Alternative Medicines, Alternative Worldviews
Alternative Medicines, Alternative Worldviews
Abstract and Keywords
Many of America's alternative healing systems function as vehicles for the transmission of alternative spiritual philosophies. Chiropractic medicine, Osteopathy, Holistic Healing, Therapeutic Touch, and Alcoholics Anonymous are but a few of the alternative healing systems that have deep roots in the American metaphysical tradition. So, too, do various New Age healing practices such as color or crystal healing that believe in the existence of “subtle energies.” It is clear that many of those who are drawn to our alternative healing systems do so not just for relief from physical ailments but also for spiritual growth and edification.
In the early 1990s, Time magazine ran a cover story on the growing interest in alternative medicine. “New Age medicine is catching on,” readers were told. “Fed up with surgery, drugs, and quick fixes from their doctors, Americans are turning to an array of alternative therapies ranging from the believable to the bizarre.”1 The article went on to say that this turn toward alternative medicine is usually motivated by sheer desperation. People with terminal illnesses who have exhausted conventional treatment options might understandably turn to therapies at the margins of scientific respectability. They are willing to try healing systems that run the gamut from those that have some scientific respectability (osteopathy, chiropractic, acupuncture) to the “frankly bizarre” (reflexology, crystal healing, color healing). The implication is that Americans who consider alternative medicine are consciously turning away from the cultural mainstream and turning, at least temporarily, toward the cultural fringe. The further (p.102) implication is that such people are behaving in a way that is somehow inconsistent with “normal” middle‐class behavior.
In fact, however, the “turn” to unconventional therapies is something that happens within mainstream, middle‐class culture. Beginning with mesmerism, hydropathy, homeopathy, and mindcure in the nineteenth century, interest in alternative medical systems has largely been a middle‐class phenomenon. Moreover, the vast majority of those who become enthusiasts of alternative medicines aren't medically desperate. On the contrary, they are typically healthy individuals who are exploring avenues to even higher levels of health and well‐being. They are drawn to these novel medical theories not so much for their alternative treatments as their alternative theories about body‐mind‐spirit interaction. Alternative medicines almost invariably promulgate alternative worldviews. They provide clients with unconventional theories of human nature, often including frankly metaphysical views of the human potential to achieve harmony with higher healing powers. Alternative medicines have thus provided many middle‐class Americans with their first introduction to exciting new philosophical and spiritual perspectives on life.
Religion and Medicine: Uneasy Connections
The last 300 years of Western history have witnessed the “official” separation of religion and medicine. Before the Scientific Revolution, religion dominated the popular understanding of disease and medical treatment. The church focused attention on the role of spiritual factors in causing illness. Disease was thus often thought to be due to personal sin or the phenomenon of spirit possession. Appropriate treatments were thought to require supernatural techniques such as petitionary prayer, confession, or exorcism. Medical science as we know it today emerged by repudiating this worldview. Medicine, much like religion, gradually developed its own orthodox system of beliefs and practices. Medical orthodoxy was defined by its commitment to the belief that disease is caused by physical or material factors. The impressive advances made by medical science gradually pushed religious explanations to the far fringes of intellectual and cultural respectability. Western religious institutions have had little choice but to concede the realm of medicine to science. Churches have for the most part been content with a clear‐cut division of labor (p.103) whereby they have become responsible for the cure of souls while medical professionals are entrusted with the cure of bodies. Conventional religion and conventional medicine seem comfortable maintaining this official wall of separation.
The popularity of alternative medicines suggests that a sizable number of Americans subscribe to beliefs that don't quite fit into conventional science or conventional religion. By questioning the materialistic theory of disease, they have challenged our culture's orthodox worldview. Both medical and religious authorities have predictably labeled advocates of alternative medicine irrational. Strictly speaking, however, any medical system is rational if its methods of treatment are logically entailed by its fundamental premises concerning the nature of disease. Alternative medicines are thus not necessarily less logical than scientific medicine, but many do adhere to a very different set of assumptions about the nature of reality. Many alternative medicines operate according to a worldview that recognizes the existence, and causal activity, of metaphysical forces. Their theories and practices consequently introduce patients into a religiously charged interpretation of reality (albeit one very different from the theology of most churches).
The point here is that the continued popularity of alternative healing practices in American culture cannot be explained exclusively in terms of simple ignorance or desperation on the part of the terminally ill. A study of alternative medical systems reported in the New England Journal of Medicine found that the demographic profile of the most frequent users of these unconventional therapies was “nonblack persons from 25 to 49 years of age who had relatively more education and higher incomes.”2 These individuals were far less likely to have life‐threatening conditions than to be seeking relief from a chronic condition. They may well be desperate to get better, but they had time to make informed decisions about the cures they might experimentally use. Furthermore, most had consulted a medical doctor, indicating that they were supplementing rather than abandoning conventional medicine. It would seem, then, that the persistence and popularity of alternative healing systems must be due to more than simple ignorance or last‐minute panic.
A closer look at the role of alternative medicines in American culture suggests that a major reason for their continued popularity is that they articulate spiritually significant ways of viewing the world.3 (p.104) Healing systems have performed this role throughout the course of world history. In archaic societies, healing rituals involve the reenactment of cosmological dramas: the shaman is not only a healer but also a mystagogue who mediates between the divine and human realms. In early Christianity, healing was both a sign of Jesus's divine nature and a manifestation of the world‐altering power of God. The Christian Church institutionalized Jesus' healing activity and made it an important part of Christian proclamation and ministry.4 It was therefore fairly predictable that as the Church gradually abandoned its healing practices, alternative systems would “rediscover” the power of healing to bring individuals to an existential encounter with a sacred reality.
Not every system of alternative medicine has a spiritual dimension. For example, nutritional and exercise therapies usually seek to strengthen the body's own recuperative abilities and rarely make references to metaphysical energies. Many massage and breathing systems likewise make no claims concerning extrasomatic forces.5 Yet alternative healing systems are considered “unorthodox” precisely to the degree that they propound alternative worldviews. Their healing techniques are frequently predicated on the belief that under certain conditions more‐than‐worldly energies enter into, and exert sanative influences on, the human body. Thus, while not all alternative medicines embody a spiritual orientation to life, most do.
