In one of my sessions earlier this week in a training programme for young engineers from Tata Steel held at the Centre for Excellence, Jamshedpur, one of the topics we discussed was managing the mind – something every executive should know in today’s world. The job of an executive today is more challenging than it has ever been in the past. His pace of work is hectic and unrelenting, and the content of his work is varied and fragmented. Much of his work is reactive rather than proactive in nature, requiring him to react to decisions taken by others and actions initiated by others. The decision making processes are disorderly, characterised more by confusion and emotionality than by rationality and frequently involve hard negotiations. Besides, organizational politics and self-serving interests of individuals and groups complicate the process further. Under such conditions, an executive who does not know how to manage his mind ends up as a total failure.
Our discussion on managing the mind led to a discussion about the mind’s power to heal and to cause diseases. Though this would have been strange to doctors from the western world to accept until a couple of decades ago, I do not think there is any sensible doctor in the world today who does not believe in the power of stress to cause diseases. About seventy percent of all our medical problems, for instance, are believed to arise from stress and stress related reasons. As far as skin diseases are considered, experts say that most of them are related one way or other to stress.
I would like to explore here in some depth a topic that we only touched upon in the training programme, since the topic was really beyond the scope of the training. Is there then any connection between stress and cancer? Is the mind in any way involved in the development and growth of cancer? Can he mind heal cancer?
Dr Carl Simonton is one of the doctors who strongly believe that the mind is involved in the development of cancer and since it is involved, it can also help in the healing of cancer. In fact, he believes that any treatment of cancer that does not take the mind into consideration is bound to be ineffective. “The mind, the emotions, and the attitude of a patient play a role in both the development of the disease and in the response that a patient has to any form of treatment,” he says. True, he does not abandon conventional treatments like radiation in treating cancer. But such is his faith in the power of the mind to cause diseases and to heal them that he invariably uses meditation and other forms of mind-based healing techniques in all his treatments along with surgery and chemotherapy.
Dr Simonton’s journey into mind-based healing began in 1969 while he was doing his internship in radiation therapy at the University of Oregon Medical Centre in the United States. One of the observations he made during this period was that while some patients receiving the treatment did not make much progress, others beat all kinds of odds and made great progress. In a few cases, a few patients who had almost no chances of survival lived on for years. He questioned why this was so.
In his discussions with the patients, Dr Simonton realized that the patients who survived were those who refused to accept the verdict of the doctors about the certainty of their end. In some cases, people felt that they could not afford to die at the moment because they had so much to do.
Incidentally this later feeling was something that Dr Viktor Frankl, the developer of logotherapy, had enquired into deeply. Dr Frankl was an inmate of Nazi concentration camps in Germany during the second world war. He observed that while the unimaginably horrid conditions of the bestial concentration camps killed the vast majority of the inmates, a few people survived in the camps too. He himself was a survivor, despite finding, to quote from the Preface of his bestselling book Man’s Search for Meaning, “himself stripped to naked existence. His father, mother, brother, and his wife died in camps or were sent to the gas ovens, so that, excepting for his sister, his entire family perished in these camps. How could he—every possession lost, every value destroyed, suffering from hunger, cold and brutality, hourly expecting extermination—how could he find life worth preserving?”
His enquiry into the reasons for his own and other people’s survival led him to conclude that those who survived were the ones who had deeper commitments in life – those who had a compelling reason to live on, a purpose to live for. In other words, those who found meaning in living. If you still found meaning in living, you lived on, and if you found no meaning in life, you surrendered to death. Based on his observations, he developed what is known as logotherapy, a sister science of psychotherapy. Logotherapy helps people to find meaning in life and through that meaning develop the will to live on and find the strength to fight their problems..
As I write this, a report in the local edition of The Hindustan Times [dated 17th March, 2010] says in my small city of Jamshedpur alone 57 people have committed suicide so far this year. Which is a shockingly huge number – 57 people choosing to end their lives in two and a half months, most of them young! The figure was given in connection with the report of a young girl, a class eleven student, in one of the leading schools committing suicide on the previous day and a boy ending his life the day before.
People, young and old, commit suicide when they find there is no point in living on anymore. When they lose meaning in life, when they lose purpose.
And, concluded both Dr Viktor Frankl and Dr Carl Simonton, people succumb to diseases and death when they lose meaning in life, when they lose purpose. And they refuse to succumb to death so long as there is something for them to live for.
One person told Dr Simonton, “I can’t die until my son graduates.” Another said, “I can’t die until I see my grandchild.”
Dr Simonton says, “They didn’t die until they wanted to. I couldn’t help wondering if maybe something as simple as the will to live could alter the prognosis of cancer.”
Hope. Things to look forward to.
