Healer, Magician, or Quack?
by Vera Mehta, Ed. D. | November 2003
Human beings are an endlessly fascinating species. For me, one of the most intriguing instances of human behavior has to do with the development of the ways in which, for no discernible reason, they set up obstacles to the attainment of their own psychological and physical well being and to a richer enjoyment of life’s possibilities. I am referring here to the various fears, phobias, cravings and, especially to the sometimes destructive tentacles of emotions like grief and anger that disrupt a delicate harmony which is probably what the ancients meant by the ideal of mens sana in corpore sano-a healthy mind in a healthy body.
Throughout history, philosophers, men and women of faith and healers of every persuasion (from shamans, gurus, priests and rabbis to physicians trained in Western or Eastern medical science) have wrestled, in one form or another with questions like “What is happiness?” and “Why do human beings make it so complicated to find?”
Dr. Ronald Ruden, a physician with a large, thriving practice here in New York City, is one of these eternal seekers. I have had the privilege of knowing Dr. Ruden both as employer and friend for close to seventeen years. During that period, I have also had the opportunity to meet many of his patients and noted the remarkable empathy he has with them and the equally remarkable trust they have in him. In spite of a very hectic and busy schedule and the innumerable demands made upon his time throughout the day, he has always been able to maintain an oasis of calm and tranquility in his beautiful office with its many books, Buddhas, family photographs and other mementos given to him by grateful patients over the years. It is here that patients see him and seek his help for a variety of problems both physical and mental.
One of the qualities that most impresses me about Dr. Ruden as a physician is his openness to approaches towards the understanding of illness that may differ from the standard biomedical model which is the dominant system of medicine in the Western world. I suspect, in part, this is because his practice includes many patients whose presenting symptoms (cravings of various sorts that have spun out of control and resulted in gross obesity, drug addiction, anorexia, alcoholism etc., feelings of depression, incapacitating fear or irrational phobias) make it very difficult to understand the extraordinarily complex ways in which mind and body interact with each other. It follows from this that treatments of these conditions too would need to go beyond simple prescriptions of medication or attending to the patient as nothing but a composite of biochemical parts.
When Dr. Ruden first told me how he got interested in “tapping” as a form of therapy which might work to relieve the experience of suffering in some of his patients, I must admit I was extremely skeptical. He said that Paul McKenna, a hypnotist from the U.K., had suggested to him that he read Roger Callahan’s book on Thought Field Therapy. He read the book and felt Callahan’s explanations were not sufficiently satisfactory. Nonetheless, he was intrigued enough by the book to want to try the techniques on his own. Dr. Ruden recognizes that there are several ways to landscape the brain in order to process information — talk therapy (and its many sub-types), acupuncture, medication, hypnosis, EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization Response) and so on. Any of these can be utilized to produce a more balanced, sensory approach to behavior. However, not every approach works with every individual. Thus, while yoga might be successful in treating Person A, it might not work with Person B or C. The point is for the medical practitioner or healer to be armed with as many tools as possible to help patients with their problems.
So far this seems eminently reasonable. However, most people who have been educated in the West or in Western influenced institutions of education, are trained to think of medicine as based upon the Western scientific paradigm, i.e. based upon the scientific method of investigation, which consists of observing, hypothesizing, and testing expected relationships, then revising expectations when discrepancies arise. Anything else, as one long-time patient observed in an e-mail sent to Dr. Ruden recently, “sounds like “pseudoscience!” As she pointed out, the claim that he, Callahan and others make that a “tapping” session can be accomplished in under ten minutes and can be performed by virtually anyone, “has that medicine show flavor.”
These sorts of objections are legitimate. All the same, talking to Dr. Ruden and reading some of the very impressive testimonials sent to him by grateful patients, I was determined to “see” for myself how this mysterious thing worked. Dr. Ruden asked if I would like to be present at some of his “tapping” sessions and invited me into his office to speak to some of the patients he had treated with this method. They all consented very readily, for which I am profoundly appreciative. Other than receiving their permission to observe or ask questions, no other research protocols were followed that might be seen as preparing the way for making future, dubious claims about “scientific validity” and the like.
The following is a rough description of how each tapping session is conducted:
First, the patient is asked about the craving, the phobia or the emotion that is causing him or her more than the normal amount of stress that people encounter in the course of going about their everyday lives and routines. They are then conducted into the exam room and told to sit on the exam table, close their eyes and try to summon as best they can, thoughts about the particular events or circumstances that cause the unwanted response of fear, sadness, phobia, craving etc. The patient does as s/he is told upon which the doctor then asks the patient to tell him, on a scale of 1-10, where s/he would place the inevitable distress response that follows the thought. The answer is usually between 7 and 10. The actual ritual begins:
Brisk, firm tapping of fingers on face.
