Mind or Drugs

A new view is emerging as to the effects of drugs on the body. Supported by research and by the experience of many doctors, this view is beginning to percolate into medical practice and is exerting a powerful influence over the doctor-patient relationship. The view is that the mind is a more important factor in healing and in life in general than physical substances such as drugs, and even surgery in many cases.

Medical therapeutics relies mainly on the power of drugs which are physical substances, to bring about specific effects in the body. These effects are determined by animal experimentation and experience with human subjects. Drugs found to be beneficial are popularized through the medical press, while drugs found to have harmful side-effects are discarded. Until recently, most medical professionals viewed the use of drugs purely in terms of the physical substance acting on the physical body while mental effects were seen to be largely the result of drug-brain interaction. To an extent this is true, however, the new view supported by research is showing that much of what happens when we take a drug, whether it is LSD, marijuana, coffee or antibiotics is determined by mind, past conditioning and expectations.

Coffee is a perfect example of conditioning affecting the power of a drug. This native plant of Ethiopia contains caffeine, a nervous system stimulant, and was used by Arab mystics in the third and fourth centuries as an aid in their rituals to attain higher consciousness. As coffee became more available, people began to regard it less and less as a drug with mystical properties. Today, it is used daily (or rather it uses us daily as many people are addicted to it) and is viewed as an appendage to our diet. It is definitely not viewed as a vehicle to expand our consciousness.

Andrew Weil, Harvard graduate in pharmacology and author of the book The Natural Mind (Penguin 1975), began researching hallucinogenic drugs in the 1960's. In the course of this research he became convinced that the physical and behavioural effects of such drugs were at best trivial and even misleading. For him, the experience of altered states of consciousness induced by drugs became a more significant direction to pursue. He found that our mental expectations and subjective beliefs are more important in determining the experience we gain from taking any drug, at any level, whether physical, emotional or mental than the purely physical effect of the drug on our body.

Weil states that it is fruitless to try to establish the mechanisms by which drugs affect us. He believes that drugs, especially psychoactive drugs such as alcohol and marijuana, simply make us feel physically different and the experiences that occur are the results of our expectations interacting with the physical change. For example, people who are not used to, or sensitized to marijuana can ignore the sensory changes and feel no effect, however, alcohol which is a stronger drug will cause us to feel definite physical effects. What we experience with alcohol, the feelings of anger or joy or euphoria still depend mainly on mood, expectation, and so on. Another example of the ability of mind to alter the body's state is with the placebo, a sugar-coated pill containing no drug. If we are given a placebo and told that it is such and such a drug with such and such an effect, the majority of people will experience the effect they are told will occur. Thus we begin to see that the human mind can be programmed to exert certain effects by creating a certain intention and expectation while taking a drug, or any other substance for that matter, even food.

The implications of the above findings are enormous for the whole medical and healing professions who have for years been prescribing drugs for their specific effect which depend, supposedly, on the alleged nature of the drug itself. It is a well-known fact, for example, that each drug produces a multitude of different effects, but that the drug companies focus on one effect, which is commercially viable, and lists the others as 'side effects' in small print. Weil states:

"So in a sense it's what you choose to focus on, out of all the multiple actions of a drug, that becomes important. At the same time I think you can distinguish among drugs. There are some drugs whose pharmacological action is so strong and specific on a particular system, that it is relatively less influenced by expectation than another drug whose effects are more nebulous and variable... I have written, and I feel strongly, that all of disease is ultimately psychosomatic... The word simply means 'mind-body'. It's just a way of saying that nothing happens in the mind without something also happening in the body, because in a way they are really the same thing."*1

The value of yoga

This research takes the emphasis off drugs as the best means to effect cure in sick people, and places it onto mind as the agent of cure. Thus techniques such as yoga, which offer us a way, a means, a vehicle, to approach a healthier state of mind and body in general are becoming popular today. These techniques will save millions of people all over the world countless hours of suffering as well as millions of dollars annually.

