Mind Matters: The Role of Intent in Healing
by ©Kenneth S. Cohen
An abridged version of this article was printed in Bridges. (Journal of the International Society for the Study of Subtle Energy and Energy Medicine) 10:3, Fall 1999.
I am a scholar and practitioner of Qigong, an ancient Chinese healing practice in which intent plays a key role. You cannot open a Chinese language book about Qigong without finding an entire chapter on yi, intent. One of the first sayings that I learned when I was studying Qigong with a Chinese instructor was yong yi ling qi, “use the mind-intent to direct the qi, the healing energy. “ Another common expression is yi dao, qi dao “when the intent arrives, the qi arrives.”
About twenty years ago I heard from a colleague that Chinese Qigong healers and scientists were exploring new intent-based form of non-contact Therapeutic Touch. The Chinese have known about non-contact therapies for millennia. Qigong includes both self-healing exercises and meditations, known as Internal Qigong, as well as External Qi Healing, in which a practitioner assesses the health of a patient and projects appropriate forms of therapeutic qi while holding the hands a few inches above the patient’s body. According to my colleague, Chinese clinicians had discovered a higher level of External Qi Healing called Mind-Intent Healing, Yi Nian Zhi Liao. The healer does not attempt to project qi but rather uses intent to heal.– volition rather than energy is considered primary. To clarify the difference, let’s consider the role of intent in self-healing. Think for a moment of the fingertips of your left hand. As a result of your intent, peripheral circulation improves; the fingers begin to tingle a bit and may feel slightly warmer. From the Chinese viewpoint you have mobilized both qi and blood, yet you did not have to imagine sending a stream of energy to the fingers. Intent alone was sufficient. Similarly, instead of projecting qi to the patient, the Mind-Intent Healer wills healing to take place.
I was very amused to learn that China considered Mind-Intent Healing to be something new. How surprised Chinese scientists would be to learn of the many experiments on the power of intent conducted in the West, such as the research of William Braude and Marilyn Schlitz or the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research (PEAR) experiments. Braude and Schlitz found that even untrained people can affect the electrical conductivity of the skin of distant subjects. Normally skin conductivity rises and falls according to a person’s degree of relaxation. Braude and Schlitz discovered that when a person attempted to change their own skin conductivity and imagined producing this effect on an anonymous subject in another room in the same office building, they were able to exert an extraordinary degree of control over that person’s physiology.
In the PEAR experiments, subjects tried to use intent to influence the output of a random number generator, a machine that produces random strings of ones and zeros. After more than 15 years and 50 million experimental trials, the level of influence of intent over machine was extremely significant: on the order of a trillion to one against chance. Mind-Intent research is not quite top secret in the West! Although Chinese and Western experiments on the effects of intent have followed different protocols and thus have not been exactly replicated across the globe, the conclusions drawn from both East and West are the same: intent has measurable effects on organic and mechanical systems.
A wise man once said that wisdom is not learning something new but seeing something old in a new way. Perhaps we can explore some new cross-cultural perspectives on intent together. First, let me give you a basic definition of intent. Intent is volition, an act of will. In Chinese and indigenous healing arts intent directs healing energy. Intent may direct healing energy within your own body, from or between you and a patient, or from a transpersonal source to either yourself or a patient. For example, the great Lakota Holy Man, Fools Crow, would “doctor” himself using his intent to remove toxic or pathogenic energy, a kind of personal psychic surgery, and then he would draw down the energy of the sun– a transpersonal power– to replenish himself with the sun’s healing light. Some people attribute Fools Crow’s 100 years of life to the healing power of intent and, of course, to the support of a healthy and spiritual lifestyle.
In Native American tradition, intent is almost synonymous with attentiveness. When another Lakota Holy Man, Black Elk, climbed Harney Peak, he heard the spirits command Wacin ksapa yo, “Be attentive!” To the Lakota, willpower or intent, tawacin, is not a passive quality, but is rather a creative power that helps you fulfill your life mission. Without both intent and attentiveness, you cannot live your vision. Put in other terms, attentiveness is considered a necessity for waableza, clear minded understanding.
