"Mindfulness" has become a bit of a hot topic lately as it applies to cancer survivors. There's no question that our thoughts influence how we behave. The bigger question is how influential are the thoughts that we conjure up on our health?
Can we think ourselves sick? Or well?
I knew that I wanted to spend my life as a working magician when I was 12 years old. I was drawn to the art in large part by the "science" of it, though I was not totally aware of that at the time. I loved the physics employed in the creation of stage illusions and the psychology used in sleight-of-hand tricks.
Over the 35 years of my performing career, whenever we visited schools with our shows, the elementary school students would often ask me, "Are you doing real magic? Is there real magic in the world?"
I would always answer that what I did was "theater" designed to celebrate the real magic that did in fact exist in the world. And to see it, you only had to look at nature and the natural world around us.
I adopted the name "Dr. Wilderness" and we were lucky to visit 60 countries with our programs.
When my wife and magic partner died of ovarian cancer, I began to focus on how alone or defeated or scared I was able to make myself feel, thanks to my thoughts. So, I turned my attention to the internal "wilderness" we all possess to the unexplored and uncharted territory of our own minds.
None of us would intentionally want to think ourselves sick. And yet, I see in many stories from folks with life-threatening diseases that we often believe in our own "un-wellness." So, does "mind over matter" really matter?
Writing for Scientific American
, Journalist Jo Marchant explored some surprising new research into curing the body with the mind. In particular, she examined the "placebo effect,” explaining that this phenomenon usually refers to anyone who feels better after receiving placebo (or fake) treatment.
But researchers are finding that taking a placebo can also have specific, measurable effects on the brain and body.
In her article Marchant reported that, "Placebo painkillers can trigger the release of natural pain-relieving chemicals called endorphins. Patients with Parkinson's disease respond to placebos with a flood of dopamine. Fake oxygen, given to someone at altitude, has been shown to cut levels of neurotransmitters called prostaglandins (which dilate blood vessels, among other things, and are responsible for many of the symptoms of altitude sickness).”
In discussing our potential to influence our health with positive or negative thoughts with other cancer patients, I discovered that all too often we can easily slip into a kind of drudgery of survival, going through the motions of staying alive and beating back our cancer as an exercise and a routine, without actually believing in our personal power to aid us in our health and healing.
As a magician whose job it is to fool people, I understand how this idea of "healing mind power" can sound like a lot of mumbo jumbo, but the science behind it is intriguing to say the least.
Not long after my cancer diagnosis, I came up with an acronym to remind myself that my thoughts matter.
The word stood for "Cancel All Negative-Conditioned Emotional Responses" referring to those automatic thoughts we all have throughout the day that tell us we are unable, or unprepared or unqualified and all the other "un" words that invite failure in our lives.
Of course, it's OK to feel lousy and scared and disillusioned with this dreaded disease called cancer, because all of those feeling are real. But here's where the mindfulness comes into play. Those feelings are generated by thoughts (often about the very real pain we're experiencing) and thoughts are like wisps of smoke from a burning fire, passing by us as a running narrative of our cancer.
In pondering the power of thought in my own life with cancer, I'm reminded of some wise words of two gentlemen one a doctor for whom I have great respect and the other, a fellow who spent a lot of hours deep in thought.
"Think left and think right and think low and think high. Oh, the thinks you can think up if only you try! --Dr. Seuss
"As a single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind. To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again. To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives." --Henry David Thoreau