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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