Guest article by Doctor, Acupuncturist, and Kadampa Buddhist, Hung Tran
4.5 mins read.
Precisely what faith is and exactly how it works are tricky enough questions for experienced meditators to answer. But accounting for the role of faith in spontaneous remissions is even more challenging.
As a Western-trained doctor, master practitioner of Classical Chinese Medicine, and Kadampa Buddhist, I’ve explored faith in many different settings. I’ve seen firsthand the impact of faith on the body, and I’ve felt firsthand the impact of faith on the mind.
In this article I’d like to explore the three types of faith Venerable Geshe Kelsang Gyatso describes in How To Understand The Mind, and discuss their possible connection to a medical phenomenon known as the ‘placebo effect’.
The word faith comes from the Latin fides, meaning trust. In the West we tend to distinguish between faith and reason, but in a Dharma context both are just steps in the process of gaining certainty — or so-called “valid cognizers”.
Practically speaking, faith allows us to develop trust in something, and then through that to entrust ourselves to it. It’s an openness and receptivity that lets us step beyond our current situation and into something new.
Interestingly, in How To Understand The Mind, Geshe Kelsang says that to really understand what faith is we need to understand non-faith first. Perhaps this is because non-faith is something we’re all much more familiar with!
What is that ‘burnt seed’ of non-faith? I would argue that it’s primarily a feeling of being stuck, limited and shut down. In contrast to the upward momentum of ‘Hope’ it is the downward heaviness of ‘Nope’.
On that point, remember Barack Obama’s book The Audacity of Hope? Well, it turns out that our all-too-familiar feeling of Nope is actually far more audacious. Why? Well, audacity means ‘boldness of ambition’, and when we’re stuck in a Nope state, that experience of non-faith turns out to be astonishingly bold.
Because despite having a precious human life with all its freedoms and endowments, despite having access to the Dharma and a fully qualified Spiritual Guide, and despite the reality of subtle impermanence which means we’re changing moment by moment anyway, that feeling of Nope makes us utterly convinced that no positive change is possible — whatsoever.
I, for one, would call that pretty darn audacious!
Now, in my clinical experience as a Doctor I’ve seen again and again how illness and recovery are intimately related to an individual’s outlook and beliefs. In fact, the three types of non-faith that Venerable Geshe-la describes — ‘non-admiration’, ‘non-belief’, and ‘non-wishing’ — are easy to see in any medical setting.
Consider the following example. Imagine that you’re sick and you’ve sought out a doctor for help. If you aren’t sure about them, and doubt their credentials and experience, you’ll first develop non-admiration, which will hold them at a distance, and keep you rather closed. You’ll then develop non-belief which will doubt their diagnosis. And lastly you’ll develop non-wishing, which will prevent you from entrusting yourself fully to their course of treatment.
What will be the net result of these three types of non-faith? Essentially, no change whatsoever. You will remain exactly the same and, in fact, you may even come to feel worse as a consequence of identifying more strongly with your illness.
On the other hand, if you feel that the doctor is highly qualified and fully reliable, your experience will be the exact opposite. You’ll develop ‘admiring faith’ that makes you open and receptive, ‘believing faith’ that trusts what they’re saying, and ‘wishing faith’ that allows you to entrust yourself fully to their course of treatment.
The net effect here is essentially the basis of transformation itself. You’ll have a brand new way of relating to yourself and the situation, and a sense of being in a concrete relationship with recovery rather than sickness.
In the placebo effect, the ‘placebo’ is a pill or treatment with no actual medicinal properties. Its only power is to suggest the possibility of recovery to the patient. When faith in the placebo is present, it is that faith alone which facilitates a psychological shift from Nope to Hope, and thereby a corresponding physiological shift from illness to recovery.
To give an example, Parkinson’s disease arises from impaired dopamine release in a certain area of the brain. In one experiment, patients given a placebo and told it was a new anti-Parkinson’s drug were not only able to move better but brain scans revealed increased dopamine in the affected area.
As evidence within the medical literature grows, Fabrizio Benedetti, Professor of Neuroscience at the University of Turin, has described the placebo effect as having evolved from “a nuisance in clinical pharmacological research to a biological phenomenon worthy of scientific investigation in its own right.”
To conclude, the placebo effect is a timely reminder of the power of both faith and non-faith. Countless studies show how illness and recovery are facilitated by our beliefs. Practically speaking, if we believe something, it is ‘true’ for us and has power in our life — whether or not that belief is an accurate description of our actual potential.
In reality then, faith — this inner process of ‘trusting’ and ‘entrusting’ — functions to change our setting. Not the external setting, but the inner setting — like a setting on a dial.
So the big question is this: is the inner dial of our mind set to Hope or Nope? Because either way, the consequences on our health, happiness and spiritual practice are very real and very far reaching.
Please leave your comments and questions for our guest author below!
Dr. Hung Tran is uniquely placed to address the intersection of medicine (both Western and Eastern) and Buddhism. You can find many more insights on his wonderful website: https://www.hungtran.co.uk