Magic & Medicine

It has been many years since I began the study of the medicines of the East. Most of my fellow students and teachers in the West at that time regarded traditional Oriental medicine as "magic" or as mistaken and erroneous beliefs combined with empty ritual. The latter view has little evidence to support it and reflects an often-unrecognized cultural bias as well as unscientific assumptions.

Can Modern Medicine Learn From Medical History and Medical Anthropology?

Despite the derogatory connotation of the word "magic" when applied by physicians to traditional medicines, the idea that the concept is suggested as an explanation, however unjustified, set me to thinking about "magic" and how differently the term is perceived in the East and the West.

The line between medicine and magic is not as sharp a divide as one might think. When I first saw a fever and delirium resolve rapidly as the result of treatment with intravenous antibiotics, it certainly seemed like "magic".

I felt the same reaction when I first saw a rapidly deteriorating patient respond dramatically to a decoction of plants that I had literally brewed up only an hour before.

Fortunately, both experiences were early in my medical training and so readily created both an awe and tremendous gratitude for the traditional medicines of our ancestors as well as that of their modern descendants. It seemed obvious that we, as physicians, needed to incorporate both into our world view if we were to become as capable.

Sadly, almost none of this older tradition is valued at our schools of medicine, mainly because none of the faculty has any training or experience in this area. With astonishing arrogance, the standard-bearers of modern medicine discount the concept that we have anything to learn from generations of physicians and patients who learned, painfully and from real world experience, what to accept, and what to reject.

The academics of medicine have successfully expunged the history of medicine and cross-cultural studies from our teaching institutions and so ensured that generations of physicians will never know the roots of their discipline's very existence.

Magic in Medicine is Not the Same as Conjuring

In part because of the power and effectiveness of properly applied traditional medicine, both patients and practitioners sometimes feel that magic is involved in the process. Now, here it would be helpful to examine the nature of magic and how it is viewed in the East and the West. If we examine a common reference on the subject, "magic", we see the following definition:

  1. The art that purports to control or forecast natural events, effects, or forces by invoking the supernatural.
  2. a. The practice of using charms, spells, or rituals to attempt to produce supernatural effects or control events in nature. b. The charms, spells, and rituals so used.
  3. The exercise of sleight of hand or conjuring for entertainment.

Excerpted from The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition Copyright © 1992 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Electronic version licensed from Lernout & Hauspie Speech Products N.V., further reproduction and distribution restricted in accordance with the Copyright Law of the United States. All rights reserved.

  1. The first two definitions strongly associate magic with the "supernatural", which leads us further to examine this term:
  2. Of or relating to existence outside the natural world.
  3. Attributed to a power that seems to violate or go beyond natural forces.
  4. Of or relating to a deity.
  5. Of or relating to the immediate exercise of divine power; miraculous.
  6. Of or relating to the miraculous.

Excerpted from The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition Copyright © 1992 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Electronic version licensed from Lernout & Hauspie Speech Products N.V., further reproduction and distribution restricted in accordance with the Copyright Law of the United States. All rights reserved.

Truly, when a pain that has been present for years and has been unresponsive to all of the surgical and pharmaceutical technology that modern medicine can apply resolves by the insertion of a few cent's worth of stainless steel needles, or the application of tui-na massage it does seem like magic in the sense that it is miraculous in effect and surprisingly unexpected.

When an unexplained phenomenon is ascribed to magic, therefore, there are two possible explanations for the scientist. One is that the phenomenon is as yet unexplained, but further investigation will demonstrate that the phenomenon is subject to natural laws which are known but not known to be associated with the phenomenon at hand. It is also possible that the phenomenon has been misunderstood in some way.

The question then becomes whether we know the extent of our natural world and what can be accomplished within it. Perhaps with the correct tool, almost anything is possible. Arbitrary limits on the realm of medicine have so far denied generations of patients and physicians in the West the benefit of traditional Oriental medicines.

Call these arbitrary limits into question, and Eastern practices that seem miraculous might be natural phenomenon that we simply do not understand. As with acupuncture, what is considered "magic" simply reflects a culturally specific view of the limits of human capability. Once understood, magic becomes technology.

Judging the Experts

It would be rare to accept the expertise of a chef who has never cooked a meal, but in the modern medical era, it is commonplace for those who have never observed a master physician at work, contemplated a line of a Chinese or Tibetan medical text, placed a single acupuncture needle, corrected a painful trigger zone, or prescribed Oriental dietary therapy to a single patient, to pass judgment on the efficacy of 20 centuries of these practices.

It seems bizarre that otherwise intelligent and well-read people, who understand the inventiveness and major contributions of the Chinese in areas such as calligraphy, literature, ceramics, navigation, astronomy, architecture, and martial arts, believe that there are no contributions at all worth studying in the area of medicine and surgery.

After more than 40 years of investigation and study, I personally have come to the conclusion that these traditional medicines can be sophisticated and powerful, containing tools and wisdom capable of bridging the gaps between needs and resources in our rapidly degenerating medical system.

The plant that today is derided as an unsophisticated and primitive treatment may, with tomorrow's technology, be found to contain a new drug which acts in a way hitherto unimagined. This has in fact been the path of medical progress. From germ theory to acupuncture, ideas that expand and challenge the view of the experts have been derided and suppressed.

Tibetan Healers Connect on a Different Level

One example might be helpful: A patient who I saw while studying with Ngag-pa Rinpoche described months of agony from weeping, inflamed sores encrusting her legs. She had been treated by a series of Western physicians at top medical centers, and had endured courses of surgery, antibiotics, and steroids. Her legs were swollen, red, and warm, draining pus from multiple fistulas. She was angry, distrustful, and impolite.