Chiropractic Medicine's Metaphysical Heritage
Daniel David Palmer (1845–1913) began his career as a grocer and fish peddler in What Cheer, Iowa. Palmer lacked formal education, but he read widely and was drawn to novel ideas. One of these novel ideas was spiritualism. Palmer's exposure to spiritualism taught him the vocabulary of nineteenth‐century metaphysical movements. He subsequently met up with a mesmeric healer who tutored him in magnetic healing. Palmer procured several books on mesmeric healing that were to remain central texts in his personal library for the rest of his life. Having found his calling, Palmer opened his own magnetic healing practice in Burlington, Iowa, and later moved it to Davenport. Palmer innovated as he went along. Slowly but surely, he pieced together his own variation of mesmeric healing philosophy. As fate would have it, one day a janitor by the name of Harvey Lillard (p.105) stopped by his office. Lillard told Palmer that he had been deaf ever since he had injured his back seventeen years earlier. Palmer asked Lillard to lie down on his couch. He then moved his hands up and down Lillard's spine. He felt an unusual lump at one vertebra and applied pressure with his hands. Palmer felt the vertebra move back into place and, lo and behold, Lillard could hear perfectly.
Similar healing successes followed. Palmer reasoned that misaligned spinal vertebrae must somehow block the flow of vital energy within the body. He concluded that this blockage was the direct cause of disease. It followed that for healing to take place these misplaced vertebrae must be forced back into position so that the energy can once again flow freely throughout the body. Palmer called his new medical philosophy chiropractic from the Greek words cheiro (hand) and prakitos (done or performed). Palmer was, however, not propounding a material or physiological theory of disease. Quite the contrary. Palmer's chiropractic philosophy was predicated on an overtly metaphysical wordview. According to Palmer, the key to understanding both health and disease is realizing that physical life is an expression of a divine force that he called Innate:
What is it that is present in the living body and absent in the dead?. . . . An intelligent force which I saw fit to name Innate, usually known as spirit, creates and continues life when vital organs are in a condition to be acted upon by it. That intelligent life‐force uses the material of the universe just in proportion as it is in a condition to be utilized.6
Palmer reasoned that Innate, as it exists as an energy within the individual human being, is in fact “a segment of that Intelligence which fills the universe.” According to Palmer, “innate is a part of the Creator. Innate spirit is a part of Universal Intelligence, individualized and personified.”7 Palmer went on to explain that Universal Intelligence is the cosmic power that the various world religions call God. As such, Universal Intelligence is what has brought the universe into existence. All living things are rooted in the creative drive of Universal Intelligence. Their purpose is to contribute to this creative process by embodying the drive toward ongoing evolution and development.
The cosmology underlying chiropractic theory was hardly unique to Palmer; it also appeared in much of the mesmerist and spiritualist literature with which Palmer was familiar. Chiropractic theory built on these metaphysical views, trying to trace the physiological routes (p.106) through which Innate spirit directs the life processes within the human body. Palmer concluded that Innate works through the brain to generate vital impulses, which in turn travel along nerve pathways to their various destinations. It is consequently imperative that the spinal column be perfectly aligned so that this vital energy can travel unobstructed throughout the physical system. Displacements of the vertebrae, called subluxations by Palmer, disrupt the flow of the Innate‐generated nerve impulses. As a consequence, one or more area of the body will be severed from Innate and will begin to atrophy. As the cover of the Palmer School of Chiropractic Medicine's official publication, The Chiropractor, put it, “We are all well when Innate Intelligence has unhindered freedom to act thru the physical brain, nerves and tissues. Diseases are caused by a LACK OF CURRENT OF INNATE MENTAL IMPULSES.”8 The manipulative therapy that Palmer designed to correct vertebral dislocations was thus one more variation on the mesmerists' magnets and hand gestures—a physical technique intended to align persons in such a way as to make them more receptive to the working of a higher spiritual power.
Palmer's son, B. J. Palmer (1881–1961), left his own mark on the theory and practice of chiropractic medicine. For over fifty years he directed the training of chiropractic physicians and tried to keep chiropractic medicine firmly rooted in its metaphysical foundations. B. J. Palmer believed that chiropractic had discovered that God, in the form of Innate, is present within each human being. There was now a scientific basis for understanding humanity's relationship with God. In one fell swoop chiropractic had made both conventional religion and conventional medicine obsolete. As he put it, “Everything that man could ask or pray for he has within. . . . The Chiropractor removes the obstruction, adjusts the cause, and there are going to be effects.”9
Not all chiropractic's physicians were enthusiastic about the Palmers' metaphysical theories. They were well aware that opponents of chiropractic medicine repeatedly attacked the concept of Innate as untestable and hence unscientific. Most chiropractic physicians wanted to acquire scientific respectability. They were especially eager to earn the respect of medical doctors and become eligible for reimbursement from insurance companies. Most consequently ignored the metaphysical foundations of their medical movement. The majority (p.107) of the 40,000 chiropractic physicians currently practicing in the United States have relegated the Palmers' writings to dusty archives and instead focus their efforts on treating the physical causes of muscoloskeletal disorders.
