I have heard a lot of complaints in my time, both from the alternative medicine crowd and from the mystically-minded in general, that boil down to this: "Doctors can't tell you the right way to live a healthy lifestyle! The rules keep changing! Their nutritional science is ARCANE. There is too much detail to sift through it all! One week, having high cholesterol is bad for you-- the next week, it's not so bad-- the week after, there's GOOD cholesterol which is good to have high-- then the week after, high is bad again! Same with fats. First they tell us a low fat diet is the way to go, then some other doctor comes along and says you need to eat fat to burn fat! Now it's back to low fat being good, but it has to be the RIGHT KIND of fat. Wine is good for you! Wine is bad for you! What's a lay person to do??? Living a science-based healthy lifestyle is HARD!!! Isn't there SOME way I can feel IN CONTROL of my own body, of my own health??????"
For those not in the habit of critical thinking, complementary and alternative medicine is what they turn to... and the lifestyle modifications they make are often rooted in mystical and religious practices.
Let's take a look at one of those, shall we? :)
Qabbalah, the faith I grew up in, has a lot to say about health. The whole basis of the mystical tradition is that words have power to shape matter-- kinda like The Secret, only not trademarked. The late nineteenth and early twentieth century spiritualists took this and ran with it, mixing the Jewish Kabbalah with rituals from the Egyptian Book of the Dead, Enochian magic, Rosicrucianism, eclectic pagan and Eastern mystical traditions, and added heaping helpings of astrology and tarot card reading. Passing it off as Ancient Knowledge (of course), they taught rituals, visualizations and meditations that they claimed could alter reality. It was called The Great Work, seeking perfection of the self so that you could be fit to rejoin the essence of God. The Qabbalah, being an emanationist philosophy, teaches that God fragmented its perfect Self into aspects by creating the Universe-- thus The Great Work in and of itself was seen as a healing of the Universe!
One of the preeminent authorities of Qabbalistic healing was Israel Regardie (born Francis Israel Regudy). In his book The Middle Pillar, he outlines the Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagrams (which I describe in detail here), and then the titular ritual, The Middle Pillar. He exhorts practitioners to get really really good at the LBRP before going on to the latter, because OMG YOU CAN PHYSICALLY HARM YOURSELF if you do the Middle Pillar ritual wrong. Aieee!!!
Keep this in mind-- visualization is to a Qabbalist what succussion is to a homeopath, i.e., how all the magic is imbued. Qabbalistic practice is full of similar exhortations to do the visualizations correctly or you risk channeling beings from the Inner Planes to come screw up your life and harm you and all your works. AIEEEEEE!!!!
(Er. Dude, I just wanted to meditate, you know?)
My own personal experience was that, after reading The Middle Pillar, I learned that I had very likely been taught the Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagrams wrong from birth!!!!! The sticking point was the Qabbalistic Cross. If you would like to go read my description of it right quick, go for it. Then note that in Regardie's book, ve-Geburah and ve-Gedullah are REVERSED from the way my dad performs it, which is the way I learned it! Aieeeeee!!!!
But, you see, it is well-known in hermetic magical circles that some parts of the literature are DELIBERATELY distorted so that only initiates of a certain level will hold the True Knowledge! So maybe the book was deliberately distorted! ...Or maybe the book was showing the correct way, and my father's Hermetic Training had been distorted!!! Maybe I was harming myself and not knowing it!!!! Aieeeee!!!
So I asked my father about this burning health question, and he said, without any further elucidation, "Just keep on doing it the way you've been doing it." This response was, to put it mildly, singularly less-than-satisfying. He gave no explanation, no reason for why it should be one way and not the other! My mind was in a tizzy! Should I keep doing the meditative exercises as I had known them and said them in my head since I was in a cradle, or should I now follow the book by a man considered an Authority on Qabbalistic healing and meditation??? My visualizations were on the line here!!! WAS I GOING TO DEVELOP SOME KIND OF DEGENERATIVE FLESH-EATING SPINAL CANCER?????? What's a lay person to do??? Living a mysticism-based healthy lifestyle is HARD!!! Isn't there SOME way I can feel IN CONTROL of my own body, of my own health??????
Gee, suddenly, science-based health recommendations don't seem so arcane after all.
Worse yet, this is but one example of a system of health mysticism. There are others. Soooooooooo many others. And if you take a close look at each of them (or, at as many as you can bear to scrutinize), they all make great claims but put forth shaky evidence of efficacy. Just take a gander at Quackwatch, look through Ben Goldacre's Bad Science blog, read a few of Orac's "Your Friday Dose of Woo" entries, peruse Holford Watch (a blog which started out warning people about Patrick Holford's dubious nutrition claims but which has blossomed into a great watchblog for all manner of bad health-related science), peer at Science-Based Medicine. Or Skeptico. Or Denialism Blog. Or A Photon In The Darkness. Or DC's Improbable Science. Just to name a few! It is really difficult to maintain a non-skeptical view of health claims after such analysis.
The research is out there for all to see. Our knowledge base is constantly under review, checked and double-checked by the peer review system and by countless thousands of medical practitioners. There is a simple yet thorough guideline for healthy lifestyle-- exercise, eat according to the Food Pyramid, limit calories to around 2000 per day (more or less depending on age, sex, and activity level). And there are doctors out there who will answer your questions about the best, EVIDENCE-BASED way to take control of your health.
Best of all-- you are free to visualize whatever you want, and you can rest assured that the universe will not be out to get you if you eat your fruit and vegetables in the wrong order. ;)
Memorial Day redux
11 months ago