Tap left side.
Eyes first told to look directly at him.
Look to the right.
Look to the left.
Hum “Happy Birthday”.
Count 1-5 aloud.
Hum “Happy Birthday” again.
Tap left side.
Tap left hand.
Look straight at him.
Rotate eyes clockwise.
Rotate eyes counterclockwise
Hum “Happy Birthday”.
Count backwards from 5-1.
Hum “Happy Birthday”.
At this point, he generally stops, asks the patient where the fear/loathing etc. response would NOW fall on a scale of 1-10. The answer is usually 4 or below. If not 0 yet, he repeats the whole process, occasionally varying some of the commands to “close” and “open” eyes, “Repeat the alphabet backwards from E to A”, and so on. When the patient is now asked where the distress response would fall, the answer in all five people whom I observed was, startlingly, 0. The simple explanation that Dr. Ruden gives for this is that the tapping processdelinks the thought from the response.
I will not attempt to go into the exceedingly complex medical explanation for HOW the above takes place — my interest is purely that of the lay observer. If readers wish to acquire a more technically sophisticated understanding about the amygdala and its role in generating the fear response (as in fear of spiders or snakes) I refer them to Dr. Ruden’s article,Rapid Elimination of a Phobia By Sensory Overload and to the references cited therein (www.healingthemind.net).
I also want to make clear at the outset that my past academic training has been in ethnography, which has its own rules of observation, data collection, keeping field notes, doing data analysis and interpretation. The cases described below totally lack an ethnographic context. Nonetheless, ethnography is also a tool that helps you to view the world through many different lenses and to recognize that what may be perceived as “voodoo” or “mumbo-jumbo” nonsense according to one notion of reality may nonetheless perform an important and serious function for many individuals, even in the most rational and modern of our societies, simply because “it works”. And “tapping”, crazy as it sounds, does seem to work.
The five people discussed below all had very different reasons for agreeing to try out Dr. Ruden’s tapping therapy. The one thing they have in common is that they are all his patients.
Diane, a 47-year old economist and mother of two, came into the office complaining of pain in her abdomen and side. In the course of examining her, it turned out that she got very emotional and gave in to fits of weeping almost every day because of an abnormal fear that something terrible would happen to her, that she would have no control over it, and the consequence would be that her children would be left motherless. These thoughts seemed to overcome her with much greater urgency after September 11, 2001.
I spoke to Diane approximately three weeks after I had seen Dr. Ruden do his tapping routine with her. She told me that two days after the session she went for a routine mammogram, which, in the past, used to make her very nervous and anxious. She chalked this up to the association with her mother who had died of breast cancer. This time however, the experience was entirely different. She “went in calm” and “came out calm”. She also did not cry for the first time in ten years and, though her husband accompanied her to the radiologist’s office, again, for the first time she did not insist that he stay with her while she had the procedure done. He remained outside. As she put it, she reacted differently to a situation she has always handled one way before.
I asked Diane what kinds of triggers bring out the “old” feeling. Her response: it could be a TV show or magazine article, anything about loss, loneliness, children losing a parent etc. After the session, that kind of uncontrollable grief response seemed to have entirely disappeared.
Diane was unusually articulate about her willingness to try the tapping approach for her problem. She mentioned that she was open to the idea of alternative approaches because, for one thing, her own husband is an alternative physician (homeopath). She told me her daughter had suffered from severe eczema for years without a cure and her husband had simply been too busy to turn his attention to her. When he finally did, her daughter’s condition improved dramatically and she is now ninety percent cured. Diane frankly admitted that she is resistant to the approach of doctors “who just give you a pill” and send you away and she likes the fact that Dr. Ruden does not do this. She does not like what she calls “the protocol approach” being followed mindlessly. By this she means being “treated for a problem” instead of being treated as a whole person with a problem.
In Diane’s experience, physicians trained in the Western tradition tend to separate mind and body. She thinks it is great that Dr. Ruden does not. As she says, even though she was initially skeptical that he could do anything to help with her very specific problem, she is very glad she did because undeniably it worked! Now she is curious to see how he will treat her 21-year-old daughter who suffers from several vague symptoms, aches, pains etc which all seem to have been exacerbated by a car crash that took place a year ago.
Akiko is 27 years old and works as a photo archivist for an art gallery here in New York City. She has been a patient of Dr. Ruden’s for about two and a half years now.
