Practical Science on Movement and Pain

More Deepities: Does Intention Have Power?

In some recent posts I introduced the idea of a deepity, which is a statement that precariously balances between two possible meanings, one true but rather uninteresting, the other earth shatteringly profound but … not really true.

Today’s installment is the word “intention”, which is often used as a deepity in the world of manual therapy. Like other deepities, it is well designed, either consciously or unconsciously, as a way to claim the existence of a near miraculous power, while at the same time retaining the ability to retreat into a far more defensible position in the face of skepticism.

A google search for the phrase “power of intention” generates more than half a million hits, many of them related to bodywork and massage. In fact, there is actually a book called the Power of Intention by Wayne Dyer, a best selling author of new age self help books. Although his book is not about manual therapy, the intro provides a good example of how the word intention can be used in a deepity like way:

“Dr. Wayne W. Dyer has researched intention as a force in the universe that allows the act of creation to take place. This beautiful gift edition of Wayne’s international bestseller explores intention—not as something we do—but as an  energy we’re a part of. We’re all intended here through the invisible power of intention—a magnificent field of energy we can access to begin co-creating our lives!”

Dyer is demonstrating some excellent deepity skills here. (First, note the use of the word “energy” as a deepity.) His claims sound very profound, as if he has discovered a force that is so magical and powerful that it can pretty much make you into a God, or at least a co-God. On the other hand, his claims are ambiguous enough to be plausibly referring to something that is much more scientifically defensible, such as the ideas that: success depends on having clearly articulated goals; or that positive thinking can optimize performance; or that people can achieve amazing things if they really focus on a goal.

Which meaning did Dyer intend? (Or should I say which meaning did the universe co-intend that Dyer co-intend?) Probably depends on whether he is talking to a skeptic or a believer. That is the rhetorical versatility that a deepity provides – you can convey different meanings for different audiences. For the book buying audience, you can believe that Dyer is inviting readers to interpret “intention” as something miraculous, not just as an logically necessary ingredient of a non random action. Its much easier to sell books with magic and superpowers than good old fashioned hard work, clear planning and self confidence.

In the context of massage, the word intention is used quite frequently by practitioners in a way that suggests it has an almost magical importance to their work. Granted, it is obviously true that if you want to optimize your performance as a therapist, it is of the utmost importance to have the optimal state of mind, including the right intentions. But this is also true of any other challenging job, so it is not earth shatteringly profound to say that intention is of critical importance in bodywork. What would really be earth shattering is if your intentions could somehow heal clients even independently of the physical movements or other client interactions that such intentions cause you to make.

I think that many therapists actually believe that their pure intentions have this sort of magical mind over matter type of power. There is often no harm to this type of delusion, and for many therapists it might actually cause them to do better work than otherwise. However, I think that believing in magic will inevitably cause problems – perhaps by overestimating your limitations as a therapist, or by spreading misinformation and confusion to clients and the wider community of people in health care. The world of manual therapy still has a lot of room for improvement, and as a wise man once said, all progress begins with telling the truth.

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8 Responses to More Deepities: Does Intention Have Power?

  1. fred says:

    There are more unintended consequences of any action than intended. That is realty. You can just ignore the unintended and go happily on or also include the unintended in the cost. How good did that work out for you now?

    but what do I know

  2. Great stuff Todd, as always.

    I think your point about multiple meanings is important. When something can mean all sorts of things to different people they will often choose one based upon a previously held opinion, defensible or not.

    When something can mean anything, it means nothing – it’s meaningless. This is the hallmark of a deepity.

    • Thanks Barrett. You are totally right abut the multiple meanings thing. As a lawyer I was always surprised at the ambiguity of contracts and statutes, which should be drafted to be clear. Then I remembered that they are drafted by multiple parties that have different intentions as to the meanings of the words. So ambiguity is a way to get to agreement.

  3. Interesting text. I think word-intention can be found in a dictionary and, as all words can be misused or misunderstood, intentionally or unintentionally.

    All the verbal communication has it´s limitations, and as manual therapists communicate a lot with our body, touch and gestures.

    When communicating with words, the words do have entirely different meanings to different people, but to communicate anything, we must use words.

    As for telling patients about our intentions, or the effects of our intentions is pointless, much the same as going to car wash someone would tell you that you are going to get your car clean.

    I´m totally against saying that intention have something to do with magic, on the other hand I certainly think that intention has a lot to do with the results we get with our patients, all the way from getting the patient motivated to get better, as well as creating circumstances for patient to feel secure relaxed and cared for.
    If someone wants to call that magic, that´s his problem, but then again, they are only words.

    • Kari,

      Thanks for the comments. Yes no doubt the right intention is a necessary ingredient of any successful action, including the actions and communciations that a therapist makes to his or her clients. And its not magic.

  4. […] written before on this blog about how manual therapists can develop some very questionable ideas about exactly how they are helping their clients. Like thinking they can manipulate energy fields, […]

  5. […] More Deepities: Does Intention Have Power? […]

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