THERAPEUTIC INTENT AND THE ART OF OBSERVATION
Stephan A. Schwartz
Therapeutic Intent. The idea
that consciousness can have a direct effect on a living organism is an ancient
and culturally universal belief. The shamanic cave art of Altimira, Tres Freres,
and Lascaux presents compelling testimony that our genetic forbearers had a
complex view of spiritual and physical renewal, one that has survived to the
present unchanged in at least one fundamental respect. The intent to heal,
either oneself or another, whether expressed as God, a force, an energy, or one
of many gods, has consistently been believed to be capable of producing a
therapeutic result. Why?
The answer must surely be
that regardless of ideology or religion, culture, or race, the manifested result
of Therapeutic Intent has compelled belief. It has survived and been used for
thousands of years because people get better and the various practices seem
worth preserving from generation to generation. This can be said, while still
acknowledging that many people get well simply because of the self-correcting
nature of Nature; or, to a more limited degree, from psychophysical
self-regulation. And, from at least the third millennium BCE on, many more have
regained their health because of the intervention of their civilization’s
health system. The high civilizations of the past, like those of the present,
possessed a very sophisticated armamentarium. How they got it may still hold
lessons worth learning today.
Modern scientists and clinicians have attained their understanding largely through instruments that quantify; objective measurement is our age’s hallmark. The systems of the past relied on meticulous human observation, and clinical experience, passed down from generation to generation; in ancient medicine the practitioner was the instrument. It was an approach not to be sneered at. The Ebers, Smith, and Kahun Papyri, medical texts dating to 2,500 BCE, demonstrate the pharmacological sophistication of these ancient systems, and it is very impressive. In spite of the fact that Egypt is essentially a desert, with only a thin lifeline of green along the Nile, through trading and careful cultivation, Egyptian physicians knew about one-third of the botanicals listed in the modern pharmacopoeia. Equally significant, they used these botanicals for the same purposes for which we employ them today. They also understood naturally occurring antibiotics, and incorporated them into their practices.
Nor were the Egyptians alone
in these attainments. The Sumerian, in what is now Iraq, for instance, also
possessed a sophisticated practical health system. Cuneiform records from the
Nippur Valley make this point. It is a conceit to believe that until modern
western technological medicine developed there were no meaningful therapeutics.
Two examples, both from
Egypt, give some sense of the flavor and the subtlety of the achievements
attained by these ancient therapeutics: Dynastic Egyptian workers were fed a
diet emphasizing radishes, onions and garlic. To the archaeological community,
and the other scientists who first examined the papyri recommending this, in the
early decades of the last century, this diet was too medically sophisticated to
be appreciated by the western medicine of the day. It was dismissed as an
unscientific magical peculiarity from the past. The worldwide explosion of
medical research that resulted largely from the demands of World War II,
however, began to reveal a different story. Although it was conducted without
reference to the Egyptian texts, it explained just how valid and relevant that
ancient diet really was, and how important it is to explore ethno-historical
source material from an interdisciplinary perspective.
In 1944, American
researchers, Pederson and Fisher, reported on the antibacterial properties of
onions, which were found to contain the natural antibiotic Allistan, as well as
other vegetables. In 1946, Rao, Rao, and Venkataraman of India and de
Torrescasana in Spain published on the natural antibiotic principles of garlic.
A year later Ivanovics and Hováth in Hungary, and Schmid and Karrer in
Switzerland, described a naturally occurring antibacterial substance in
radishes, which the Hungarians named Raphanin. It had antibiotic properties
specifically active against, cocci and coli bacteria. We can now
see what early 20th Century physicians could not. Such a diet was
exactly what would be needed in the crowded worker villages of the Gaza Plateau
to reduce the occurrence of gastrointestinal disorders.
The Petrie Papyrus describes
a procedure used by Egyptian physicians to determine whether a woman was
pregnant, as well as providing families with the gender of their unborn child.
The papyrus says:
You must put wheat and barley in a cloth bag. The woman is to urinate on it daily... if both germinate, she will bear. If the wheat germinates, she will bear a boy. If the barley generates, she will bear a girl. If neither germinates, she will not bear.
At a casual estimation, this
seems windy nonsense, of a piece with the complex incantations it accompanies.
In 1927, however, two German gynecologists, Aseheim and Zondek developed a test
using female urine which they claimed to be 95 per cent accurate in determining
pregnancy in the first eight weeks. In 1933 another German, Manger, at the
Pharmacological Institute in Würzburg, demonstrated that the urine of pregnant
women who gave birth to boys accelerated the growth of wheat. Those who gave
birth to girls had urine that accelerated the growth of barley.
As these two examples
illustrate the truth is that when these early Egyptian medical manuscripts were
first translated the scientific community, including the medical specialists
brought in to advise on them, was not sufficiently advanced in its own
understanding to evaluate what it was reading. A failure which has heavily
colored the modern appraisal down to the present. More fundamentally, in this
context, it suggests two things about Therapeutic Intent, and the importance of
careful observation in unraveling how healing energy works.
