Friday, April 2, 2010

Book Review: Healing Myths, Healing Magic - By Donald M. Epstein

Hello Friends:

This book gets two out of five 'wings' from your Adventure Hostess.

I've read this book many times since I purchased it, and still find it somewhat useful, somewhat confusing, somewhat uplifting, and somewhat irritating.  I went back and forth between a rating of three or two for a long time.  In the end I chose the two, because although this book has some useful ideas for healing, it might cause as many problems as it solves.  Others might disagree, but I must follow my bliss or whatever.

Healing Myths, Healing Magic by Donald M. Epstein was originally published in 1999. I purchased it about 2002.  I was originally drawn to it because I was looking for new perspectives on healing that were not strictly related to the ideas found in Western health care.  It also seemed to offer a way of looking at 'healing' that did not make it synonymous with 'cure'.  I've re-read it recently because I am, as you know, involved with a somatic energy therapy that I find very effective.  I wanted to take another look at this book now that I understand more about healing in ways that don't require constant thinking, like CBT.

Some of What's in the Book

The premise of the book is that myths are the stories that shape our lives, our perceptions, and our ability to embrace healing.  If we can identify the powerful stories in our lives, and what their implications are for healing, we can readdress them, and then claim more power to heal.  "When our bodymind experiences a new situation or challenge, it resorts to the most familiar story about the situation - the story depicting what we expect will happen.  It does not matter if the story is true, our bodymind responds from the place of a deep cultural hallucination.  When we are frightened, confused or lost in despair, we often turn to our 'myth spinners' to give meaning to our experience.  In contemporary Western society, teachers, doctors, therapists, clergy, attorneys, and legislators are among th the socially empowered storytellers."  

The book is divided into five parts:  The Power of Myth, Social Myths, Biomedical Myths, Religious Myths, and New Age Myths.  Each of the final four parts contains a list of specific myths, which are addressed numerically.  After discussing each myth, and sharing anecdotes, the book provides a paragraph called "Healing Magic" which is an affirmation one can make which counters the myth.

What I Liked

Some of these myths resonate with me.  That is, I believed them to some degree in the past, and now I believe them much less, or not at all.  And that change in belief has helped my healing journey.  These include: Healing requires a trained professional or a highly educated specialist; Healing is not always available; Healing is a destination; and Healing means feeling better.  These days I see healing as a natural process, something that we are always experiencing no matter how we feel, and that can't be taken away from us.  Even if we are actually dying of a disease, we are still healing in some way all the time, no matter what we think, do, or what our treatment might be.  Healing simply is.  This is an idea that works for me.

Some of the statements for "Healing Magic" also resonate with me.  These include: Through movement, breath, and the compassionate touching of my body, I open the door to healing; All my experiences and feelings have a story to share with me, I accept each story's wisdom, whether or not I enjoy the story; What worked for me at one point may no longer serve me today; and I am healing in spite of the imperfections that still appear in my body and my life.

I also simply liked reading something from a different perspective.  All books take a mindset for granted. This one is no exception, but the mindset is different from what I've read in other self-help style books.

What I Didn't Like

There are a few myths listed here in which I believe, at least in part, and I didn't find the arguments against them to be compelling.  One in particular is 'Heaven is only available after this life.'  It turns out the author thinks of heaven as bliss, absolution, joy, sexual ecstasy, and spiritual vision.  I believe anyone can feel these things in the here and now.  But what does that have to do with heaven?  I think there is a bit of a semantics issue here.  In fact, it is often over semantics that the arguments in this book rise or fall.  Either you agree with his definitions of words, or you don't.  And that, to me, makes many of the arguments very weak.

