The Uncommon Touch:
An Investigation of Spiritual Healing
by Tom Harpur
“Bioenergy medicine is the transmission of human energy from one person to another to improve his or her health. It’s a little like giving somebody with a weak car battery a boost.” – Mietek Wirkus, bioenergy healer
“What we have seen and measured in our laboratory (as healers have been tested while healing) is not possible. But it happens anyway!”
– Elmer E. Green, Ph.D., Director Emeritus, Center for Applied Psychophysiology, Menninger Clinic
The first time I covered a large healing service as a journalist, not long after becoming religion editor of the Toronto Star in 1971, the healer was the late Kathryn Kuhlman. (She died in 1976.) Kuhlman, one of the best-known of all the American television healers — she was seen weekly on more than fifty stations at the time — is dismissed by James Randi in about half a page of his book “The Faith Healers.” In an accusation, unsupported by any evidence, he credits her with inventing the “sit-’em-in-a-wheelchair” gimmick. I can only say I saw no evidence of that or any other kind of deception or fraud at her Toronto services.
I would like to record here the impression she made upon me at that time. Here is the reason. The service was announced for a Sunday afternoon at the O’Keefe Center, one of Toronto’s largest auditoriums. Normally, it seats about a thousand people. However, that day it was crammed to the doors and there was still such a crowd outside it was decided to hold two services. As soon as the first ended, the hall emptied and then promptly filled to capacity again.
A frail-looking, almost ethereal figure, in her flowing gown with its long, filmy cape, Kuhlman nevertheless radiated enormous energy as she single-handedly held her audiences spellbound for nearly four hours. It was a feat of endurance few actors or other performers could sustain in their prime. I was given permission to watch the proceedings from the wings, where I was out of sight yet only a few feet from her. I watched carefully as she spoke and as she laid her hands on those who wished to come up and receive her blessing or special healing. She never actually touched any of the many hundreds who came up row after row; she simply held her hands a few inches from their foreheads and asked God to heal them. As she did, many of them collapsed for a few moments as if poleaxed. This included some nuns in full, traditional habit, and a number of robust men.
Since the healees left the stage by stairs beside where I was standing, I was able to ask some of them why they had gone up and why they had suddenly fallen to the floor. Several of them said they had no idea. They were accompanying friends or had come out of curiosity. They had had no intention of going up to the front until the invitation was made. As far as the matter of being “slain in the Spirit” was concerned (this is the term given by Pentecostals and others to the phenomenon of slumping, apparently stunned, under the “touch of power”), they were totally mystified. When I asked one particularly burly man why he had lain down on stage for all to see, he looked embarrassed and said he didn’t know. “I suddenly just felt my knees buckle, and when I came to I was on the floor.”
Obviously, one could speculate endlessly about the likelihood of mass hypnotism, mass hysteria, or whatever being at work in all of it. It’s not impossible; but I detected no evidence. Since that time I have attended or watched many healing crusades with a lot more emotion and evident manipulation than occurred there. Anyone, for example, who has seen the ubiquitous Florida-based television healer Benny Hinn in action, knows what I mean. In any case, when the first session was over and the second had not yet begun, there was an interval during which Kuhlman remained on the stage. Quite suddenly she turned around and walked over to me. She had been told I would be there from the Star and had given her approval earlier by phone. As she came towards me, she spoke my name and, holding out her hands, took both of mine. As she smiled up at me, she said, “Welcome,” and kept her grip while we exchanged a few words.
I will never forget the experience. The nearest I can come to describing it is to say that it was like holding onto the terminals of a strong battery or being plugged into some other source of electrical current. There was an unmistakable — and, for me, quite unexpected — surge of an electric-like current into my hands and up my arms. At six feet four inches in height, I towered over this elderly, petite woman. Yet she seemed at the center of a force or energy field that was palpably alive and much stronger than I was. It’s the particular task of a journalist to write about events as objectively as possible. Whatever the explanation, the facts of that encounter are exactly as I have just described.
Sceptics would likely say that this and all similar experiences at the hands of healers — for example, the sensations often experienced and attested to by those prayed over and touched by Godfrey Mowatt or Oskar Estebany — are self-generated because of certain expectations or because of the effects of hypnotism. I used to have considerable sympathy with that point of view myself, until it happened to me. But, in light of the published results of scientific experiments, the old arguments about such experiences being “purely subjective” have to be abandoned anyhow.