Nevertheless, the aura of metaphysical discovery continues to count among the reasons why nine million people visit chiropractic physicians each year. A significant minority of chiropractic doctors remain committed to introducing their patients to theories that are steeped in America's occult and metaphysical heritage. As Eugene Linden reported in a feature on alternative medicine for Time magazine, the chiropractic physician he visited for lower‐back pain considered it just as important to give him “a line of Eastern philosophy” as a spinal adjustment. Linden recounts that “at first I found Christoph's messianic zeal as off‐putting as the detached manner of the doctor in my H.M.O. Then Christoph checked my ‘energy centers.’ . . . Deficiencies in my sixth (or was it fifth?) ‘chakra’ notwithstanding, once Christoph had finished his Procrustean pullings, crackings and pushings, the pain was gone and I felt 20 lbs. lighter.”10
It appears an increasing number of chiropractors share Christoph's spiritual interests and are proudly reclaiming their movement's metaphysical heritage. Many have now added acupuncture to their healing repertoire. Acupuncture is rooted in Chinese religious belief concerning a subtle spiritual energy known as ch'i. As the case of Christoph illustrates, many chiropractors draw eclectically from America's occult and metaphysical traditions. Christoph's reference to chakras reveals how fully he expects his clientele to be familiar with, or at least receptive to, terminology drawn from alternative spiritual philosophies. When G. F. Riekman, a chiropractic physician and former professor at Sherman College of Chiropractic, was asked to summarize chiropractic's distinctive philosophy for The Holistic Health Handbook, he described it as “New Age philosophy, science, and art”:
The chiropractic philosophy is based on the deductive principle that the Universe is perfectly organized, and that we are all extensions of this principle, designed to express life (health) and the universal laws. Since vertebral subluxations (spinal‐nerve interference) are the grossest interference with the expression of life, the practice of chiropractic is designed to analyze these subluxations, so that the organism will be free to evolve and express life to its fullest natural potential.11
(p.108) Most people who visit a chiropractic physician probably learn little or nothing about chiropractic's metaphysical heritage. Yet, for a sizable minority, this visit to an alternative healer becomes an introduction to an alternative spiritual philosophy.
Discovering the “Higher Self”: Holistic Healing
During the late 1970s, there was a noticeable surge of interest in “holistic” medicine. The holistic healing movement was partly a reaction against the impersonal character of medical science. As the Time magazine article on New Age medicine noted, people are fed up with surgery, drugs, and quick fixes from their doctors. They want attention paid to psychological and emotional aspects of healing. They would like medical professionals to spend as much time promoting optimal health as they do curing disease. And many hope to reintroduce a boldly spiritual perspective to contemporary understandings of medicine and healing.
The basic premise of holistic medicine is that “every human being is a unique, wholistic, interdependent relationship of body, mind, emotions, and spirit.”12 This appears at first glance to be a fairly bland truism. It seems to be more exhortatory than intellectual, intended to remind health care practitioners that patients deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. Yet on closer inspection it proposes a fairly radical understanding of health and medicine. By introducing the term spirit alongside body, mind, and emotions, advocates of holistic medicine were going well beyond current models of psychosomatic medicine (which recognize the connection between our body, mind, and emotions). They were openly breaching the time‐honored wall of separation between religious and scientific understandings of medicine. Spokespersons for holistic medicine were suggesting that there is a spiritual aspect to human nature that somehow transcends our physical and psychological nature. More important, they were claiming that this spiritual element plays a causal role in our sickness and health. Holistic healing theories invited people to adopt both an alternative medical theory and an alternative religious worldview.
Typical of overviews of holistic medicine was Herbert Otto and James Knight's edited volume, Dimensions in Wholistic Healing: New Frontiers in the Treatment of the Whole Person. Knight and Otto say that holistic approaches to medicine are unique in that they place (p.109) “reliance on treatment modalities that foster the self‐regenerative and self‐reparative processes of natural healing.”13 The final source of these self‐regenerative processes is neither physical nor psychological. It is metaphysical. Knight and Otto explain that “everyone is part of a larger system.” Holistic healing requires individuals to make appropriate changes in their spiritual understanding so that they can “open the pathways or flows and harmonics necessary to unfold the channels of the self within the body and the self within the world, the Universe, and God.”14 Thus what began as a rather mild acknowledgment of the body's self‐recuperative abilities slides imperceptibly into the same metaphysical doctrine of “influx” found in such other carriers of unchurched American religious thought as Swedenborgianism, Transcendentalism, mesmerism, and Theosophy.
Kenneth Pelletier's Holistic Medicine also exemplifies the way in which holistic medicine introduces alternative spiritualities. Like nearly all of the movement's defenders, Pelletier begins by appealing to recent research in the field of psychosomatic medicine. The discovery that an individual's mental and emotional states can directly affect physiological processes has established the fact that medicine must now acknowledge the role that nonmaterial factors have in both the cause and treatment of disease. He writes, “A fundamental philosophical revision is taking place in our paradigm of medicine. Central to this revision is the concept that all stages of disease are psychosomatic in etiology, direction, and the healing process.”15 It quickly becomes evident, however, that psychosomatic interaction alone hardly covers the fundamental revision he has in mind. Pelletier's “new paradigm” is far less concerned with our mental or emotional curative powers than with the supervenient power of spirit. Pelletier urges us to abandon Western notions of matter and energy and adopt the Chinese yin/yang philosophy, which traces all physiological processes back to their ultimate spiritual source (the Tao). He also endorses the general theories of Fritjof Capra's The Tao of Physics. Capra's book is cited by many advocates of holistic healing because it invokes both the “new physics” and Eastern mystical philosophies to argue that there is no final distinction between matter and energy (spirit). This suggests to Pelletier and others that spiritual energies are capable of exerting causal influences within the physical universe. Pelletier's anecdotal illustration of this new view of healing is revealing. He reports that a Zen practitioner healed herself of diabetes (p.110) and cardiac irregularities by turning within and opening “a tiny hole of light” through which spirit entered and enveloped her whole being with healing energies.
