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Mind and Spirit in Optimizing the Healing System

All the passages below are taken from the book “Spontaneous Healing---How to Discover and Embrace Your Body’s Natural Ability to Maintain and Heal Itself” by Andrew Weil, M.D. It was published in 1995.

THE LOGO OF THE American Holistic Medical Association is a staff with a single snake coiled about it, on which are superimposed three interlocking circles. The staff with the snake is the staff of Asklepios, the symbol of the medical profession, while the circles are meant to symbolize body, mind, and spirit, the three components of the whole person. It is a common belief of holistic doctors that conventional medicine attends only to the physical body, neglecting mind and spirit. I have written that mind often holds the key to unlocking spontaneous healing, and I have alluded to cultural beliefs about spiritual causes of illness, but when it comes to the specifics of these interactions, our ignorance is vast. We know little about the mind and the ways it affects the physical body, less about spirit, if that is even knowable in the usual sense of the word. Science, with its present materialistic bias, is not of much help, because it denies the possibility of non-physical causation of physical events. It is all very well to share a holistic philosophy of health and medicine, but what practical advice can a holistic doctor give to patients about optimizing healing potentials by mental and spiritual methods?

MIND

I would like you to consider four activities of the mind and ways they interact with the healing system. They are: belief, thought, mental imagery, and emotion.

Belief

Belief in healers, miracle shrines, and drugs is clearly the basis of placebo responses, which I regard as classic examples of spontaneous healing. Belief also strongly influences perception, determining what we see and what we do not see as we move through the world. Years ago I met a woman who was able to find four-leaf clovers in any clover patch. She liked to bet people that within a minute of being told to look, she could find a four-leaf clover, and she always won the bets. Never having found one, I was completely mystified by her ability. When I would look through patches of clover, I could search without success until my vision blurred, and whenever I thought I saw four leaves on one stem, they always turned out to belong to two different clovers. But after meeting this woman and watching her do it, something changed for me. I realized that the key to her success was her belief that in any clover patch there was a four-leaf clover waiting to be found. With that belief, there is a chance of finding it; without it there is none. After meeting her, I began to look again, and soon I started to find four-leaf clovers. Sometimes I found several in one patch, and sometimes I found five- and six-leaf clovers (though I do not know whether they bring any extra luck).

Recently I was teaching at a retreat center in Montana, an erstwhile hunting lodge with a large, clover-filled lawn. One afternoon when I had nothing to do I thought I would see what I could find. So I got down on the ground and began searching. A woman who was in the class came over and asked, “Did you lose something? Can I help you find it?”

“I’m looking for four-leaf clovers,” I replied.

“Really?” she said. “I always thought they were just a story. Don’t they just paste an extra leaf on the ones that come sealed in plastic?”

“No, they really exist,” I told her. “I’m sure there’s one here.”

She joined me on the lawn, and we both started looking. “It takes some concentration,” I explained, “but it’s good training for the eyes and brain, and there are worse ways to spend time.” Five minutes later, I found a six-leaf clover, then a four. My companion was amazed. “I’ve got a lot of clover on the lawn in front of my house,” she said. “I’m going to look as soon as I get back home.” She may start to find four-leaf clovers now that she believes they exist; before she would never even have looked.

Spontaneous healing is something like a four-leaf clover: lucky, mysterious, and sometimes elusive. If you do not believe it can occur, your chance of experiencing it will be small. I am interested in what people can do to increase belief in healing. One technique, recommended by many New Age therapists, is to repeat affirmations, such as “My body can heal itself,” or “I am filled with healing energy,” or “My gallstone is getting smaller and smaller.” I do not recommend this technique, because I have no evidence that it works. It assumes that verbal repetition can produce a change in belief structure, but my experience is that the kind of belief that shapes perception and impacts the healing system—gut-level belief, if you will-—is often at variance with what people say to themselves and others. I do not think I would have discovered my ability to find four-leaf clovers by repeating over and over, “I believe in four-leaf clovers.” That discovery came about suddenly when I saw reality differently through the eyes of another person. Now I can provide that experience for others, as I did for the woman on the lawn in Montana. Therefore the strategy I recommend is to seek out people who have experienced healing so that their reality can become your reality.