Studies made by John Hopkins University School of Hygiene and Public Health and by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) in America showed that billions of American dollars were being wasted on unnecessary drugs. The survey showed that tranquilizers and pain killers are the most popular drugs. Out of 214 million prescriptions for psychoactive drugs, 40% were for anti-anxiety drugs - tranquilizers. In one year a total of 927 million patients visited doctors, and pharmacies filled 1.3 billion prescriptions; 6 per person per year. The majority of these drugs were prescribed to alleviate anxiety on the part of the patient and to terminate the doctor-patient interview in a way that satisfies both doctor and patient. That is, when the patient pays the doctor, he expects something tangible in return. For example, 95% of doctors interviewed in the survey said they would prescribe antibiotics when they diagnose a 'common cold', but this exposes most of the patients to unnecessary risk of harm.

The use of yoga by these patients is a more effective, useful and benevolent means of enhancing the doctor-patient relationship. It strengthens the patient's mind and aids in the process of healing, so that he does not need unnecessary drugs. In this way we are not exposed needlessly to the sometimes dangerous and potentially lethal side effects of many medicines. At the same time we build up resistance to disease. When we can see the processes at work in the mind through the practices of yoga, then we start to see into the action of many drugs on the mind. The use of marijuana, alcohol, LSD and anti-anxiety drugs becomes unnecessary. Yoga is the best means to relieve anxiety and increase inner happiness.

Illnesses that are now being cured through drug therapy in conventional medicine are potentially curable or preventable by working on the mind-body relationship in order to develop a state of mind which results in an improved state of health. The positive and dynamic state induced through yoga allows us to develop and become aware of the inter-penetration between mind and body. A classical demonstration of the mind-body interlink exists in hypnosis. For example, simply by touching a hypnotized person with a finger, while at the same time suggesting that the finger is a piece of hot metal, makes the skin blister. This is because of the action of the autonomic nervous system which causes blood vessels to leak fluid into the tissues. This demonstrates that the autonomic nerves are not outside the sphere of potential conscious control as has been taught by modern medicine for so long. There is no absolute barrier between consciousness and these nerves, and yoga opens the doorway to the conscious use of the autonomic nervous system, thereby removing the need for drugs. Weil has this to say about the phenomena:

"... consciousness can potentially flow into those so-called autonomic nervous channels without any problem whatsoever. The only trick is that you have to be in an unusual state of consciousness for that to happen. But the circuitry is all there."

"I think that many of the demonstrations that we are now seeing concerning biofeedback or yoga show that we can control heartbeat; that we can control blood pressure, and other classical 'involuntary' functions. There is a great deal of evidence that, in fact, these channels have always existed, and that it is just a matter of finding out how to enter the right state of consciousness in order to control bodily functions that we thought were involuntary."*2

When we attain inner control, drugs are no longer needed to impose an external control on our body. We can regulate body processes through our awareness, and thereby achieve health.

The implications

Drugs are one means to attain health, mental peace, and heightened consciousness. However, their effects are not lasting.

One may recover from an illness because drugs have suppressed certain symptoms, but that does not mean we will not get sick again. We have not removed the root cause of illness by drugs. One may gain respite from mental anxiety and pain through tranquilizers, but it is only brief. When heightened consciousness is reached through marijuana or LSD there comes the fall, and the painful yearning for the high again. Compare this with yoga's benefits:

  1. Through asana, pranayama, mudra, bandha, and so on, physical and mental health is achieved. Inner tension and frustration are released so that the body works harmoniously. The root cause is removed.
  2. Concentration of mind through meditation brings about mental peace, power and prosperity that is lasting and eternal.
  3. Awareness is slowly and gradually heightened over a period of years. This ensures stable progress, first building the foundations on which the superstructure may rest. Then there is no fall after a sudden rise with its attendant pain and longing.

Whereas drugs have many inherent and attendant dangers attached to them, yoga is a totally benevolent means of altering the nervous system, mind, and psycho-physiological functioning of the human organism. Yoga too has certain dangers attached, but if practiced according to a competent teacher's instruction it is infinitely safer and more preferable to drugs being used under a physician's competent guidance. This is because the drug experience (whatever it may be) is conditioned by the mind, whereas yoga conditions and improves the mind. Yoga even makes the taking of drugs safer.


*1,*2. Peter Fry and Malcolm Long, Beyond the Mechanical Mind, the Australian Broadcasting Commission, Sydney, 1977.