Based in Toronto and New York City

, Nancy Matsumoto is a writer and editor who covers sustainable agriculture, food, sake, arts and culture.

The Burgeoning Art of Healing With the Head

            Last summer Oprah Winfrey devoted an entire hourlong chat show to a little-known Indian physician named Deepak Chopra and his book, “Ageless Mind, Timeless Body.”

            In a wide-ranging discussion, Chopra discoursed on Ayurvedic medicine, the mind, the spirit, and prolonging life through meditation, exercise and the elimination of toxic emotions.

            Oprah sat riveted.

            Overnight, sales of the book skyrocketed and today have passed the 1-million mark.

            Cynics chalk Chopra’s hit up to what they call “the Oprah factor,” Winfrey’s ability to sell anything. But a spin around the bestseller lists these days raises another possibility: that mind/body books like Chopra’s are big business, not just in fringe New Age outposts but in malls across America as well.

  • Doubleday has printed 450,000 copies of Bill Moyers’ “Healing and the Mind,” the book tie-in to his popular PBS series on mind/body medicine.
  • Internist Larry Dossey’s “Healing Words: The Power of Prayer and the Practice of Medicine” climbed to No. 10 on the New York Times bestseller list in May.
  • Former Yale Medical School surgeon Bernie Siegel’s 1986 book, “Love, Medicine & Miracles,” reappeared on the list this spring after spending more than 52 weeks on the bestseller list in the late 1980s and selling more than a million copies.

            “This is a big and growing area,” says Mike Ferrari, a senior buyer for Waldenbooks at the company’s headquarters in Stamford, Conn. “There’s a whole group of authors who bridge the New Age and self-help markets.”

            Mind/body medicine books explore the relationship between the mind and physical health, the role that the mind may or may not play in disease and healing.

            The books are hot for a number of reasons, say those in the publishing industry. Baby boomers bravely facing old age and infirmity are looking for kinder, gentler alternatives to traditional medicine. At the same time, changes in the health-care system are for the first time creating economic incentives to preach prevention.

            So awash are readers in mind/body books that Consumer Reports Books has seen fit to publish a consumer’s guide to the field.

            Ferrari points to Moyers’ top-selling book as “legitimizing the whole thing. It showed that there’s a category that’s worth pursuing in itself.”

            “There’s a certain mainstreaming of the New Age movement,” says Barb Burg, Bantam director of publicity. Shows such as “Oprah” and “20-20” have done favorable pieces on mind/body practitioners, she notes, adding of PBS’s interest in the topic, “that imprimatur is really helping.”

            Bantam, attempting to capitalize on an emerging market, launched a New Age imprint in the early1980s. But as the movement has infiltrated the mainstream, the label is often seen as a liability.

            Take, for example, the recent Bantam release, “Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom: Creating Physical and Emotional Health and Healing,” written by holistic physician Christiane Northrup. The book covers herbal medicine, visualization, nutrition, and the effects of thoughts and emotions on disease. “Before,” Burg says, “we would have called it New Age. Now, it’s a women’s health book.”

            Sydny Miner, executive editor of trade paperback books at Simon & Schuster, agrees that the NewAge label can harm mind/body books. “People who wouldn’t want to consider using a New Age book would use something in psychology and self-help,” she says.

            The notion that the mind can influence the body, that thoughts, emotions and beliefs can dramatically affect health stretches at least as far back as the 4th Century BC, when Hippocrates theorized that disease resulted from a disharmony between mind, body and the environment.

            In the 20th Century, the seminal mind/body work is Herbert Benson’s 1975 book, “The Relaxation Response.” The Harvard-trained cardiologist explored the links between high blood pressure and stress, and experimented with the use of biofeedback to control blood pressure. His book on the simple technique he called the relaxation response was an instant bestseller. Thirty printings and 3 ½ million copies later, Benson is the founding president of the Harvard-affiliated Mind/Body Medical Institute.

            “I was told I was throwing away a brilliant career,” Benson says, recalling comments made by friends and colleagues. “But no, the data were there.”

