The healing power of visualization
The 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.