We have already seen how the experiments of Dr. Bernard Grad, Dolores Krieger, and those following their lead have removed any doubt that there is a “healer effect” that can be scientifically demonstrated. We come now to a slightly different approach that validates the same point in a singularly convincing fashion. I’m referring to ten years of solid research with over a dozen well-known healers carried out at the Menninger Clinic’s Center for Applied Psychophysiology by Drs. Elmer Green, Robert Becker, and Steven L. Fahrion.
I’m going to focus on one healer, a remarkable man by the name of Mietek Wirkus, because I have had the pleasure of meeting him and observing him at work over a period of several days during a conference in London, England. Mietek Wirkus is in his late forties, slim, of medium height, with dark hair and a quiet, unassuming manner. Although he was born and spent most of his life in Poland, where he eventually became licensed as a bioenergy therapist, working co-operatively with doctors at a medical clinic, he and his wife, Margaret, now teach and practice healing in Bethesda, Maryland. He has been and continues to be the subject of a number of scientific studies both by researchers at the Menninger Clinic and elsewhere in the United States.
Wirkus’s natural talents as a healer became evident before he was five years old, he told a large gathering of doctors, clergy, researchers, and healers at the London conference. Wirkus’s older sister had begun to suffer from severe asthma attacks, but whenever Mietek attempted to soothe her with his hands, she would quite suddenly recover. His parents told their doctor about this, who one day witnessed it himself. The physician at once took a great interest in the child and eventually asked him to come to his surgery and assist him with certain patients. Wirkus says that when he was young he often used to feel a patient’s illness as a pain or illness in his own body. But, as he grew older, he learned how to protect himself and to feel the disease only in the energy field of the other person.
Later, he was instructed in breathing techniques and meditation by a monk steeped in the Tibetan tradition of healing. According to Mietek — and all those who share a bioenergy approach to healing — there is, surrounding the physical body, an etheric body which is a kind of double of the physical body. It is an energy field, silverish in colour, that flows all around the physical body and is about three or four inches in depth — at approximately the limit of where you can detect the body’s warmth. There is, as well, a third energy field or “body,” which is called the astral or magnetic body.
It can best be described as an aura-like, egg-shaped cocoon around each of us. This is something anyone can train himself to see, he explained, and appears as shimmering flashes of colour, usually within the range of blue. Those familiar with Kirlian photography, of course, and subsequent refinements of the art, know that researchers have long ago demonstrated the reality of the human aura and the way it can be seen to change as the individual’s mood or energy shifts. (The concept of a human aura itself goes back to earliest times, and may well account not just for the halos painted by early Christians around the heads of saints and other holy persons but also for the strange emanations drawn or painted around the forms of god-like figures in many pre-literate cultures.)
The “Kirlian effect,” the reality of flares of “pulsating, multi-coloured lights” surrounding the human body and ebbing and flowing according to the health and vital energy of the individual, gets its name from a brilliant electronics expert from Krasnodar in the south of Russia. Semyon Kirlian and his journalist wife, Valentina, after more than twenty years of painstaking research and refinement, from 1939 onwards, succeeded in perfecting an entirely new method of photography — it involved fourteen fresh patents — which made it possible to “see” not just the human aura but the auras of other living things; for example, that of a leaf.
At first, the photography could only reveal static images of the various energy fields. But soon the Kirlians added a new optical device that enabled them to watch this amazing phenomenon in action. In their book, Psychic Discoveries behind the Iron Curtain, Sheila Ostrander and Lynn Schroeder describe what the Kirlians saw: “The hand itself looked like the Milky Way in a starry sky. Against a background of blue and gold, something was taking place in the hand that looked like a fireworks display. Multi-coloured flares lit up, then sparks, twinkles, flashes. By 1949, the Kirlians’ work had attracted wide attention and a steady stream of scientists began to show up at their small one-story house in Krasnodar. Ostrander and Schroeder write that over the next thirteen years, hundreds of scholars came —”biophysicists, doctors, biochemists, electronics experts, criminology specialists” — together with hordes of the idly curious.
The Kirlians discovered, as their technique became more sophisticated, that the high-frequency photography was actually capable of showing up disease in plants, animals, and humans. There were discernible differences in the force or energy fields according to the organism’s health. More recently, researchers at UCLA’s Health Sciences Department, working with Kirlian photography techniques, have photographed healers before and after their hearings. “These showed that the aura or electric corona around the healer shrank after a laying-on of hands, while that of the healee expanded. While I watched Mietek Wirkus engaged in healing, I was struck forcibly by several things:
* I could detect absolutely no sign of his breathing from his chest or of facial movements, yet there was an extraordinary sound as he did the very shallow, high-energy breathing he has been taught to use both to enable him to project his own bioenergy to the healee and to replenish it without fatigue (when he worked in the Polish clinic, he gave therapy to from eight to one hundred patients a day).
