Michael Joyce broke his left hand playing street hockey last September, and underwent a delicate operation shortly afterward. Michael's doctor inserted a metal pin just above his pinky, but struck a nerve, and the UC Berkeley sophomore awoke in severe pain. Even after a thick cast had settled and dried the next day, Michael still suffered sharp jolts that felt like an ice pick to the back of the hand each time his arm shook from the slightest vibration.
"Riding in the backseat of a car was so painful, you couldn't believe it," the engineering major recently recalled. "Each time the car hit a bump, I'd feel it all the way up my arm into my shoulder."
Doctors proposed that Michael wait it out and take OxyContin to relieve the pain. They said his hand would heal with time. But his mother couldn't stand watching her son toggle between states of writhing in agony and bumbling around on meds, so she arranged for him to undergo something different -- something called "distance healing." All Michael needed to do was send a photograph of his face to a seventeen-year-old named Adam in Vancouver, Canada.
Raised in an Indian-American household, Michael wasn't averse to non-Western healing techniques. So the basic idea of being healed from a distance didn't sound out of this world. Still, he'd never done anything like it before. But caught inside the exhausting volley of pain or meds, the possibility of any escape plan was persuasive enough. He told his mom he'd try it. She signed him up for two sessions, and e-mailed his photo to Adam.
At precisely 9 p.m. on the first scheduled night, Adam, who does not reveal his last name and prefers to be known as the "DreamHealer," called Michael and directed him to lie down on his couch, close his eyes, and relax. Adam said he would "look into" Michael's body. Essentially, Adam claims he has the ability to visualize any human's interior, find the pained areas, and use his own mindful energy to remove the pain, which he calls "energy blockage."
After the first session, which lasted about thirty minutes, Michael says he came away drowsy, then headed off to bed. That night, he recalls, he slept well for the first time in weeks and awoke refreshed. "Ninety percent of the pain was gone," he said. "And after that, I didn't need the drugs."
Michael finally met Adam in person in San Francisco a few weeks ago when the teenage healer appeared at the sixth annual Qigong World Congress. Practitioners of qigong -- an ancient Chinese discipline whose name is pronounced "chee-gong" and translates roughly as "the skill of attracting vital energy," or qi -- use breath movement, often while in deep meditation, to initiate wellness and strength in different parts of the body. Yet qigong isn't simply closing one's eyes and hoping to direct bright thoughts to an aching knee. It's an entire worldview.
Qigong has been practiced for thousands of years in China, and its principles are purportedly used in some fashion by as many as seventy million Chinese people daily. Generally speaking, the practice has three faces: as a martial art, a spiritual discipline, and a medical regimen. Perhaps the most popular US face of qigong is in the practice of the martial art tai chi. Spiritually, qigong is rooted in the mystical philosophies of Taoism. In medical qigong, doctors attempt to direct a patient's qi to parts of the body where flow is constricted in order to break through the blockage. Practitioners say a qigong doctor can project a laser-like energy into a patient and restore flow to the afflicted area.
The principles of qigong are beginning to enjoy mainstream acceptance -- perhaps next season's yoga, if you will. Even though there is no raw data to show how many people practice the discipline in this country, several new qigong studios have opened in the East Bay in recent years, and the first world congress was based in Berkeley. The practice even has its own set of celebrity believers. Last year's conference attracted Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown and best-selling spiritual adviser Deepak Chopra, and former Mayor Willie Brown declared Qigong Week in San Francisco.
This year's event, however, was abuzz about Adam. The young healer has been in high demand since an article in the November issue of Rolling Stone that explained how Canadian rock star Ronnie Hawkins credits Adam with dissolving a cancerous pancreatic tumor via distance healing. San Francisco qigong grand master Effie Poy Yew Chow, one of Adam's mentors, invited the boy to attend. Chow has long been the driving force behind the Bay Area mainstreaming of qigong, and her endorsement carries great weight within the community. "The energy that emanates from Adam is untroubled, pure, and fresh," she said at a press conference opening the event. Chow glowed, sounding much like she was describing a messiah. "He can help show us what the potential of mankind truly is."
As Chow spoke, Adam sat in the front row alongside his parents and younger sister. He wore a red baseball cap, baggy blue jeans, and shiny leather basketball shoes, looking much like any other white kid from the 'burbs with hip-hop tendencies. Each time a photographer raised a camera, Chow insisted that they not aim it toward her protégé. "We need to protect his identity," she said, in the dramatic tone normally reserved for sharing secrets. Since the Rolling Stone exposure, she noted, Adam has been besieged by sick people seeking his thoughts -- and his healing touch.
While Chow fussed about shielding Adam, the boy's presence at the conference at times resembled that of a circus freak. Qigong was clearly at a crossroads, about to gain more attention than ever. And its largest attraction that day was a boy who said he could bust up cancer tumors from a few thousand miles away, and needed only a photograph to do it.
Alex Feng's Taoist Center is located in the shadow of a KFC on a bus-clogged stretch of Oakland's MacArthur Boulevard. Feng has practiced qigong for 31 years, and opened his center two years ago, the largest of its kind in the Bay Area. Now he sees 25 to 30 patients each day, teaches tai chi three times a week, and lectures regularly on Taoism. He also was Chow's cochair for the recent Qigong Congress.