First, the idea of Therapeutic Intent was not a sad last resort forced on a people who had no other options but to give themselves over to magic and illusory gods; and, second, that in the absence of almost all instruments for measuring physiological change only an extraordinarily competent and structured technique of observation, widely shared through teaching centers and conferences, could have created these medical systems. The only modern analogy that approximates is found in homeopathy, with its laborious process of proving and repertorization.
This is important because,
if the Egyptians and the Sumerians were correct in their observationally
developed physical treatments and pharmacologies, a conclusion based on modern
technological research, perhaps we should be more respectful of their
observations concerning the therapeutic power of consciousness. Their worldview
spanned millennia and although their beliefs in energetic relationships between
the patient, the practitioner, and the force (in this case expressed as gods)
may seem quaint to many materialist eyes, it is hard to imagine these pragmatic
observers continuing a practice that produced no results. A conclusion that
becomes even more compelling when one considers three health systems from
antiquity which are still living and vital—the Chinese, the Tibetan and the
Technological medicine finds
its central metaphor in competition and struggle. This view of illness sees the
body being overwhelmed by alien external forces not, as in the Eastern systems,
the result of imbalances in the life energies with little differentiation
between mind and body. Indeed, only recently and partially for the West, has
Nature become a partner; the idea of energies that cannot presently be measured,
is a difficult leap for many to make. Western therapeutics is all developed
through quantifiable measurement, and quantified reaction to their
administration. Psychiatrist and oriental medical specialist Leon Hammer,
contrasts this with the Chinese view that “Qi shall be known only as it
manifests itself, as it materializes, either physiologically or
pathologically.” Significantly, this does reflect the physicists’ view
concerning energy; only by the measurement of its manifestation, i.e., its
ability to do work, is it known.
All of the successful, non-technological strategies for maintaining life have had no choice but to stress minute observation of the whole person to obtain understanding, whether pharmacological or energetic. It is a worldview strongly supported by culture. These ancient great systems, which have survived to the present age of instruments, are all rooted in cultures where a meaningful percentage of the educated population trains in some kind of discipline of self-observation and self-regulation.
In technological medicine,
then, based in a culture which places little stress on self-regulation, who can
be surprised that the one branch of the health sciences, psychotherapeutics,
which does stress observation, is the one which finds the idea of energetic
interactions most comfortable, either within an individual, or between
individuals. It should come as no surprise that a very significant proportion,
perhaps an absolute majority, of those in the health professions who are
interested in energy medicine come from these same psycho-therapeutic
communities. Dating at least to Freud’s libido discussion in The Anxiety
Neuroses, in which he proposes an energy whose affective activity in the
unconscious produces changes in an individual’s mental and physical well
being, the idea of energy has been an overt part of the refereed literature. And
within the psychotherapeutic field, perhaps only those of a
mechanistic-behaviorist bent would not acknowledge some sense of energetic
interaction between practitioner and patient.
The reductionist view,
correctly from its bias, sees diseased organs, dysfunctional systems, and
discreteness. The therapist is a warrior in this scenario, trained to do battle.
Western health professionals, practicing modern technological medicine, pride
themselves—it is a core tenet of the literature—on making sure that the
administering practitioner not be a part of the healing process. Given such a
view, it would be surprising if considerations concerning energetic interactions
were to receive much attention. By its nature, technological medicine stresses a
theory of illness and eschews an overall theory of health, let alone a sense of
a network of life in which each individual organism resides like a cell in a
meta-structure—the network of life. Yet all three of the Eastern medical
systems see exactly that.
Instead of organs, the
Eastern systems see an entire person; instead of discreteness, they see a
complex of energetic inter-connectedness between practitioner, patient, and the
life network. Instead of warriors in battle, they are handmaidens assisting a
return to balance. Their own life energies are inextricably inter-twined with
those of their patients, and their emphasis is on prevention and a theory of
We in the West are at the
threshold of understanding these interactions, just beginning to develop
protocols for double-blind quantification, and only a little ways further
towards understanding the physiological effects. It would be a grotesque mistake
to abandon the intellectual gains made through our technologies, or to discard
the scientific method which provides the mechanism for our insights. However, it
does not follow that because our house is the one brightly lighted now, that we
are the only consequential residence in history’s human village. If many
observers, over many thousands of years, from many different cultures, have
reported these energetic interactions, and demonstrated their therapeutic
usefulness, perhaps our contribution, as with the barley and the wheat of the
Petrie Papyrus, is to discover exactly what is happening, and how to optimize
We will prosper, no less
than the ancients, by following the leads suggested by close observation,
providing we do so without a cherished outcome. The skills and attainments of
reductionist technology combined with the observational insights of a holistic
vision which has proven itself across time, can produce a synergy whose gifts
must be greater than those achieved by either worldview alone.
© Stephan A. Schwartz