Akiko admits to a problem with alcohol addiction since she was thirteen years old. She explains that her experience growing up in Japan was “weird” in that it was not typical of a young Japanese girl of her class. Akiko attended the International School in Tokyo whose students came from all over the world. As she says, she was “always out and about” with international students and drinking and partying was a routine part of her social experience in early adolescence.
Akiko’s parents divorced when she was ten months old. Their mother who, according to Akiko, was “very free with alcohol around the house” raised her and her sister. She points out that in Japan, this is not considered that unusual because liquor is freely available, even through vending machines.
Two major events occurred in Akiko’s life when she turned thirteen –her father died of stomach cancer and she and her sister were separated from their mother and eventually sent to boarding school in the United States. She feels that that her drinking became a “problem” from that time on.
When I first met Akiko she said she had not touched a drop of alcohol for over three months. She had decided to quit on her own. However, although she wasn’t drinking, her craving for alcohol was still very strong. She said it was strongest when she was eating good food and when she was under stress. Several factors currently contribute to her feelings of stress but the most important ones are her dissatisfaction with her job and her uncertainty about her feelings for her fiancé and their future together.
I called Akiko two weeks after she underwent the tapping therapy in Dr. Ruden’s office. She told me that though she had initially been hesitant about doing it because she didn’t think it would work, she was very surprised that it actually HAD worked for about a week afterwards. The evening after she saw him, she went to an engagement and had absolutely no urge to drink However, after the first week, the craving seemed to return and was especially strong when she was watching the World Series with her friends as they sat around the television set drinking beer. She chose to ignore the craving for liquor and decided to smoke grass instead. She now smokes whenever she gets the urge to drink. Akiko also admits to having an eating disorder in the past and a craving for chocolates.
It would be tempting to reduce all Akiko’s problems to a “dysfunctional” family life and serious “issues” about the kind of parenting (or lack thereof) that she received as a child. But Akiko is very insistent that her mother did a tremendous job as a parent and served as a real role model of a modern business woman who went against the conventions of her traditional culture in order to follow her own aspirations. It had been HER decision to leave her husband when she felt the marriage was not working and she had put everything she had into giving the girls as normal and comfortable a life as she could afford-expensive educations, vacations, material possessions and so on.
I saw Akiko with Dr. Ruden in his office first, and later by herself, about three weeks from the date of the first tapping session. In talking to her this time, I was struck by the complex interplay of practical and emotional problems that seem to be tearing her apart and also making her very depressed. In addition to tapping Dr. Ruden wants her to go on a short, temporary regimen of drug therapy that he feels would help her to cope until she is able to come up with some solutions. As an ethnographer, her story fascinates me because of the mix of cultural influences and experiences in her history. It is impossible to say at this point, whether one tapping session can make any difference in terms of her craving for alcohol. All the same, the fact that it worked for even a single week or that it may in some way have transformed itself from one craving to another, points to intriguing possibilities for it as a form of therapy. For instance, might it not be possible to turn a harmful craving into a harmless one or one that might actually be a good thing?
Mary Anne is a thirty-five year old woman who came to see Dr. Ruden in May 2003 because she was having severe headaches on both sides of her head which she claimed were “definitely stress-related”. She placed the date of their origin to March 23rd ; exactly three days after an incident of “harassment” took place at her job.
I did not see Mary Anne getting tapped. I spoke to her in Dr. Ruden’s office five months later. She mentioned reading Dr. Ruden’s article on the Website and admitting that she had first decided to try tapping herself to see if it would help rid her of her headaches. Since self-tapping did not appear to be very effective, she asked Dr. Ruden to perform the procedure. After he had done so Mary Anne related that her headaches had completely disappeared. In Mary Anne’s opinion, the reason she was unsuccessful at curing herself was because she did not go back to the cause of her headaches, i.e. the traumatic “harassment” situation — she dealt only with the symptoms that manifested themselves afterwards. She felt that her implicit trust in their doctor-patient relationship had allowed her “to activate the system” so she did not mind being “vulnerable” enough to allow him to try this new, somewhat odd technique.
Mary Anne seemed very aware that her symptoms were psychosomatic. She just did not know how to treat them. According to her, the secret lies in the disconnect between the stressor – in her case, the incident of harassment – and the outward symptoms. By thinking about it hard enough, before the tapping etc. commences, you are in a sense, preparing the ground to let go of it. The tapping part is almost like an invisible, surgical procedure or cutting of the cord. It is not that you forget the incident but you have separated from it, and once that happens, the symptoms mysteriously disappear.
