In his book Timeless Healing: the Power and Biology of Belief, Dr Herbert Benson, M.D., talks about a study made by Dr Stewart Wolf in 1950. The subjects of Dr Wolf’s study were women who experienced persistent nausea and vomiting during pregnancy. These women were administered a medicine and were told that the medicine would stop their vomiting. The medicine given to them was the syrup of ipecac, a substance that actually causes vomiting. It is a drug that is commonly used for inducing vomiting in case of food poisoning and so on. As a result of the medication, however, the women’s nausea and vomiting ceased. Because the women believed they were getting anti-nausea medicines, they reversed the powerful medicine. “Even though many of us stock our medicine cabinets and first aid kits with ipecac to bring about vomiting in case of poisoning,” says Dr Benson, “these pregnant women with documented stomach distress thwarted the action of a drug that should have made them even sicker. With beliefs alone, they cured themselves.”
Dr Benson discusses another similar study conducted in 1988 in London. “For three or four decades”, says Dr Benson, “dentists have used ultrasound frequencies transmitted through a small hand-held device called a transducer to massage to patient’s face after [dental] surgery to reduce pain and swelling and to hasten healing. But dentistry does not know of any physiologic reasons why this technique works.” In the study, some patients were given the ultrasound transducer facial massage by the doctor according to the usual practice. Another group was given a mock massage by the doctor, with the transducer kept at zero frequency. Both groups were assured prior to surgery that the use of the ultrasound would reduce postoperative pain and swelling. When the results were compared, both the groups were found to have 30 percent less swelling compared to the control group which was not given the massage.
Once again we see here the power of belief in action.
Just as beliefs can heal, beliefs can also cause diseases and death.
Voodoo and other forms of black magic are examples of belief causing death of people. Another physician, Dr Herbert Basedow reports a case of voodoo he witnessed among tribal Australians. Death happens because the witch doctor ritually points a bone at a man and the man believes he would die because his culture tells him that he would die when the witch doctor does this.
Here is the report from Dr Basedow:
“The man who discovers that he is being boned is, indeed a pitiable sight. He stands aghast, with his eyes staring at the treacherous pointer, and with his hand lifted as though to ward off the lethal medium, which he imagines is pouring into his body. His cheeks blanch and his eyes become glassy, and the expression of his face becomes horribly distorted ... He attempts to shriek but usually the sound chokes in his throat and all that one might see is froth at his mouth. His body begins to tremble and the muscles twist involuntarily. He sways backwards and falls to the ground, and after a short time appears to be in a swoon; but soon after he writhes as if in a moral agony, and covering his face with his hands, begins to moan . . . His death is only a matter of comparatively short time.”
Beliefs can be empowering or self-limiting.
Most leaders are empowered by their beliefs. They have enormous faith in themselves and their vision and mission.
Mahatma Gandhi was a leader who drew enormous power from his beliefs. In his Autobiography, Dr Rajendra Prasad, the first President of independent India and a leader of the freedom movement, discusses his own reaction, and the reaction of other national leaders, to Gandhi’s decision to go start the Salt Satyagraha.
Subsequent to the Lahore Congress and the decision to celebrate 26th January as the Independence Day of India, Gandhiji decided to begin nationwide Satyagraha again. He wanted to begin it by breaking the salt law, which Gandhi said was what made salt, which is an essential requirement for even the poorest of the poor, expensive. But for the law, he said, salt could be had either for free or at a nominal rate by everyone. It is the tax imposed by the British that made salt expensive. Such was the state of affairs in the country that because of its unaffordable price, many poor people were not in a position to use enough salt in their food. Gandhi believed that salt should be free, as air and water are – that is how God has created it. It is for this reason that Gandhi believed that there is no worse tax than the salt tax and if you explained to people breaking the salt law as the next step in satyagraha, the common man would easily understand it and so would the world.
However, apart from Nehru, hardly anyone in the top leadership of the freedom movement was in support of Gandhi. Those who did not agree with Gandhi included Rajendra Prasad himself. Prasad and others felt that the British government cannot be forced unless pressure was put on it and breaking something as simple as the salt law would not put any pressure on the government. Also, another objection was that breaking the salt law and making salt was okay with people living close to the sea – but how are the people in places like Bihar and UP, which have no beaches, to break the salt law? People who lived close to the sea were a minority in India and the majority of Indians lived away from the sea.
Rajendra Prasad and others argued that the idea of making salt freely from the sea without paying tax for it to anyone might inspire people like the Noniyas [Salt-makers, a community whose traditional profession is making salt], but it will not inspire the others. “Will the educated people be inspired by the idea of each one breaking the law and making salt?” they asked Gandhiji. Everyone requested Gandhiji to choose some other symbolic act for breaking the law because something like making salt would be a definite non-starter. Rajendra Prasad himself suggested that the best thing, at least for Bihar, would be breaking something like chowkidari tax, which everyone had to pay.
In spite of practically everyone disagreeing with him and opposing him, Gandhiji’s belief in his scheme remained unshakeable. And on the basis of his faith, the salt satyagraha began. As history tells us, the salt satyagraha caught the imagination of the nation and the world and was a total success. It moved the masses at all levels as nothing else that Gandhi and the Congress had done before.
There is another interesting side to this story, related to belief. Prasad who saw no chance of the salt satyagraha succeeding had, in spite of his seeing no chance for the satyagraha to succeed, complete faith in Gandhi and his beliefs. He had learnt, says Prasad in his Autobiography, that Gandhiji saw far beyond the perception of others like him and because of this, he had developed implicit faith in Gandhiji’s beliefs. On the strength of this faith, Prasad and others supported Gandhiji on the salt satyagraha, which eventually turned out of be the greatest success so far in the history of India’s freedom struggle.
The success of the Dandi March and the salt satyagraha is a testimony to one man’s faith in the impossible and the faith of the other people in one man’s ability to make the impossible possible.
The power of belief could be used in one’s favour, as Gandhiji did, or against one, as some of us do. Losers use the power of belief against themselves, and winners use it in their favour. Losers believe they are helpless and totally dependent on their environment and as a consequence they become helpless and totally dependent on their environment. Losers surrender to what they call fate or destiny, and avoid becoming responsible for their own lives. Losers are paralyzed by the fear of the unknown and refuse to try out new things. They become, as Born to Win, the Transactional Analysis classic by Muriel James and Dorothy Jongeward says, “repeaters, repeating not only their own mistakes, but often those of their families and culture as well.” Winners, instead, challenge self-limiting beliefs – their own, and those of their families and communities, and at times, of the entire world.
All leaders believe in the impossible and make the impossible possible through their belief. It is perhaps for this reason that great leaders appear God-like to us. One of the definitions of God in the Indian culture is the one who makes the impossible possible. He does this, says the Indian vision, through his power called Maya, which is defined as aghatita-ghatana-patiyasi - the power to make possible what has never happened before. In leaders we call this power charisma.
All great leaders know that the past does not equal the future. Past failures do not paralyse their wings. Or else they would be like the little bird that failed the first time it attempted flight and never flew again.