In addition to defining intent as willpower and attentiveness, many cultures associate intent with the concept of “meaning.” In English we ask, “What is your intent?” In the healing arts, if you direct healing power with love and caring, it has a quite different effect than if you are only thinking of healing power as energy. Intent may simply direct healing energy or it may create an additional informational “charge,” giving meaning to the energy. To put it simply, love-energy is more powerful than energy.
I would like to share an example of intent as information from a realm that I know fairly well, the Chinese martial arts. Perhaps you wonder what defensive arts have to do with healing traditions. The beauty of the martial arts is that you get immediate feedback about your degree of attentiveness. When your mind wanders, you get punched! No Zen master is as effective at catching the moments when your mind wanders away from the present. Now let’s imagine that you are playing this game of wakefulness, you are sparring with a partner, and he hits you lightly on the first acupuncture point of the lung meridian, under the clavicle, near the shoulder. You know what happens? You feel great. The punch, delivered by a playful classmate or friendly sparring partner, is invigorating, like an acupressure massage treatment. But if someone taps you on this same acupoint with hurtful intent, you feel horrible. Chinese martial artists recognize that point hitting, dian xue, accompanied by angry emotions, can be lethal. In the martial arts as in healing arts throughout the world, intent may make the difference between healing or harming.
What are some other terms for intent cross-culturally? Let’s start with our own Judeo-Christian tradition. The Hassidic mystics of Judaism speak of the necessity of “holy intent,” kavanot. Kavanot is the turning of the mind towards its source and goal in the divine. Kavanot brings holy words out from the mouth, but it also carries the mystic into the power of the Word, the power of vibration. This vibration or energy was the source of the healing power of the Baal Shem, the Jewish mystical healers of medieval Europe.
The concepts of intent, vibration, and healing power are interwoven throughout the Bible. Notice that God says, ”Let there be light, and then there was light.” Intent and sound precede light as creative forces. Or in John we read, “In the beginning was the Logos, the Word.” Jesus was known as Yeshua, “the one who heals through anointing.” Biblical stories suggest that Jesus used the loving power of words, rather than holy oil, to anoint and affirm a person’s spiritual worth.
Every Native American language has words for healing intent. We have already discussed Lakota concepts. In the Apache language, the ability to develop a quiet, clear, and spacious state of mind– the essence of wisdom– depends on bini’ gondzil, “mental steadiness” and bini’ gontl’iz, “mental resilience.” Mental steadiness is close to the concept of steady or focused intent. Etymologically, the Apache term means a stake that is planted in the ground. We are only steady if we are rooted and connected to a larger field. A healer can use intent to heal to the extent that he or she senses that all of nature is related. We all grow from the same field of Mother Earth. The other necessity for wisdom is mental resilience, which in Apache suggests an object that maintains its shape, like a basket. If you press a well-made basket, it springs back to its original shape. In other words, mental resilience implies integrity, the ability to hold ones own (or be true to oneself) in the face of pressure or adversity. To summarize, wisdom includes the qualities of focused, steady intent with connectedness, mental resilience, and integrity.
The Hawaiian spiritual tradition also recognizes the power of intent. Uhane, a word that means both the conscious self and the will, is part of Hawaii’s three-fold division of the psyche. We have the aumakua which means the higher spiritual self as well as totemic powers. A person might have a shark aumakua, a falcon aumakua. His awareness of these powers is also his aumakua. The aumakua draws mana, healing energy, from the heavens. Every person also has an unihipili, an unconscious which draws mana from the earth. The bridge that connects higher self with unconscious, heaven with earth, is the uhane, the conscious self and will. A kahuna healer uses the uhane to direct the mana of sky, earth, and personal self to the patient. For this power to be effective, it must be infused with aloha, love.