I remember a patient who came to me with a large fibroid tumor of the uterus, almost the size of a grapefruit. She was forty-nine years old, the wife of a gynaecologist. Her husband supported the opinion of her gynaecologist (his colleague), who told her she had to have a hysterectomy. The fibroid was causing her considerable discomfort, painful periods, and heavy menstrual bleeding. She did not want to have her uterus removed and came to see me in the hope that I would alert her to an alternative to surgery. I told her that since she was near menopause, she could simply try to wait until her estrogen levels declined; uterine fibroids feed on estrogen and usually shrink at menopause, sometimes completely. I recommended an herbal remedy (blue cohosh, Caulophyllum thallictroides), dietary changes to minimize intake of foods with estrogenic activity, aerobic exercise to reduce estrogen levels, and visualization therapy to bring mental influence to bear on the tumor. She was willing to try this program, but I could tell that her belief in the possibility of the tumor’s shrinking was not strong enough to counteract the message she got from the medical profession: that there was no way to avoid a hysterectomy.

Then I remembered that my next scheduled appointment was with a woman who had successfully dealt with an even larger—melon-sized—uterine fibroid a few years before. She had told me with great delight how she had proved her doctor wrong, avoided a hysterectomy, and now, having gone through menopause, was problem-free. I thought she would be willing to tell her story to the gynaecologist’s wife. With their permission, I introduced these two women to each other; but as it turned out, they already knew each other, since they were neighbors. My second patient, just by her presence, was able to do a much better job than I could to convince the first patient to refuse surgery. She did refuse the hysterectomy, followed the recommendations I gave her to control her symptoms, experienced menopause a year later, and now is symptom-free.

I can think of no better way to change belief in a manner that facilitates rather than obstructs healing than to seek out the company of persons who have experienced it. Four-leaf clovers did not exist in my reality until I met someone for whom they were an everyday occurrence. My world is now a bit richer for their presence. As more people come to believe in spontaneous healing, more people will experience it, and that will benefit everyone.

Thought

In Buddhist psychology, addiction to thought is seen as a major obstacle to enlightenment, because when our attention is focused on thought, we cannot experience reality. Thought takes us out of the here and now and into the past, into the future, and into fantasy-—all unreal realms. On a practical level, thoughts are the major source of anxiety, guilt, fear, and sadness-—emotions that probably obstruct healing and certainly cause us a great deal of anguish. It is not possible to stop thought, except perhaps in very advanced levels of mental training (hence the joke about a surefire way to make gold: put such-and-such ingredients into a pot, place it on a fire, and stir for thirty minutes while not thinking of the word “crocodile”), but it is possible to disengage attention from thought. One way to do that is to focus instead on sensations from the body. There is a great advantage to having bodies, according to Buddhist teaching, because they are anchored in the here and now while our minds are careering about the past and future. Whenever we pay attention to sensations in the body, attention is in present reality. In the last chapter I suggested a simple relaxation exercise before falling asleep based on alternately tensing and relaxing groups of muscles throughout the body. The reason it works to promote sleep when the mind is overactive is that it withdraws attention from thought and puts it into the here and now.

Another useful focus for attention is breath. I will have more to say about breathing in the latter part of this chapter. Here I will simply note that breath is the most natural object of meditation and generally a much safer focus for attention than thought. If you find yourself having disturbing thoughts, instead of trying to stop them, try simply moving your attention to your breath.

Besides withdrawing attention from thought in general, there is another strategy for managing unwanted thoughts: putting attention into their opposites. If you are plagued by recurrent, fearful thoughts of getting cancer, think about your immune system constantly weeding out abnormal cells, or when you eat broccoli or drink green tea or take antioxidant supplements, think about how you are strengthening your body’s defenses against cancer. Contradictory thoughts will cancel each other out, much as mirror-image sound waves cancel each other out in the new technology of noise elimination.