Two of the best‐known spokespersons for holistic healing have been Norman Cousins and Bernard Siegel. Cousins, former editor of the Saturday Review, contracted a serious illness for which his physicians gave a rather bleak prognosis. His Anatomy of an Illness (1979) became a classic indictment of the medical profession's needlessly materialistic vision of the human person.16 In this book Cousins recounts how he willed himself back to health through a deliberate regimen of optimistic and cheerful thinking. The account of his lengthy remission drew a great deal of popular attention to the role of our attitudes in both creating and curing disease. But much like Phineas Quimby in the 1840s, Cousins implied that our attitudes have curative power largely by regulating our inner access to metaphysical energies. In a later work, Human Options, Cousins stated that the mind is connected with a “life‐force” that drives us toward perfectibility: “The human brain is a mirror to infinity. . . . No one knows what great leaps of achievement may be within the reach of the species once the full potentiality of the mind is developed. As we create an ever‐higher sense of our cosmic consciousness, we become aware of our ever‐higher possibilities and challenges.”17
Physician Bernard Siegel has been even more influential in linking ideas of holistic healing with a decidedly metaphysical view of the human condition. Siegel's patients read books on meditation and psychic phenomena to learn practical techniques for tapping into higher healing energies. Outlining the scientific “theophysics” he believes will emerge in the near future, Siegel writes, “If you consider God, and you can use this label scientifically as an intelligent, loving light, then that energy is available to all of us. We are part of it, we have a collective unconscious. . . . If you get people to open to this energy, anything can be healed.”18
Holistic healing methods aspire to expand patients' understanding of themselves and the universe they live in. Actress Shirley MacLaine is a case in point. MacLaine writes that “natural, holistic approaches worked better for me than medicines or drugs. . . . Orthodox Western medicine relied far too heavily on drugs.”19 Her introduction to alternative healing techniques convinced her that she possessed energies or powers that she had never known to exist. Meditation and other (p.111) inner‐healing practices made it possible for her to experience “the most beautiful white light above me. I can't describe how that light felt. It was warm and loving and real. It was real and it was God or something.”20 Having felt herself “vibrating with a strange magnetic energy,” MacLaine realized that the real self is the spiritual self, the soul. She came to believe that we are, even now, spiritual beings who “interface with the energy which we refer to as God.”21 Not everyone is as quick to embrace the gospel of the “higher self” as Miss MacLaine. Indeed, most of those who visit a metaphysically oriented chiropractor or pick up books such as those of Siegel and Cousins probably aren't seeking a new worldview. Many, maybe even most, are secure in their churched religious beliefs and their faith in scientific medicine. They quickly filter out those concepts that don't mesh with their existing views, and only attend to new strategies for strengthening their self‐recuperative powers. But they have at the very least become acquainted with terminology drawn from America's unchurched religious tradition. And many, churched and unchurched alike, discover new and untapped resources residing in their own “higher self.”
Therapeutic Touch and Twelve‐Step Programs
Therapeutic Touch and the many twelve‐step recovery movements spawned by Alcoholics Anonymous are striking examples of how holistic healing movements introduce people to new spiritual philosophies. Dolores Krieger, a nursing instructor at New York University, developed a healing technique predicated on the existence of a universal life energy. Krieger, who has a background in Theosophy, believes that Eastern religions have long understood the concept of life energy in a way that still eludes Western science. She uses the Hindu term prana to identify the energy that she believes is responsible for the entire process of cosmic evolution. Krieger teaches that every living organism is an open system and is continuously connected with this cosmic energy. So long as we remain inwardly connected with prana, we will be healthy. Illness ensues when this connection is severed and some area of the body develops a deficit of prana. The art of healing thus entails the “channeling of this energy flow by the healer for the well‐being of the sick individual.”22
Krieger devised techniques for nurses to “channel” prana into (p.112) patients. What Krieger calls “Therapeutic Touch” recapitulates Mesmer's science of animal magnetism in nearly every detail. She explains, for example, that healers cannot transmit prana to a patient unless they first cultivate their own receptivity to the inflow of this spiritual energy. Healers must learn to purify themselves and open up the various chakras (spiritual centers) through which prana enters our bodies. Healing is thus part of a spiritual way of life. It requires persons to develop a whole new set of mental and spiritual habits. It also requires becoming adept at entering into meditative states of consciousness. Once nurses learn to enhance their own connection with this life‐enhancing power, they are then in a position to channel it to their patients through an elaborate ritual of touching. Much as mesmerists made their passes and D. D. Palmer made his adjustments, nurses trained in Therapeutic Touch use special massage techniques to restore the free flow of prana. According to Krieger, during the healing process both patient and healer experience tingling sensations, pulsation of energy, and a radiation of heat—all tangible evidence of the activation of prana.
Therapeutic Touch is therefore intended to do more than humanize modern medicine by restoring human contact between healer and patient. It is also seeking to introduce a new worldview in which spiritual energies are understood to have a causal power all their own. According to Krieger, instruction in Therapeutic Touch is an “experience in interiority . . . [that] presents you with a rich lode of circumstances through which you can explore and grapple with the farther reaches of the psyche.”23 Opening oneself to the nonmaterial energy underlying physical existence is a “symbolic experience” that initiates an “archetypal journey” that leads newcomers to the spiritual resources residing in the depths of our own consciousness.
Nurses involved with Therapeutic Touch are not the only ones to find themselves suddenly pursuing archetypal journeys. The best known of all holistic therapies—Alcoholics Anonymous—is largely responsible for the widespread popularity of the phrase “spiritual, but not religious.” The principal founder of the movement, Bill Wilson (or simply Bill W., as he is known within the movement), was himself an alcoholic who became acutely aware of his inability to overcome his addiction. Finally, in a moment of desperation, Bill W. found himself crying out, “If there is a God, let Him show Himself! I am ready to do anything, anything!” (p.113)
Suddenly the room lit up with a great white light. I was caught up into an ecstasy which there are no words to describe. . . . All about me and through me there was a wonderful feeling of Presence, and I thought to myself, “So this is the God of the preachers!” A great peace stole over me and I thought, “No matter how wrong things seem to be, they are all right. Things are all right with God and His world.”24
This experience became the paradigm of self‐renewal for Alcoholics Anonymous and the twelve‐step program it created. To this day A.A. stresses the importance of acquiring “an overwhelming ‘God‐consciousness’ followed at once by a vast change in feeling and outlook.”25 Yet despite the ways in which A.A. resembles the evangelical piety of America's Protestant churches, Bill W. was extremely wary of organized religion.26 He was particularly suspicious of the moralism associated with biblical religion. Most alcoholics had had more than their fill of pious admonitions to cease sinning. He rejected traditional religious dogma and confessed that “in all probability, the churches will not supply the answers for a good many of us.”27
A.A.'s disappointment with organized religion was rooted in personal experience. Ministers and lay counselors who tried to rescue alcoholics through forced conversions to Christianity struck Bill W. as more an obstacle to recovery than a help. Yet he observed that “the spiritual worked.”28 In Wilson's mind, the distinction between religion and spirituality is a real one. For him spirituality has to do with recognizing that there is a Higher Power, God. He believed that our highest good comes from letting go of our personal will and finding inner harmony with this fulfilling Other. Wilson devoted a great deal of time and energy describing what he meant by spirituality in nontheological terms. For this purpose he borrowed heavily from the writings of two spiritually oriented psychologists, Carl Jung and William James. Jung had treated Rowland H., another pioneer of A.A., for alcoholism. Jung believed that the alcoholic suffered from personality conflicts so profound as to be curable only through a spiritual experience. Jung himself, however, had also struggled with organized religion. Although his father was a Lutheran minister, Jung ultimately rejected his Christian heritage because he believed it no longer spoke to the modern individual. Jung instead came to speak of God as “the collective unconscious,” a source of healing power available to us at the depths of our own personal consciousness. It was (p.114) from Jung that A.A. borrowed its religious insight that the self must first give way before the regenerative process can begin. Jung's argument was psychological rather than theological. For him it was simply the case that the waking personality is too rationalistic and egocentric to permit higher influences to enter. A.A.'s insistence on the alcoholic's self‐surrender was not motivated by belief in human depravity. A.A.'s spirituality was instead based on the experiences of alcoholics who had given up control of their lives to a Higher Power and, in the process, obtained “God‐consciousness.”