Finally, I would like to return to China and explore themes that I hinted at in the beginning of my talk. China has the most extensive philosophical as well as scientific literature on intent. Intent directs qi to heal oneself, to heal others, or to deliver power in the martial arts or sports. One day I watched Madame Gao Fu, an eighty years young master of Taiji Quan (Tai Chi) and Qigong, slowly turning her waist and coiling her fingers, as though her entire body had become a sinewy snake. I asked her what she was doing. She said that she was practicing Yi Gong, Intent Skills, which she said is the essence of Qigong, Energy Skills. This philosophy is corroborated by numerous Chinese writings. Below I offer several examples:
From the Taiji Quan Classics
• Everything in Taiji depends on yi (intent), not on external appearance.
• To have smooth and rounded movements, yi and qi must coordinate in a lively (ling) fashion.
From the writings of Qigong/ Martial Arts Master Wang Xiangzhai
• Yi is strength (li). If you don’t use yi, you cannot apply martial power correctly or naturally.
• The secret to the martial arts lies in unifying spirit (shen), form (xing), intent (yi), and strength (li).
From Chinese Qigong, a modern textbook published by the Shanghai College of Traditional Chinese Medicine
• Yi and qi follow each other. This means that the practitioner uses intent to influence and train respiration and the movement of inner qi. Because yi and qi are harmonized, this state is called “The unification of yi and qi.”
As health care providers, one of the aspects of Qigong that most interests us is External Qi Healing and its advanced level, Mind-Intent Healing. In these arts, the healer uses intent to project qi to the patient, generally without physical contact, but not necessarily so. A massage therapist may also project qi while the hands rest on a patient’s body. The healer reaches mentally through the tissue to the underlying life energy, the qi. Any time that you make caring contact with a person’s life energy, even if you are only shaking hands, healing takes place. In External Qi Healing massage, you can vary the depth of treatment without changing the pressure of your hand on the skin by using intent to reach in more deeply.
There is a wealth of experimental data on External Qi Healing. I will summarize three representative examples.
Experiment 1 The Effects of Emitted Qi On Animal Tumors
This experiment was performed at the Laboratory of Experimental Oncology, University Hospital of Gent, Belgium. (Table 1). Cancer cells were implanted into 54 mice that were randomly divided into a qi-treated group and an untreated control group. Both groups were fed the same standard diet. Very significant differences were seen in average survival of the qi-treated group compared to the controls.
THE EFFECTS OF EMITTED QI
ON TUMORS IN MICE
— Laboratory of Experimental Oncology
University Hospital of Gent, Belgium
• Fibrosarcoma cells implanted in 54 mice, randomly divided.
• Qigong Group, treated by qigong master 30 min/day for 38 days. Control Group untreated.
• Both groups fed same standard diet & tap water.
Control Group Qigong Group
Average Tumor Volume/ day 396.42 mm 259.29 mm
Avg. Survival 30.4 days 35.4 days
Animal experiments are important to rule out placebo, the power of expectant trust. We assume that the qi-treated mice survived longer because of the intervention, not because they believed in the healing power of the Qigong Master! In vitro experiments, conducted in a test-tube rather than in a living system, also make strong case for the validity of External Qi Healing. For example rat neurons in culture were subjected to free radicals, highly reactive oxygen molecules that can cause destruction and degeneration of tissues. The cell cultures were divided into two groups, one group treated by a qigong master, the other group untreated. A significant number of treated cells compared to the untreated were protected from damage. In other words, qi energy seems to be a free radical scavenger, like vitamin C.
Experiment 2 External Qi Healing Prevents Opportunistic Infection
Researchers at Guangzhou University of Medical Sciences examined whether External Qi Healing could protect rats infected with pneumocystis carinii from contracting the disease (Table 2). Remember that not all people or animals exposed to a microbe, even by injection, will develop the illness. In other words, is External Qi Healing preventive? This experiment is very important for human beings because pneumocystis carinii is an opportunistic disease that often infects AIDS patients.