Meditation is a technique to break addiction to thought; in essence it is directed concentration. By sitting and trying to maintain the focus of concentration on some object-—the breath, body sensations, a visual image-—you learn to control attention and keep it in one place. Meditation practice is both simple and difficult: simple because the method is nothing more than maintaining focused attention, difficult because it requires changing lifelong habits of letting the mind wander where it will, especially into thoughts. Even when you learn to sit motionless for a half-hour and mostly keep your attention on your chosen object of meditation, you may not be able to extend that successful calming and focusing into the rest of your life. The real goal of meditation practice is to do it constantly, to practice meditation in action as you move through the world. Even if you are not ready to undertake that sort of training, you can begin by trying to move your attention to your body or your breath whenever you remember to do so, especially when you notice that your mind has been led away from the here and now by the endlessly fascinating process of thought.

Mental Imagery

The mind’s eye has a special relationship with the healing system. A great deal of the cerebral cortex is devoted to vision. Located at the back of the head, this part of the brain mostly occupies itself with processing of information from the retinas of the eyes, but when it disengages from that task and turns inward, one of the most important channels for mind/body communication becomes available.

All of us spend time watching images in the mind’s eye, but few of us have had training in this process-—for example, to make the images sharper, brighter, and more exact in detail-—and society places no value on it. In daydreaming we mostly attend to internal visual imagery. Our outward-directed culture regards daydreaming as an escape: children caught daydreaming in school are ordered to pay attention. (They are paying attention-—to inner visual reality instead of outer, consensus reality.) An elementary-school teacher once asked my advice about a problem child in her class, a boy who was the “worst” daydreamer she had ever encountered. “He’s just not there much of the time,” she told me. “But if I pester him too much to pay attention, he makes his temperature go up, and I have to send him to the school infirmary; from there he often gets sent home for the day even though nothing’s wrong with him.” She had not connected the facts that the worst daydreamer she had ever met was also the only child she knew who had voluntary control of body temperature and could create fever at will. My interpretation is that those talents go together, and I suggested she call the boy the “best” daydreamer she ever met, not the worst. When it is not occupied with processing information from the eyes, the visual cortex can connect mind and will with the controls of the autonomic nervous system. It can also elicit spontaneous healing.

Another occasion for focusing on mental imagery is sexual fantasy, also a powerful channel to the autonomic nervous system. Sexual fantasy involves an interplay of imagery, highly charged emotions, and body responses. If you have any doubts about the power of the mind to affect the body, pay attention to what happens to your body when you indulge in this experience! For most people, the pictorial content of sexual fantasy is intensely private; even long-time lovers may keep the details of this experience to themselves. Another quality is that it is quite fixed and resistant to change: the same movies play over and over, and it is very difficult to alter the content. I am sure that if we could take more control of this process and bring the same intensity of emotional charge to images of healing, we could activate the healing system at will and maybe access regenerative capacities that are latent in our genes.

Because most of the time we view mental images unconsciously and without purpose, I think it is useful to work with a therapist when trying to draw on their great potential power to elicit spontaneous healing, at least initially. Hypnotherapies, visualization therapists, and guided imagery therapists can help you learn methods to take advantage of the mind/body connection through the medium of visual imagination. Once you master a technique, you can then practice on your own. My experience is that images with emotional charge work best, as is the case in sexual fantasy. A good visualization therapist will explore with a client a range of possible images to discover which ones elicit the strongest emotional responses.

