Do Healers Really Heal?

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We asked some of America's leading authors and healers 'Do healers really heal?' and 'How does healing occur?' We received every possible response: yes, no, yes and no, maybe... Here, edited for brevity, is a sampling of their replies.

Jeanne Achterberg, Ph.D., is professor of psychology at Saybrook Institute in San Francisco, senior editor of Alternative Therapies in Health & Medicine, and the author of Imagery in Healing and Rituals of Healing.

I can't answer the question 'Do healers really heal' directly because it depends, first of all, on how the word healer is being defined, and what it is healers are healing people of or from. My personal definition is that healers are those who have chosen a vocation of helping others recover from 'disease' in some capacity. And I believe disease is a rupture in life's harmony -- whether it be in matters typically identified as physical, mental, or spiritual. Other than that, healers, healing, and what is classified as disease have so much cultural variation that there simply cannot be an easy, unqualified answer to your questions. We must remember that there is no universal manifestation, diagnosis, or treatment of any disease -- particularly those that involve the deepest, most difficult matters of the soul.

However, I do not believe, under any circumstances, that healers (however they are defined) can induce cliff-hanging, long-lasting, important cures. People heal themselves. Healers can only gently facilitate the process with their wisdom, therapy, and presence. Now, with that said, individuals who are sanctioned within their cultures as healers are able to help others (with a higher degree of regularity than nonhealers) with the diseases that are peculiar (or at least idiosyncratically labeled) within the cultural milieu. Otherwise, they are not trusted by the community, their ways of healing die out, and the paradigm shifts. Human beings are empiricists who may be occasionally misguided in their choices of healers and healing practices, but not for long. With rare exceptions, it seems that healers of a particular ilk may only be able to help others who share a common belief system and worldview.

I have no 'hard' data to support my opinion -- only anthropological lore and my years of research and clinical observation. But true, remarkable healing seems to be a function of restoring or reweaving the torn fabric of life in some way. The healee is brought back into a resonant harmony with the community, the planet, and his or her relationships in the broadest fashion imaginable. Rituals appropriate to the situation -- pills, potions, chants, surgery, or whatever -- seem to be only the visible, technical, and highly variant aspects of healing. The vital factors in the healing process, however, transcend all of these and include intention, motivation, trust, and something as ineffable as passion for living. When suffering and tragedy are transformed and colored with meaning and purpose, healing has surely occurred, by whatever means and under whatever circumstances.

Michael Baldwin is president of Baldwin Brothers, an investment firm in Marion, Massachusetts, and founder of the Marion Foundation, which researches the potentials of body/mind/spirit, and the Buddhaya Foundation, which supports the work of Tibetan Buddhist scholars in America.

Healers catalyze healing. There is no enduring healing without some kind of internal change in the diseased person. The body heals itself, activated by its own 'internal doctor' -- a combination of belief, peace of mind, and biochemical reactions aligned with a conscious projection of health.

Marc Barasch is the author of The Healing Path (Penguin, 1995) and co-author of Remarkable Recovery (Putnam, 1995). He is a contributing editor of Psychology Today, former editor-in-chief of New Age Journal, and a former cancer patient.

Healing is a resonance; a gestalt; a collaborative art. Healers, whether they are doctors or shamans, are able to heal (as opposed to merely cure) through a deep mutuality with their patients -- through the potent magic of fellow feeling. Their hallmark is an ability to reawaken within the sufferer the life force that sustains us all, that 'through the green fuse drives the flower.' Through gesture and word, ritual and (where applicable) pharmaceutical, they make direct appeal to the innate healing system -- that still unexplored metasystem that mobilizes immune, endocrine, circulatory, nervous, and other systems (and perhaps even subtle 'energies') to restore the blueprint of wholeness.

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