* He never actually touches the healee. Instead, he “reads” or follows the outline, first of the etheric body and then of the astral or magnetic body. Since the latter reflects the emotions, according to the theory, and extends much farther than the etheric body, especially at the widest part of its egg-shaped form, Wirkus feels or senses it with his hands at a distance of from two to four feet from the healee.
* Once he detects where the energy concerned is out of balance, congested, static, or weak, he concentrates on that general area.
I could at this point list a series of medically attested healing that demonstrate Mietek Wirkus’s results. For example, I have seen the evidence and witnessed the corroborating testimony of the parents of three very young children — one with cataract which threatened blindness, one with chronic cardiac problem (four open-chest operations in the year between the ages of two and-a-half and three-and-a-half), and one with uncontrollable epileptic seizures (more than a hundred a day) — where the healer intervention made a dramatic difference. But, rather than go into further details of that kind, I will turn to what interests me most for our purposes about Wirkus, which is not so much his own theories or even the results of his healing, but rather the scientific finding and the views of the researchers who have made him the subject o their hi-tech scrutiny.
This man has spent more hours rigged up by wires to state of-the-art machines than any other healer I know. The results have been quite mind-boggling. Isolated from all extraneous electrical and other influences in a laboratory room with copper walls Wirkus was meticulously monitored as he carried out his healing on a series of healees. In addition to the kind of changes in the brain waves of both healer and healee found in the experiments of Dolores Krieger, Dr. Elmer Green and Professor Fahrion of the Menninger Clinic recorded sudden electrical surges in Wirkus that on a number of occasions registered eighty volts or more. These surges were synchronous with times when the healer (who was not at all surprised by the findings), in his own words, “was just conscious of creating a charge and sending it.” As Green says, creating an electrical force of that magnitude “isn’t really possible. But it happens!” Green notes that in China and Japan the traditional healing wisdom says the bioenergy of a healer comes forth from the abdomen, while in India and Tibet it’s believed to come from the “third eye” or the part of the forehead just above the eyes and centered on the nose, and says that the next step in his research will be to try to pinpoint the source of the electrical flow from Wirkus. It may well be, he thinks, that the ancient yogic belief that there are energy-field centers at the “third eye,” the throat, the heart, abdomen, and so on — the chakras — will shortly be proven scientifically.
Green says the fact that voltage surges occur in proven healers will one day not seem so surprising: “After all, we are electrical beings or entities. There’s not a single atom, molecule, or cell where there isn’t an electric charge. Indeed, if you want to think of it that way, we’re really an electromagnetic cloud. All of nature is electromagnetic and electricity in motion.” What particularly impresses Green about non-medical healing is that it works so well with babies and young children. “Doctors often see the results of healers and are impressed, but they go on to attribute them to the placebo effect. Well, if you can affect the body of a horse, a dog, or a baby and bring about physiological changes — as many of these healers can — that’s certainly not just a placebo!”
Dr. Robert Becker, author of The Body Electric and professor of orthopedics at the State University of New York, has spent the last thirty years researching how the body heals itself. He believes that studying such healers as Mietek Wirkus can open a whole new path and paradigm for medicine. He’s convinced that what the physician of today is trying to do with drugs and surgery is what the traditional shaman or healer has done without either throughout history. He says categorically that if the healer phenomenon is real, and his research has convinced him that it is, then there is a mechanism in the human organism that permits things to happen “that we cannot do with surgery or drugs.” If this information can be made more widely available to medicine “it would markedly change the scope and efficiency of the medical care process.” Not to mention the cost!
Becker says that because of the kind of experiments done at the Menninger Clinic and elsewhere, many scientists are now ready to concede that there are biological effects from electromagnetic energies. They know something real happens in healing, because they have now seen not just the results but also the electrical side effects. But how it works is as yet unclear. Becker, Green, and those who share their views believe that the search for the mechanism behind this, if successful, will revolutionize medical understanding and practice. According to Becker, “Later in history, this will be judged to have been the primary discovery of the twentieth century, I believe; that is, that the human organism is sensitive to electro-magnetic fields, that it produces its own magnetic fields, that electrical currents flow through the organism, and that in all of this we are part of the living process of the entire cosmos.”
