"New Thought Healing and World Religions"

by Dr. Larry Morris

Delivered at the 1992 INTA Congress, Las Vegas, Nevada


It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul —
— Shakespeare
Every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
— Whitman

Healing is the foundation of the New Thought movement. A majority of the founders and early practitioners of New Thought had healing experiences as their initiation into the principles and teachings of this movement. Indeed, the teachings themselves were formulated out of the healing experiences of many of its founders. Quimby, Charles and Myrtle Filmore and Nona Brooks, to name a few, all experienced life-transforming healings which propelled them into New Thought. From its earliest beginnings in the 1860's until now, New Thought has concerned itself with healing as a basic point of focus -- its major premises have arisen from this primary concern. I would like to examine New Thought Healing in relationship to some other world religions' healing traditions and particularly to address a major distinction between New Thought and Eastern and Native American healing traditions.

While early New Thought was influenced by Eastern religion and philosophy, in many areas, its healing principles come from an essentially Western point-of-view. Western science and Western medicine derive from the 17th Cartesian dualism between mind and body, and spirit and matter. This dualism goes back much further in the West to Biblical origins. In the Garden of Eden story, man was created to have dominion over his world. Likewise, in New Thought, man is to be dominant over his environment, including the body. While Western medicine attempts to determine the physical or biochemical cause of illness, New Thought affirms that there is a mental/emotional cause of illness.

As Quimby, the acknowledged founder of New Thought, said in answer to the question, "Is disease a belief?": 

I answer that it is, for an individual is to himself just what he thinks he is, and he is in his belief sick. If I believe I am sick, I am sick, for my feelings are my sickness, and my sickness is my belief in my mind. Therefore all sickness is in the mind or belief.... To cure the disease is to correct the error, destroy the cause, and the effect will cease. 

While Western medicine bases its treatment of illness on physical causes, New Thought, since its inception, and with only minor differences, bases its treatment on mental causes. Whether it is called mental or spiritual healing, New Thought recognizes a hierarchical distinction which allows the individual to overcome illness by changing his thinking. So we in New Thought control the body by controlling our mental and emotional nature; as the Western physician treats the physical symptoms and underlying physical causes of bodily illness, we treat the underlying mental/emotional causes of physical disturbance. Western scientific thought bases itself on the concept that there is one cause for an effect; the cause may be genetic, or bacterial or auto-immune or even psychological trauma. And, likewise, New Thought bases its healing theory on one cause, namely, false belief. Conversely, both Eastern religions and Native American healing traditions formulate a multi-causal or holistic analysis of illness.

The Eastern and Native American approaches to healing are fundamentally different from both New Thought and Western science because they are based on a differing perception of man's place in the scheme of the universe. In the Eastern viewpoint, man, rather than dominating, is created as an integral part or component of nature. Alan Watts observes that this basic distinction can be seen in Western and Eastern forms of art. For instance, in Western portraiture, the figure, or the individual, stands out from the background; the background exists merely to highlight the individual personality in the foreground. In Chinese landscape painting, we are presented with a vast natural and supernatural background in which we see little, tiny figures. These figures represent humanity's place in the scheme of things. Man exists in an incredibly vast natural and cosmic landscape. We are a part of the interwovenness of all life.

New Thought is sometimes linked to the holistic healing movement. But from this point of view, New Thought's approach is far from holistic and much closer to Western medicine. As David Sobel points out: 

To a large extent, all systems of medicine except those based on modern Western science are almost exclusively based on a holistic concept integrating the body, the mind, and the total environment. 

Holistic healing as in Taoist or Chinese medicine: 

...pays much attention to the living organism and its environment -- the place, the seasons, the weather, the time of day, the social milieu. 

Lewis Thomas defines "holism" simply as "a complete assemblage of living units." In this context, it is difficult to see how New Thought fits within holistic healing.

New Thought does affirm the inherent oneness of all life: "There is only One Presence," God, and God is "all in all." "The universe is the body of God...." Man is a part of the oneness of God. "The Divine Nature expressing Itself through man manifests Itself as health, supply, wisdom, love, life, truth, power, peace, beauty, and joy." Yet in New Thought healing, in practice, we seem to see the spiritual as more real than the mental and the mental more real than the body. We have our healing by recognizing the spiritual reality which pre-empts the mental or emotional condition which is causing our physical illness. Again, the underlying assumption is that man's mental states cause his physical condition, including bodily illness or health. This assumes that mind is prior to and more real than the physical creation. This causal inference implies an underlying division between mind and body, even though ultimately New Thought affirms the oneness of all things.