I have known many people to rid themselves of warts by visualizing their disappearance in one way or another. (Children are better at this than adults, and warts have high rates of spontaneous remission in children.) One man came to me with a large wart on his left hand. Doctors had burned it off more than once, but it had always re-grown. I told him to try surrounding it with white light for a few minutes each day, once on falling asleep and again on waking. He did this faithfully for a month without any change in the wart. Then I sent him to a visualization therapist, who discovered in the initial interview that he had a great fascination with steam shovels. Steam shovels and other earth-moving equipment had thrilled him ever since he was a small child. She suggested that he visualize a steam shovel scraping away at the wart each morning and night, and when he made that change he got results in a week. After two weeks the wart had shrunk to almost nothing, and a short time later it was gone, never to return.

Earlier in this book (see this page) I described the case of a young man whose immune system was destroying his red blood cells and platelets. He had been through years of suppressive therapy with prednisone and other immunosuppressive drugs and had undergone splenectomy as a method of symptomatic management, all without success. I was able to help him design a healthy lifestyle and guide him toward natural interventions that eventually allowed his autoimmunity to subside. One of the interventions was visualization therapy with a trained professional, but he had no success in working with her at first. “I like her,” he told me when he called in from another city, “but she keeps giving me violent images that I have problems with, like asking me to use laser beams against the white cells that are causing the reactions. I feel I’ve had enough medical violence done to my body, and I need a more peaceful image.” Eventually he came up with one that worked for him: he imagined other white cells (the suppressor T cells) as motorcycle policemen who escorted his red cells and platelets in sidecars to protect them from aggressive white cells as they moved through his bloodstream. This visualization exercise worked brilliantly for him and became a central part of a program that put his disease into long-term remission.

You can practice using mental imagery to influence your body by daydreaming more consciously and purposefully and by paying attention to the emotional responses that particular images elicit. Try using visualizations to speed up the healing of wounds, sore throats, and other common ailments. Then if you ever have to mobilize your healing resources to manage a serious illness, you will have a good headstart.

Emotions

Many counselors and advocates of meditation advise people to gain control of their emotions-—to even out the ups and downs of mood swings and cultivate evenness of temperament. That advice may be useful for some people. When I see patients whose lives seem out of balance, whose energy levels fluctuate wildly, who eat erratically and have unstable relationships, I usually recommend breathing exercises and meditation as methods to restore balance. But when I look at the role of emotions in facilitating spontaneous healing, I think it may be more useful to encourage sick people to cultivate passion. I have mentioned healing responses that occur after falling in love or expressing anger. Whether the emotion felt is positive or negative seems not to matter; rather it is the intensity of the feeling that gives it power to affect body function. More than negative feelings, apathy may be the major emotional obstacle to spontaneous healing.

What about depression, which is now epidemic in our culture? I experience depression as a state of high potential energy, wound up and turned inward on itself. If that energy can be accessed and moved, it can be a catalyst for spontaneous healing. The psychiatric profession treats depression almost exclusively by prescribing drugs, especially a new class of antidepressants called serotonin reuptake inhibitors, of which Prozac is a prototype. The pharmaceutical industry markets these drugs aggressively and successfully, partly by convincing people that they cannot know their full human potential unless they use them. Recently a woman friend of mine in her early fifties went for a routine checkup to her gynaecologist, also a woman. After the examination was over, the gynaecologist asked her, “Well, do you want me to write you a prescription for Prozac?” “Why should I want to take Prozac?” my friend replied. “I’m not depressed.” “How would you know?” asked the doctor.

People who take Prozac and its relatives often say they simply feel everything less intensely, including their depression. Drug treatment has its place as one option for treating severe mood disturbances, but I worry about such enthusiasm for drugs that damp down passion, because I see intensity of feeling as a key to activating the healing system. Moreover, our capacity to feel joy may be the same as our capacity to feel despair, so that a depressed person may be more capable of experiencing ecstasy than someone who is always on an even keel or someone on Prozac. One technique for managing the down periods is to pretend to feel otherwise. Rabbi Nachman of Bratislav, a great Jewish mystic of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, who regularly experienced ecstasy on solitary wanderings through forests, recommended it to his followers: “Always be joyful, no matter what you are,” he taught. “With happiness, you can give a person life.” Every day, he further stressed, we must deliberately induce in ourselves a buoyant, exuberant attitude toward life; in this manner, we will gradually become receptive to the subtle mysteries around us. And, if no inspired moments seem to come, we should act as though we have them anyway, he advised. “If you have no enthusiasm, put on a front. Act enthusiastic, and the feeling will become genuine.”

