16. SELF DIRECTED HEALING
Low-mediated intentions play important roles in self-directed healing. By learning to heal (if you will allow me to explore that possibility, without deeming it absurd in advance,) you will gain access to the powers inhering in time-sensitive freedom that, with further practice, will help you move events in the world with special efficacy in ways I will explain. In this chapter I take on healing, in the next the world.
Earlier I showed that shamanic wisdom worked through a dramatic withdrawal-return process that employed the inward skills of imagery, intention, sensory awareness, rhythm and timing (see # 66, 67.) Shamans are called wounded healers precisely because they discovered their skills by healing their own dangerous illnesses. With their self-overcoming disciplines in place, the shamans begin their vocation first as healers of others, and then as interveners in the patternings of nature on a larger scale. (With what actual results, and through which lines of causation, we will have to judge.)
Let us start with the simple, incontrovertible observation that healing intentions are rarely absent from the minds of sick persons. Ill people usually try to direct the body’s healing powers to the site of illness using sensation, imagination and hope, though with varying results, including no results at all. But self-directed healing can be done well or poorly. People do learn to get voluntary control of autonomic functions. How?
o Accurate sensory awareness when combined with non-reactivity delivers new information about the illness.
o We receive this information about ourselves in images. We describe the pain as blasting, as pressing in on us. My throat is on fire. Later we put words to the images, but the words refer back to , they do not replace the imagery.
o We use the imagery to help us change the body by directing it back to the sites or imagined causes of the illness. As imagery, it can gain better access to deeper-lying neural processes.
We know very little about how this healing (or killing imagery) works, but it does work. Hundreds of controlled studies have established this.
The best-researched manifestation is the placebo effect. A wide variety of illnesses, from viral warts to coronary insufficiencies, to inoperable cancers, respond favorably to the placebo effect. Everything from the laying on of hands, to sugar pills, to machines purporting to generate wave energies, have promoted actual healing. Some machines work effectively without ever being switched on. Antoine Mesmer’s animal magnetism séances, illustrated to the left, were renowned for their successes.
Double blind studies show that patients receiving placebo pills for mild pain relief experienced mild pain relief, while other patients, given the same pills, but told they were strong pain killers, experienced greater pain relief. Evidence shows that active placebos, pills that fizz or surgeries that open and close the body without doing anything else, work better than passive placebos. For similar reasons, one can speculate that new medications, themselves the product of huge investments and advertising campaigns, work better in their first year of release than afterward –and they do! Evidently, the glamour of scientific authority itself has a healing effect. It may even be the case that in all medicine the authority of the doctor has a placebo effect, and that all medications, whatever else their virtues, get part of their power by directing attention in imagery-rich ways to the site of the illness.
People may “spontaneously heal” much more often than we know. Their stories do not get into the medical literature. Health care workers may be reluctant to report them. Some disbelieve what they are witnessing. The greatest number of self-directed cures may happen in people who never seek treatment.
Moreover, these healings are not spontaneous, if by that you mean instantaneous and uncaused. To describe them that way trivializes the body’s subtle healing efforts, many still unexplored.
That healing employs the creative powers of imagination should not surprise us. Creative powers, focused by the imagination, regularly bring human endeavors into the world. Why not in healing? Why can’t healing imagery support the intention to heal the same way the architect’s sketches move a building project ahead?
A blueprint gets to contractors and carpenters, but how do the imaginative influences on healing find their way to the sites of injury? The same way the imagery of slicing a lemon gets to your salivary glands. Perhaps the intervention arrives through longer sequences of “hand-shakes” following along the alignment of freedoms I described earlier: the freedom to imagine shakes hands with the freedom to wish, the freedom to wish with the freedom to will, the freedom to will with the freedom to act, the freedom to act with the receptive readiness of the world to respond to the action. All at the right moment, all in a temporal setting.
Research shows that the imagery supporting the intention doesn’t have to be accurate to have a positive effect. However, it has to be suggestive and apt in some way. And it can work for or against healing.
The Holmes-Rahe research demonstrated that the onset of illness correlates with preceding life events (see # 106.) A wife dies. Her widower languishes and dies soon after. The life-event, the loss, is terrible. That’s true. However, most of the horror is in the mind. Negative images make the losses harder to bear. The grief, the churning memories it provokes, the intense dreams, the recurring potent images, fearful anxieties, the haunting presence of the departed break us down. These examples demonstrate the power of the imagination to grab hold of our bodies in braced, contorted, constricted, anxious ways producing illness. Voodoo death would be an extreme instance of the power of negative imagery.
