Most religions are dualistic. They assume that something ethereal exists within us, or as us, that is separate and distinct from the physical body: mind, soul, spirit, divine energy, and such.
To which I say, maybe, since anything is possible. However, there's no convincing evidence that this ethereal something exists, with zero evidence that this something that can't be shown to exist has any observable effects.
Today I finished reading Ellen Langer's book, Mindfulness. In a final chapter, this Harvard psychologist has quite a bit to say about mind-body dualism, though not in a religious sense. She starts off by saying:
From earliest childhood we learn to see mind and body as separate and unquestionably to regard the body as more important.
We learn that "sticks and stones may break your bones, but words can never hurt you." If something is wrong with our bodies we go to one kind of doctor, while with a "mental problem" we go to another.
Long before we have any reason to question it, the split is ingrained into us in endless ways. It is one of our strongest mindsets, a dangerous premature cognitive commitment.
Later in the chapter, Langer talks about placebos, those supposedly inert substances that nonetheless often have substantial physical effects if a person believes they are effective (and sometimes even if that belief is lacking, an even more surprising effect).
When patients are given a placebo and then get well, the illness is considered to be "only psychological." (Here we see the old mind/body dualism, alive and well.) It is interesting that no one tests the effectiveness of active drugs by telling patients that "this is only a placebo." (Is this implicit recognition of the power of the mind to change the effect of the drug?)
...Placebo effects are real and powerful. Who is doing the healing when one takes a placebo? Why can't we just say to our minds, "repair this ailing body"? Why must we fool our minds in order to enlist our own powers of self-healing?
Placebos, hypnosis, autosuggestion, faith healing, visualization, positive thinking, biofeedback are among the many ways we have learned to invoke these powers. Each can be seen as a device for changing mindsets, enabling us to move from an unhealthy to a healthy context.
The more we can learn about how to accomplish this mindfully and deliberately, rather than having to rely on these elaborate, indirect strategies, the more control we will gain over our own health.
Here's some of what Langer has to say about developing that sort of control.
Whenever we try to heal ourselves, and not abdicate this responsibility completely to doctors, each step is mindful.
For example, we question destructive categories of disease (such as the image of cancer as a death sentence). We welcome new information, whether from our bodies or from books. We look at our illness from more than a single perspective (the medical one). We work on changing contexts, whether it is a stressful workplace or a depressing rather than a positive view of the hospital.
Finally, the attempt to stay healthy rather than to be "made well" necessarily involves us with process rather than outcome.
...In a sense, we should be able to "take" a placebo instead of a pill. Conceiving of the mind and body as one means that wherever we put the mind, we may be able to put our bodies. Fo most of us, at present at least, the mind may have to be fooled to reach a healthy place. Once we learn to put it there consciously, the evidence suggests that the body may well follow.
In a book aptly titled New Bottles for New Wine, Julian Huxley quotes his grandfather, the great nineteenth-century scientist Thomas Huxley, on the subject of belief: "Everyone should be able to give a reason for the faith that is in him. My faith is in human possibilities."
Me too. I much prefer faith in human possibilities to faith in divine/godly possibilities, for humans are clearly real.