Chapter 1 from A Beautiful Medicine,
A Radical Look at the Essence of Health and Healing
David G Mercier
Copyright © 2012 by David Mercier. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner without written permission except for brief excerpts in critical reviews or other noncommercial uses allowed by copyright law. Published in the United States by Still Pond Press, Easton, Maryland.
The Spirit of Medicine: The New, the Old, and the Beautiful
Health is not just the absence of disease, but the flourishing of human possibility. It’s a spark between hearts, tears of forgiveness, fires of love, good bones, strong muscles, belly laughs, a blush in the nerve endings of the soul. It’s about thriving, blossoming—all of it driven forward by the deep human yearning that choreographer Martha Graham called the blessed unrest, by what Goethe called the holy longing. Health is more than a freedom from disease: it’s license for being wholly alive. By itself, it goes transparent like a shoe that fits perfectly. We don’t want it for its own sake, but for what it allows us to do, just as breathing oxygen is not the purpose of living. We’d never think of going into the living room to just sit there and be healthy for an hour. We want health in order to, for the purpose of…it sets us free to play soccer with the kids, make love, work hard, paddle a canoe, inhale the scent of the small angel cuddled in our arms.
Our current model of health and medicine works remarkably well in many ways, but it’s biased: it has been seduced by the brilliance of hard, sparkling data in the scientific pursuit. In contrast, the ethereal aspects of human experience, like beauty and soul, often go dim before our glowing achievements in technology and science. It’s humbling to look up at towers of steel and glass or to board a giant jet and then wonder about the place of soul and spirit in all this. The miracles of science and technology, in spite of their abuses and limitations, have clearly improved lives in remarkable ways. They’re fascinating, and most of us are grateful. But it helps to know when they catalyze human potential and when they obscure it.
With medicine, our culture has grown accustomed to engineering the body. We shape, control, and manipulate it as we might a car engine. But if we listen to poets, philosophers, and the ancient healers, the body is far more than a contraption of flesh, bones, and other pieces: it’s a prism for immeasurables like beauty, love, and wisdom. In their view, the body is not a thing but the insinuation of a deeper truth—it’s a 3D representation of mysteries we’ve taken too literally, a screen projection of the creative forces hiding behind the extroversions of life. Plato wrote of this in his allegory of the caves: we’ve spent so much time in the cave of our perceptions, he said, that we mistake the shadows on the wall for reality. We’ve forgotten that what’s real are the flesh-and-blood people standing outside the cave, and that of all the mysteries in heaven and earth, the human body is only one measurable, tangible, and huggable part. One of the most compelling descriptions of this idea comes not from a great philosopher, but from Judy Garland. In her 1939 book of poetry, she wrote:
For ’twas not into my ear you whispered, but into my heart.
’Twas not my lips you kissed, but my soul.
And dancer Isadora Duncan said:
The dancer's body is simply the luminous manifestation of the soul.
While we now have reams of studies about the mind-body connection to support these sorts of ideas, it’s still hard for our research community to shake off the allure of tangibles and the habit of peering only through the looking-glass of science. In the predominant view, it all revolves around scientific validation, which will pass final judgment on whether or not something is real.
Today, our culture has seen the early emergence of a new vision for medicine and health that leaps beyond that sort of thinking. This new vision respects the ineffable poetry that animates the human body. It considers the body not a mechanical assemblage, but a fountainhead of the world’s audacity. This poetry, reaching in from places invisible, inhales and exhales the body.
Yes, energy comes from mitochondria, those power plants in the cell that give us fuel for our bodies’ engines. But then, how did mitochondria get here in the first place? Too much has been written in theology, philosophy, and our spiritual traditions for us to summarily dismiss any notions about the indiscernible as the whimsy of indulgent minds. But to our culture, trading in the currency of tangibles feels more secure, as it’s far easier to touch a tree than a forest. Seeing health and medicine in an integrative light requires opening the doors of perception and searching for the invisible projector showing the movie. It requires increasing our respect for the abstract, for the invisible, for the ethereal vapors of love and wisdom, to better see how they are infused into flesh. Science goes in the opposite direction by purging bias and belief out of its experiments—rightly so, but at a price if we stop there. Although poetry and scientific research have been strange bedfellows so far, that’s beginning to change. It’s an opportune time, given the crisis in healthcare, to recapture the holism and lyricism in medicine found among the ancient Persians, Indians, Tibetans, Greeks, Native Americans, and Chinese, and to let them permeate the citadels of science. The doctors of those times were poets, artists, athletes, priests, and philosophers—and to them, the body was not just a compilation of fingers, bones, and organs, but an integral part of the universe’s script. The gods were in on it too. From the ancient Persian text of the Vendidad in the Avesta, dating back probably to 800 B.C., we find:
Of all the healers O Spitama Zarathustra,
namely those who heal with the knife, with herbs,
and with sacred incantations,
the last one is the most potent as he heals from the very source of diseases.
–Ardibesht Yasht, Vendidad
In one of the cornerstones of ancient Chinese medicine, the Huang Ti Nei Ching, from about 400 B.C., we find:
When the minds of the people are closed and wisdom is locked out,
they remain tied to disease….it becomes apparent that those who have attained spirit and energy are flourishing and prosperous, while those perish who lose their spirit and energy.
