In recent years, a number of groundbreaking studies have been published showing a very direct link between our thoughts, beliefs, emotions and the health of our physical body as well as measurable changes in our genetic code. Commonly referred to as the “placebo effect,” this inherent mind-body connection is proving to be the latest frontier in medicine and is shaking up old models of disease theory showing that health is far more complex than simply eating a healthy diet, and far more dependent on our state of mental and emotional well-being, than previously thought.
“When I was working with sick patients from the inner city of Chicago, it made sense that they weren’t healthy. They ate poorly, smoked, drank, and never exercised.” Explains leading holistic physician Dr. Lissa Rankin in an interview with Dr. Frank Lipman about her experience of understanding the power of the mind-body connection for the first time. “But then I took a job at an integrative medicine practice in posh Marin County, California, where my patients religiously followed organic, vegan diets, worked out with personal trainers, got 8 hours of sleep every night, took their vitamins, and spent a fortune on the best healthcare money can buy—and they were still sick. It got me wondering, what if there’s more to health than what they taught me in medical school?”
Rankin’s experiences echo the findings of a recent mindfulness study conducted by researchers at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind/Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital where 26 adults (without prior experience) were taught a number of relaxation techniques including meditation, mindfulness and mantra (the repetition of “sacred” sounds) in order to understand the effects of these “mind-focused” practices on the body and specifically the genetic code. The participants were given comprehensive blood tests immediately preceding and immediately following 20 minutes of self-directed practice. By studying approximately 22,000 different gene sequences, researchers were able to identify and measure any changes that occurred in the participants’ DNA during and after the practice of the various mindfulness, mantra and meditation techniques.
If you’ve practiced meditation or mindfulness for any length of time, the results were not altogether surprising: every single one of the participants’ DNA demonstrated measurable changes in the genes that researchers had identified as being responsible for, or related to, aging, metabolism, relaxation and insulin response, among others. The changes were found to be indicative of a significantly reduced stress response and activation of telomere maintenance genes, meaning that the meditation, mindfulness and mantra practice actually caused changes in the body that ultimately led to alteration and repair of DNA.
And these findings lend a scientific explanation to the borderline miraculous experiences of Dina Proctor, who developed a simple but powerful meditation and visualization exercise, based loosely on the work of Dr. Bruce Lipton, that was able to create measurable changes in her blood work and biochemistry over the course of a few short weeks.
At the time, Dina had been getting deeply interested in epigenetics research, meditation and mindfulness and decided to perform an informal experiment on herself to address serious imbalances in her blood cholesterol levels that had been bothering her for some time. For approximately 14 days she regularly practiced a simple 3-minute visualization meditation that she describes as follows:
“I started out visualizing a gentle but laser-like beam of healing energy entering my body straight into my heart. I imagined a warm sensation as the beam infiltrated and surrounded my heart. As the warmth grew stronger, I pictured the healing energy in the form of a thick liquid or serum, like warm honey, slowly seeping from my heart muscle into my bloodstream. I kept my focus on the warm feeling of the serum moving into my bloodstream in all directions. I followed it in my mind’s eye, moving through my chest into my legs and arms, fingers and toes, and circling back again into my heart.”
She reported that after a few of days of this specific focus in her meditation, she could intuitively feel that her blood levels were balancing themselves out: “I visualized the imaginary serum healing each blood cell it touched as it traveled throughout my body,” she later commented about her experience.
In lock step with the findings from the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind/Body Medicine study, the results of her bloodwork post visualization meditation practice demonstrated a significant positive change: her serum cholesterol readings had dropped from 227 to 177, showing once again that regular, simple shifts in behavior, thought processes and emotional state do have measurable physical effects in the body.
“Your mind controls your biology. That’s what the placebo effect is about; the mind believes the pill will work and so it does,” leading stem cell biologist and epigenetics researcher Bruce Lipton is quoted as saying in response to Dina’s spectacular results. “In the science of epigenetics it’s been found that it’s the perception of your environment that controls your genes. You’re not a victim of your genes because you’re the one who can change your environment—or, more importantly, change your perception… The physical expression is the consequence of the mind’s program—the program comes first, the physical expression second. The function of the mind is to create coherence between your beliefs and your reality.”
So the question then becomes how can we integrate and implement these findings into our everyday lives to produce similar positive results on our overall health and well-being? Below I outline a few key practices based on well established mind-body and epigenetics research over the past few decades.
Brain imaging research has shown that the mind cannot differentiate between something that is actually occurring in your life and something imagined. Both activate the brain in identical ways and since your mind literally controls and coordinates the functioning of your cells and body as a whole, what you regularly think, feel and believe is ultimately reflected in your body in some way, shape or form. Essentially, what you predominantly focus on or experience has an incredible level of influence on your physiology. Your mind is literally programming your cells’ functioning in real time via the activation and deactivation of specific segments of your genetic code, as demonstrated in the above mentioned study. Visualization is, in a sense, a way to “hack” the dynamics of this internal biofeedback loop. Your cells respond to changes in the the mind and so by changing your “mental focus” for extended periods of time you can directly and indirectly influence your cells, which are the fundamental compositional element of everything in the body. When they shift, any corresponding organ or bodily system/process shifts, begetting healing in the body.
For your visualizations to have a measurable effect, they must be practiced consistently as there is natural resiliency built into the nervous system to maintain stability in the body. If every change in thought had an immediate corresponding effect in the body, we’d hardly be able to get out of bed in the morning. The mind, and hence the body, responds most strongly to the dominantly held programming (thoughts, images, emotions, beliefs, etc.) and in order to tip the scales in favor of what you are visualizing, you need to be consistent. In many cases, we are trying to balance out a lifetime of faulty mental patterning and self-destructive thought processes. The more vividly and intensely you can “lean in” to the visualization process the more effective it becomes. This means incorporating some or all of the senses and a strong emotional element.