The same powers of imagination that can exacerbate illness, however, can sometimes heal it. On the extreme end, there are documented cases of cancer remissions following IV normal saline solution. Patients believing they were receiving new experimental drugs had their tumors “melt away like snowballs.” The healings at Lourdes have been well documented.
How does effective self-directed healing work? The salivary response to a lemon is automatic. We’re talking about voluntary healing interventions here. They work no differently from what happens when you say to yourself “I’m going to raise my right arm” and you do it. You don’t know how you do it or why it works, but you make it happen. You’d be flabbergasted and greatly troubled if it didn’t happen. Why? Because your volition travels a common route that is exercised daily. But what if you say to yourself “I’m going to slow my heart”? That would send traffic down an uncommon route. Most people can’t do it. But some can. How do they manage it? They build a path of handshakes to it. They practice sending intentions along the path. The intention-imagery complexes are timed events. The more frequently they succeed in relieving symptoms and building healthy tissues the stronger the pathway becomes.
Like yogis, self-directed healers train themselves to get access to the body’s autonomic functions. A person may not know how he does it. But somehow the transmission of intention through the hierarchy of freedoms crosses from the volitional to the autonomic control systems and for a moment at least the autonomic becomes voluntary.
The pathways transmit instructions to the body. I hope to show they work only to the extent that their rhythmic elements entrain each other by the timing of their handshakes in the hierarchy of freedoms. At those moments resonances occur, vulnerabilities move into phase with each other, field effects occur.
Sir John Eccles supported this view decades ago, maintaining in 1986 that quantum uncertainty in neurotransmitter releases allowed free will.1 Jeffrey Schwartz and Sharon Begley marshaled a number of these arguments in The Mind and the Brain. Schwartz draws on Henry Stapp’s work in Mind, Matter and Quantum Mechanics (1993) to explain his successes using cognitive retraining techniques with OCD patients.
Quantum effects, insofar as they operate on atomic and ionic scales are always present in these reactions. But plain old secular timing on molecular and cellular scales play the most important parts in steering indeterminacies into freedom volitionally. These connections use the evolved circadian, ultradian and infradian frequency bands we have described and make rhythmic alignments between them.
In healing work, these biological events travel pathways less commonly used than those we use to raise an arm or keep balance on a bicycle. But they’re no less real. They send volitional signals along routes in the autonomic nervous system, but they also create new routes as needed. Neuroplasticity blazes trails along new dendritic arbors that when practiced repeatedly and reinforced with positive results remain in place.
It is not a far leap to go from neuroplasticity in neural traffic to biochemical plasticity in neuropeptide flows, as studied by Solomon and Pert, to volitional influences on enzymes involved in cell signaling processes, to selective voluntary DNA expression. In other words, through biological alignments not yet well understood, we can bring our intentions into the communications that catalyze biochemical reactions.
Whatever substances they use, whatever organs they start in, all self-directed healing processes, physical and emotional, share important features.
`1) They unfold in time.
2) By virtue of their transit through the nervous system, they travel in pulses, pulsed packets or waves with periods and amplitudes that can be measured.
3) The pulses and waves play parts in larger processes of approach-separation or withdrawal-return, hence involving social and solitary behaviors and at the highest levels love and wisdom.
4) The physiological transmission move in the evolved frequency ranges we have already identified.
From my observations of rhythmic functioning, I get the impression that self-directed healing using low-mediated intentions always involves approach/separation and withdrawal/return rhythms and they usually have love or wisdom in them to a greater or lesser extent. By paying attention to body time and to sensations of change built on a strong interoceptive self-connection, the sick person may in some cases initiate a turning point in an illness, and by doing so raise self-directed healing into a wisdom process of its own.
Self-directed healing strategies often build on the rhythm patterns of remitting/recurring illnesses. By small well-timed efforts, they fortify the remitting side of the temporal pattern. This they do by shifting the turning points, or by strengthening the remitting while weakening the recurring leg with timed interventions of a sort we will soon consider in detail.
Perhaps more illnesses follow the remitting/recurring pattern than we know. By better understanding the biophysics of their vulnerable phases and by exploiting their perturbability more effectively, we may be able to influence remitting/recurring illnesses at their most sensitive moments.
The healing effects of these interventions would manifest not all at once, but in stages, as circumstances permit, as the mind/body connection develops. In this effort, intentional healing would help recruit the body’s own healing powers that themselves might wax and wane on schedules correlated with the frequency bands in our physiology.