To think of the human body as just a biological contraption is to think that a Matisse or O’Keefe is a bunch of paint molecules—true, but incomplete, and therefore misleading. The love, beauty, and inspiration that decorate the interior of our lives ask for a bigger explanation than the firing of brain cells. While specialization has merit—you wouldn’t want your plumber to also be your marriage counselor, and vice versa—we need to remember the relevance of the part to the whole. In recent decades, medicine has started to show more interest in blending the different faces of the human experience into a workable whole.
When patients are given time in the treatment room, they often rush headlong into reading aloud from the storybook of their lives. As in a play or the work of investigative journalism, their stories include a full cast of characters caught in a messy plot that ends with the symptom as headline. It’s a drama uniquely theirs, revealing a story that often sounds like the work of a scriptwriter run amok. If we were to equate real with relevant, these narratives are often more real than that herniated disc or that heartburn. This doesn’t negate the science or ignore the symptom. It includes both while looking through and beyond them, searching for all that’s relevant.
As consumers of healthcare, we usually want, in the end, more than just to have our bodies repaired. We want a partner as we learn to flourish. We want our bodies repaired for…for the freedom to live as we wish. With this in mind, integrative medicine sees the patient’s montage of stories as context for health and illness, and helps her piece her life together, sometimes reassemble it, into a poem that flows in rhyme. That rhyme can include the yearning to belong, to be financially secure, to chuckle more, to be wholly loved, and in short, to have a life existentially full and satisfying. As we look at what we as patients need, we want both body and soul vibrant. We ask for help fixing our knees, and we also want our stories to be heard. Science and soul can be excellent dance partners.
The notion that health goes transparent is one starting point for an integrative model of health. If health’s value lies in the freedom to live as we wish, health professionals face the starkness of an existential question: what are they ultimately doing in medicine? Well, for one thing, they can fix broken parts. Or they can do the necessary repair work and simultaneously help the patient flourish, to become fluent in a vocabulary that nurtures heart and soul. This is essential. Self-expression is healthy: it clears the heart of clutter. Confidence is healthy: it eases the jumpiness of fear and the zing of adrenaline. Serenity is healthy: blood flows better calm. Fluency is healthy: smooth is better than rough and bumpy. Clarity is healthy: decisiveness heals better than ambivalence. If the health professions were less distracted by the shadows on the cave wall, they could redefine their mandate as midwifery for the birth of human possibilities.
Physics tells us that about 13.9 billion years ago, nothing at all existed. Then, in a massive, fiery explosion, we suddenly had a universe with hydrogen and helium. Spurred by other big explosions over the eons, new elements later came into existence. Over time, to make a long story very short, they became you and me. The carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and other elements in our bodies today are simply new shapes of the exact same elements that make up hundreds of billions of galaxies, each with hundreds of billions of stars, many of which are billions of light years away. As an indisputable fact of physics, we are, literally, stardust.
The ancients could feel in their veins this intimacy with the universe. Though they knew nothing of stardust or the Big Bang, they could sense oneness just as we can smell the ocean when we draw near. So they revered it and built temples of belief and tradition in its honor. Using both observation and intuition, the Native Americans, Egyptians, Persians, Indians, Chinese, Greeks, Tibetans, and many other ancients pre-empted the current research on the mind’s effect on the body through the discovery that sacred incantations had power. They respected the grandeur of the spiritual empire concealed behind water and fire, wind and earth. They bowed to the magic tucked inside the blue hills and green valleys.
Today, medicine would do well to reclaim its place in this grandeur. A doctor or other health professional examines a sick patient in an office in a town in a state in a country on a planet in a solar system in a galaxy in a universe. Medicine as a whole can likewise remind itself of its contexts—it always occurs in context—and insinuate itself back into the big picture by asking questions of meaning, purpose, reverence, metaphysics. At the least, it would be more invigorating and satisfying for all involved. At the most, it could transform medicine. In the existential question of what health professionals do, being repairmen is no longer enough. Since broken hearts are often hiding behind the broken parts, medicine’s job should include restoring the heart’s romance with its origins, the soul of aliveness itself. Medicine’s strategy could include, among other things, helping a lost, isolated self find its way home to rediscover its primal intimacy with the world. Mystics have been telling us for centuries that we’re not separate from anything else and that we’re just different faces of the one same universe. The heart aches when we don’t see that. As the poet David Whyte wrote:
There is no house like the house of belonging.
When we feel alienated, resentful, envious, or lonely, we’re stuck in what the Hindus call maya: the illusion that we’ve disaffiliated from the divine play, the Whole, which, in their eyes, is impossible. Piercing this illusion brings us closer to fulfilling the unwritten promise of our lives, and in the end, this should be a purpose of medicine.
It seems a long distance between these ideas and, say, the whir, glint, and clatter of machines in a shock trauma unit. But it isn’t. If we look past these machines and the people running them, we’ll find the primordial impulse to preserve life and that deep, silent mystery lying behind the veils.