So, frequently in New Thought, we hear statements such as "Why did you cause that cold?" "Why are you holding on to that belief that is making you sick?" or even, in the case of people with physical handicaps since birth, "Why did you cause that condition?" Are people with physical handicaps "manifesting perfection" or not? In New Thought this is a gray area because of the a priori assumption that man is the authority over his environment including his body and is therefore responsible for how the body is expressing.

As Alan Watts notes, in physics (in the unified field theory) the elements A and B exist together in relationship with each other in the same field rather than being causally connected. So, too, with the holistic concept of mind and body: the two parts are merely components existing within a much larger environmental field. To say that the mind causes the body's illness is to assign tremendous responsibility and even blame to the mind. Perhaps there are many New Thoughters who are feeling guilty (consciously or subconsciously) because of the way their physical life is expressing. One New Thought minister was enraged when he was told he needed cataract surgery even though he had "treated" for a healing. 

In distinction to Native American and Eastern healing traditions, New Thought, like Western medicine and science, reasons deductively and assigns a causal connection between "wrong thinking" and physical illness. Eastern healing functions inductively, linking two components that exist at the same time at different points in space. Jesus was responding inductively when presented with the man blind from birth. The question was asked deductively of Jesus, "Who caused this man's blindness, himself or his parents?" "Neither," replied Jesus. "But for the greater glory of God," and he healed the man.

In Native American healing, we see this inductive process of interrelatedness rather than causality. In speaking of the Navaho religion, Gladys Reichard says: 

The Navaho religion must be considered a design in harmony, a striving for rapport between man and every phase of nature, the earth and waters under the earth, and the sky and land beyond the sky, and of course the earth and everything on and in it.... Navaho dogma connected all things, natural and experienced, from man's skeleton to universal destiny, which encompasses even inconceivable space, in a closely interlocked unity which omits nothing, no matter how small or stupendous, and in which each individual has a significant function until at his final dissolution, he not only becomes one with the ultimate harmony, but he is that harmony. 

Navaho healing consists in the restoration of the basic harmony within both man and nature. This notion of restoration of harmony, balance and order in nature and in man as the basis of healing occurs not only in the Native American religions but also in Hinduism, Taoism and Buddhism. Thus in the Navaho tradition, symbolic rituals, dances and chants are performed to "re-establish the basic harmony, cure individual illness, and bring general blessing to the tribe." It is interesting to note that in the Navaho medicine man the functions of a doctor and priest correspond exactly. This, too, affirms the notion that life cannot be divided up. 

In Taoism the idea of restoration and balance, a reconnecting to the way of all life, is paramount. And here, too, there is no separation between mental and physical processes.

Hinduism and Buddhism are noteworthy because healing originally in these traditions was concerned with spiritual rather than physical illness. In Buddhism, the Buddha was called the Great Physician. His role was to heal the suffering of humanity. Humanity suffers not because of sin but because of ignorance, and ignorance itself is the illness. Ignorance comes from the sense of separation from all life. So the cure for suffering is Nirvana, the blowing out or extinction of the sense of separation.

In Hinduism, also, healing was originally concerned with re-establishing spiritual wholeness. In Sanskrit, the word 'maya' means to measure. When we measure our life from a center within ourselves, we experience duality and division and we are caught in the coils of maya. Liberation (healing) occurs when we attain measurelessness, Nirvakalpa Samadhi, and are reconnected to the oneness of all life.

Note that in all four traditions, the individual's mental processes are not considered the cause of his problems, physical or otherwise. A sense of separation or disharmony occurs, be it physical or otherwise, and the goal is to bring the individual back into harmony, to restore the basic order and interrelatedness of all things; the individual, nature, the cosmos and God.

One interesting facet of healing which occurs in all the great religions and is implicit if not explicit in New Thought is the idea of the liberated or enlightened person who becomes a healer. In Christianity, from Jesus onwards, there is the tradition of the saint-as-healer. In the Hasidic tradition of Jewish mysticism, the Bal Shem Tov and his followers, as great mystics, also performed great acts of healing. In the Islamic Sufi tradition, there are esoteric healing techniques which are taught to practitioners only after ten years of intensive spiritual study -- the implication being that only advanced students can properly use healing methods. In the East Indian Yogic tradition, there is the concept of the Jivan Mukta (the perfectly realized being), the person who is considered a great healer as well as a great spiritual being. In Buddhism, there is the idea of the Healing Buddha: the Buddha who keeps returning to heal humanity not only of physical illness but of the suffering caused by clinging to illusion; for, as Raoul Birnbaum says, "In Buddhism, by definition, a person who is not enlightened is ill."

