Medicine with a Soft Touch
The Role of Loving Hands in the Healing Arts
Bruce G. Epperly and Jay McDaniel
Let’s begin with a poem by Whitehead. It goes like this:
The experience has a vector character,
A common measure of intensity, and
Specific forms of feeling conveying that intensity.
All right…it’s not really a poem but rather a saying or a prose poem. It appears on Page 116 of Process and Reality, where Whitehead is dealing with the question of how one actuality can have causal influence on another. Let’s imagine that one of those actualities is a nurse in a hospital and that you are the patient. You will understand Whitehead’s poem easily.
When you are in the hospital receiving care, nothing touches you more than to be softly touched by a kindly nurse. The holding of your hand, the cleaning of your body, the combing of your hair: all done in a spirit of compassion. In the touch there is a healing event, even if you cannot be cured. You have been touched by the nurse: “specific forms of feeling conveying that intensity.”
The intensity of the energy is very deep. You may even die the next day, but in the moment of being touched you encounter something everlasting. Whiteheadians speak of this reality as divine Love. It is not all-powerful but it is all-meaningful and all-gentle. It gives life its value. It finds its home in the nurse’s hands and in the nurse’s compassion. There is a vector transfer of energy.
Not all energy is compassionate. Some is violent; some is hateful; some is resentful; some is frightened. From Whitehead's perspective all emotions are forms of energy, and even the energy within rocks and rivers has an intensity of feeling within them. There is feeling everywhere. Compassion is a certain kind of feeling.
Compassion can play an important role in the healing arts. It consists of two activities: the act of listening to others on their own terms and for their own sakes, and the act of responding to what is heard with tenderness and care. Here “listening” is a metaphor for any way of receiving and sharing in the subjective conditions of others. We can listen with our eyes, our minds, our hearts, and our hands. When a nurse gently touches a wound and applies healing balm, she is listening with her hands.
Happily, today, many health professionals realize the importance of listening with the hands. They call it healing touch. It is a handy complement to the many forms of high technology that are now available, and when it comes to healing (as distinct from curing) this kind of touch is tremendously effective. It is medicine with a soft touch.
We use the phrase “soft touch” to name forms of hands-on healing which are respectful, which seem natural to people, which have stood the test of time in different cultures, which recognize that the human body is filled with complex centers of energy of many kinds, which see the mind’s well being as connected with a healthy approach to the body, and which take into account the fact that there is a difference between “healing” and “curing.”
In the house of soft touch there are many rooms. Even acupuncture, with its pointed needles, can be a form of soft touch when done with a caring physician. And so can radiation therapy. People can be “touched” without there being contact, as when we are touched by another person’s suffering or, in a different spirit, by a person’s smile.
Another example of such touch would be Reiki, which is rooted in Chinese and Tibetan approaches to the human body as filled with a vital energy, and which was developed by Mikao Usui of Japan (1865-1926). It emphasizes hands-on form of healing which seeks to enhance overall wellness through balancing and increasing the flow of healthy energy. Non-invasive in form and impact, Reiki works with the inner movement toward healing residing in every person’s life. In a Whiteheadian context this inner movement within a person’s life – the lure toward wholeness -- is natural not supernatural and it speaks to one way in which the Love at the heart of the universe is present within human life. It is not qi per se, but rather a particular form of qi. We might call it healing qi or whole-making qi. It is in a person as healing energy in its own right, and also a person’s conscious or unconscious desire to be healed. His or her faith. The healings of Jesus and the Buddha would be examples of this, but gifted healers from all traditions, when inspired by compassion, can develop the art.
Is healing touch effective? The evidence is still under consideration. We believe in empirical tests. Just as divine Love is not all-powerful, so particular medical practices are not all-powerful either. Even with faith they can fail as curing, even as they may succeed at healing. But we do know that those who receive reiki treatments report better overall health, stress reduction, greater vitality, less pain, and more rapid recovery from illness and broken bones. In partnership with Western medicine and other modalities, reiki promotes overall health and wholeness of body, mind, and spirit.
Of course there is a cosmology behind Reiki and other forms of healing touch, and it is very much like Whitehead’s philosophy. It says:
1. The world – part and whole – is the reflection of dynamic energy.
2. All things exist in relationship with one another.
3. Body, mind, and spirit are intricately related, and constantly influence one another. It is impossible to separate them. The body is “inspired” and the spirit is “embodied.”
4. This universal healing energy is not neutral but aims at wholeness and healing.
5. We have the freedom to respond creatively to our health condition. Our healing practices are not all-determining of our health condition, but can make a difference for the good both to relieve pain and to promote health.
6. Persons can intentionally participate in this universal energy to promote their own and others’ well-being.
One of the most important things people can to today is to trust this healing energy. It cannot move mountains, but it can move hearts and give life meaning. You see it when the nurse touches the patient, when a father lifts up his child, when a daughter holds her mother’s hand, when a young boy pets a dog. Not only through the mind, but through the body, love finds its home.