Indeed, many illnesses are tied to circadian oscillators. Disorders of circadian rhythm have been well researched in hyperthyroidism and adrenal insufficiency syndromes. Multiple sclerosis shows remitting/recurring patterns on an overall downward course. On a briefer time scale, perturbations in the heartbeat (the R on T pathology) make the heart susceptible to lethal arrhythmias. Respiration, sympathetic vascular tone, even a stressful thought can suddenly withdraw vagal tone and produce perturbations leading to the unfortunately timed arrhythmias associated with sudden cardiac death.2 The breakdown in homeostatic function that accompanies illness, therefore, has, besides its material aspects, temporal qualities. In serious illnesses, in illness syndromes, whole congeries of rhythms may be thrown out of order or entrained to each other dysfunctionally, or all of them may be entrained to a single deranged oscillator, or perturbed to the point where their rhythmicity is extinguished altogether. Franz Halberg did early research in this area. He was one of the first to apply circadian physiology to illness patterns.3
Even illnesses without known remitting/recurring patterns have oscillatory characteristics, whose periods, amplitude and phase relations to other oscillators in the body can be identified. Heart arrhythmias are the most widely studied of these, along with seizure and motor disorders. However, as our knowledge of other body pacemakers improves – particularly the pacemakers promoting regulatory gene expression – the list is bound to grow.
The conclusion I draw from this is that self-directed healing interventions built on low-mediated intention work better at some moments than others. My clinical observations in biofeedback, at least as they apply to the fast ultradian rhythms in the brain wave, heartbeat, respiration and vasomotor ranges, show that the healing efforts are best promoted when a number of component oscillators that can induce resonances as their peaks and valleys come into phase. I have worked with and documented voluntary alignments of breath, heart rate variability, vasomotor and theta brain wave rhythms leading to resolutions of blood pressure, respiratory and heart rhythm problems. (See Biofeedback Papers on my website.)
Attention to the time qualities of an illness, its momentum, acceleration, its patterns of remission and recurrence, its intensifications and subsidences, are likely to become essential tools in self-directed healing as our knowledge of the body/mind improves. Not all of the knowledge will belong to doctors or be approved by them. As patients, we will do our own self-directed healing work using our own strategies. I describe some that I’ve seen or used below.
Pacing and Leading
To ride the stages of an illness, to be in touch with its rhythms, to attend to its rises and falls, is to pace it. Self-healers pace the illness until its contours and its temporal variability patterns become familiar and even predictable almost on a second-to-second basis.
We generally time changes to the breath, but sometimes we use the pulse as a timekeeper. It makes a good pacing tool for more precise inner monitoring. I have taught myself and my biofeedback clients to meditate on breath and heartbeat patterns together. Breath based meditations go way back, but to integrate both is new, particularly to time the start of the in and out breaths to the heartbeat patterns in the RSA, (the respiratory sinus arrhythmia; the tendency for heart rate to increase on the in-breath and decrease on the out breath.) With this technique, we align two oscillators.
In a similar manner, we can time our intervention to other body oscillators. We can tense and relax muscle groups, close and open eyes, eat and refrain from eating. We can learn to follow the changes of the illness closely enough to time the breath, heart rate variability or other slower wave oscillators to them.
When events confirm your anticipations, you have achieved pacing. That’s the first step. Next you take the lead. Just by a second or so, you intervene before the mini-turning in the illness (or on a larger scale, in the overall remitting/recurring pattern.) By pacing and then leading, you nudge the illness. You make the smallest move at the best moment to put one or more of the oscillators in the illness under momentary voluntary control.
It’s a basic hypnotherapeutic technique. The hypnotist, for example, watches the subject, notices his eyes blinking and says, “Your eyes are blinking.” That’s pacing. Then the hypnotist says, “You’re getting tired.” That’s leading.
Pacing an illness requires subtle sensory awareness and non-reactivity. Leading involves intention, imagery and subtly timed actions that may include but are not limited to vigorous exercise, meditation, diet, breathing, heating, cooling, sweating, laughing, sleeping, love making, etc.
In our conceptual scheme, leading is most effective when a person is nearer to the reversal moments in the oscillatory components of the illness. That’s when small causes, properly timed, can have big effects. Nonlinear bio-oscillatory systems have moments of special vulnerability in them when they can be phase-shifted or reset or made to bifurcate. Self-directed healing strategies work with these moments.