William James was an even greater influence on Bill W.'s innovative spirituality. Shortly after his recovery, Bill W. came upon James's monumental The Varieties of Religious Experience. James's psychological analysis of religious experience emboldened Bill W. to abandon belief in the Bible and church doctrines. He concurred with James's thesis that the “truth” of religion is to be found in personal experiences of a higher power. James argued that religious doctrines are nothing more than attempts to translate these experiences into words. Doctrines are human constructs and thus constrained by their authors' particular cultural background. For James it followed that all religious beliefs must be held tentatively and continuously revised as dictated by new experiences. James thus imparted to modern religious thought its characteristic open‐mindedness and acceptance of the culturally conditioned character of all religious doctrines. Religion of this kind acknowledges diversity and makes allowances for personal differences. It also aspires to be co‐scientific, willing to follow truth wherever it leads. Bill W's statement that William James was a “founder of Alcoholics Anonymous” is not merely a figure of speech. For it was James who gave A.A. a language and metaphysical rationale for a mode of spirituality that is at once deeply personal, optimistic, progressivist, and couched in the essentially therapeutic language of self‐actualization.
Bill W. described A.A. as “a spiritual rather than a religious program”—a phrase that to this day resonates through the movement and all the twelve‐step programs it has spawned.29 Over the years A.A. has accommodated its mainstream clientele by toning down some of its metaphysical overtones and softening its critique of Christian churches. It has nonetheless retained its distinctively spiritual flavor. The group's self‐help manual Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions continues to warn against relying on willpower or one's own (p.115) personal resources. The key to personal regeneration, it insists, is “the feeling of being at one with God and man.”30 A.A. has perpetuated the unique blend of mysticism and pragmatism propounded by such major contributors to unchurched American religious thought as Ralph Waldo Emerson and William James. It holds, for example, that true self‐reliance is possible only once we have connected ourselves with the Other: “The more we become willing to depend upon a higher power, the more independent we actually are.”31 A.A.'s mystical, nonscriptural approach to spiritual regeneration makes it anathema to most of America's religious establishment. Its rejection of physiological factors in favor of such an overtly psychological and even spiritual approach to recovery makes it anathema to the American medical establishment. But its open‐minded and eclectic approach to spiritual regeneration makes it one of the most powerful mediators of wholeness in America today.
New Age Crystal Healing
The basic themes of holistic healing are also found in a number of New Age religious interests. “New Age religion” is a convenient catch‐all term for the resurfacing of the metaphysical currents set in motion a century ago by Transcendentalism, Swedenborgianism, mesmerism, spiritualism, and Theosophy. The New Age movement is characterized by (1) avid interest in Eastern philosophy and meditation practices, (2) continuing belief in the existence of subtle energies that connect the human body with higher cosmic planes, and (3) faith in the power of mind or thought to influence external reality. All have factored into the movement's distinctive understandings of health and healing.
New Age healing philosophies draw on traditions dating back to mesmerism. As we have seen, the mesmerists' use of mystical trance states to open patients to the inflow of healing energies continues to influence alternative medical systems such as Therapeutic Touch. Spiritualists added another dimension to New Age healing lore by using their connection with the spirit world to make diagnoses and prescribe remedies. And, too, Edgar Cayce used his clairvoyant powers to produce volumes of information on topics ranging from herbal remedies to the effect of past‐life karma on health.
