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The healing power of visualization

medicine_buddhaThe visualization of the Medicine Buddha has long been believed by Buddhists to promote healing. Bodhipaksa suggests a mechanism by which this might actually work.

The effects that the mind has on the body are as mysterious as they are profound. We’re all familiar with the placebo effect, where a medically inactive substance that looks like a medicine leads to actual healing. In one dramatic demonstration a doctor flicks a switch which he says wirelessly turns on and off a device that has been implanted in the brain of a patient with Parkinson’s disease. When the switch is “on,” the patient’s trembling dramatically subsides. When the switch is off, the patient begins to shake uncontrollably. But although the patient genuinely does have a device implanted in his brain, and although the device works, in this particular instance the switch is not connected to anything.

This is not a question of patients faking their symptoms; in this particular study it was found that the chemistry in the brains of the Parkinson’s sufferers actually changed, depending on the position of the switch. The chemical that had been deficient in the brain was produced in higher quantities. Real healing was taking place.

Doctors are well aware of how to use the placebo effect. They see their white coats not just as a kind of overall, but as a healing talisman, the very sight of which is medically helpful to those who are sick or in pain. Parents are also highly aware of the power of the placebo. The ritual of “kissing the boo-boo” is time honored.

Often I see signs that people are disparaging about the placebo effect, as if responding to a fake medicine or feeling better at the sight of a doctor’s white coat are signs of weakness, stupidity, or gullibility. But I think that’s a shortsighted way of looking at this particular mind-body interaction. I believe that deep down we want to be healed, we want to be healthy, we want to be well. But often, the mind and body are “poisoned” by self-doubt and self-hatred. We doubt that we can get better and that we have the resources to get better. Sometimes we think we don’t even deserve to get better. The placebo allows our deeper, more authentic desire for wholeness and well-being to express itself. So, AIDS patients who are asked to visualize their white blood cells multiplying as if they were breeding rabbits find that their white blood cell count does actually increase.

I’d like to tie one more piece of research to what I’ve just said, even though it’s not about medicine and isn’t ostensibly about the placebo effect. In one study, students were divided into two groups before being given a general knowledge quiz. One group was asked to think about a professor. The other group was asked to think about soccer hooligans. The group “primed” to think about the professor did significantly better on the quiz than did the other group.

When I put these two things together, I wonder what would happen if people were to visualize a healer. Would this actually boost their immune response and promote healing? As far as I’m aware this study has never been done, but I suspect that visualizing an archetypal healer would have a measurable effect on the body’s ability to heal itself. I suspect also that the healing power of this visualization would be even stronger if they were some kind of contact being visualized –– for example, if a ray of light were to emanate from the healer and touch us on the body.

Could it, in fact, be that this experiment has already been carried out, albeit in a nonclinical setting? For many centuries, Buddhists have been visualizing “deities” (this word, in Buddhist parlance, refers to Buddhas and bodhisattvas rather than to gods). Some of these visualizations have been of the great Master of Healing, Baishajyaguru, also known as the Medicine Buddha. It’s been long believed that meditating on the Medicine Buddha can promote the healing of both physical and mental illness. In this kind of meditation, the Buddha is imagined as the beneficent presence, sending us blessings. And in many forms of visualization meditation, the figure we are imagining sends forth rays of light that touch our body. And the recitation of the mantra –– oṃ bhaiṣajye bhaiṣajye mahābhaiṣajye bhaiṣajyarāje samudgate svāhā –– is a way of calling forth our own innate healing abilities. It has been found, in fact, that even a brief training in mindfulness meditation can boost the immune response, but I’m suggesting something that goes beyond even that. Bearing in mind, day after day, the image of an archetypal healer may be a way of harnessing the power of the mind to bring about wholeness and health.

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About Bodhipaksa

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Bodhipaksa is a Buddhist practitioner and teacher, a member of the Triratna Buddhist Order, and a published author. He founded Wildmind in 2001. Bodhipaksa has published many guided meditation CDs and guided meditation MP3s.

