourages relaxation. It is not at all uncommon to find that such a knotted area is intensely painful if pressed firmly and that it may release slowly or suddenly in the course of a massage. Shiatsu and related techniques often achieve rapid release of these "muscle tensions".

Unfortunately, it is a common experience of all such therapists that after the person has had their treatment and has been translated into a relaxed and less careworn state, they may well be back again next week with exactly the same pattern of tensions as the week before. Under these circumstances, the healing is temporary and it appears that environmental stress and/or return to traditional patterns of behaviour can reinstate the "energy blockages" quite quickly after they have "been removed." One is tempted to conclude that unless the emotional problem that may underlie the physical problem is addressed, it may be impossible to effect more than temporary change in the health of the client. If, as is believed by so many practitioners of alternative therapies, the real problem lies in the presence of "negative energies" in the etheric body, one might ask, "are there therapies that can free the etheric body of its negativity?" If so, one would expect that after such a treatment, the effect in the physical body would at least tend towards being long-lasting. One would hope to see genuine change in symptoms, altered behaviour, altered internal sense of well-being, and the eventual disappearance of that client from one's practice as they are "cured."

There do appear to be a host of therapies with the capacity to release "negative emotions" from the etheric body. Powerful therapies include bodyworking, rebirthing, reiki, shiatsu, acupuncture, deep connective-tissue massage, reflexology and all of these may be assisted by the right choice of aromatherapy products, homeopathy and naturopathy.

Any Western analysis of Healing using classical medical techniques is affected by our scientific and cultural attitudes towards the process. Thus, after it is established by an examination of the patient's vital signs that there is some deviation from the norm expected, an attempt will be made at diagnosis. Once a diagnosis has been made and hopefully confirmed, treatment will be recommended that should return the vital signs to normal. Sometimes this will be a straightforward process, but often it will involve rounds of treatment or treatment combinations, with a slow return to normality, or only a partial return to normality.

It is not clear to me what is actually involved in this process relative to what happens in some of the alternative therapies. Clearly the whole process is concentrated on the physical body and the effects of external factors, including infectious agents, upon it. However, where drugs are used, one cannot eliminate the possibility that some of their effects are similar to those produced by naturopathy, homeopathy or aromatherapy. The diagnostic skills of medicos are known to vary widely. Some seem to have an uncanny sense of what is "wrong" with a patient, including the ability to sense when the problem is emotional or due to mental disease. Such gifted diagnosticians seem to use tests and technology only to confirm what they already sense. Other medicos who lack these clinical skills often find this ability in others infuriating.

This whole Western system breeds specialists who concentrate on particular forms of illness and disease. In their hands it becomes increasingly likely that the problem will be reduced to a problem in the specifics of a particular component or system of the body. Thus, if a woman presents with a breast lump, the issues are focussed immediately upon what should be done about the lump. Biopsies, mammograms and scans later, the lump will have had its character determined and its future made clear. Benign or a threat, to be removed or not, those will be the decisions to be made.

In that environment, it is hard to hold the view that it is the woman as a whole that has the lump, not just the breast. Should the lump get to be a metastatic cancer, over time it will become clearer that it is the whole person that has the disease, not just the breast, as cancer will turn up in the bones and eventually in other organs. Having lost a wife this way, I am well aware of the steps.

Even when we have a localised infection, say to the thumb of the right hand, it is a fact that the whole person has the infection, not just the thumb. The whole of the immune system is involved, not just that of the thumb, and the effects may be dealt with in part by the circulatory system, nervous system, spleen, liver, kidneys, just to mention the most significant. In the absence of antibiotics to which the infection is susceptible, the whole body could easily fall prey to septicaemia.

Where disease is less clearly associated with an infectious agent, the boundary between modern Western medicine and some of the alternative therapies is narrower. Someone suffering from depression, or anxiety and perhaps associated panic attacks, will be encouraged by a good GP to seek a longer appointment to allow the time to get a feel for what has precipitated the situation. After the detailed case history has been taken, and the state of the patient has been classified, some biochemical tests may be used to eliminate or confirm an involvement of some of the genetic causes of these diseases. Usually, some combination of counselling, drug therapy, and encouragement to achieve a little each day will slowly stabilise the patient. Physical exhaustion, acute mental and emotional stress, and poor sleep performance are often the underlying causes and dealing with them by this combination of approaches is reasonably successful. The book "Falling Apart" gives a good overview of this situation.