In New Thought there is perhaps some ambiguity between spiritual realization and healing. Though many of the founders and great leaders and teachers of New Thought have both experienced themselves, and participated in, profound healings, yet New Thought focuses on God as the Healer not the personality of the healing agent. The practitioner, sitting by the bedside of an ill person, is there as a conduit, vehicle or transparency for the Healing Power of God to manifest through. So, as such, the degree of enlightenment of the practitioner is not the issue. One New Thought minister asked his Sunday School children to pray for his healing rather than consulting 'advanced' leaders or practitioners. Yet there is also in New Thought a deep sense of respect for obviously more spiritually-realized or adept beings. Most of us, if offered the choice, would prefer an Emma Curtis Hopkins, Nona Brooks, Charles Filmore or Ernest Holmes or even Quimby sitting by our hospital bedside rather than a first year New Thought student. This certainly reinforced in the Bible where people went to Jesus and the Apostles and, earlier, to the Old Testament prophets for healing because they recognized their spiritual attainment.

New Thought as a healing movement heavily influenced by both Western science and traditional Christianity may have missed something from the Eastern teachings and it may have something yet to learn from the Native American healing and other holistic traditions. From both Eastern and Western mysticism as well as its own spiritual realization, New Thought affirms the oneness of all life: there is only One Presence. But in formulating the nature and healing of illness, New Thought seems to slip into a duality based on a hierarchy of causation, mind over body, and a sense of degrees of reality: spirit, mind, body. Whether these divisions are simply a useful way of describing diverse aspects that are essentially part of the One Presence or not, they do seem to take on a reality and life of their own and exert a profound influence over how we think about the healing process itself.

Particularly in affirming man's dominance over nature (and by implication the mind's dominance over the body), New Thought would appear to be outside of not only the holistic healing movement but the ecological thinking of contemporary life as well. Perhaps we in New Thought need to "release" the idea of mental causation itself. Perhaps this is a basic difference in the theory of New Thought and its practice of healing. Both in theory and in practice we need to remember our connection to the oneness of all life. When someone climbed Mt. Everest, Western newspaper headlines declared, "Man Conquers Everest." An Eastern sage was asked how he would view the matter. He said, "Why not say, 'Man Befriends Everest'?"

New Thought has certainly had a profound healing tradition for well over one hundred years. New Thought at its inception was deeply influenced by Eastern and Western metaphysical, mystical and spiritual traditions. Yet its healing methodology has continued to stay rooted in a fairly narrow focus of mental or spiritual treatment. For instance, the "laying on of hands" is widely practiced in traditional Christianity and a similar healing-by-touch method is practiced in Eastern and Native American traditions, but this physical approach to healing is usually rejected by New Thought practitioners.

Today, when so many areas of life have been impacted by a planetary consciousness and a world ecological perspective, perhaps it's time for New Thought's healing tradition to avail itself of other world healing traditions. Why shouldn't our New Thought practitioners be aware of at least the basic principles of Auravedic medicine of India, Chinese medicine and Native American healing as well as modern holistic medicine? It would seem that in widening its healing perspective, New Thought could only increase its healing ministry to the world.

After having indicated what New Thought has to gain from other healing traditions, I would like to conclude by pointing out New Thought's major healing contribution to the world. No other religion or healing philosophy of which I am aware has given the world such a clear and unmistakable affirmation of our Divine Right to health. As children of a perfect God, we are each entitled to, and can claim for ourselves and each other, perfect healing and perfect health. Only in New Thought is this absolute declaration of the inherent right of humanity to healing and health affirmed as God-given. Perfect Health is our birthright, our Divine entitlement bestowed on each of us forever and ever by an ever-loving God.

Myrtle Filmore's healing came through the recognition that, as children of God, we don't inherit illness, we inherit health. As New Thought has much to learn from other healing traditions, so do other traditions have this supreme realization to learn from New Thought: Health is our inheritance and our Divine Right. 



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