SPIRIT

Have you ever wondered why distilled alcoholic beverages are called “spirits”? The original usage was in the phrase “spirits of wine,” an old name for brandy. (“Brandy”-—a short form of “brandywine”-—comes from a Dutch word meaning burnt or heated wine; it was the first distilled liquor.) In brandy, the alcoholic essence that gives fermented grape juice its intoxicating power has been concentrated, resulting in a much stronger drink. The original idea of Dutch distillers was to reduce the volume of wine to make it more easily transportable to colonies on other continents: you could seal brandy in barrels, then dilute it with water at the end of an ocean voyage to expand its volume. Of course, when people tasted the contents of the barrels, few bothered to add water, and a new, more powerful form of alcohol flooded the world. In the old name for this product and in the persistent use of the term “spirits” to describe all strong liquors is a clue to the nature of spiritual reality and its relationship to matter.

What is concentrated in brandy is the vital essence of wine, that which gives it power to alter consciousness. If you warm a snifter of brandy and hold it in your hand, you can inhale (and sometimes feel the effect of) the volatile fumes that rise from the glass. In this concentrated form the essence of wine behaves like a gas as well as a liquid; that is, it is less dense and more active than it was in the form of wine, as well as more powerful. Spirit is the source of life and power, without which material forms are nonliving husks. It interpenetrates matter but is itself nonmaterial.

Many mystics have looked within themselves and identified breath as the evidence of spirit in the body. Breath is nonmaterial, or, at least, it straddles the border between material and nonmaterial reality. It has inherent movement and rhythm and is the source of life and vitality. In many languages the words for spirit and breath are the same: Sanskrit, prana; Greek, penuma; Hebrew, ruach; Latin, spiritus. And in many cultures life is thought to begin with the first breath and end with the last. Until the breath cycle begins, spirit and body are not connected; the foetus and the newborn baby have a vegetative life but are not invested with spirit. Some cultures believe that God allots each person a certain number of breaths and that one’s lifetime ends when that number is used up-—an argument for learning to breathe more slowly.

A few years ago, I wrote:

At the very center of our being is rhythmic movement, a cyclic expansion and contraction that is both in our body and outside it, that is both in our mind and in our body, that is both in our consciousness and not in it. Breath is the essence of being, and in all aspects of the universe we can see the same rhythmic pattern of expansion and contraction, whether in the cycles of day and night, waking and sleeping, high and low tides, or seasonal growth and decay. Oscillation between two phases exists at every level of reality, even up to the scale of the observable universe itself, which is presently in expansion but will surely at some point contract back to the original, unimaginable point that is everything and nothing, completing one cosmic breath.

If breath is the movement of spirit in the body-—a central mystery that connects us to all creation-—then working with breath is a form of spiritual practice. It is also one that impacts health and healing, because how we breathe both reflects the state of the nervous system and influences the state of the nervous system. You can learn to regulate heart rate, blood pressure, circulation, and digestion by consciously changing the rhythm and depth of breathing. You can tone the healing system in the same way. I am going to suggest some simple techniques for doing this kind of work. Although you can do each one in a very few minutes, you will not realize their potential power unless you practice them regularly, preferably every day.

1. Observe the breath. Sit in a comfortable position with your eyes closed, loosening any tight clothing. Focus your attention on your breathing without trying to influence it in any way. Follow the contours of the cycle through inhalation and exhalation and see if you can perceive the points at which one phase changes into the other. Do this for at least a few minutes. Your goal is simply to keep your attention on the breath cycle and observe. No matter how the breath changes, even if the excursions become very small, just continue to follow them. This is a basic form of meditation, a relaxation method, and a way to harmonize body, mind, and spirit.

