Derren Brown: “Faith Healing” as Psychospiritual Transformation

Are faith healings real? If so, how might they work deep in our psyche?

I think magician Derren Brown is actually right about a lot of things in this video. Real faith healing is not supernatural magic, healthcare sorcery, otherworldly medical miracles. It is a change in the psyche. It is a change in belief. It is a change in the narrative we are telling ourselves, a change in how we identify ourselves.

I think many of Jesus’ “healings” were of this nature, psychospiritual healings of spiritual blindness and false beliefs about reality, not literal physical blindness, unless that physical blindness was due to false psychological beliefs and narratives. Changing our beliefs about ourselves, and our identification with those beliefs, does have a real healing effect. We transcend the false belief, and the body begins to heal itself. We can even trick ourselves into this effect, as has been shown in the placebo effect. It has been demonstrated that it is even effective when we know we’ve taken a placebo!

If we pour olive oil on an ill person’s head (symbolic of the anointing of Christ), gather around them and place our hands on their head, and say a solemn and powerful prayer over that person, that has profound psychological effects on the ailing person. It does change their psyche. They begin to believe they can be healed, faith if you will, which can actually change the body. Those around them also begin to believe they can be healed. If the body-mind system is not two, but one, as I have written a lot about recently, then changing the mind will also have a change on the body, and vice versa.

Suffering is largely psychological, which is why many contemplative practices are about radically changing the mind (see metanoia, the Greek word translated as “repentance” in the New Testament) in order to overcome the suffering in life. It often takes this form: We believe we have a “self,” and that “self” suffers for all kinds of reasons which are largely constructed through our experiences in the world. The “self” is itself constructed through such experiences. Of course, bodily pain is real, but our reactions to it can vary immensely, and those reactions can cause us far more suffering than is directly caused by the pain. Our identification with suffering can cause even more suffering in an endless self-perpetuating cycle. Once we break this cycle of belief, breaking our identification with the “self” who suffers, we can transcend it. This is why awakening is often called self-transcendence. In the Buddhist East this is called anatta/anatman, the recognition of no-self or the non-self; in the Christian West it might be known as “crucifixion” of self, or the transcendence of the “old creature,” putting off the “natural man” or “carnal mind,” etc (see Galatians 2:20; 2 Cor. 5:17; Mosiah 3:19).

It’s ironic that Brown thinks that such psychological healing is a kind of “scam” that is different from genuine religious belief, hijacking sincere belief. Yes, faith healing can hijack sincere belief when it is used for nefarious or selfish purposes, and is not actually healing body-minds. But psychological healing is real healing when done in genuine compassion. Brown’s magic show may have been the “scam.” Was he doing it with a genuine desire to heal people (such as the woman with paralysis), or was he doing it to “expose” faith healing? As I’ve written about before, even such false setups can paradoxically and unintentionally have real effects.

Adrenaline might have something to do with it in the short term, being a natural painkiller in the body, but I think true faith healing causes a fundamental change in the psyche, a fundamental change in belief, a radical transformation of narrative, a transfiguration of self-identity, and this has long-lasting effects on people’s lives. It can utterly change the course of their whole life.

The problem is that many religions make such “faith healing” seem supernatural, otherwordly, like sorcery, magical medical procedure, with a magical supernatural power, and that is where I think they are mistaken. It is not supernatural, but super natural. Take for example this video clip from the LDS Church showing Jesus healing a man at the pool of Bethesda (John 5:2-12):

The way this mythology is portrayed makes it look quite literal and thus supernatural. Was this man’s healing a magical reconfiguration of his physical body? Or was it a transfiguration of his mind, his psyche, his belief? Did Jesus actually change something in the man’s crippled body such that it was no longer crippled and he could get up and walk with a completely healthy body, or was it because he told the man “get up and walk” that the man began to believe he could, and so he did? As I recently wrote, our beliefs are extremely powerful, and shape our perceptual realities, even altering our experience of physical realities.

I think Brown’s last comments in the video are particularly interesting:

And then of course you start to see how the person doing it [performing the healings] starts to go mad, how you could see yourself as a God figure, if you’re doing it within that context, because people are treating you as God, because they’re seeing God coming through. That’s the illusion you’re creating.

But is it an “illusion” if it works? In what sense was Brown’s own healing of the woman with paralysis on one side of her body an “illusion”? The illusion was her belief in her paralysis, which Brown helped to psychologically heal, even if he did not intend to do that. I suggest that his work really was genuinely God-like, it was real psychospiritual healing, and this was no mere illusion. He really was healing, not just faking it, as he himself clearly observed. As was noted in the other program I wrote about, God may actually be working in such circumstances, not the traditional supernatural dualistic external anthropomorphized “Creator” God, but the true God of the cosmos, the real Divine, the Ultimate Reality, aligning people’s beliefs to be more in harmony with the way Reality really is.

Psychospiritual healing is perhaps the only genuine sort of spiritual healing there is, the kind that all true sages and healers actually perform, digging deep into the psyche or psychological “spirit” of the person to perform a change in beliefs, an “exorcism” of false beliefs, which heals that psyche and also in some cases the body too. That psychospiritual healing can take form in many different ways, from simple spoken dialogue with a person, to direct bodily touch, massage, laying on of hands, or other physical interventions (such as placebos, or more powerful ones like entheogens which are traditionally called psychedelics or “mind-manifesting”). Again, it is not just the mind that affects the body, but changing the body that affects the mind. The two are One, and this can be called the “soul” (D&C 88:15).

Ultimately, fundamentally transforming the psychological narratives and beliefs of identity that are roaming through our minds can heal the deep existential and spiritual rift we feel with reality itself, the subject-object split of the mind, our alienation from God, returning our sense of being to nondual at-one-ment with that reality, in that reality, being not an external subjective observer of reality anymore, but being Reality itself, the Divine itself, at-one in God itself, the One itself.

And this is no illusion.


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2 thoughts on “Derren Brown: “Faith Healing” as Psychospiritual Transformation

  1. Very well written Bryce. I have also had doubts about spiritual “healing.” The term “psychospiritual” make more sense. Even for a spiritual person it is primarily a psychological transformation.

    There is a difference between faith and belief. Faith is what is taught to be correct; belief is what is personally felt to be true. They may be the same, but they can also differ.

    Faith is entering an intersection of life on a green light, expecting that the crossing traffic will stop. Belief is after looking both ways before proceeding, sure that no one will hit you.

    1. Thank you, Ron. Yes, beliefs can be either beneficial or harmful, or a mix, depending on perhaps what they compel us to do in the world. Do they compel us to compassionate action, love, giving, charity, inclusion, etc., or do they compel us to exclusivity, violence, division, dogmatism, moralism, etc.? And these are not only religious beliefs but secular ones as well. Even the belief of having “no beliefs” is paradoxically a belief, albeit an apophatic one.

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