I recently attended an event with a coach who challenged us to stop dreaming so much and start DOING something about our dreams. He likened our big dreams to an acorn that had the potential to become an oak tree, and in scenario after scenario, he gave us examples about how “law of attraction” based inaction could thwart the acorn’s potential to become the oak tree. Sure, we could visualize the acorn as an oak tree. We could affirm the oak tree’s potential. We could even adopt a gluten-free diet and drink more green juice, in hopes that our efforts will help the oak tree grow. But unless we plant the acorn in fertile soil, nurture it with water, sunlight, and patience, that acorn is never going to realize its potential.
To demonstrate his point, he challenged us to an unusual form of “meditation.” Instead of sitting still and trying to calm our thoughts, we were invited to lift our arms over our head and bring the mind into present time while scissoring our arms together until our arms and shoulders got so tired and sore that we were ready to scream. Then, when we were all in pain and yearning to quit, he pumped the music up louder and dared us to keep going. Giving us permission to modify our movement if needed, he pushed us to keep up the pace if at all possible, to grunt and growl and cheer each other on. By the end of the exercise, I’m sure many people felt a sense of accomplishment and patted themselves on the backs as an acknowledgment of their determination, commitment, and self-sacrifice in the face of pain. As I looked around the room, most people were grinning with the kind of relieved, endorphin-laden “We did it!” looks you see when people finish running marathons.
But that’s not how I felt. I may have been the only person in the room of pumped up people who felt…PISSED- not with the coach, but with myself.
No Pain, No Gain
Maybe it’s because I endured the pain of twenty years of self-sacrifice during medical school, residency, and my medical practice that I find myself resistant to anything that forces me to hurt myself, especially if it’s fueled by the kind of peer pressure you feel when a group is pushing each other to keep going, even when it hurts. After years of living by the “No pain, no gain” philosophy, these days, I’m much more inclined to feel attracted to Martha Beck’s mantra- “Play until it’s time to rest, then rest until it’s time to play.”
As children, we are all born with healthy souls, but sometimes life does a number on us. The traumas of childhood, the wounds of coming of age, the sacrifices we make for our careers and our families, the losses that eat away at our joy, and the fears we inherit from an anxious, panicked culture take their toll, and if you’re like many of us, by the time you reach adulthood, you’ve lost touch with the vital, healthy soul that still thrives and radiates within every single of one of us.
This was certainly true for me. After a happy childhood, my soul was still very alive and vital through my teen years, but my medical education changed all that. After a decade of difficult, sometimes abusive medical education, I felt disconnected from my soul. I know it never left me- souls never do- but at the time, I found it hard to let my soul guide my life. After ten more years working within a system that left me feeling like I was selling my soul for the job security and financial stability my career offered, I found myself coming home from work at the end of every day feeling like I had so much more to give my patients, but the system was keeping me from serving in the way my soul yearned to serve. What resulted was illness, depression, chronic anxiety, insomnia, divorce, and a feeling of disconnection from the calling that drew me to medicine in the first place.
The Masks We Wear
On the outside, it looked like I had the perfect life. Nobody guessed that my soul was getting buried deeper and deeper. I was so worried people could see how dark I had gotten without the light of my soul shining through unimpeded that I tried even harder to cover the darkness with a mask of perfection. The more worried I got that I would somehow blow my cover, the more pressure I put upon myself to keep the masks in place.
But those masks only furthered my disconnection from my soul. I had the Doctor Mask, which led me to climb up onto a pedestal and pretend to know it all. Then I had the Artist Mask, where I pretended to be deep and brooding and mysterious. And then there was the Mommy Mask and the Perfect Wife Mask, which led me to feel the pressure of baking the perfect cupcake or always wearing sexy lingerie in bed.
In 6 Stories To Make You Believe In The Power Of The Mind To Heal You, I shared with you evidence that the mind’s thoughts, beliefs, and feelings can heal- or harm- the body. The response to this post was so enthusiastic that I felt inspired to share more stories with you. The more verifiable scientific evidence you collect for your skeptical mind, the more you will prove to yourself that the mind really can heal the body.
As described by Dr. Bernie Siegel in Love, Medicine & Miracles, a chemotherapy regimen called “EPOH” was being studied in a research protocol for efficacy. Most of the study centers were reporting consistent results- some benefit from the chemotherapy, but nothing earth-shattering. But one study center was getting dramatically better results, so the research team investigated. What were they doing differently?
Turns out the doctor in the center with better results had renamed the chemotherapy regimen. Instead of telling his patients they were getting OPEH, he rearranged the letters and dosed them with HOPE.
Fake Surgery Heals Knees
In an article in The New England Journal of Medicine, Dr. Bruce Moseley, an orthopedic surgeon renowned for the knee surgeries he performed on people with debilitating knee pain, reported about a brilliant study he designed to prove that his signature knee surgery was more effective than others. The patients in one group of the study got Dr. Moseley’s famous surgery. The other group of patients underwent an elaborately crafted sham surgery, during which the patient was sedated, three incisions were made in the same location as those getting the real surgery, and the patient was shown a prerecorded tape of someone else’s surgery on the video monitor. Dr. Moseley even splashed water around to mimic the sound of the lavage procedure. Then he sewed the knee back up without actually doing anything.