In recent years Deepak Chopra has been a prominent advocate for (p.116) New Age medicine. Formerly Chief of Staff at New England Memorial Hospital, Chopra has branched out from medical science to embrace a variety of Eastern and Western healing practices. His bestselling books have introduced American reading audiences to the healing powers associated with meditation, Yoga, massage, primordial sound therapy, aromatherapy, and Ayurvedic herbal wraps.32 Chopra is typical of New Age healers in that he seems less interested in healing per se than with helping people attain optimal states of fulfillment and well‐being. He writes that healing philosophies operate on the basis of metaphysical laws that, once understood, can be utilized to accomplish anything we desire. He has expanded on these cosmic laws in a series of books with titles such as The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success: A Practical Guide to the Fulfillment of Your Dreams and The Way of the Wizard: Twenty Spiritual Lesson for Creating the Life You Want.33 As Chopra explains it, alternative healing techniques furnish the secret to a life of spiritual mastery: “To understand the magical nature of the mind is to acquire awesome power. It is to understand that at every moment of our lives, we have the power to accomplish everything we want.”34
Common to all New Age medical systems is the conviction that we live in a multidimensional universe. Drawing on America's unchurched metaphysical traditions, New Age healers describe God in such impersonal terms as “divine spirit” or “pure white light.” It is believed that this pure white light continuously emanates throughout the universe, infusing a vital force into each of the many dimensions or planes of existence—mineral, vegetable, animal, mental, etheric, and astral. New Age cosmology teaches that divine spirit enters our consciousness through the astral body (aura) and is diffused into the seven interior energy centers (or chakras) that supply the body with vitality. As one New Age healer explains, “When white light flows harmoniously [from the astral body] into the interior centers (the chakras), our condition becomes healthy and more harmonious. When there is some obstruction in the chakra, blocks are formed, and these blocks prevent energy from flowing freely, and the body is unable to heal itself.”35
One example of the medical techniques predicated on this metaphysical vision is crystal healing. Rock crystal is almost entirely devoid of color. New Age healers claim that because of this unique property, crystals are almost perfect capacitors of divine white light. (p.117) The precise explanation of just how this works varies from healer to healer. Some practitioners maintain that crystals serve as receptors through which divine white light can be channeled from the etheric plane into a patient's body. Others suggest that crystals work by amplifying the patient's own personal energies. This apparent disagreement about whether crystals amplify personal energies or harness extrapersonal energies is possibly due to semantic confusion in the New Age lexicon. The vocabulary used by New Age healers—largely of theosophical and mesmerist parentage—describes humans as simultaneously inhabiting physical, etheric, and astral bodies. Crystals supposedly have the ability to harmonize the physical body with the etheric fields from which healing energy ultimately emanates. Crystal healer Korra Deaver explains:
Crystals act as transformers and harmonizers of energy. Illness in the physical body is a reflection of disruption or disharmony of energies in the etheric bodies, and healing takes place when harmony is restored to the subtler bodies. The crystal acts as a focus of healing energy and healing intent, and thereby produces the appropriate energy.36
Learning to become a crystal healer is somewhat like a shaman's initiation. First, meticulous attention must be given to selecting a particular crystal that will enhance one's own personal vibrations. After an appropriate stone has been selected, healers must purify themselves by eliminating all nonspiritual desires and emotions and center themselves inwardly. Centering techniques include breathing exercises, relaxation exercises, meditation, and the repetition of spiritual affirmations. Many engage in these practices while focusing attention on their crystals in a manner reminiscent of the ancient art of divination using crystal balls. “Crystal gazing,” as Deaver describes it, is “the science of inhibiting normal outward consciousness by intense concentration on a polished sphere. When the five senses are thus drastically subdued, the psychic receptors can function without interference.”37 To aid in this process of inner transformation, crystal healers often repeat such affirmations as “I am the Light of God,” “I am filled with the Light of Christ,” or “I am a radiant Being of Light temporarily using a physical body.”
Healer Katrina Raphael writes: “Crystal healings are designed to allow the recipient to consciously access depths of being previously (p.118) unavailable, and draw upon personal resources to answer all questions and heal any wound. . . . The person who is receiving the crystal healing has the unique opportunity to contact the very essence of being.”38 Crystal healers counsel patients to put ego aside in order to become purer channels of divine energy. We must open ourselves fully and suspend our human will in order to follow the higher guidance that flows directly from the Supreme Soul. Crystal healing, then, is a spiritual path and spiritual discipline in its own right. Hence, Korra Deaver discourages a narrow focus on physical healing and suggests that “even if the breakthrough is only in your own understanding of yourself‐as‐a‐soul, as a Cosmic Being, your efforts will not have been in vain.”39
Alternative Healing, Alternative Spirituality
Throughout world history, religion has featured special healing rituals. Individuals whose lives are broken, divided, or afflicted become “born again” after coming into contact with spiritual powers. Such healings serve as rites of initiation. They bring people into experiential contact with a higher power that is capable of transforming their lives, thereby initiating them into the deeper mysteries of faith. Jesus, Mohammed, and the prophet Elisha are all said to have performed healing “miracles.” The purpose of these healings was to display the power of God in such a dramatic fashion as to bring both those who were healed and those who witnessed to a deeper faith. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have all given rise to prophets and holy persons who continue to heal in the name of their God. These public healings, as well as the healings that accompany private prayer and reading of scripture, strengthen individuals' commitment to biblical religion.
The alternative medical systems currently popular in the United States might be viewed in a similar context. They, too, provide rites of initiation into religious belief systems. Mircea Eliade has written that classic rites of initiation introduce newcomers to a ritual setting that will “involve their entire lives.” These rites lead initiates through a series of cognitive and emotional changes that enable them to see themselves as “a being open to the life of the spirit.”40 Alternative healing systems perform precisely these initiatory tasks. Their healing techniques guide patients through an experiential process aimed (p.119) at eliciting a spiritual transformation. Alternative healing practices often induce sensations of heat and tingling, a classic feature of initiatory rites.41 Patients are taught to attribute these sensations to the presence of “subtle energies,” variously described as animal magnetism, prana, ectoplasm, or Innate. This experience provides a felt sense of encountering a numinous, life‐altering spiritual reality. The healing ritual thus evokes a fundamental sense of wonder and mystery. Many are enabled for the first time in their lives to believe that they have, in Eliade's words, become “a being open to the life of the spirit” and have discovered a worldview that will “involve their entire lives.”
