Update on introducing Bach flowers to medical doctors

My last post on this blog was about preparing a short talk on the Bach flower remedies for a group of doctors and medical scientists. Several readers asked me to report back, so here is a brief update following the event.

My talk seemed to be well received by the  audience, which represented a wide range of specialties: neurosurgery, rheumatology, oncology, paediatrics, general practice and others. Most of those present had never heard of the remedies before. There were plenty of questions, for example: are the same plants used for similar purposes in herbalism and pharmacology? how exactly did Dr Bach select his flowers? would just looking at the flowers have an effect? At least one person thought that the mode of action must be chemical, but another was familiar with the concept of vibrational healing, pointing out that plants have an energy field as demonstrated by Kirlian photography.

It was encouraging to receive so many positive and open-minded responses, and I was left wishing that there were more opportunities for orthodox clinicians and natural therapists to learn about each others’ work.

Planting the seeds of a novel

There is no right or wrong way of starting to write a novel. Some successful authors of fiction make detailed plans in advance: researching the background, writing summaries of the plot, biographies of the characters, descriptions of the setting, the contents of each chapter, perhaps a chronology of events if it is a complex narrative shifting back and forth in time. Others just start working with a vague idea and see what happens, often finding that inspiration flows more freely as they write, perhaps feeling the material is being ‘channelled’ from a source outside themselves. Even some writers of crime fiction do not plan ahead, keeping themselves in suspense as much as their readers, not knowing ‘who done it’ till the end of the book.

I use a mixture of these logical ‘left-brain’ and intuitive ‘right-brain’ approaches. My novel Carmen’s Roses took me about ten years to write and I don’t remember when or how the first seed was planted. The story was not systematically planned at all, but developed in fits and starts, informed by diverse sources: a case history in the British Medical Journal, the beauty of the land and sea around my New Zealand home, finding an Italian vase in the street, plus fragments of autobiography. It took many rewrites to weave these different elements into a reasonably coherent whole. With my non-fiction books I have been a little more organised, but these too have tended to develop in piecemeal fashion.

Whatever method is used, the project has to begin somewhere. The writer may start on an abstract level, wanting to explore a certain theme or conflict, convey a message to the reader, or develop a plot with an original twist. Or the story may be inspired by a particular place, a memorable incident, or one or more characters whether real or imaginary. (See also my previous blog posts Novels with a message and Where ideas come from.)

My friends say they have enjoyed my first novel and are encouraging me to write more fiction, which I certainly hope to do. At present various memories and ideas are floating around in my mind: a flooded river in England, a healing retreat in a country house, fragments of wartime aviation history. Perhaps a story which connects all these already exists in some unconscious realm, but I can’t see the missing pieces of the jigsaw at present. I hope I will be able to find them, and that it won’t take as long as ten years next time.

Introducing the Bach flowers to medical doctors

Later this week I’ll be giving a short talk about the Bach flower remedies to a group of senior doctors with connections to my old medical school in Oxford, UK. Many of them will probably never have heard of the remedies – even though Mount Vernon, the home of the Bach Foundation, is only a few miles away from Oxford city. Even fewer will have had personal experience of using them, or know how much they can help with the management of health problems whether mental or physical.     

I hope and expect that there will be a friendly informal atmosphere at this meeting, and that most people in the audience will be interested in the brief case histories and flower photos I plan to present. However, some orthodox clinicians are sceptical about the value of ‘natural therapies’ in general, and a few are quite hostile towards them, so I need to be prepared to answer criticisms such as the following:

Bach flowers are no more effective than placebo: several randomised controlled trials published in medical journals have reached this conclusion. The placebo effect, in which the beliefs and expectations of both patients and their clinicians work to bring about a self-healing response, is indeed a powerful force for good and if the Bach remedies can mobilise it effectively, so much the better. There is certainly a placebo element in this therapy, as in any other.

It is, however, difficult to believe that the excellent results achieved with the remedies are due to placebo alone – over 80% of clients treated by Bach practitioners respond well, and they include babies and animals. And the occurrence of ‘healing reactions’, in which a minority of clients experience an aggravation of symptoms before they get better, seems unlikely to be a placebo (or nocebo) effect.

The published trials have several limitations, for example they have usually given the same remedies to all participants although it is a key principle of this therapy that an individualised mixture should be chosen for each case.

The challenges of evaluating natural therapies and the ‘holistic approach’ are considered in more detail in my recent book Persons not Diseases (by the way the e-version on Smashwords is on promotion at just $1.50 USD this week, 2-8 March – here’s the link).

Their supposed mode of action is not scientifically credible: talk of ‘vibrational’ and ‘energy’ medicine does not go down well in orthodox circles, where mechanical and chemical approaches hold sway. It must be admitted that the mode of action of Bach flower remedies, like that of homeopathics, is not well understood. However, it is arrogant to assume that a therapy must be ineffective because current knowledge cannot explain why it should work. The phrase ‘the exact mechanism of action is unknown’ quite often appears in the product descriptions of widely-used pharmaceutic drugs!

The remedies give ‘false hope’ of cure, and patients may use them instead of effective medical treatments: It is true to say that Dr Edward Bach envisaged a world in which most diseases could be cured if patients themselves simply learned to recognise the emotional imbalance underlying them, and used the flower remedies to restore harmony to mind and spirit. Although subsequent advances in mind-body medicine would support Bach’s ideas, current claims for the remedies are more modest. They are not a panacea and, as made clear in training courses for Bach Foundation practitioners, they are intended for ‘complementary’ rather than ‘alternative’ use. They do not treat specific medical conditions, but are selected according to the personality and emotional state of each patient, with the aim of improving quality of life. They can safely be used alongside conventional treatments.

If any other points of interest arise from the meeting, I’ll write a follow-up post next week.

How to find time for writing

I haven’t done much writing lately, because of various events – two conferences, family health problems, house guests from overseas – all coming together in the same few weeks. Some of these happenings are predominantly pleasant, others more stressful, but all of them have altered the usual rhythm of domestic life and taken time and energy away from writing. This has prompted me to revisit some principles from my life coaching days – simple basic advice, but so easy to neglect.

Prioritise what is important: Besides writing, there are various activities – for example exercise, social contact, some form of relaxation – which it is good to carry out every day to promote health and well-being. In contrast, anything which is being done out of habit or a sense of duty but is not really pleasurable or worthwhile, could perhaps be set aside.

Set personal boundaries: being able to devote adequate time to the important things may require setting boundaries against those of lesser importance. This means learning to say ‘No’ to unwelcome requests from other people, as discussed in a previous post, and perhaps also being firmer with yourself if you are prone to be distracted by trivia like checking for emails too often or staying too long in coffee shops. Focusing on one activity at once is more efficient than multi-tasking.

Organise your schedule: although some people prefer to write only when they feel inspired, or when conditions happen to be right, many serious writers find it best to set aside a regular time and place for their daily work. If you are disciplined about keeping to this schedule, family and friends will usually respect your commitment and understand that you do not wish to be disturbed.

Accept what cannot be changed: some events, difficulties and distractions are beyond personal control. It is a waste of energy to get frustrated and complain about them, but better to be flexible and accept them with a good grace. In the words of the ‘Serenity prayer’:

Lord, grant me the strength to change the things I can, the serenity to deal with the things I cannot change, and the wisdom to know the difference.

After all, a temporary disruption to the writing schedule will probably not matter very much in the long term; and even unwanted experiences form part of ‘life’s rich tapestry’ and may provide material for a new piece of writing at some later date.

Incidentally – three of my ebooks are on a Smashwords promotion this week, 2-8 March, for just $1.50 USD each. Here’s the link.