Becker stresses his conviction that there is much more to the human brain “than the way a computer works,” and there is much more to the human body “than you’d assume to have occurred as a result of a chance aggregation of molecules.” To those who respond that at this point he’s beginning to sound quasi-religious, he replies: “I can’t help it. I’m sorry but I have to view it that way. I think medicine should realize that we know next to nothing at present about how living things really work.” (We don’t even understand yet how to cure the common cold!) He is certain, as a result of his research, that there is some kind of information transfer between a healee and a traditional healer like Wirkus. The healer’s awareness of what is going on in the other person’s energy field shows that “information has been moved, and that can only happen when you have a reality, a signal of some kind. My bet is that it is carried by electromagnetic energy.” We are more than a “cellophane bag filled with a mild salt solution,” Becker declares. We’re not just a biochemical entity. “There is something else!”
Dr. Green agrees with this, and believes that in the transfer of information of which Becker speaks, “consciousness is somehow involved.” He admits to not knowing precisely how all of this works yet — “obviously if information is transmitted through some kind of energy it is different from the energy, say, of a light bulb which grows weaker as it extends further away…. It’s a little more like a letter that arrives just as it was sent. How else can one explain heating at a distance?” Becker’s comment on this is to say that if you suppose the existence of a kind of “sixth sense” and say that living organisms are sensitive to magnetic fields and capable of receiving information through them, then you have the beginnings of a theory that could explain not just spiritual heating but also such paranormal phenomena as extra-sensory perception and telepathy.
Significantly, shortly after I first wrote this paragraph, a Cornell University psychologist, Daryl Bem, told the 1993 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science that he now has evidence that extra-sensory perception actually exists. He reported that a statistical review of nearly forty studies had provided him with convincing and repeatable results. Bem said his work, done with his late colleague, Charles Honorton of the University of Edinburgh, avoided the flaws of earlier studies. He is certain “we’re seeing a genuine scientific anomaly here.”
Becker has issued a radical call to the scientific community to expand and deepen its analysis of what is going on in the healer phenomenon, because “the next step, not just in medicine but in understanding all living things and knowing who and what we are in relation to the universe, depends upon it.” But what do medical doctors make of the bioenergy approach of such healers as Mietek Wirkus and the views of such scientists as Green and Becker?
I met Dr. Ursula Thunberg, a child psychiatrist with the Jewish Board of Family and Children Services in New York, while I attended a day-long workshop featuring Mietek and Margaret Wirkus in London. Thunberg has been trained in bioenergy healing at the Wirkus Bioenergy Foundation in Bethesda. She says she found the studies as technical and systematic as anything she faced at medical school. She is convinced that healers are “aware of an aspect of life that’s very natural and that follows specific laws.” It must follow natural laws, she argues, even though we don’t know exactly what they are yet, because “you do it and you get results.” Thunberg says that because bioenergy lies outside most people’s normal sensory and visual range, little has been said about it until now by doctors and scientists. But, with the new research, its existence is not in doubt, she says. “We are only lacking a new paradigm at this point to organize the data into a frame of reference that is intellectually or scientifically acceptable to us.” In her view, recognition by conventional medicine that the bioenergy dimension exists and is part of the healing process is “just around the corner.”
Another medical doctor who endorses this approach is Irene Seeland. Dr. Seeland notes that self-healing is a natural part of life and that bioenergy “strengthens and enhances the body’s ability to attain wholeness.” She deplores those who try to put down and disparage mainstream modern medicine because she knows it can accomplish many good and important things. But, she adds, “Unfortunately, we can’t screen out all the side effects [for example, of chemotherapy, radiation, or certain powerful drugs] and the poor body is often devastated by these, with the result that natural healing is hindered. That doesn’t happen with bioenergy because it’s natural and authentic.”
Margaret Wirkus, who has a better command of English than her husband and often acts as his interpreter when being interviewed by the media or medical researchers, says modern medicine too often forgets that healing is ultimately an art and not merely a matter of technology. She cites the maxim of Chinese healing that the human organism is not a “dead body” but a complex vortex of living energy that exists on many levels — some of which we can’t see. “The more narrow our focus is, and the more purely technical it is, the less humanistic it becomes,” she says. That, precisely, is the problem faced by hi-tech medical care today. The bioenergy proponents believe they have discovered a way to challenge and overcome this defect. As Dr. Becker puts it, “We need to move medicine away from the idea of ‘you come to me and I’ll heal you’ to what it should be; i.e., ‘you come to me and I will help you heal yourself.”‘
The most carefully documented results of bioenergy healing that I have seen personally, were presented at the Doctor-Healer Conference in London in 1992 by a former colleague of Wirkus from Warsaw, Poland. Stefania Szantyr-Powolny, M.D., who, in addition to being a doctor has been practicing bioenergy healing for twelve years, said that bioenergy therapy began to be accepted in Poland around I978 and was given official approval as a supplement to conventional medicine in 1982 Since then she has been dividing her time between the Medical Scientific Institute in Warsaw and the bioenergy section of a Polish institute known as the Psychotronic Society, which was formed in the early 1980s to organize training and examine the abilities of bioenergy healers.