As expected, one third of the patients getting the real surgery experienced resolution of their knee pain. But what really shocked the researchers was that those getting the sham surgery had the same result! In fact, at one point in the study, those getting the sham surgery were actually having less knee pain than those getting the real surgery, probably because they didn’t undergo the trauma of the surgery.
What did Dr. Moseley’s patients think about the study results? As one World War II veteran who benefited from Dr. Moseley’s placebo knee surgery said, “The surgery was two years ago and the knee has never bothered me since. It’s just like my other knee now.”
My book Mind Over Medicine is full of data scientifically proving that the mind can heal- or harm- the body. But data can be dry, and sometimes what resonates most deeply within our souls are stories. So sit back, grab a cup of tea, and let’s have story time. I’m going to tell you a few true stories that will demonstrate to you how powerfully the mind affects your physiology.
As reported by Bruno Klopfer in the Journal of Projective Techniques in 1957, Dr. West was treating Mr. Wright, who had an advanced cancer called lymphosarcoma. All treatments had failed, and time was running out. Mr. Wright’s neck, chest, abdomen, armpits, and groin were filled with tumors the size of oranges, his spleen and liver were enlarged, and his cancer was causing his chest to fill up with two quarts of milky fluid every day, which had to be drained in order for him to breathe. Dr. West didn’t expect him to last a week.
But Mr. Wright desperately wanted to live, and he hung his hope on a promising new drug called Krebiozen. He begged his doctor to treat him with the new drug, but the drug was only being offered in clinical trials to people who were believed to have at least three months left to live. Mr. Wright was too sick to qualify.
But Mr. Wright didn’t give up. Knowing the drug existed and believing the drug would be his miracle cure, he pestered his doc until Dr. West reluctantly gave in and injected him with Krebiozen on a Friday.
To his utter shock, the following Monday, Dr. West found his patient walking around out of bed. Mr. Wright’s “tumor masses had melted like snowballs on a hot stove” and were half their original size. Ten days after the first dose of Krebiozen, Mr. Wright left the hospital, apparently cancer free.
Mr. Wright was rockin’ and rollin,’ praising Krebiozen as a miracle drug for two months until the scientific literature began reporting that Krebiozen didn’t seem to be effective. Mr. Wright, who trusted what he read in the literature, fell into a deep depression, and his cancer came back.
This time, Dr. West, who genuinely wanted to help save his patient, decided to get sneaky. He told Mr. Wright—that some of the initial supplies of the drug had deteriorated during shipping, making them less effective, but that he scored a new batch of highly concentrated, ultra-pure Krebiozen, which he could give him. (Of course, this was a bold-faced lie.)
Dr. West then injected Mr. Wright with nothing but distilled water. And a seemingly miraculous thing happened—again. The tumors melted away, the fluid in his chest disappeared, and Mr. Wright was feeling great again for another two months.
Then the American Medical Association blew it by announcing that a nationwide study of Krebiozen proved that the drug was utterly worthless. This time, Mr. Wright lost all faith in his treatment. His cancer came right back, and he died two days later.
The Hexed Girls
As described by George Engel in the Annals of Internal Medicine, Baltimore Case Study Number 469861 was an African American woman born twenty-two years earlier on Friday the 13th in the Okefenokee Swamp near the Georgia-Florida border. She was the third of three girls delivered that day by a midwife who proclaimed that all three girls, born on such a fateful day, were hexed. The first, she announced, would die before her 16th birthday. The second would not survive her 21st. And the patient in question was told she would die before her 23rd birthday.
The first two girls died within one day of their 16th and 21st birthdays, respectively. The third woman, terrified that she would die on her 23rd birthday, showed up at the hospital the day before her birthday, hyperventilating. Soon afterwards, before she turned 23, she died, proving the midwife’s predictions correct.
As I wrote about in Part 1 of my blog series about M. Scott Peck’s book The Road Less Traveled, Are You Disciplined?, Dr. Peck teaches that the first step to emotional maturity and spiritual enlightenment is the ability to discipline oneself. Part of that discipline requires making peace with loss, because along with every rebirth comes death. As the former Cat Stevens sings, “To be what you must, you must give up what you are.”
Dr. Peck lists some of the deaths every mature adult must mourn:
The state of infancy, in which no external demands need to be responded to
The fantasy of omnipotence
The desire for total (including sexual) possession of one’s parents
The dependency of childhood
Distorted images of one’s parents
The omnipotentiality of adolescence
The “freedom” of uncommitment
The agility of youth
The sexual attractiveness and/or potency of youth
The fantasy of immortality
Authority over one’s children
Various forms of temporal power
The independence of physical health
And, ultimately, the self and life itself
The Things We Must Release
To become a doctor, I had to accept carrying a pager with me much of the time and this meant mourning the loss of my freedom, not to mention my sleep. To become a wife, I had to let go of the possibility of dating other men. To become a mother, I had to let go of the luxury of making decisions solely based on what I wanted, in order to accommodate the needs of my helpless, dependent newborn daughter. In order to become a professional writer, I had to let go of my identity as a practicing physician. I even chose to let go of my OB/GYN board certification and mourned that loss.