The Limits of Limitless Healing

At fourteen years old, my spouse, Joy was the victim of a catastrophic accident while riding her bicycle. Her face bore the brunt of the impact on the street. The left side of her face was scraped off by the pavement.  Her teeth jutted out at a right angle to where they had been. Her top lip hung by a thread of skin off her face. In small town Oklahoma, there was no helicopter to airlift her to a trauma center – for that matter, there was no hospital. She received care at a small medical clinic, where the best medication they could offer her was valium.  Her surgeries were performed without anesthesia.

The doctors informed her mother that Joy would live with disfiguring scarring on her face for the rest of her life.

Joy’s grandmother, however, had something different in mind. Coincidentally, both my spouse Joy and I had beautiful, elegant grandmothers, Ann and Francis, who also happened to be Christian Scientists.

Ann approached the Christian Science practitioners of her church. These are members who are trained in using focused prayer for healing. The whole congregation prayed, meditated, and held a good thought for Joy. As well, Joy herself meditated on the perfection of God’s face, which as a young Christian Scientist at the time, she believed to be all of our faces.

Here’s what happened: Joy healed. She healed quickly, inexplicably, and completely. If you lean in close, Joy can show you a small white scar above her top lip. Other than that, it’s like the event never happened. Doctors could not explain the rate and thoroughness of her healing.

According to Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science, Jesus represented the healing power of a fully actualized human being. Each of us, she believed, had the power to transcend sin, sickness and death.

I realize for most of us this is a fringe philosophy, and for some even a frightening one. But you can find many of the same principles in more mainstream thinking, at least if you consider massage, yoga, and other forms of complementary and alternative medicine “mainstream.” We “hold a good thought” for one another. We refer to the “power of positive thinking.” More and more, it seems, allopathic medicine counts our mental attitude as important as our physical diagnosis. And I do see this, on a small scale, every day as a massage therapist. Certainly, a client’s conviction about the effect their massage will have contributes at least partially to its success in managing or even relieving pain.

And yet, there is something about this mode of thinking that feels like a dangerous, slippery slope. If we accept the stance of mind over matter, then pain and sickness is on some level due to a failure to make a major attitude adjustment, isn’t it? This suggestion sounds over the top, but there is a very quiet undercurrent of this thinking in a lot of what you might call “new age” healing circles.

For instance, I wince a little inside when I hear cancer survivors referred to as “fighters,” – as though the disease were just a test of your emotional fortitude, which you could pass or fail

My friend, yoga student and massage client, who I’ll call Jackie, passed away at age 52 due to breast cancer which metastacized into inflammatory skin cancer. Terrible caverns of flesh opened up all over her body. You could literally see the cancer eating her alive from the inside out. This is what I think of when I hear about “fighters.” Jackie wasn’t just a fighter but a freaking mental warrior. A 30 year vegetarian and Buddhist who lived on ashrams but also married multiple times, was a fierce lawyer and loved life with total abandon. If the power of mind could have altered the course of her disease, she would be here now. But I do not believe all the Christian Science practitioners in the world could have saved her. Her body was acting in accordance with its fundamental nature, which was to grow old, get sick, and die.

Between these two extreme cases lies our everyday life, where we walk a shaky middle ground regarding the mind’s ability to heal the body.

Massage therapists often go into the profession due to a sincere desire to heal. Most good massage schools spend the next 500 hours trying to cure us of this notion. Often, though, it’s replaced with an idea I find just as suspect. Massage therapists are not “healers,” they suggest, but just a “vessel” to direct the “healing energy” of the “universe” to the client. Sounds a lot like a Christian Science practitioner to me.

My friend Melinda offered the following take on this theory when she was attending massage school. (for more pearls from Melinda, click here.) “That doesn’t make sense,” she offered. “The whole universe is already within their body, which means the massage is already within their tissues. I don’t have to channel or direct anything.”

Many massage therapists have a prayer they say before they give a session. Melinda’s observation helped me write mine:

“This massage is already present in my client’s tissues, in their cells, even in their atoms. My only job is to stay present, be patient, and allow the massage to move itself into my relaxed and receptive hands.”

Maybe the true power of the mind is not to heal but to witness. That is the only thread of connection I can find between a congregation in Rockport, Texas reaching out to touch the face of a child in Oklahoma, and the Buddhist community that gathered to chant at Jackie’s bedside. They both gathered simply to bear witness to the beauty, terror, and ultimately unknowable mystery of what it is to live and die in a human body.


About madyoga

Yoga Teacher and Massage Therapist in Sacramento, CA
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6 Responses to The Limits of Limitless Healing

  1. Ryan says:

    Powerful, powerful stuff here. I’ll say more when I’m ready. But for now, thank you.

  2. Ann Wehrman says:

    Thank you, Madeleine. This is so deep and subtle, both your understanding of the power a living human being holds to heal his/herself and your understanding that for each of us, life here leads to death. Thank you for sharing Joy’s story and the rest of your post.

  3. Mel Hunt says:

    I stopped volunteering for our local breast cancer group because I couldn’t wrap my brain around all they did to uphold the survivors (which I also felt was a beautiful thing, I know it did so much for so many women…but…) and how little to support those “losing the battle”. I couldn’t seem to figure out how to do any better myself and I’m still not sure, but I feel these are important issues. I knew a woman similar to your Jackie, and it was a gift to be with her.

    I come from a very skeptical (ok, cynical, maybe even) point of view on many of these things – but I’m doing my best to be in the mystery of it with all the things I can’t explain. Joy’s story & your friend Melinda’s take… Thank you for sharing these & your thought & words here.

  4. blh says:

    Tears in my eyes reading Joy’s story, and tears in my eyes reading Jackie’s story. Her valiance and the horrible injustice of her illness touches me, but I also felt incredibly grateful (and sort of validated) for what you said about cancer survivors. It does feel like a fight. But it’s certainly not a fair one. Do you know in some circles, I am not even considered a Survivor because my illness is metastatic? Yet I am alive, and I live on, and yes, someday I’ll die, and we all will. Thank you for writing so eloquently about this Great Mystery of healing and life and death.

  5. So beautiful–and so much here to think on. This is something that’s ever present in my own life as my dad has cancer. It’s been fascinating to watch people’s responses to it, especially my immediate family. I was, at first, highly resistant to any religious explanations for times when he is in remission. But I’ve seen how much this explanation means to some of those family members and, as you point out, see how it is maybe not so different from my own beliefs when it’s all boiled down. In truth, I really don’t know what to make of it, but I’m doing my best to hold space and approach it with openness vs. just shutting it out.

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