Celia is a fifty-four year old woman who was forty-eight when she lost her husband after an illness of six and a half years. At the time of his death, they had been married twenty-five years and had two children, a girl twenty-three and a boy twenty-one.
For Celia, the worst thing she had to deal with after her husband’s death was her loneliness. While he was alive, even though seriously ill, she did not have time to be sad or to think about anything except the practical problems of everyday living – caring for a sick husband, dealing with doctors, trying to raise two teenage children by herself, going to work, doing chores etc. etc. Somehow, she had to fit her life around her husband’s illness and the extraordinary demands it made upon the rest of the household. Once he was gone, it was as if a huge hole had been created. Almost because of the fact that her life no longer had to revolve around her husband’s care, she felt overwhelmed by intense loneliness and grief.
Celia was almost embarrassed to say that in spite of the fact that she has “two great kids” whom she loves dearly and whose significant others she loves dearly too, she could only keep thinking about how alone she felt. She would find herself breaking down into tears for the slightest reason, and especially at anniversaries. After her son moved out last November 2002, Celia felt even more alone.
In June 2003, Dr. Ruden performed his tapping therapy on Celia. Since that time, Celia feels there has been a significant change. She still feels sadness when she thinks about her husband, but she does not get overwhelmed as much by her emotions and does not break down as she used to. In Dr. Ruden’s words this is because while feelings can remain, the response to them can be removed.
Yes, this is about my own experience with tapping.
Ever since I was twelve years old in boarding school in India, I have felt depressed by Sundays. The major reason in boarding school was that there was no mail on Sundays. In boarding school, one of the highlights of the day was teatime in the big dining hall when the house prefect would call out the names of everyone who had received a letter and you’d walk up to her from your table, very proud because the fact you had received a letter meant that you were a person with a family, a home, people who loved you and thought of you frequently even when you were absent for nine months of the year. The amount of letters received per week was an important measure of your status and popularity in the world outside the school community. It could sometimes make up for the lack of both, within.
Alas, if you happened to be one of the unfortunates whose parents or relatives seldom wrote letters, you could be sure it was noticed and you would eventually become an object of pity, with people secretly wondering what was wrong with you that nobody seemed to remember you once you were out of sight. Even if you received letters with regularity, but one week you didn’t, and it was Saturday, Monday seemed like a lifetime away with those interminable hours of Sunday in between when you would ponder why no one remembered to write and let the world know that you were still important to SOMEBODY.
I have long since left boarding school but have been unable to get rid of the heaviness and anxiety that still overcome me every Sunday starting in the early afternoon and do not leave until its Monday and I am back at work or feel that that my “normal” weekday routine has begun. This feeling both shortens the weekend and hinders me from wanting to make plans with family or friends to go out or have a good time. Even when I do those things, I don’t do them with the same enthusiasm. Everything about the day seems to hang heavily — the light, the time, a sense of my utter aloneness, inchoate fears that it doesn’t really matter to anyone whether I’m alive or dead.
When I told Dr. Ruden about my Sunday depressions, he thought it would be worth trying the tapping ceremony on me. He did it on a Friday evening. Sunday came, and with it the news that my daughter had performed spectacularly well on her LSATs. Also, some very tragic news about a good friend who had attempted to take her own life and who called me from the psychiatric ward of the hospital where she had been admitted after the incident. My mind was a vortex of emotions-elation and pride about my daughter’s achievement and horror and pity for my friend’s situation. I went to visit my friend in the hospital. Somehow, through the whole day I did not once remember the specific depression that I customarily felt on Sundays. I don’t know if this was because of the tapping or because of the other events of the day. I waited to see if the feelings would come back the following Sunday. They did not. Am I cured? I would like to think so.
So we come to the big question. What have these stories proved? Are we seriously claiming that a seven to eight minute ritual, which involves tapping a person on different parts of the body, can really be a “cure” for problems as serious as alcohol addiction or mind-numbing grief or severe depression? No. But as these and other testimonials demonstrate, an open mind and a willingness to try “alternative ” approaches seem essential in dealing with problems where mind and body are inextricably intertwined in the creation of conditions that are both physically uncomfortable and mentally debilitating. Or, to put it more simply, when we don’t know where body ends and mind takes over.
The literature of medical anthropology contains many examples of cultures where the role of healer is not as narrowly circumscribed as it is in the West. Whether a person is “cured” because s/he swallowed a potion mixing blood of newt with eye of toad or because s/he was tapped twenty-five times on the chest is not the point. The point is, something happened in the encounter between patient and healer that the rational mind cannot fully comprehend as yet. But we can begin to learn to respect it.