Dr Simonton’s next step was in trying to find out if there was a connection between the opposite factors and the beginning of cancer. Was there any connection between hopelessness and cancer? Between having nothing to look to forward to and cancer? Between meaninglessness and purposelessness and the origin of cancer?
His enquiries led him to statements such as “I felt trapped,” and “I had nothing to live for.” These were the feelings of patients who were suffering from cancer at the time of the development of cancer. Some were people who had found that all their chances of making a living after retirement were closed. Some others couldn’t get along with their spouses. Yet others had nothing to do. “It seemed as if the mind had decided to die on at a less than fully conscious level, and the body simply found a way.”
Can cancer then be psychologically induced?
Dr Simonton’s asked himself, “Everyone has cancer many times during his lifetime, but most people don’t realize it. What is unusual in cancer is not that malignant cells arise, since in the day-in-day-out replacement of billions of cells, some ‘bad cells’ do get made. But at times, and for some reason, the body allows these ‘bad cells’ to grow when it normally, routinely, reorganizes them as abnormal and destroys them. Why, then, in these instances, does the normally operative immunological system break down?” And he concludes that it must be because the mind lowers host resistance to these cells.
Under conditions of hopelessness and purposelessness, when there is no will to live, the mind does not resist the cancerous cells. It ‘permits’ the cancerous cells to grow and spread.
His next question to himself was: “How the hell could I bring about the will to live in someone who felt badly enough about life to develop cancer in the first place? How could I change such a defeatist attitude, one made worse by having cancer? How could I mobilise the power of the mind to affect the immunological response to cancer?”
His answer to the question was something that we in the east have practiced for ages: meditation.
He asked his patients to meditate for fifteen minutes, three times a day. He asked them to physically relax during these meditations, and then, in the next stage, to visualize a natural scene of peace and serenity. In the third stage, the patients were told to visualize vividly, in total clarity, the immune system systematically destroying the cancerous cells. The visualization involved something that was new then but has become an old method now: Patients visualize that an army of white blood cells are attacking, destroying and carrying away the cancerous cells.
One woman used the vacuum cleaner technique – visualizing that the white blood cells form a vacuum cleaner and suck in the diseased cells. A young man visualized what is going on inside him was the timeless battle between the powers of darkness and the powers of light in which the powers of light destroyed the powers of darkness.
And then at the end of this visualization, the patient begins the final visualization. He sees himself, with complete clarity, as totally cured of the disease and being in perfect health.
The visualizations are repeated exactly as they are, three times a day, day after day.
The practice produced amazing results. It was found that those who were cooperative with Dr Simonton’s meditation programme and followed his instructions achieved excellent results while those who were uncooperative and did not follow instructions fared poorly. Dr Simonton defined excellent results as ‘marked relief of symptoms and dramatic improvement of condition’ and poor results as ‘no relief of symptoms.’
In the cases of both kinds of patients, conventional forms of treatment had been given along with meditation. Which is to say that while conventional treatment was an important element in the healing process, meditation was another significant element.
Of course, the patients’ will to live was yet another significant aspect of the whole process.
The mind does have power over cancer.
In his book The Healing Mind: the Vital Links between Brain and Behaviour, Immunity and Disease, Dr Paul Martin, who is more cautious about the powers of the mind, says:”There is now little doubt that psychological and emotional factors can influence the development and progression of certain cancers... Psychological variables such as social support and the patient’s emotional response to their disease have substantial bearing on survival. Equally, there is little doubt that appropriate psychological and social interventions can be of enormous benefit in helping cancer patients to cope with their disease, improving the quality of what remains of their lives and, in some cases, extending their survival time. To ignore the mind is an irresponsible waste.”
According to Dr Paul Martin, “The termination of a close relationship, whether through death, divorce or other means, has often been linked with cancer. When American psychologist Lawrence LeShan looked at more than four hundred cancer patients he discovered that a remarkably high proportion [72 percent] had suffered the loss of someone close to them not long before the onset of their cancer. In contrast, only 10 percent of comparable people without cancer had suffered such a loss.”
The link between the sense of hopelessness and cancer is so high that one might even say that it can be used to predict cancer. In a study, women undergoing cervical smear test were interviewed before their test results were available. And it was found that “women who expressed feelings of hopelessness during the interview had the greatest likelihood of being diagnosed of having a malignant tumour. The interview alone predicted the results of the smear test in over three-quarters of cases.”
Two thousand and six hundred years ago, the Buddha said in the first verse of the first chapter of the Dhammapada: “All that we are, is the result of what we have thought: It is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts.”
A lot of things that ancient masters have said and many things that psychology and psychoneuroimmunology tell us today suggest that sickness and health are personal choices we make.
Note: In writing this article, I am deeply indebted to an essay on Carl Simonton in a book by David Hammond on the powers of the mind [The book is not exactly about healing. It is called The Search for Psychic Power. The chapter on Dr Carl Simonton, however, is about healing.].