            Although his research on the beneficial effects of transcendental meditation gave the TM movement a huge boost, Benson notes that his bigger contribution was in showing how meditation worked and translating it into non-religious, scientific terms.

            Benson’s work went beyond providing the hard science behind the mind/body mythology. It showed people how to work the mind/body connections and improve their lives. It was a self-help book.

            “Americans have always been interested in quick fixes,” says Bill Adler, the literary agent who sold “The Relaxation Response” to William Morrow and Co. “We’re the country of the Beverly Hills diet and Richard Simmons. “It’s interesting that in England, for example, you really can’t give these books away. They’re very skeptical of mind/body.”

            At around the same time that “The Relaxation Response” was published, discoveries that would lead to the new field of psychoneuroimmunology (PNI), the study of the mind’s effect on the immune system, were taking place, and the mind/body field was heating up. Kenneth Pelletier’s landmark “Mind as Healer Mind as Slayer: A Holistic Approach to Preventing Stress Disorders” was published in 1977, and in 1978, Norman Cousins’ book, “Anatomy of an Illness,” charted his triumph over illness through cheerfulness, a strong will to live and laughter.

            Joel Gurin, Consumer Reports editorial director, believes the work that has been done in the PNI field has played “a major part in the mainstreaming” of mind/body literature. “It’s made it more plausible,” he says.

            There are other factors contributing to the growth of mind/body books: PNI researcher and mind/body author Joan Borysenko says that since 80% to 90% of doctor visits are due to stress and anxiety, people have begun to realize that “they really need a visit to a mind/body clinic.”

            Baby boomers facing old age, Miner says, are coping with the fact that “even though the body fails, we’re living with these impediments and imperfections well into our 70s and 80s.” Mind/body books, Gurin points out, can give readers a sense of control over their own health.

            “For many people, that diminishes the stress of having serious medical problems,” he explains.

            The demographics of book buying are another factor in the mind/body boom, many publishing executives say. Women, who doctors say are more open than men to alternative medical practices, also form the great majority of book buyers.

            Health-care reform is also serving to lend credibility to mind/body approaches. As caregivers switch from a fee-for-service system to managed care, doctors for the first time are rewarded for saving money through preventive medicine.

            Cardiologist Dean Ornish’s program for reversing heart disease, on which his best-selling books are based, has been endorsed by a dozen major insurers. Before, Ornish says, “cardiologists might have been threatened” by his system of diet, exercise, meditation and yoga. Now they “embrace it because the less money they spend, the more they save.”

            Consumer Reports’ “Mind/Body Medicine: How to Use Your Mind for Better Health,” written by Gurin and New York Times psychology reporter Daniel Goleman, was published last year.

            “This was an area just reaching critical mass in terms of the amount of information there,” Gurin says. “It as a perfect book for Consumer Reports to do, because there’s tremendous opportunity for half-truths and quasi-truths, yet enough known so we could tell people what was true.”

            A compilation of chapters written by leading mind/body researchers throughout the country, Gurin and Goleman’s book demonstrates the extent to which mind/body approaches have infiltrated the medical Establishment.

            Not everyone sees that as a good thing.

            Marcia Angell, executive editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, says, “What I’m seeing is a more uncritical acceptance of the notion that you can think your way out of diseases. To me, it’s a form of wishful thinking.”

            When “Love, Medicine & Miracles,” Siegel’s account of “exceptional patients” who had used love, joy and peace of mind to overcome cancer came out, he was attacked by some for theories that could be interpreted to mean that cancer patients were somehow responsible for getting, as well as curing, their disease.

            “Doctors go around peddling this belief, saying “Even though we’re saying you can think yourself out of the disease, we’re not blaming you if you die of it,’” Angell says. “That’s nonsense, because one implies the other. I think it’s cruel, because it’s hard enough being sick without being blamed for it.”

            Still, Angell is not surprised that publishers are cranking out mind/body books as fast as they seem to be flying off the shelves.

            “Business is business,” she says. “It makes a lot of money. Everybody is looking for the secret of everlasting life, and if you can sell a book saying that it has it, people will buy it.”

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