Mind/Body Medicine: The Science And Spirit Of Health

The image is imprinted on my mind. She was sitting cross-legged, brown skin on brown earth, an Indian woman by the roadside as we drove out of New Delhi Airport — my first impression of India as a third year medical student, coming to spend three months studying in a hospital in southern India. So why did this image move me so deeply that it is still with me more than 25 years later? In that moment, sitting on the brown, dusty roadside, she seemed to have grown out of the very ground she sat on. The impression was one of harmony; there was no separation between her and the world she lived in.

My three months in India presented many difficult and disturbing experiences, from the clamor of beggars and the discomfort of having so much when they had so little, to working at a hospital where students observed heart surgery from a state of the art viewing lounge while babies died for want of money to buy an egg a day. The diseases of poverty, starvation and infectious illness were tangible and shocking, but the real culture shock was completely unexpected and did not hit me until my return to the West. Over the three months, I had visited villages where whole families lived in a one-roomed hut adorned with pictures of Hindu Gods often with Christ along side. We would be invited to share tea and rice with those who could not even afford vegetables. Women rolled chapattis and talked; people had time to talk and were interested in each other.

After completing the allotted time at the hospital, my new medical student friends directed me to an ashram in South India. I found myself surrounded by bougainvillea and sweet jasmine, immersed in an atmosphere of sacredness, devotion and beauty. There was no need to travel any further. I spent the month rediscovering a sense of inner peace through meditation, yoga and just being there. Then I went home and it was at this point that the real culture shock hit. It appeared that everyone in London was running all the time yet did not know where they were going. People looked unhappy. They were separated from their environment and a prey to it as much as those starving in India, but this starvation was on a deeper level. It took some time to adjust back to the life of a medical student and as I did so, some of the simple tools of yoga and meditation became invaluable allies helping me maintain balance and connection to inner peacefulness, even amidst the craziness of hospital and student life.

Let’s face it, science is the religion of the day, and science depends on our five senses. It tends to set us apart from the world we live in and help us to master it. I grew up with a physicist and mathematician father who gave me an early introduction into this prevalent worldview. By the age of two I could name all the trees in the local park. I also had a rich inner life, and as a small child, discovered that in bed at night I could contemplate with awe the reality of existing as a conscious being in this vast universe, my body becoming one with the vastness as I drifted in to sleep. Then by day I would be back to everyday life, being shown scientific experiments in the bath tub and learning, for example, how an object displaces its own volume of water. Perhaps we each have a particular conflict, issue or question around which our life revolves. It keeps re-emerging in a slightly different form as we travel the spiral of life. For me, reconciling my spiritual experience with the dominant worldview seems to be just such a core issue. It could be described as bridging heaven and earth. Perhaps this is a task for all of us, “to walk with one’s head in the heavens and one’s feet on the earth,” as the Sufi mystic Hazrat Inayat Khan says.

Respect for science and interest in people initially led me into the field of medicine, despite a deep dislike of hospitals and a tendency to faint at the sight of blood. Perhaps it was also childhood encounters with the English GP, equivalent to the American family practitioner, who was a respected member of the community, almost part of the extended family, that drew me to this path. He (most at that time were men) would come to the house when we were sick and very much practiced the art as well as the science of medicine. Today US healthcare is generally a far cry from this. Science, tinged with fear of litigation, dominates. Perhaps nowhere more than in medicine does the reductionist worldview impact us. We are defined by our illness, categorized according to diagnosis, and then the disease is treated according to evidence-based regimens. It is common place at an outpatient visit to be asked to strip off your clothes and put on a gown, shedding your everyday identity and humanity before even meeting the medical specialist. Don’t get me wrong, medical science together with public health measures have improved both life expectancy and quality of life by a quantum leap over the past century and will continue to do so. But it is easy to forget that science is a tool we have developed to serve our humanity, rather than an excuse to overlook it.

“It is easy to forget that science is a tool we have developed to serve our humanity, rather than an excuse to overlook it.”