2. Start with exhalation. Breathing is continuous, with no beginning or end, but we tend to think of one breath as beginning with an inhalation and ending with an exhalation. I want you to try to reverse this perception in the next exercise, which you can do either sitting or lying down. Again, focus attention on the breath and let it come of its own accord without trying to change it, but now experience exhalation as the beginning of each new cycle. The reason for doing this is that you have more control over exhalation, because you can use the voluntary muscles between your ribs (the intercostal muscles) to squeeze air out of your lungs, and this musculature is much more powerful than that used for drawing air in. When you move more air out, you will automatically take more air in. It is desirable to deepen respiration; the easiest way to do that is to think of exhalation as the first part of the cycle and not worry at all about inhalation.

3. Let yourself be breathed. This exercise is best done while lying on your back, so you might want to try it while falling asleep or on waking. Close the eyes, let your arms rest alongside your body, and focus attention on the breath without trying to influence it. Now imagine that with each inhalation the universe is blowing breath into you and with each exhalation withdrawing it. You are the passive recipient of breath. As the universe breathes into you, let yourself feel the breath penetrating to every part of your body, even to the tips of your fingers and toes. Try to hold this perception for ten cycles of exhalation and inhalation.

You may do these first three exercises as often as you like, for as long as you like, up to a maximum of ten minutes, but do them every day.

The next two exercises are formal breathing techniques from pranayama, the ancient Indian science of breath control that forms a part of yoga. Prana is a term for universal energy, of which breath is the bodily expression, and pranayama practice is intended to harmonize body energies and attune them with cosmic energy. These two exercises are safe and very useful. They also take little time; but, again, to determine what they can do for you and your healing capacity, you must practice them regularly.

4. Take a stimulating breath. Sit comfortably with the back straight, eyes closed. Place the tongue in the yogic position: touch the tip of the tongue to the backs of the upper front teeth, then slide it just above the teeth until it rests on the alveolar ridge, the soft tissue between the teeth and the roof of the mouth. Keep it there during the whole exercise. (Yoga philosophy says this contact closes an energy circuit in the body, preventing dissipation of prana during breathing practice.) Now breathe in and out rapidly through the nose, keeping the mouth lightly closed. Inhalation and exhalation should be equal and short, and you should feel muscular effort at the base of the neck just above the collarbones and at the diaphragm. (Try putting your hands on these spots to get a sense of the movement.) The action of the chest should be rapid and mechanical, like a bellows pumping air; in fact, the Sanskrit name of this exercise means “bellows breath.” Breath should be audible on both inhalation and exhalation, as rapid as three cycles per second if you can do that comfortably.

The first time you try this exercise, do it for just fifteen seconds, then breathe normally. Each time you do it, increase the duration by five seconds until you get up to a full minute. This is real exercise, and you can expect to feel fatigue of the muscles you are using. You will also begin to feel something else: a subtle but definite movement of energy through the body when you return to normal breathing. I feel it as a vibration or tingling, especially in my arms, along with greater alertness and disappearance of fatigue. This is not hyperventilation (which produces physiological changes as a result of blowing off excess carbon dioxide) but a way of activating the central nervous system. Once you can do the bellows breath for a full minute, try using it instead of caffeine as a pick-me-up in the afternoon. I find it particularly useful if I start to feel sleepy while driving on a highway. The more you do it, the more you will become aware of the energy it creates.

5. Take a relaxing breath. You may do this sitting with the back straight, lying on the back, or even standing or walking. Place the tongue in the yogic position and keep it there during the whole exercise. Exhale completely through the mouth, making an audible sound. Then close the mouth and inhale quietly through the nose to a (silent) count of four. Then hold the breath for a count of seven. Then exhale audibly through the mouth to a count of eight. Repeat for a total of four cycles, then breathe normally. If you have difficulty exhaling with your tongue in place, try pursing your lips; you will soon get the knack of how to do it. Note that the speed with which you do the exercise is unimportant. What is important is the ratio of four: seven: eight for inhalation, hold, and exhalation. You will be limited by how long you can comfortably hold the breath, so adjust your counting accordingly. As you practice this breath, you will be able to slow it down, which is desirable. Do it twice a day. After one month, if it agrees with you, increase to eight cycles twice a day.