The literature describing alternative healing philosophies is more widespread and more avidly consumed than the healing practices themselves. The ideas that alternative systems promulgate are generally thought to be as important as the physical techniques. The Holistic Health Handbook states this explicitly: “Perhaps more important than the techniques is the expansion of consciousness they foster.”42 The handbook provides overviews of such holistic health systems as acupressure, Shiatsu, reflexology, iridology, and meditation practices. It tells us, however, that the many differences between these practices shouldn't obscure the fact that they all advance ideas whose goal is to help us “open up a relationship to inner worlds” and thereby “awaken the spirit within.” Even chiropractic medicine has often been more successful at adjusting patients' sense of personal identity than their spines. Consider, for example, the testimony of an early chiropractic patient whose exposure to the philosophy of Innate completely altered her fundamental sense of personal identity. Whereas she had formerly thought of herself as possessing a soul, she now understood that she is a soul. In her words, it is “not that I have an Innate Intelligence, but that I am Innate Intelligence in this physical shell.”43 Shirley MacLaine's use of crystals and related meditational practices embarked her on a similar spiritual journey. MacLaine's religious transformation led to the conviction that “a healthy state of spirit controlled my mind and body. I realized I was essentially a spiritual being, not a mind‐body being.”44
Perhaps the clearest example of how alternative medical systems propagate alternative spirituality is offered by the more than 5,000 professional nurses who have been instructed in Therapeutic Touch. Many who complete their training in Therapeutic Touch come to understand (p.120) themselves in new ways. These nurses cease thinking of themselves as agents of a pharmaceutical technology and instead perceive themselves as “channels.” Krieger's students describe their new identity this way: “A channel, definitely, for the universal power of wholeness. I am certain it is not ‘I’ who do it”; and “[I] see myself . . . as a vehicle through which energy can go to the patient in whatever way he or she can use it.”45 The terms “channel” and “vehicle” are significant in that they echo the terminology associated with the spiritualist and Theosophical traditions that Krieger had previously studied. The fact that her students now understand themselves as channels indicates how easily Americans can assimilate alternative spiritual philosophies into their stock of “working ideas.”
As one student expressed it, “Using Therapeutic Touch has changed and continues to change me . . . [and] requires a certain philosophy, and this change in philosophy permeates one's total existence.”46 This “certain philosophy” is drawn completely from America's unchurched religious traditions. Nurses trained in a down‐to‐earth scientific tradition find themselves contemplating the existence of nonphysical forces that affect human well‐being. They learn to see how techniques like meditation can be powerful tools for improving the quality of our lives. The benefits that these nurses attribute to their change in philosophy read like a page taken from psychologist Abraham Maslow's studies of peak experiences: increased independence and selfreliance; the ability to view things in their totality; a more caring (bodhisattva‐like) attitude toward others; the sense of being an integral part of the universe; and the abandonment of the scientific method as the sole approach to understanding the nature of life. Many report that they now avidly read books on Yoga meditation, Tibetan mysticism, and the spiritual implications of the “new physics.”
In a famous essay titled “The Will to Believe,” William James noted that many modern individuals find it difficult to sustain belief in religion. James pointed out that educated people increasingly find that religious beliefs are avoidable, dead, or trivial. By this he meant that we can usually get along without them, that they no longer speak to our experience, and that they pale by comparison to the great advances being made by scientific thought. But, James argued, there are situations in which religion comes to us in such a way as to make it forced, living, and momentous. Then, and only then, religion becomes (p.121) a genuine intellectual option.47 We can see why alternative medicines so often help people awaken to a vital spirituality. Illness, of course, often causes people to turn to religious belief. Pain and fear of imminent death can make us desperate to find a supernatural source of help. Religious belief is both forced and momentous to the seriously ill. It is forced in the sense that we must believe right now, or forever suffer the consequences; it is momentous in that it entails whether we live or die. However, not everyone will be open to the ideas propounded by alternative medicines—even if they are desperate for supernatural assistance. Both rational humanists and the traditionally religious may never find our unchurched traditions to be a live intellectual option for them. But for those who are ill and willing to entertain metaphysical ideas, these beliefs will indeed be forced, momentous, and living; in other words, a genuine option.
It is even more fascinating to see how alternative healing systems have made religious belief both live and momentous for those without any serious physical ailments. Many modern people find that “being religious” isn't a genuine option for them. A decision to be religious isn't forced; they have no immediate crisis demanding an all‐or‐nothing commitment. It isn't momentous; they are getting along in life just fine—perhaps even better—without religion. And it isn't live, because they can't intellectually affirm many of the tenets they associate with biblical religion. Alternative healing systems have proven successful at helping such people discover that being “spiritual, but not religious” is a genuine option for them. First and foremost, these systems provide existential encounters with a numinous reality that suddenly opens their eyes to the momentous differences that “being spiritual” can make in our lives. They also redefine spirituality in ways that make it seem to be a living intellectual option; they base “being spiritual” on metaphysical beliefs that extend rather than break connection with the scientific method. Thus, through their doctrines (myths) and therapeutic techniques (rituals), these alternative healing systems have succeeded in helping persons affirm that “being spiritual, but not religious” is a genuine option. In historical perspective, it is clear that those who are attracted to these alternative medical systems are not turning away from middle‐class normalcy, but rather are turning toward unchurched traditions that have persisted for nearly two centuries. (p.122)
(1.) Claudia Wallis, “Why New Age Medicine is Catching On,” Time (November 4, 1991): 68–76
(2.) David Eisenberg et al., “Unconventional Medicine in the United States: Prevalence, Costs, and Patterns of Use,” New England Journal of Medicine 328 (28 January 1993): 246–52
(3.) Alternative Medicine and American Religious Life (p.194) (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989)
(4.) See the discussion of healing in Gerald Kittel, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1978), 3:194–215; Ronald Numbers and Darrel Amundsen, eds., Caring and Curing: Health and Medicine in the Western Religious Traditions (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1986); and William Clebsch and Charles Jaekle, Pastoral Care in Historical Perspective (New York: Aronson, 1975).
(5.) Many massage and breathing systems, although emphasizing their known physiological properties, nonetheless frequently make oblique references to metaphysical energies. It is common for massage and breathing therapies to utilize Eastern notions of a subtle body energy such as ch'i or prana and thus implicitly invoke worldviews in which physical life is seen to be ontologically dependent on sustaining continuous harmony with, or periodically receiving “influxes” from, an ultimate metaphysical reality such as Brahman, the Dao, the Great Ultimate, the Cosmic Body of the Buddha, and so on.
(6.) D. D. Palmer, The Chiropractor's Adjuster (Portland, OR: Portland Printing House, 1910), 35
(7.) Ibid., 491.
(8.) The Chiropractor 5 (1909): inside front cover.