Heal Limiting Beliefs
Beyond simple thoughts or visualizations, lie our beliefs, which are our most fundamental programming. And in order to experience the full benefit of a visualization practice, you’ll need to begin working at this level as well. This is because beliefs allow us to make sense of and interpret the complex and overwhelming incoming sensory data that is constantly streaming into our minds. They are perceptual filters that dictate what we perceive, and what we perceive ultimately influences our thoughts and emotions. As such, they powerfully control our physiology and can keep us locked into unhealthy patterns if we are holding onto any number of limiting beliefs. A strongly held limiting belief can counteract any positive effects of a visualization practice so if you are not experiencing the results you had initially hoped for, it’s time to dig a bit deeper into the realm of belief. Since thoughts, emotions and ultimately our automatic visualizations are controlled by our beliefs, it is extremely important to do a thorough inventory and adjust anything that is potentially creating illness and dysfunction in the body.
If you are practicing a positive visualization for 20 minutes per day but holding onto destructive limiting beliefs, emotions and thought processes for the remaining 16 or so waking hours of the day, you probably won’t see phenomenal results. However, if you can get the balance of healthy, positive thoughts, beliefs and emotions to 50% or more of your predominant daily mental-emotional experience you can expect to begin to experience various levels of healing and other positive psychological and physiological effects.
The Practice: Here’s a simple but extraordinarily powerful exercise to help you become aware of deeply held, often unconscious limiting beliefs: Set an intention to mindfully observe your mental chatter and catch yourself next time you begin thinking any kind of negative, doubting or fearful thought. When you do, ask yourself the following question: “What must I believe is true in order to be having this thought/perception?” Coming at it from another angle can also be helpful, asking yourself: “What am I making this mean about myself?”
The answers to either of these questions will lead you in short order to discover a limiting, self-destructive belief that is having a significant negative impact on your overall experience of life and potentially your health as well. Sometimes you may need to ask the questions a few times to continue digging past initial, superficial answers in order to get to deeper unconscious programming. It also helps greatly to put your ego aside and really strive for honest inquiry. What you find may greatly contradict your perception of yourself and the world and often times people do find the belief they are looking for but since it contradicts their projected self-image so strongly they reject them outright, not understanding that it is possible to hold conflicting beliefs.
Once you have identified a limiting belief, you can then decide if you still want to believe it is true. Often times simply becoming aware of a limiting belief is enough to loosen its hold on our psyche as you realize how irrational it actually is. Always remember that beliefs are simply deeply held perceptions of and generalizations about reality, and they can change in an instant once we realize that they are not true.
Heal Emotional Patterns and Wounds
Similar to beliefs, our predominant emotional state also has significant effects on our physiological experience, as well as our thoughts. Each emotion we experience consequently generates a series of hormonal cascades and is communicated to and affects our cells’ functioning via our central nervous system. As you might imagine, negative emotional states like fear, worry, anxiety, anger and various forms of stress tend to release hormones that can have detrimental effects when out of balance, a well-known example being cortisol. Elevated levels of stress hormones over time can negatively impact our health. Consequently, positive emotions promote hormonal balance and homeostasis. Since hormones are the master regulators of every organ, process and system in the body, including consciousness, imbalances here affect the whole person, physiologically, mentally and psycho-spiritually. Emotions can and do influence our thoughts and behavior significantly, meaning that our predominant emotional states will essentially determine our overall health and quality of life.
As such it is important to address negative emotional patterns—that is recurring patterns of emotion that are detrimental in nature, as these will be reflected in the body over both short and long periods of time. On the other hand, positive emotional states are the foundation for healing and health as well as a generally positive experience of life, among many other things.
The overarching idea in the emotional healing process is non-resistance, meaning that when an uncomfortable emotion surfaces, do not repress it or seek to escape it through drugs, food or distraction of any kind. This only leads to deep imbalances in the mind and body, which can and do create disease over time. Instead, you will want to begin the process of experiencing and ultimately releasing the emotion, which returns the body and mind back to a state of harmony, health and healing.
There are many effective techniques for doing this, but I’d like to focus in on one that works particularly well for most people. It’s a basic form of mindfulness, and I’ve added on an advanced variation at the end, which works extraordinarily well for those wanting to go a bit deeper.
The idea is to practice detachment from the emotion you are experiencing and observe it objectively. Next time you feel an unpleasant emotional state coming on, instead of letting yourself get sucked into it, take a moment to step back and just observe the changes you are noticing in your body and mind. Notice how there is the experience of the emotion in the body and mind and then you yourself—your awareness—observing the experience of the emotion in the body and mind. In this process you realize that you are not the emotion, it is like a cloud coming and going through the sky. You are the sky—you are the awareness experiencing an emotion and it’s your choice how deeply you let yourself get sucked into it. Taking this slightly detached viewpoint typically causes the emotional energy to dissipate and be released quite quickly without becoming overwhelming or painful. Over time you learn to be in the observer mode permanently and at this point you cease to be negatively impacted by any emotional state.
The deeper practice is to not just observe, but to actually acknowledge the wisdom of the emotion by allowing yourself to move into states of gratitude, appreciation and love when experiencing any type of negative or unpleasant emotional state. This has the effect of transmuting or transforming the negative emotion into a higher level of vibration as per David Hawkins’ scale of consciousness, with the added benefit of training and rewiring the nervous system and mind through a form of pavlovian conditioning to automatically shift the experience and processing of negative emotions. It is important to remember that negative emotions are not happening to us, but are created and controlled by us and that we can choose to change them at will. This process of transmutation is simply the path of least resistance.