So many aspects of human experience are unfathomable, perhaps none more so than death itself. The first few times I was present during the death of a patient, the transition occurred during a tornado of resuscitation efforts so there was little opportunity to experience what was really happening. It was not until some time later at the quiet passing of a man I was caring for that I experienced the palpable sense of his soul leaving the body. At postmortem the next day, the medical team was invited to watch as the pathologist searched for the “cause of death.” What an interesting process, yet it seemed to be missing the point. Perhaps we might determine the “mechanism of death” but the real cause remains unknowable. Most weathered health practitioners will tell you stories of the person who was not “meant” to die but did, and of the one who was “given” six months and is still going strong.

A good friend of mine had some of her best years after a diagnosis of very advance ovarian cancer to which she was long ago expected to have succumbed. How can we explain the person who lingers until the last family member arrives then quietly slips away?

A first step in bridging the worlds of unfathomable experiences and science came 20 years ago when I first came across the field of mind/body medicine. It was exciting to discover that science was providing validation for many of the approaches I knew to be beneficial. Finally I had a scientific rationale and the language to discuss with my patients techniques which had, to that point, been considered fringe or new age by most people: Herbert Benson in the early 1970’s described the relaxation response, a pattern of physiological changes during meditation that are the opposite of the body’s stress response. Subsequent research indicated that regular meditation actually modifies the body’s response to stress and that programs incorporating relaxation response interventions are useful in the treatment of many medical conditions that are either caused or exacerbated by stress.

Similarly, programs teaching mindfulness meditation developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn have been shown to effectively treat anxiety, panic attacks and to enhance the body’s immune response. This rediscovered inseparability of mind and body is becoming progressively clearer as our scientific measures become more finely tuned. The rapidly expanding field of psychoneuroimmunology delves into the complex interactions between emotions and the nervous and immune systems. Researchers such as Candace Pert paint a picture of a whole finely balanced universe within the human body, with each cell membrane having hundreds of thousands of receptor sites that respond to tiny peptides, molecules that govern both function and feelings. According to her research there is no separation between mind and body; in fact, cells lining the intestine as well as brain cells have receptors for endorphin, our body’s natural morphine, giving new meaning to the concept of gut feelings.

There is a growing field of psychology supported by research confirming that positive attitudes such as optimism are associated with better health and certain personality traits seem to protect one from stress related illness. Studies of cognitive behavioral interventions that help people identify and change negative thought patterns show that this approach effectively treats anxiety, panic attacks and depression. As our technological capabilities improve, we are discovering the pattern of electrical brain activity during various states of consciousness, and the mapping of brain areas that are activated during meditation using functional magnetic resonance imaging (FMRI).

The implications of embracing the mind/body connection in healthcare are enormous. The patient becomes empowered by learning tools to help change their own body’s physiology and gain the ability to change thought patterns to enhance positive mood states and improve health. Perhaps we can even start to modify our very personality, shedding limitations that get in the way of health and fulfillment. These changes towards empowerment are absolutely in harmony with our American culture and value system. But let’s come back for a moment to my woman seated at the roadside and to the emptiness and frantic imbalance of this culture which took three months in India for me to recognize. Like the fish that cannot imagine anything other than the water in which it swims, I was accustomed to the milieu in which I had grown up.

“Perhaps my woman by the roadside was a reminder of our naked humanness beneath the images and persona we create for ourselves. She was also a reminder of our interdependence with the earth we walk upon and our inseparability from the universe that surrounds us.”

In a conversation with western psychologists in the book Healing Emotions, The Dalai Lama is incredulous at the concept that many people in America walk around having negative thoughts about themselves. Low self-esteem is a foreign concept to him. The question arises, what is it about our culture that leads to this tendency? Perhaps part of the answer lies in the separation, the emphasis on the individual and the individual’s freedom. Perhaps my woman by the roadside was a reminder of our naked humanness beneath the images and persona we create for ourselves. She was also a reminder of our interdependence with the earth we walk upon and our inseparability from the universe that surrounds us. In this culture of individual freedom and choice there are so many decisions to be made at every moment, from brands of toothpaste to which phone calls to answer, sometimes the more important questions get lost and this very self-determination creates enormous stress and preoccupation with the mundane. With such freedom and opportunity there is also a tremendous weight of responsibility; the decisions we make and what we achieve become a direct reflection of who we are. We have only ourselves to blame if we do not measure up to our own and society’s ideas of what we should be. We learn to judge ourselves and others by attainment and material possessions. No wonder there is an epidemic of depression and anxiety even among the young people in our culture.

