Guest Post by Adam Valerio – Healing Without Belief

This is a guest post written by Adam Valerio. Adam is a scholar who researches the intersection between science and Asian religions.

I once heard a Zen Buddhist master say, “You can have everything that you want in life, as long as you don’t care what form it takes.” For me, this comment applies to many subjects, including healing. Take Reiki, for example. Nowadays, many people have heard of it, some know that it is a healing modality, and it’s not so uncommon to have heard that the means by which Reiki works is often explained in terms of subtle energy (ki) transfer. Yet, when it comes to giving Reiki a try, for those who do not believe in the existence of a normally invisible energy that moves between people and their greater environment, this is a deal breaker. After all, if Reiki relies on this energy to work and you don’t think that this energy even exists, trying Reiki would be a waste of time, right? Though understandable, that would be incorrect, my friend! I’m here to tell you that belief doesn’t have to matter! You can attribute the functioning of Reiki and other healing modalities to any mechanism—ie, form—you’d like (or leave it a mystery!) and you would probably still get similar if not identical results. Think about the mechanism of action in terms of heat transfer, nerve-bundle signal jamming, endocrine system stimulation, subtle energy, or even microscopic elves doing Santa Claus’ bidding. It doesn’t matter! If it helps you feel better, isn’t that good enough? Not convinced yet? No problem! For those of you with a similar natural disposition to me—wariness toward the explanations of others—I’m here to help.

To continue with our example of Reiki, its story oddly has a lot in common with the story of the tomato, at least in North America. Really, it’s true (kinda)! The story goes like this: by the mid to late-1500s, tomatoes—native to Central and South America—were a staple of many continental European diets. However, it seems that most North Americans weren’t eating tomatoes until well into the 1800s. According to legend, it wasn’t until 1820, when Colonel Robert Gibbon Johnson had the audacity to eat a tomato (or perhaps a bunch of tomatoes) on the steps of the Old County Courthouse in Salem, New Jersey, that Americans considered giving tomatoes a try.¹ Even though most Americans had supposedly never tasted a tomato up until that point, it was obvious to them that tomatoes were poisonous, as these fruits belonged to the same family (nightshade) as several poisonous plants. Thus, in theory, to eat a tomato was to eat poison. Not unlike our present-day friend, the delicious tomato, many helpful therapies have been rejected at one time or another because it didn’t make theoretical sense to try them. This phenomenon has been termed the “tomato effect.”² In some cases, therapies previously suffering from the tomato effect were thought to be harmful; in others, they were simply viewed as a waste of time. Hmm….waste of time…. Sound familiar?

Before we take a look at how the tomato effect plays out in our own decision-making, let’s first look at it in the context of conventional biomedical thinking. Medical knowledge and decision-making function in accordance with two sometimes conflicting modes: rationalism and empiricism. In medicine, to be a rationalist is to base treatment decisions on what makes theoretical sense—much like our long-gone tomato-avoiding brethren. Medical empiricists, in contrast, are concerned with observed outcomes in past patients and research subjects. In other words, they prioritize experience over theory—the delectableness of the red fruit over the toxic yuckiness of its distant cousins. Yet, even those empiricists most dedicated to maintaining a practice of “evidence-based medicine” will get tripped up by observations that don’t cohere with their theoretical assumptions. This is because the majority of medical professionals are actually a mix of rationalist and empiricist. Unfortunately, it is not unusual for medical professionals to be very out of touch with their own reasoning as to why they prioritized one mode over another in any given situation. In the case of pharmaceuticals, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) can be quite empirically-minded, sometimes approving drugs where the mechanism of action is still unknown and all they have is evidence that it works. In other words, when it comes to pill popping, efficacy seems to be good enough for the FDA.

Is efficacy also good enough for the general public? Well, most of us aren’t pouring over research studies when making decisions about our health treatments. Some of us will peruse internet sites, but most of us have neither the time or training for an exhaustive analysis. Isn’t that what doctors are for? They tell us what works. We take Doc’s word on it and most of us are cool with that. Still, do they tell us how our treatments work? Perhaps sometimes, but certainly not always. And really, do you have the time and interest in acquiring in-depth knowledge as to how every medication that you take functions to improve your health? You know that it works and that’s good enough, right? Doc may not know exactly how it works—and perhaps you find that a bit disturbing—but do you let that stop you from receiving relief?

Many Reiki studies have and continue to be conducted and the popularity of Reiki is growing, which means that many people are coming away with positive experiences—including me! I don’t know how Reiki works, but I know what I’ve experienced. I have entered treatment sessions sometimes with significant pain and generally left with significantly less and often no pain. I have felt unexpected bodily sensations—usually some combination of heat and an indescribable pulse-type stirring—during treatments that challenge my understanding of how the world works. I don’t know how Reiki brings about its results, but I do know that, in addition to having found my pain and stress reduced during Reiki treatments, I am also healthier for having received them.

The words of the Zen master echo in our pain: “You can have everything that you want in life, as long as you don’t care what form it takes.” Will you let theory stand in the way of what you want most? Are explanations really more important to you than results? How are you feeling physically and emotionally today? Why wait around in pain for a satisfying theory when what you need is relief and vibrancy? When you’re ready to start feeling better, there’s a ripe, delicious tomato waiting for you in the form of Reiki!

¹Smith, Andrew F. (Fall-Winter 1990). “The making of the legend of Robert Gibbon Johnson and the tomato”. New Jersey History (New Jersey Historical Society) 108, 59–74.
²Goodwin, J. S, Goodwin, J. M. (1984). The tomato effect: Rejection of highly efficacious therapies. Journal of the American Medical Association 251, 2387-2390.

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