(9.) B. J. Palmer, Do Chiropractors Pray? (Davenport, IA: Palmer School of Chiropractic, 1911), 27
(10.) Eugene Linden, “My Excellent Alternative Adventure,” Time (November 4, 1991): 76
(11.) G. F. Riekman, “Chiropractic,” in The Holistic Health Handbook (Berkeley, CA: And/Or Press, 1978), 174
(12.) Mary Belknap, Robert Blau, and Rosaline Grossman, eds., Case Studies and Methods in Humanistic Medicine (San Francisco: Institute for the Study of Humanistic Medicine, 1975), 18
(13.) Herbert A. Otto and James W. Knight, eds., Dimensions in Wholistic Healing: New Frontiers in the Treatment of the Whole Person (Chicago: Nelson‐Hall, 1979), 3
(14.) Ibid., 10.
(15.) Kenneth Pelletier, Holistic Medicine (New York: Delacorte Press, 1979), 93
(16.) Norman Cousins, Anatomy of an Illness (New York: Norton, 1979)
(17.) Norman Cousins, Human Options (New York: Norton, 1981), 167
(18.) “Interview with Bernard Siegel,” ReVision 7 (Spring 1984): 92
(19.) Shirley MacLaine, Dancing in the Light (New York: Bantam Books, 1985), 8
(20.) Ibid., 37.
(21.) Ibid., 111.
(22.) Dolores Krieger, The Therapeutic Touch (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice‐Hall, 1979), 13
(23.) Ibid., 77.
(24.) Cited in Ernest Kurtz's history of the movement, Not‐God: A History of Alcoholics Anonymous (Center City, MN: Hazelden Press, 1979), 19–20. See also Ernest (p.195) Kurtz, “Twelve Step Programs,” in Peter H. Van Ness, ed., Spirituality and the Secular Quest (New York: Crossroad, 1996), 277–304.
(25.) Alcoholics Anonymous, 2d ed. (New York: Alcoholics Anonymous, 1955), 569
(26.) Alcoholics Anonymous, like evangelical Protestantism, believes that recovering personal wholeness requires that we first recognize that we are not in control of our lives. Wholeness is understood to be something that is received, not commanded. Improvement of any kind can proceed only with our prior recognition that we are not‐God, but are rather limited in both power and significance. Yet it is this very acknowledgment of our limitation as not‐God that makes possible our connection with the Fulfilling Other. Bill W. also paralleled evangelical religion when he organized A.A. into small groups who bring new converts together for weekly rituals at which they describe their previous unworthiness and their subsequent discovery of a higher power.
(27.) Bill W., cited in Kurtz, Not‐God, 177.
(29.) Ibid., 178.
(30.) Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions (New York: Alcoholics Anonymous, 1952), 63
(31.) Ibid., 37.
(32.) See Deepak Chopra's Quantam Healing (New York: Bantam Books, 1990), Ageless Body, Timeless Mind (New York: Crown Books, 1994), or Perfect Weight: The Complete Mind/Body Program for Achieving and Maintaining Your Ideal Weight (New York: Crown Books, 1996). Chopra's website provides information about his lecture tours, workshops, and seminars. People are also invited to spend time at the spa located at the Chopra Center for Well Being in La Jolla, California. The website includes several testimonials from persons who had stayed at the center:
I found the 7‐day stay to be a significant event in my life. Dr. Chopra's vision, viewpoint, and teachings spurred me to reawaken a dormant spiritual side of myself. I highly recommend the 7‐day program for any person, young or old, who is ready to fully and deeply observe and cleanse themselves from top to bottom.—E. Borray
My week at The Chopra Center for Well Being was magical and miraculous. Healing occurred at all levels of my being through the experience of the program and the unconditional love and support I received.—L. Hanniford
The mental tools and concepts I learned at the Chopra Center for Well Being have opened up a whole New World for me that I never knew existed. My perspective on life and career has taken a 180‐degree turn for the better. The changes in my life as a result of the meditation program have been nothing short of profound. One indication that showed me things were really on track is my golf game. This past Saturday, I shot the best 18 hole round of my life.—T. O'Brien
(33.) See Deepak Chopra, The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success: A Practical Guide (p.196) to the Fulfillment of Your Dreams (San Rafael, CA: Amber‐Allen, 1994) and The Way of the Wizard: Twenty Spiritual Lessons for Creating the Life You Want (New York: Crown Books, 1995).
(35.) Daya Sarai Chocron, Healing with Crystals and Gemstones (York Beach, ME: Weiser, 1983), 4
(36.) Korra Deaver, Rock Crystal: The Magic Stone (York Beach, ME: Weiser, 1985), 40
(37.) Ibid., 16.
(38.) Katrina Raphael, Crystal Healing: The Therapeutic Application of Crystals and Stones (New York: Aurora, 1987), 20–21
(39.) Deaver, Rock Crystal, 7.
(40.) Mircea Eliade, Rites and Symbols of Initiation (New York: Harper & Row, 1965), 3
(41.) See Richard Katz, Boiling Energy: Community Healing among the Kalahari Kung (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982). This is an excellent study of the role that belief in a subtle energy (which the Kung call num) plays in healing individuals and in strengthening commitment to communally held beliefs. Whether called num, kundalini, ch'i, animal magnetism, or prana, it would seem that belief in the possibility of experiencing a metaphysical energy is a common feature of initiation into many mystical belief systems. Readers might also wish to consult Catherine Albanese's fine article on the role of belief in subtle energies in American metaphysical religion, “The Subtle Energies of Spirit: Explorations in Metaphysical and New Age Spirituality,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 67 (June, 1999): 305–26.
(42.) Holistic Health Handbook, 13.
(43.) Joy Lubove, “Dual Evolution,” Chiropractor 5 (1909): 74
(44.) Shirley MacLaine, Dancing in the Light (New York: Bantam Books, 1985), 110
(45.) Cited in Krieger, Therapeutic Touch, 108.
(46.) Janet Quinn, “Therapeutic Touch: One Nurse's Evolution as a Healer,” in Therapeutic Touch: A Book of Readings, ed. Marianne Borelli and Patricia Heidt (New York: Springer, 1981), 62
(47.) William James, “The Will to Believe,” in The Will to Believe (New York: Dover, 1956), 3