Where can we look for answers? Honoring the mind/body connection is certainly a start, but in the realm of the psychological and spiritual dimensions of life we have much to learn from the East and from the mystics of all the world’s religious traditions. The Hindus, for example, had a complex psychological system several thousand years before Freud and Jung came on the scene, and 2,500 years ago the Buddha outlined practices and ways of right living to help humankind overcome suffering. Mystics from all the world’s traditions have trodden pathways towards integration of the depths and heights of human experience and mapped routes, many shrouded in secrecy until recently, whereby humankind can consciously and fully participate in the miracle of being human. The science of the breath, so much more than just a means of oxygen exchange or a repetitive point of focus, can be used to change the body’s physiology. A student of meditation in India may spend ten years just observing the breath as the sum total of their spiritual practice. There is such richness here; the mysteries of love and ecstasy expressed in the poetry and practices of the Sufis, chanting, prayer and other practices with sound permeating all the major schools of mysticism, spiritual practices for purification of the body, mind and emotions dating back to the Egyptian mystery schools and contemplative practices taking us beyond our everyday vantage point are found in the mysticism of all the major world traditions. Einstein once said that we cannot find the solution to our problems using the same way of thinking that created them, and meditation gives us the means to get beyond our everyday way of thinking.

As we look to the future, physics, biology and cosmology may play leading roles in the integration of wisdoms gained through human experience with knowledge gained by science. Many of the cutting edge discoveries and theories in these fields are mind-blowing. One has only to contemplate the vastness of the universe as described by cosmologists or the findings of physicists such as Nicolas Gisin that when two photons are separated even by as much a six miles, they behave as if each knows what the other is doing, their behaviors are perfectly correlated and they seem to be part of a non-separable reality. And as for our understanding of the world around us, we are now told that matter, including our own bodies, consists of sub-atomic particles which act not only as particles but also as waves. In other words, we are not truly confined within the boundary of our body as we see it, and that millions of miniscule particles called neutrinos emitted by the sun are passing through our body at any point in time. In a real, scientific sense one could claim that one’s body is intermingled with the body of the sun. There is no separation. This worldview makes the knowing of who the caller is (without caller ID) when the phone rings seem less weird. Our world becomes a more fluid place where miracles, healing and transformation can occur.

The best may be yet to come. On the cutting edge of science, a new theory called string theory is being formulated. Called by some thinkers the theory of everything, or the ultimate theory, because it brings together many of the theories which precede it and overcomes some of Einstein’s unsolvable paradoxes, string theory describes a universe which at the most microscopic level is made up of intermeshed vibrating strings. According to string theory the universe consists of vibration, and the finely tuned laws of physics arise out of the vibration of strands. From this vantage point we are also beings of vibration, each with our own note in the symphony of the universe. Maintaining health then becomes a question of staying tuned to our true pitch, clearing discordant impressions, finding and maintaining our own rhythm and coming into harmony with the world around us. At last science and mysticism may be finding a common language for that which previously could only be seen reflected in fleeting images such as that of an Indian woman seated cross-legged on the earth by the roadside.

Gloria Deckro, MD, is an English physician, meditation teacher and retreat guide who has studied spiritual practices from many of the world’s traditions for more than 25 years. She combines approaches from mind/body medicine with spiritual practice to help clients of all ages towards health and spiritual unfoldment. Gloria also provides workshops, trainings and retreats for healthcare professionals, educators and corporate clients. To find out more visit http://www.SilverRiverInst.com, e-mail gdeckro@msn.com or call 781-344-9814.