By David Jones
One of my Christmas presents was a Himalayan salt lamp (and all of its promises).
I’ve been having trouble sleeping; I partly blame my dreams. I can control my dreams, but not every night. Even if I choose not to control them, lucidly analyzing them can still let me know what’s bugging me deep down. That takes a lot of energy to deal with, you know?
It got me thinking. Folks scoff at the “real benefits” of salt lamps partly because said lamps are connected to alternative medicine. We have clearly drawn lines of acceptance and rejection as to whether or not a person could benefit from them. Dreams are likewise suspect. We talk about dream control and dream analysis and people tend to take sides: is it the realm of electrochemical psychology or is it the home of New Age belief?
Then there are holidays like Christmas. For every person who demands that people remember Jesus is the Reason for the Season, there’s another who sees the religious personality as being just as fake as a guy who flies around the world in 24 hours in a sleigh pulled by magical reindeer.
So it comes to this: Does it matter?
Seriously, if we’re benefiting from a thing, does it matter if it’s “real?” My life experience owes more to how I perceive it personally. Objective reality—you know, the real reality—may offer an escape from living forever in the bubble of the self, but does that guarantee a better life?
Could the quest for the objective reality become such an objective that its achievement becomes immaterial to one’s escape from suffering? As the band Dream Theater asked, “Did you know that reality is immaterial?”
I had a prescription for an anti-anxiety medication. My therapist mentioned a former patient who had the same drug and carried the bottle everywhere even years later. The medicine inside of it was a small pile of inert powder after many years, but it didn’t matter. What mattered was the psychological reassurance of its presence. The medicine’s active ingredient probably helped once upon a time, but that wasn’t the point. Just carrying a small bottle of its residue, with the original labeling nearly faded away, was all it took to relieve his anxiety.
Even as a museum piece, no more active than a placebo, it was still completely effective.
I know how most of my friends would answer the question, “Is there any real difference between a prescribed medication and a placebo” with, “Of course there’s a difference! One is real medicine and the other one is just a fake.”
But medicine is a chemical that exists merely to treat a symptom. Its value isn’t in the fact that it’s called “medicine,” that it’s regulated by the FDA or that it’s expensive. It exists only for its effect. If it doesn’t work, is it objectively better or more real for containing an active chemical?
Because, for all the good a thing does, it’s not just what’s in the makeup, it’s also what we bring to the table.
When I had oral surgery a few years back, they offered me a variety of opioids for pain relief. I told them not to bother. They kept insisting and so did I, stating, “Those medications don’t work on me.” From the nurse’s reaction I might as well have told them I was a cyborg. It didn’t compute. If I took a sugar pill thinking it was a pain reliever and I perceived my pain as lessened because of it, isn’t it more real than a prescribed chemical admixture?
If my salt lamp helps me feel better, whether or not the science behind it is “real,” isn’t it doing its job? If I’m feeling more rested, more balanced, happier because I have some beautiful pink salt chunks surrounding a light bulb, then it’s real enough for me.
It’s as real as it needs to be.
As long as my life’s placebos have an affordable co-pay, I’m cool with them.
David Jones has a 27-year career with the United States government. He encountered mindfulness in therapy for his endangered marriage (which had led to anxiety-based depression and dissociative disorder symptoms), and writes about the experience in his blog as well as articles in various publications. He started writing articles about mindfulness for Yahoo Voices under the brand: A Mindful Guy.
Editor: Alicia Wozniak