I do these relaxing breaths in the morning before I meditate and in the evening when I am lying in bed just before falling asleep. I also try to remember to do it whenever I feel anxious or experience an emotional upset. I teach it to almost all patients I see, and I receive reports of remarkable benefits. It cures digestive problems, allows cardiac arrhythmias to subside, lowers high blood pressure, combats anxiety and insomnia, and more. I think of it as a tonic for the nervous system-—a spiritual tonic rather than a material one—and cannot recommend it too highly.

These five exercises will get you started on a program of using breath to optimize your healing system. As I said earlier, this is genuine spiritual practice, not just a method of improving health. The science of conscious breathing is not taught in medical schools. Throughout history it has been an esoteric subject, mostly passed on as oral tradition, and even today remarkably few books about it are available.

The energy that you can feel in your body after doing the bellows breath is the energy that Chinese doctors call qi (chi), their term for universal life energy. Most people experience it as warmth or tingling or subtle vibration. With practice you can learn to feel it more, move it about the body, and even transmit it to another person. Many healing systems from both East and West make use of energy transmission, usually through the hands, with or without touch contact between giver and recipient. From China and Japan come systems like reiki, jin shin jyutsu, and johrei; from our own culture comes therapeutic touch, a form of energy healing mostly taught and practiced by nurses. It is useful to try to feel, send, and receive this subtle energy. Not only can this practice relieve pain and accelerate healing; it directs attention toward the spiritual pole of existence, away from the material pole. The more you can experience yourself as energy, the easier it is not to identify yourself with your physical body.

Mystics and spiritual adepts teach that it is possible to raise spiritual energy, to increase its rate of vibration. One way to do this is to put yourself in the vicinity of persons, places, or things that have high spiritual energy. Throughout the world millions of people make pilgrimages to sacred sites-—mountains, groves, shrines, and temples-—where they feel uplifted, renewed, recharged. You can join them or look in your own territory for places that make you feel good, turn your thoughts to higher purposes, and take you out of yourself. You can also read the writings or life stories of men and women of high spiritual attainment, and you can view great art or objects of special beauty or listen to great music, because beauty in any form has a salutary effect on spirit. A simple way to get this benefit is to have flowers in your living space, since most people find their natural beauty inspiring.

Finally, you can pay attention to how you feel in the presence of various friends and acquaintances. Do some people always make you feel happier and better and more positive? If so, spend more time in their company and less in the company of those with an opposite effect on you. In some way, our spiritual selves resonate with others; if the interaction is positive, human connectedness is a most powerful healer, capable of neutralizing many harmful influences on the material plane.

A much-publicized example is the story of the Italian-Americans of Roseto, Pennsylvania, with their lower-than-expected incidence of coronary heart disease. The town was populated by immigrants from two villages in northern Italy, who came to America in the 1930s seeking better lives. They were a very close-knit community comprising large extended families with strong social bonds. They also ate a lot of calories, meat, and fat, and many smoked tobacco; nonetheless, they had few heart attacks. But their children, now in their fifties and sixties and eating the same diets, have the same incidence of coronary heart disease as other Americans. What changed from the first to the second generation? Researchers who studied these people felt the most significant difference was the loss of extended family and community; the younger generation lives in typical nuclear families with all of the social isolation characteristic of modern life. Somehow the high level of connectedness in the first generation of immigrants protected them from the expected ill effects of high-fat diets and smoking. I classify that kind of beneficial interaction between human beings as a spiritual phenomenon, one that is lacking in the lives of many sick people I see as patients. [242-261]

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