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The Barefoot Doctor appears, sits down on the sofa and tells me why most people don’t call him plain Stephen Russell. “My closest friends call me Doc, that’s always been the case, the natural way. Then the next line of people call me Stephen; the ones outside of that call me Barefoot – it’s really interesting – then the ones outside that, it’s The Doctor, or Dr D, or whatever …The name is really just a metaphor for humble healer.”
What I really want to know is: who is the Barefoot Doctor? On his website, he describes himself as “one of the most thorough, clear and experienced healers on the planet”. He also says that his healing work will “play a part in helping human evolution”. In truth, I have heard humbler claims. How does he know he is so good? “That’s a bit big-headed, isn’t it,” he says. “It’s true though, as well. I am really good.”
He no longer practises but treating “up to 20 people a day between three and five days a week for 20 years” is an experience that has plainly given him plenty of confidence in his own ability. He has written “handbooks” for Urban Warriors and Modern Lovers among others. He has had a range of soap and bath bubbles in high street stores, packaged with “I am beautiful, I am wonderful”-type affirmations – “I was the first to do that, everyone’s doing that now” – and for five years he wrote answers to readers’ problems in a Sunday newspaper magazine.
Problems typically put to the Barefoot Doctor were along the following lines: “My friend has an inflamed gall bladder. She has been prescribed antibiotics and painkillers and is waiting for a scan. She has been told to avoid fat and dairy food products …she is not sure what to eat (when her appetite returns)!” His reply, which was typical of others in the magazine, was as follows: “A glass of hot water with half a lemon squeezed in, morning or night, will help cool the gall bladder. Internal exercise – t’ai chi or chi gung, for instance – will help reduce stress generally, which helps take pressure off the liver …” His website, which he says receives 4m hits a month, promises “online healing”. “Anxious? Your kidneys are out of adjustment. Turn round to ascertain if anyone’s watching/ Place your palms on your lower back… /as you release your breath simultaneously chant the sound fffffffuuuuuiiiii.”
Regular readers of my column on this page will know I am a fan of evidence-based medicine. In my view, alternative and complementary medicines don’t work because if they did, they would be mainstream and prescribed by normal doctors. So, I say to the Barefoot Doctor, who has a friendly smile and a dapper jacket on: you don’t seriously think this stuff actually works, do you? He looks at me, frowning slightly, head to one side. “Yes,” he replies. “It really works.” He pours himself some tea.
Stephen Russell was born in 1954 in north London, where he still lives. “When I was five, or maybe six, I could just feel that everyone was suffering, I could just tell – and I felt that I had a mission of some kind to alleviate that suffering. It was just an urge. When I was 11, my dad got me into aikido [a marshal art]. The teacher was a Japanese guy and he was an energy healer. He was an amazing teacher. He taught me healing through the hands, passing chi through the hands. I was 11, so I didn’t have any great rational or intellectual resistance to the idea of it. And I used to practise it on my mum and my friends, and it worked. People with headaches, I’d take the headaches away. People with stress, I’d take the stress away.”
He subsequently discovered Taoism. “What Taoism provides is a basic template and a blueprint. It’s immensely clear and simple to sit with, it provides what I term an internal psychic architecture. For example, you’ve got located in your lower belly a kind of chamber, from where you can access limitless power. So when you’re tired, you kind of concentrate on your belly, you breathe freely, and you think, I have limitless power in my belly, and within 5 or 10 minutes, you have limitless power in your belly, because it’s all controlled by the mind.”
This seems rather a travesty of anatomy. Isn’t there a danger he will confuse people? Doesn’t this kind of conjecture, rather than fact-based information, make it more difficult for people to make well-informed choices about their health?
He doesn’t buy this. “There is no real separation between mind and body. When there’s a symptom presenting in the body, it’s the inner self crying out to be recognised.”
My expression clearly betrays utter horror for he immediately resumes. “It’s a very simplistic explanation. Yes, I think it’s always true. But what we can’t determine – well, I can’t anyway – is the timing involved …What is cancer, is it from buried resentment? Twenty years ago, yes, that’s what I was saying. But now I don’t know. I haven’t got a clue. But people who were the least resentful people I could ever imagine were getting it, and there were people who are the biggest grudge-bearing arseholes who don’t get it, and I don’t understand, and I don’t know if anybody does. But I’m pretty sure that the person who was really sweet and beautiful and who got it, at some point in their development closed off on their spirit in some way, and that had the effect of making them eat away at their own selves.”
This, I would boldly suggest, cannot be right. For one thing, cancer is a spectrum, and defines some conditions which are unlikely to kill or maim. Also, suggesting that there is some kind of blame resting with the personality or “spirit” of the person with cancer seems to beggar belief – at least, rational belief. Oh, and it doesn’t reflect any of the multiple breakthroughs made in cancer research over the past few decades either.
Doesn’t he at least agree there are environmental or genetic triggers for cancer? “Sure, and some people get it and others don’t. But I still think the original cause of it is a disharmony. If you were totally in harmony, you wouldn’t reach out for any self-destructive action – a coffee, a cream cake, whatever …”
As a lover of both cream cakes and coffee, I fail to believe they mean spiritual annihilation. He is off again though. “The weird thing is that, as a western doctor, you take responsibility in quite a big way for people’s conditions, which is a big thing to do, and is why you hold the position of authority, and rightly so. Whereas, the whole holistic medicine approach, right at the nub of it, says that the patient must take responsibility for their own conditions.”
At this point I say I don’t think that I, as a doctor, have any authority but if I did, the authority would really belong to the scientific methods I base my practice on, and not to me personally. I also tell him that what he has just said to me is what normal doctors say to people too – when they advise stopping smoking or losing weight to help symptoms. In fact, there are whole NHS programmes for self-managing various conditions. Did he know that? “What you’re talking about is really modern,” he says. “That is the holistic approach.”
I ask him how exactly his online healing works, because while adrenaline might be released from the adrenal gland just above the kidneys, rubbing your kidney will have no effect on adrenaline release. Doesn’t this just teach people that there’s something physically wrong with them when it’s a psychological issue? “I do try and stress the difference between kidney energy, as something a bit more mystical than mechanical,” he says.
He explains that the body is divided into three spaces which contain different kinds of energy. “The lower space is said to be controlled by kidney energy and its job is to magnetise the heat of the body back down again so it can be recirculated because if the upper part of the body is overheated, you get upper body symptoms, respiratory problems, cardiac problems. The mind gets manic because there’s too much energy rolling through it. By relaxing the lower back by not squeezing upwards, it pushes your energy up – it makes pressure in the upper part. You relax the lower part and that pressure drops. And you can feel it. It wouldn’t be so popular and I wouldn’t have had a practice for 20 years if it didn’t work…”
Now he doesn’t practise, he spends time answering queries and writing on his website and playing guitar and singing in a band. Why did he stop seeing people? “It drained me, it was too much.” I manage to stop myself from asking him why he didn’t use some of that “limitless power” he mentioned earlier. He tells me about his “travelling medicine show”, which offers music and “healing” to his audience. He demonstrates some chants from his show. I listen but, sadly, on this occasion it doesn’t make my headache go away.
More details on the Travelling Medicine Show on www.barefootdoctorworld.com
Margaret McCartney is a GP in Glasgow firstname.lastname@example.org
For her columns and for further reading, go to www.ft.com/mccartney