We often use the power of imagination, intention and small gestures, rightly deployed, to change the body. It happens best in special windows of opportunity near mini-turnings. We rarely control or direct our strategies to these moments. We use a much less efficient scatter-shot approach.
With training one can pace and lead many ultradian oscillators, including the 90-120 minute rest/activation cycle that Ernest Rossi employs in his hypnotherapeutic work, the hunger/satiation, and sleep/waking cycles. The sleep cycle, including periods of lucid dreaming, can be partially trained. Metabolic rhythms, blood components in the immune system, rhythms within the presentation of pain and maybe even components of the cell cycle itself can be brought under voluntary control. Social/asocial alternations of hormonal rhythms, for instance, sexual readiness or avoidance, stress and relaxation, can be entrained to the extent that the intention/image complexes used in self-directed change can be shaped through tempi, pulses and melody.
To mount an effective healing strategy directed to the vulnerable times in the illness, you must develop skills in recognizing the frequency, phase and amplitude characteristics of events in the body. Usually you start with breathing because it is the one body system essential to survival that can run either under voluntary or autonomic control; it slips back and forth between them easily. That’s one way in. In the state of consciousness associated with good pacing, you move from one oscillator to another. To do this you have to, first, be present to the illness with subtle sensory awareness and non-reactivity, second, generate a robust rhythmic continuity between the illness and the healing effort with pacing and leading strategies and, third, make an apt healing intervention at the right moment. But what is an apt healing intervention, and what favors its taking hold?
When you bring oscillators in the body under voluntary control, they can influence other oscillators in that frequency and phase range not yet under control. The influence of one oscillatory system on another has been demonstrated in many studies of biological entrainment (with particular force by Kitney, 1984.) You can breathe to influence your heart rate, swallow to influence peristalsis, and blink to drive brain wave rhythms. There are many frequency ranges accessible to volition, and within those ranges, many oscillators can be put into or out of phase with each other. With breath, you can recruit heart rate variability, vasomotor activity and gastric motility. Even faster frequencies, as in the EEG response to auditory and photic driving strategies, can pull large areas of the cortex into synchrony briefly.
In my biofeedback practice, I developed training methods to help clients move an oscillator under voluntary control into a resonant relationship with a dysfunctional oscillator not yet under voluntary control. My experience comes mainly from using the breath to influence heartbeat patterns in biofeedback training of the RSA. The protocol here is to use a trained oscillator to control or “capture” a target oscillator, in this case the heartbeat pattern. The larger the amplitude of the trained oscillator, consistent with a good quality wave form, the stronger its influence on the target oscillator. The influences come from anatomical and physiological connections, mainly these: oscillators provide or remove ingredients that other oscillators need; they intrude on one another’s space of operation, adding or subtracting energy, agitating the medium in which another oscillator functions.
Altering phase relationships between the trained and target oscillators can shift the target oscillator with respect to frequency, amplitude or both. The change, for as long as it lasts, helps break down habitual physiological bracing patterns; it opens the pathway for more homeostatic responses. The longer the homeostatic rhythms persist the stronger its pathway becomes.
Once conditioned habit patterns have been shifted in the autonomic systems of the body, a target oscillator can in turn become a trained oscillator. The newly trained oscillator can then be sent out to capture another target oscillator deeper down, further in, closer to the core of the illness. A restored RSA pattern will entrain the fast ultradian oscillators controlling vasomotor activity and restore rhythmicity to dysfunctionally diminished baroreceptor sensitivity, helping to normalize short-term blood pressure. Normalized pressure reduces the fluid shift burden on the kidneys.
The trained oscillator can also be used to move the target oscillator increasingly out of phase with another oscillator, until a different oscillator grabs it.
You can also bring in rhythms from outside, pulsed sounds, video animations, music, pulsed heat, radiation or ultrasonic energies. I designed and built an auditory biofeedback system that transforms body changes into accurate contrapuntal modal music - music that seeks to resolve to a key center associated with homeostatic physiological functioning.
Someday we may be able to combine mind/body with medical technology to intervene in the phases of the cell cycle. Inner-directed sensory techniques may be used to pace and lead the pulsing rates of therapeutic radiation in cancer treatment. Early research by Kirson, Gurvich et al suggest that the properly pulsed electrical charges can interrupt the cell cycle.
Turning Point Healing
Many illnesses present with a distinct, central turning crisis. That’s what wisdom and love dramas do too, which suggests, at least on the surface, that it may pay to look for connections between the broader patterns of meaning in life and the healing process.