Part of Dr. Szantyr-Powolny’s practice has included the clinic of the Society for Deaf Children in Warsaw, a clinic in which Mietek Wirkus also spent much of his time before emigrating to the United States. Describing the team approach used at the clinic, she said that it was the best example of co-operation between medical staff and healers she has ever encountered. Specialists examined and treated the children, using all the latest technology, and then referred them for bioenergy treatment. After several sessions of therapy, the children were tested with audiometers and other relevant devices. In this way, the specialists were able to make objective assessments of the results.
The doctor then described the case histories of children of various ages and with a wide range of diagnoses. The slides and audiograms of their before and after tests revealed some major, well-nigh miraculous improvements. There was the case of a six year-old girl who was born deaf. Five months after the doctor began her bioenergy treatments, the child had gained near-normal levels of hearing. Another case involved a young man whose hearing had been almost totally destroyed by excessive amounts of streptomycin administered when he was only two years old. She said, “On his fourth visit for bioenergy therapy I was truly moved when he came in and told me, ‘Doctor, I can hear again! I can hear water running in the bathroom; I can hear my mother making dinner; I can hear dogs barking.’ Could anything be more satisfying and rewarding?”
The most striking thing in many of these cases is that “the improvement of the hearing is connected with the perception of the high tones, she commented. “This means that we are improving the inner ear. Conventional medicine was completely helpless in such cases.” She added that with the specialists she had come to the tentative conclusion that part of the answer to what was happening might lie in the possibility that the biotherapy was prompting the development of the central nervous system. But exact explanations remain elusive stilt.
The final word must go to Mietek and Margaret Wirkus. They know from long experience that people have been and are being healed through Mietek’s and other healers’ bioenergy therapy. They explain, “What is of greatest importance is the healee’s will to live. The bioenergy then supplies renewed energy for the body to heal itself It’s not a case of this type of healing helping some problems and not being appropriate for others. It stimulates the body’s own mechanisms for healing itself — the immune system and other systems — and so it is a help in all fields and at all levels of the organism — mental, emotional, and physical. Once people get even one treatment, they say it’s as if the clouds have moved away and their life feels as though it is taking on colour again.”
I had just completed this chapter in its final form when I obtained copy of Bill Moyers’ book Healing and the Mind, the companion the five, part PBS television series of the same name. For me, the most exciting chapter was the lengthy interview with one of the world’s leading authorities on brain biochemistry, Dr. Candace Pert, visiting professor at the Center for Molecular and Behavior Neuroscience at Rutgers University (Pert discovered the opiate receptor and other peptide receptors in the brain and in the body, thus explaining the way chemicals travel between mind and body.)
In the chapter “The Chemical Communications”, Pert talks about the human organism as a mind-spirit-body unity and about how “information is flowing among these aspects continually.” The messenger molecules are called neuropeptides. The mind, she points out, is not just located above the neck but exists in every living cell because of these messengers. She then goes on to discuss with Moyers the conviction she and other neuroscientists have that the ultimate mystery here, how the various parts of our body “spontaneously” receive and transmit messages of all kinds, will only be solved in terms of “a form of energy” of some type as yet not fully known: “Clearly there’s another form of energy that we have not yet understood. For example, there’s a form of energy that appears to leave the body when the body dies.” Pert goes on to say she would call this energy “spirit” except that scientists ever since Descartes have felt they have to avoid such a term. But, she admits, the traditional habit of thinking of the organism as just a machine (reductionism) leaves too many phenomena unexplained. She makes it absolutely clear that the idea that the healing process can be explained in terms of chemical and electrical processes without “invoking some other energy” no longer makes any sense to her. In her view, the only way forward will involve “a realm we don’t understand at all yet”; an external energy belonging to the “realm of spirit and soul.” That’s precisely what this chapter has been all about.