He teaches at Aryaloka Buddhist Center in Newmarket, New Hampshire. You can follow Bodhipaksa on Twitter, join him on Facebook, or hang out with him on .

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Comments

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Comment from Srivandana
Time: June 29, 2010, 4:03 pm

Historically Bhaishajyaguru was seen as a figure/deity one would invoke in times of need whether for health, wealth, happiness etc. In a sense this was quite a utilitarian approach. But faith can play a huge part in helping to bring about a sense of ease as opposed to dis-ease. It is easier to live with illness if there is an external ‘friend’ on whom to call particularly in times of great distress. It is almost as though the distress, the urgency of the request to be in the presence of the deity produces a strong response. One might see this as activating our own inner healer. Being in the presence of Bhaishajyaguru is a comfort, a blessing, he is a ministering ‘parent’ to our own tender and distressed inner child.
I have been meditating on this infinitely blue being for almost seventeen years during which time I have been dwelling in this body of chronic illness. At times I have sat with Bhaishajyaguru and felt the very cells of my being vibrating with his healing light.
The healing Bhaishajyaguru gives us is most importantly in the mind. He is the colour of the Dharma jewel and it is the Dharma that can sustain us in times of great physical and mental suffering.

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Comment from Rune
Time: June 29, 2010, 9:18 pm

Thank you for a great aticle. The time has come to remove religion and mysticism from practicing meditation. It is now high time to bring meditation to the people, so that all people of all kinds can experience the positive effects of meditation.

We at [link removed] has a simple mission to demystifisere and teach meditation for all people of all kinds of all ages.

Love&Light

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Comment from PaceMantra
Time: June 30, 2010, 7:45 am

I disagree about removing mysticism from meditition however Meditition brings great benefit to humanity.

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Comment from Rune
Time: June 30, 2010, 8:08 pm

Let the Magicians do mysticism ;-)

Meditation can be practiced all the time and even in a market place. Meditation is all about being conscious and aware of our actions, thoughts and feelings.

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Comment from Srivandana
Time: July 1, 2010, 9:56 am

Changing tack, and bringing myself more into line with Bodhipaksa’s obviously thought-provoking article(!), visualisation of healing light is basically what spiritual healers do. I trained as a spiritual healer with the, then, UK based National Federation of Spiritual Healers back in the ’90s and in effect what we were trained to do at a very basic level was to focus healing light, from whatever source, onto the patients we treated. Some people saw this as light from Christ/God, I as the only Buddhist saw this light as ‘metta’ or ‘positive emotion’. Light from Bhaishayaguru can also be used in this way.
The possible potential danger of equating good health with psychological wholeness is that to be in a state of poor health could be seen to mean that the individual was ,well, not in a state of psychological wholeness or anywhere near it! I found that most of the healers I worked with felt that people were ill and it was all their own fault, they weren’t positive enough. This of course fails to take into account the various potential origins of an individual’s ill-health which can be explained by looking at the ‘niyamas’.
Being on a path leading to psychological wholeness helps us deal so much better with the ills, whatever the source, in this life.

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: July 1, 2010, 1:03 pm

I didn’t mention this in the article, but meditations that include contemplating a relationship with an external source of love have been shown to be more effective than using affirmations or simply relaxing (although no comparison was done with mindfulness or metta meditation).

The following is from New Scientist, 2nd Sep, 2005:

People practising spiritual meditation were more relaxed and better able to withstand pain than those performing secular meditation.

College students who volunteered for the study were randomly assigned to one of three groups regardless of their spiritual beliefs. The 25 students in the spiritual meditation group were told to concentrate on a phrase such as “God is love” or “God is peace” during their meditation periods. Those in the secular meditation group used a phrase such as “I am happy” or “I am joyful” while the third group were simply told to relax.

Subjects were asked to practise their technique for 20 minutes each day for two weeks, at the beginning and end of which the researchers used psychological profiling to assess their mood. They also tested pain tolerance as measured by the amount of time the volunteers could keep their hands in water at 2 °C (Journal of Behavioral Medicine, DOI: 10.1007/s10865-005-9008-5). Those practising spiritual meditation showed greater reductions in anxiety than the other two groups and were able to keep their hands in the cold water for nearly double the time – on average 92 seconds versus 49 for the relaxation group.