The book does not properly justify some of its conclusions.  I dislike its stance on immunization, for example.  No, that's not strong enough.  I'll go so far as to say the book is spreading some dangerous misinformation.  The author says, "Many studies have shown that the risks versus the benefits of immunization are often questionable."  This statement, already vague to the point of uselessness, goes unsubstantiated, both in the book and in the world at large.  Yes, there are risks to being vaccinated.  There are risks with any shot at all, even a vitamin shot.  The question for one person is how the risk of immunization balances against the risk of getting the disease it protects against.  The question for a society is how the risk of immunization of its population balances against the risk of an epidemic.  And I'm not going to go on and on about it because I'll start ranting.  I better save that for another post altogether.  In any case, if you make a statement like that you better back it up with a citation at the bottom of the page.  There isn't one.  The scientist in me is unimpressed.

I'm also unimpressed with the discussion of the placebo effect, and where the implications lead throughout the book.  We are all familiar with the idea that sugar pills might make us feel better if we think they are something else.  There is no question that what the mind believes is powerful for healing.  But the author allows this to permeate the general recommendations of his work - in other words, stop thinking the stupid stuff you are thinking and you can heal.  Again, it comes down to a change in thinking.  And if it were that easy, CBT therapists would be out of a job.  For people already wallowing in guilt, further guilt about not thinking the right things is counterproductive.

And some of the "Healing Magic" affirmations are confusing, not useful, really weird, or downright scary.  In fact, they seem to simply represent a new spiritual view that has much in common with the "New Age" view the author debunks.  Other times they seem to reflect a kind of watered down Buddhism.  Here are some examples, My commitment to heal is a natural process requiring no work or special focus on my part; As my bodymind heals, my awareness shifts, and old wounds dissolve into nothingness; My symptoms and pain remind me of my need to participate more fully in the world; In faith, I receive messages that are broadcast from the Divine; My body resonates with love for every part of my bodymind, and broadcasts this energy through my being and into the world; and When I am attentive to where I am in the moment I am magically carried to a new stage of healing.  Some of these may work for you, they don't work for me.  They are either meaningless because of semantic issues (use of the word 'magic' for example) or rely on a mindset I simply do not share.

Summary and Final Comments

This is an interesting book to read if you are searching for some different perspectives on the nature of healing, particularly in comparison with more traditional Western ideas.  Some of the points made are thought-provoking, but many others are not made with arguments compelling enough to hold the reader's attention.  Some of the ideas for 'new' myths and magic are more terrifying than the 'old' ideas.  And many of these new myths require you to - once again - think yourself well.  I have no doubt the author would say I miss the point or don't understand what he means.  I think I do understand - I also think the reason why is that I translated his use of words, that I've been learning a great deal about alternate therapies, and that I'm not so depressed right now that I can't do some creative thinking.  BUT for many people with mental illnesses, none of these things are true.  I just don't think the author can expect this book to be correctly interpreted by some of the very people he might want to help.  I think it might rattle those who are particularly vulnerable, suggestible, or in a confused place right now.  Otherwise, it can be an interesting read for gleaning a few new ideas.

Your Hostess With Neuroses


Amy said...

I am similarly troubled by using affirmations. I think they can be helpful, and can at least allow for a different point of view or new way of thinking; but it's still about *thinking.* The mind is a powerful tool, but if you feel that you are not healing or are stuck in a depression, it is easy to feel that you are failing by not thinking properly, or not trying hard enough, etc. etc.

This is similar to some of the more radical fundamentalist Christian beliefs that illness is caused by sin. Or some Buddhist or Hindu beliefs that birth defects are caused by bad karma accumulated over past lives. It creates an idea of fault or guilt with the one who is suffering. This generally makes those of us with depression/anxiety issues just feel worse.

I do like the idea that putting one's focus on the present opens one up to healing. Focusing on the present moment seems counter to the depressed state, which tends to focus on the troubling past and the vague, scary future. But, if you don't focus on the present, that serves a purpose, too. It's okay, I think, to wait until you're ready.

The Blue Morpho said...

Hey Amy - Exactly, we need to be very wary of ideas or treatments that might reinforce that "fault or guilt with the one who is suffering" scenario. Meditation has been useful for me in focusing on the present - the present also includes emotions about past events and plans for the future. Meditation sort of allows me to let it all flow through, looking at it from a height, and see it as the one big ball of what's happening now.

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