I believe that our most serious illnesses are wisdom processes. The illness in pursuing its clinical course follows a withdrawal-return dynamic. Like wisdom, the return from illness can change our lives. Sometimes, the healing does more than mend the body. It changes a person’s character. It influences what we choose to do with ourselves. Sometimes the withdrawal/return dynamic awakens an inward quest in the course of an illness that searches for its original wound, not so much the source of the infection, or the moment the virus entered the body, but the insult to meaning that made one susceptible to it, the wound to action on the leg of love or wisdom. Sometimes events experienced long ago become lifelong sources of stress, confusion and loss. They sow the seed for future illnesses.
The illness, as a wisdom process, sparks a withdrawal larger than the immediate physical pathology, because it evokes questions and doubts and restores memories of hopes and regrets. The illness covers more than flesh. It brings with it deeper attitudinal changes that can transform one kind of wisdom into another. People experience spiritual growth with physical healing. New capacities for love or service may fall into place. Our ties of affection shift when we have dealt with our mortality in a new, more vivid way.
In the central crisis of an illness many rhythms may converge, some amplifying, supporting, mutually entailing, others annihilating, pulling on each other’s frequencies, causing clashes and dissonances. Into this cacophony, the low-mediated self-directed healing intervention becomes a factor. It becomes part of the mix. If it is strong and we insert it at the right moment in the right way, it may draw other rhythms to it and help bring the errant oscillators into resonance.
Seen this way, the healing event promotes an unexpected turning point, or makes a potential turning point actual. Just as the thought of the beloved can bring on a turning from separation to approach or the realization of a truth can spark the turning from withdrawal to return, the intention to live until a child marries, for example, can spur a turning. But there are limits to our resilience. In the interpenetrating fields of multiple vibrations that constitute inner and outer life, dissonances may overwhelm us.
By bringing one or more trained oscillators into resonance with the deranged oscillators in the illness itself, and repeating this day after day, over-learning it, one can build the momentum for a turning in an illness. Perhaps it takes a specific mind/body state to reset, delay, or bring a rhythmic pathology temporarily back to normal functioning.
The intervention can be oscillatory itself, but it doesn’t have to be (a shout can cure hiccups), as long as it has the energy and timing to catch one or more of the underlying oscillators at a vulnerable moment. These healing interventions induce mini-turnings. You may have to do them many times until the body learns the route to change. You bring a rhythm back, it slips away. You keep it up day after day, session after session, until one mini-turning actually becomes the maxi turning, the turning of turnings, though you may not realize it when it happens. To be present with consciousness, to be immersed in sensation at that moment - to prepare for that moment with medications and standard medical care, to choose the standard treatments consciously, to intend to bring them all into play - all become part of your healing strategy.
Shamans use timing in highly dramatic and effective ways. They work in infradian, circadian and ultradian frequencies, using phases of the moon, time of day, rattles and drumming. They wait for moments of accessibility. They pace and lead the illness and drive the oscillators into resonance with a variety of pharmaceutical, ritualistic, hypnotic, dramatic and musical techniques.
It takes a certain prowess to develop these techniques for yourself. However, on certain paths of possibility we may learn how to apply low mediated intentions to healing, perhaps with the help of monitoring instruments and therapists who teach us how to use them. Eventually, you take off the training wheels. You don’t need feedback instruments any more.
Perhaps there’s a rule of thumb here: the greater the number of oscillatory process that can be coordinated to the healing work and brought into resonant relationships, the more effective the healing process. The greater the illness, the deeper the turning needed to heal it. The more profound the healing crisis, the stronger the alignment of multiple oscillators required.
Among these rhythms, as rhythms themselves, we will find the neural and humoral faces of emotional and cognitive understandings. Some will seek the origins of the illness and its meaning. Others will yearn for healing for specific purposes that get their energy from what you want to do with your life thenceforth. All of these together – with the people and issues you care most about – will feed the approach/separation and withdrawal/return dramas as they shape the flow of love and wisdom in your life.
Healing as Living
What self-directed healing cannot do, you may argue, is change the world outside the body directly. You must perform intervening actions to bring your healthier functioning into the world. But with healing surprising pathways do open up from person to person. With the mapping, sensory awareness, non-reactivity, imagery, intention and timing used for broader healing purposes, transformational memes can go from person to person along the rhythmic channels of approach/separation. Small healing changes in the conduct of love and wisdom can influence outer events with surprising efficacy.
To this phenomenon we will now turn our attention.