Eighty rats were divided into three groups, two groups treated by a qigong master in 15 minute sessions every other day for two weeks, one control group untreated. All groups received standard therapy and diet. Approximately 92% of the untreated group developed the disease, whereas only 65% and 50% of the treated groups developed the disease. This is highly significant. Interestingly, among rats that were infected in any of the groups, qi therapy did not affect lung cyst diameter.
THE EFFECT OF EMITTED QI ON EXPERIMENTAL ANIMALS INFECTED BY PNEUMOCYSTIS CARINII
— Guangzhou University of Medical Sciences
• 80 adult female Wistar rats infected by P. carinii randomly divided into 3 groups
• Group A and B treated by 2 Qigong Masters every other day in 15 min. sessions, 7 times total. Group C (Control) untreated.
• All groups received standard diet & therapy (cortisone acetate & tetracycline).
Control Group QG Groups
Infected 92.3 % A 65.4%
Avg. Diameter of Lung Cysts Among Infected 4.74 microns A 4.78 microns
B 4.98 microns
Experiment 3 The Effect of Intent on Human Brain-Waves
This experiment, conducted by the Department of Physiology, First Medical College of Guangzhou, was inspired by a chance finding in an earlier experiment: A qigong master named Qu Baoxiang projected qi into a subject’s spinal column to clear it of energy blockages and to stimulate a stronger and more balanced flow of qi. As the healer projected qi from his hands, the subject showed an increase in alpha and theta frequency brain-waves in the frontal areas of the brain and synchronization of brain-waves throughout the occipital to frontal regions. These are probably indications of a relaxed and focused state of mind. The researchers decided to conduct experiments to see if a group of subjects would demonstrate the same brain-wave patterns if a healer attempted to project qi by intent alone, without physical movements. Moreover, would researchers see the same brain-wave patterns in the subjects if a healer made a “false delivery,” not intending to project qi?
Here’s the basic protocol:
• Qigong healer: Wang Xin
• Subjects: 15 college graduate volunteers, aged 22-62, good physical and mental condition, no history of nervous system disease, none had ever practiced qigong, some skeptics, divided into 3 groups
• Subjects have eyes closed during all experiments and are unaware if the healer is attempting to project qi or not.
• EEG taken before, during, and after all experiments
7 male and 5 female subjects lie on their backs with eyes closed. The Qigong master uses only intent (no physical movement) to deliver qi to group for 15 minutes. The subjects’ brain waves changed gradually to the distinctive Qigong EEG pattern.
In the next experiment, two male and one female subject lie down on their backs with their eyes closed. This time the healer does not intend to project qi. The subjects’ EEG do not change unusually and do not demonstrate the Qigong pattern.
The same subjects as in 3B sit on stools with their eyes closed, hands on knees, palms facing upwards. The healer attempts a “strong delivery” of qi by using hand movements to project qi for fifteen minutes from the center of his palm (lao gong acupoint) to each subject’s head, neck, and back. This experiment produced the most rapid change to the Qigong EEG pattern.
Conclusions: Intent can change human EEG. Intent accompanied by external qi healing movements produces quicker effects. Placebo seems inoperative.
Intent brings us to the heart of healing and to a philosophical mystery. Intent may qualify as a Prime Mover, a force that has no previous cause behind it. Normally we assume that cause always precedes effect. One billiard ball sets another in motion. But in a biological system where does action begin? We cannot assume a cause behind a cause, behind a cause– an infinite regression into the past. Intent seems to be the source of action and an example of the spontaneous wisdom of nature. When we intend to heal, we instantly mobilize qi and create millions of biochemical and bioelectric changes. Mind exerts its everyday influence over matter.Ken Cohen (www.qigonghealing.com), executive director of the Qigong Research & Practice Center is a renowned qigong master and health educator. He is the author of The Way of Qigong: The Art and Science of Chinese Energy Healing (Ballantine, 1997); Honoring the Medicine: The Essential Guide to Native American Healing (Ballantine, 2003), national health book award winner; and the popular Sounds True home study courses.