Intentionality versus Unconditionality

Very few practitioners of traditional Western medicine or alternative therapies view healing as a process best achieved by Unconditionality; I am in a minority. Indeed, strong visualisation of healthy states, repetition of mantras and other affirmations, are the stuff of New Age alternative therapies as they were the stuff of old-fashioned traditional western medicine ("keep your chin up, dear; take a rest; have a holiday; you'll soon feel better", etc). The old style family doctors who treated me 50 years ago were masters of this approach. Modern occupational therapy and psychotherapy also rely heavily on building self-esteem by positive re-inforcement.

Naturally, I don't think there is anything terribly wrong with this approach; it is simply not taking into account the fact that none of us has any idea why we have any particular disability/disease/life-path crisis. Nor the slightest idea as to why the same circumstances have such widely varying effects on different individuals. For example, two people suffer paraplegia as a result of a car crash; one commits suicide, the other becomes an Olympic Para-atheletic Champion. One million children are immunised against diphtheria; one dies from complications, the rest of the million lead a life free of this dreadful child killer. A lot of parents have children with Down's Syndrome; some turn the experience into a life-path challenge that raises their Spirituality to new heights, others can't wait to institutionalise the child.

Not only can we not explain these differences in human response, we most certainly cannot judge them with any accuracy. There is no basis to blame the parent who decides to institutionalise a "defective child", or indeed one who decides to abort one, though the decisions will have profound consequences on all the parties involved.

When I have worked with "defective children" I have encountered within them, when I approached them with as much Unconditional Love as I can muster, a spiritual strength of enormous proportions. I have a sense that they are "accompanied" by a Spiritual Dimension we do not fully understand. It feels as if they are Full of Grace. I have met many parents who "know" that their very damaged child/adult exhibits unexpected "healing capacities" towards those who "come to visit". The hug of a Down's Syndrome child is so Unconditional it will bring tears of bliss to your eyes if you dare to experience it. Yet in many countries, diagnosis by amniocentesis of Down's in an unborn child is a legally accepted ground for abortionÉso little do we really understand.

It is quite difficult to detach from being intentional in a healing session, especially if one is working with a patient in a life-threatening situation, or with a child in pain. One's human inclination is to "see the person get better". But for all the reasons given above, we do not know what constitutes the best outcome for anyone about anything, no matter how much we think we know what would be "best" for someone else. A case in point is encountered often by GP's where an elderly patient living alone comes every few weeks to get treatment for an illness they do not have. Here, the person is lonely and knows no other way to get some social interaction that is not threatening. And so there is a long list of ongoing "problems" that are good enough to get that person one social encounter every so often. What would be the "best" outcome in that case? Many people keep themselves at least slightly ill to gain sympathy or visits.

What is one to make of the case of a child that became comatose after drowning in a pool, and who for years has been handled in that state at home by a loving mother. The life of this family is made very difficult by the presence of this almost dead young girl, and the mother meets any definition I know of a living saint. But this young girl causes healing to happen to visitors.

I grew up with a young brother with Down's syndrome. His presence in our family in the 1950's caused disruption, ostracising of my parents, and totally transformed my parents into fighters for the mentally ill. Nothing could have been a greater challenge to those simple working class people, and they rose to it with effects on the wider community that persist to this day.

It is my personal confrontation with these issues, that has developed an increasing awareness that we can never know what we should be aiming for in healing anything because we do not know why it is "sick". This has led me to believe that it is best to be unintentional; do the work, send the love, but detach from the outcome.


Brennan, B.A. 1988. Hands of Light. Bantam Books, N.Y.

Hay, L.L. 1988. Heal Your Body. Specialist Publications, Concord, Australia.

O'Brien, T.P. 1989. Relationship and Identity. Privately published paper, available from author for cost of postage and handling; PO Box 301, Kangaroo Ground. Vic 3097 Australia