She was reluctant to be consulting the Rinpoche, and she was not a Buddhist. In fact, her Catholic faith may have made her reluctant to even be present, if a friend had not brought her and vigorously championed the Ngag-pa's capability. As she eyed me suspiciously, I examined her legs and explained to Rinpoche what I thought was in the mind of the doctors who treated her.

Rinpoche shook his head and gently smiled. He indicated to me that her physicians had no conception of the cause of the problem or how to treat it. I will not elaborate on the details of the problem or the therapy, as it exceeds the scope of this essay. However, Rinpoche gave this lady a topical crĖme to apply three times a day. She returned a week later.

Her look of delight was in such contrast to her former miserable self that I hardly recognized her at first. Her legs told an even more remarkable story. The pus, inflammation and swelling were gone but my exam of her legs amazed me; there were no scars. Her skin was beautifully smooth and clear. Clear as no skin could ever be following the chronic disorder she had, impossibly clear after just a week of treatment. My scientific training and experience required that some scarring would result even if all the disease process was reversed. I was speechless.

Rinpoche's eyes twinkled as he enjoyed my confusion and inability to accept the evidence of my own exam. It was not the first or last time that I would be faced with such a paradox in my studies of traditional medicines.

Western Magic = Conjuring

When we in the West use the word magic, we are generally referring to conjuring. Like prestidigitation and legerdemain, conjuring implies a skill at manipulating objects, as well as at manipulating the attention of the observer. The result of a skillful performance is to convince the observer that the magician has transcended the normal parameters of our experience and defied the laws of our everyday experience.

Usually this entails one or more of five effects, which I will term the categories of conjuring:

  1. Something that was previously not present, appears.
  2. Something previously present, disappears.
  3. Something seems to be destroyed, and then is restored.
  4. Familiar physical laws are defied.
  5. The conjurer appears to possess extraordinary physical or sensory abilities, or can obtain knowledge by non-sensory means (such as telepathy).

When effect 1. and 2. are combined, we may seem to observe a transformation of one object into another. When the effects of 1. and 2. are applied at two different locations, this creates the impression of teleportation, or transposition.

As destruction seems to come naturally in our modern age, watching a magician destroy something is not presently considered entertainment. On the other hand, if the conjurer can restore the integrity of an object that was just destroyed in front of the audience, this is a candidate for a magical effect. Under this category of conjuring comes the well known "cut and restored" rope, and "cut and restored" newspaper genre.

In a more provocative area, but in the same category, are the many effects where a (usually female) assistant is subjected to various sharp or dangerous objects. Here then, do we find the sawing a lady in half effect, with minor variations involving swords, guillotines, buzz saws, lasers, and the occasional less martial object. Of course, the effect is diminished if the magician fails to restore the lady to her former unified and undamaged state.

The fourth category creates the impression of a paradox. Something appears to happen even though it contradicts our everyday expectations. We do not expect an object or person levitate in opposition to the law of gravity. Moving objects without any physical means is another example, as is passing one solid object through another without causing damage.

Finally, conjurers can also create the impression that they can obtain knowledge in ways not available to the ordinary person. Knowing your card selection without seeing it is a favorite effect of conjurers. Predicting the future, mind reading of an assistant or an observer, second sight, and knowing secret information are effects within this category. The conjurer may claim to have sensory abilities that are more finely tuned or powerful than those of the rest of us.

Though not so popular in the modern era, driving while blindfolded used to be a common demonstration of the supernatural sensory abilities of the conjurer. The magician may demonstrate physical abilities such as exceptional strength or speed.

The conjurer, in contrast to the wizard, accomplishes his or her effects through deception. No expansion of the envelope of human abilities is necessary, and the conjurer, as we will see later, understands completely how the deception is accomplished. The physician or wizard is not seeking to deceive, but always runs the risk of deceiving him or herself.

Studying Deception to Prevent Confusion

As human beings, we are in fact experts at deceiving ourselves on a variety of subjects, and it is only through rigorous training that we can become aware of this tendency.

Scientists and physicians are among the easiest to deceive, as any magician can tell you. Perhaps it is partly arrogance that is at fault, but the more dangerous habit for intelligent people is the unsupported assumption. We think we know what is happening when we observe (especially if we are trained in observation), but this is exactly what the conjurer uses to create the paradox which makes us question not what our assumptions are, but what we observed. If we started by questioning our assumptions (or, better yet, eliminating them), deception would be a much harder job for the conjurer.

"A knowledge of conjuring tricks makes a boy more alert to the trickery of the world he will have to cope with in maturity".

Karl Germain

Mr. Germain was one of the premier magic performers and artists of the late 19th and early 20th century. He was known professionally as "Germain the Wizard", and his inventiveness and stage presence was extraordinary even in an era in which stage magic flourished in America. As a conjurer he was able to excite a sense of wonder and delight from his audience essentially through misdirection and deception.

Presently, very few know or remember what a great artist he was and how high was the level of technical skill  and mastery that he achieved . More clearly than most of us, he saw that deception and self deception has a darker side.

Not a week goes by without some long honored "truth" of Western medicine exposed as myth. Many of the assumptions created by the present medical-industrial complex are untrue and in fact harmful, but they serve the purposes of these powerful interests. Deception and misdirection have become the tools to guide us away from the historical partnership of patients and physicians. We would be wise to learn to question these assumptions before placing our health, lives, and reputations at risk.

Continued...Lessons from Magic School