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: July 1, 2010, 1:10 pm

In discussing mysticism, it’s probably best to define our terms, which no one has yet done. My dictionary says the following:

mysticism: the belief that union with or absorption into the Deity or the absolute, or the spiritual apprehension of knowledge inaccessible to the intellect, may be attained through contemplation and self-surrender.

This seems to perfectly encompass the goal of Buddhist meditation, which is to bring about an awareness of things as they really are — a knowledge inaccessible to the intellect — through contemplation and self-surrender. By this definition, I think Buddhist meditation is inherently “mystical.”

Of course it’s possible that PaceMantra meant something different from this.

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Comment from Srivandana
Time: July 1, 2010, 2:35 pm

I think more importantly that the meditation Buddhists practice is ultimately for the sake of all living beings. I can’t see why anyone would meditate for the sake of it, having an absence of the mystical and religious as Rune implies.

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Comment from Rune
Time: July 1, 2010, 7:15 pm

Meditation is all about awakening from mind – identification. Or as Ram Das sad “Be here now.” If you understand this you dont need anymore spiritual garbage, doctrins, bible`s etc.

“When you are already in Detroit, you don’t have to take a bus to get there.”
- Ram Dass

Best regards
Rune

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Comment from Rune
Time: July 1, 2010, 7:37 pm

Satsang with Swaha, Silent Retreat January 2007 M.M. Norway. Poem of Rumi
Vasant Swaha is a modern mystic, a man of freedom, a friend.
“You can call me anything, that is up to you. I am just myself, I am just sharing love and the joy of Being.”
This Sharing we call Satsang…
A meeting heart to heart…
A recognition of the eternal Self.
Around Vasant Swaha this happens in a climate of laughter, blissful tears and silence.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BFgvqQORFvs&feature=player_embedded

Best regards
Rune

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Comment from Leandro Ventura
Time: July 3, 2010, 2:14 pm

Great aticle. I’ll try this kind of meditation by visualisation of a healer with the mantra. Thank you so much.

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Comment from Shavinder
Time: October 28, 2010, 9:21 am

Rune is missing the point. She is talking about a particular kind of meditation, the awakening of awareness of the present moment, which is being popularised by many teachers today and which actually came out of the lineage of Buddhism. While this meditation may be highly beneficial, the visualisation of medicine-buddha is totally different and comes from the Tibetan branch of Tantric Buddhism.
Its a person’s choice whether one believes in God or deities. If one wishes to use awareness meditation for some simple benefit, fine. But do not mistakenly think that thats the end of the story.

This is not the only meditation available to humanity, there are others too. A person should not feed his ego by thinking that his path is the only path and that there is nothing else to discover. By attaining a bit of peace and joy through a meditation one starts thinking, ‘Oh! I have known all there is to know!’. Be careful this is ego talk and will ultimately bring your spiritual progress down.

Another important spiritual path of India is the bhakti yoga which is the path of love and devotion to a deity which ultimately leads to union with that deity. The same path has also been propogated by the Sikh Gurus starting from Guru Nanak (1469-1539) to the Guru Gobind Singh (1666-1708) with the difference that Sikhism’s concept is of a formless God which is all pervading in the universe.

In Sikhism the primary technique of bhakti is that of Naam Jaap, recitation of God’s name. Any name can be recited but Waheguru is a the chosen name given by the Sikh Gurus. Recitation and listening to this word is done to the extent that the mantra goes on in an unbroken form in the mind day and night. The inner sound of Naam mantra besides being the primary source of joining with Akaal Purakh (Timeless Being) is also a healer of all diseases. Gurbani (holy verses of the Sikh Gurus) clearly says:

“Sarb Rog Ka Aukhad Naam”
(Naam is the medicine of all diseases)

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Comment from Alison
Time: November 10, 2010, 12:11 am

A healer. That’s interesting…

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