The good news about life is that our bodies are made to HEAL. The bad news is that sometimes they get overwhelmed, confused, or just distracted from doing so. Indeed, one of the nearly universal features of all diseases and injuries is that they SLOW US DOWN. If we can’t project nearly as much intention and energy out toward the world, our resources are left to focus on resolving challenges to the internal mechanisms of life. Individuals embody impressive potential to heal, yet they are rarely successful when one gets a “serious” condition. Why is this?
First, the premise is not entirely accurate. It has become our experience, because modern western medicine has changed our relationship with microbes. Indeed, so broad and powerful is our ability to control the acuteness of microbial infections, that we are appalled and frightened by the rare drug-resistant ones. Consider, for instance, MRSA, drug resistant TB, and AIDS. These diseases are remarkable, because we no longer suffer with many of the infections that have plagued humankind throughout history. When people got pneumonia, smallpox, Bubonic plague, or many other infections, some died and others lived. While pre-modern doctors didn’t accurately understand the mechanism of those infections, because they didn’t have microscopes to see the microbes, they did recognize clinical patterns of expression. They knew these conditions as disease processes, and realized directly in their experience that health is not a binary state: healthy or diseased.
Some patients healed from the wide variety of recognized disease processes, and others did not. Indeed, in the case of plagues, while they didn’t understand their mechanisms, ancient healers clearly understood that a local population was exposed to some uniform disease process. Yet, many died and others lived. What was the difference? Well, for whatever reason, the individuals who lived were able to accommodate (and eventually resolve) the substantial challenges of those diseases, while maintaining life. They had been ‘more healthy’ when originally exposed to the disease that swept through their region. And, this was no less true of MANY other challenges of life. Consider life in a poorly insulated hovel without a chimney to allow fire inside. Cold was a substantial challenge in the lives of most people, even up to a couple hundred years ago. Little wonder it was considered an important etiology of disease in ancient China.
The most common “serious” conditions these days are progressive degenerative ones like cancers, vascular disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and many others. While an individual’s awareness of the life threatening expression of these diseases may be acute, their processes certainly are not! All these conditions accumulate over time, and most people believe the best that can be done is to control their pathologies after they express themselves. That is the first type of health care. The other alternatives include nourishing and supporting the body to do its best to heal, and the most hopeful (though also generally the most challenging) is to specifically target and stimulate specific physiological processes to resolve the disease in question. So, these are the three type of health care:
- Manage or Control (the Expression of) Pathology
- Nourish and/or (generically) Facilitate the Intrinsic Healing Process
- Stimulate to Unblock the Individual’s Specific Impediments to Healing
One of the great challenges we face in considering these three types of health care is that they are not entirely well-defined. There is no fixed way to determine which type is being engage in any particular therapy, by any particular therapist, or even by a given therapist in a particular session. Yet, I’d say if a therapist is honest he or she knows. This is truly disconcerting, and in many instances differentiating between the last two of these categories a matter of degree, rather than being even potentially clear and discrete. However, while there may be some disagreement on specifics, these categories highlight very important characteristics of health care, which effects both patient outcomes and the economics of care.
Everyone is familiar with good examples of at least the first two categories. Virtually all pharmaceutical medications for chronic, degenerative, and progressive diseases fall neatly into the first category. Frankly, this is the BEST that most people have learned to expect, if surgery isn’t practical (which then requires separate analysis). Society is pleased and even impressed, when some substantial progress is made in managing and controlling the wide variety of “serious” pathologies people encounter. New drugs become ‘blockbusters,’ even when they offer only modest improvements over old ones, and the most disturbing feature of this type of medicine is that passive care breeds dependence.
Many people even grossly confuse the term “cure,” whenever they associate it with therapies of this first category. People want to believe that they, together with their health care providers, are doing the best that can be done, especially when they have “serious” diseases. Ah well…there is propaganda everywhere, including in our VERY large and lucrative health care industry. I’m sure all the ‘stake-holders’ involved in western medicine want to maintain their strong position in guiding the hearts, minds, and wallets of people with “serious” diseases. They’ve learned to give up a ‘piece of the pie’ to the second type of health care, but they certainly don’t want to hear about the third!
What is this ‘acceptable’ second type of health care? We are very familiar with several versions:
- Most ‘supplements’ ranging from multivitamins to ones designed with vitamins, other ortho-moleculars, and/or herbs for specific disease conditions — these products are commodities with their formulations based on information from research, most of which is scientific and analytical
- Improving one’s diet by eating more vegetables and fruits, drinking more water and less of most other drinks
- Many ‘generic’ herbal products are ‘supplements’ designed for general well-being or specific disease conditions — products are commodities, though formulations may be based on either ‘scientific’ or historical/experiential research from various health care traditions
- Most deep tissue massages and some other types of bodywork — these are services, and therapists have widely varying levels of training; while some are quite personalized, others are rather generic
- One could even include regular moderate exercise as a component of this category
Individuals can freely make wiser choices around diet and exercise, though many need to focus considerable attention on them. Many people consider moderate amounts of the others components of this category ‘affordable,’ and indeed, it has grown into an impressive industry. Many people directly feel better after partaking in them, and virtually everyone trusts that participating as they do in this ‘second’ type of health care improves their well being, or even helps them avoid the first type — passive care to control pathology. There is considerable evidence they are right, at least to some extent. Yet, most people who subscribe to the value and import of this second type of health care eventually become patients of the first. Yet, they may also try out the third — with widely varying degrees of success.
So, what is this third type of health care, and is it really a pariah? Well, it’s not really that bad, though we’ve only begun to reap the HUGE potential benefits of this category. While there is a growing awareness and acceptance of SOME of those benefits, how many people believe we could eliminate most applications of the first type of health care, and provide the participating ‘patients’ with results they consider superior? Now that’s just crazy! Isn’t it? But, what if it IS true? I’ll bet THAT might put a dent in our society’s substantial health care financing challenges!
Well, isn’t it crazy to think that ‘healing work’ can replace a large portion of our current health care? I don’t think so, at least considering the pure potential of healing work. I’ve seen hundreds of ‘patients’ reach this conclusion, when confronting ALL manner of afflictions or diseases. Yet, interesting as that may be, it is still a VERY SMALL sample of the population. Is it generalizable? Who knows? Might those people simply be self-selected ‘nut cases,’ who just didn’t want to participate with modern western medicine, and fail to face the facts about their conditions? I don’t see them that way, though they have been universally willing to focus on and participate in their healing processes in various ways. In short, they’ve been willing to take somatic responsibility for their lives, and consequently their disease conditions.
Perhaps the greatest challenge is that several key ideas of this third category are not clearly understood. People don’t have a clear conceptual model, and by definition these are not ‘generic’ remedies. Services and products are individual; and practices require considerable diligence and cultivation, which relies on effective teaching that can require a lot of attention. There is substantial individual variability among practitioners or teachers involved in this category, based on a combination of talent, training, and cultivation. So, what are some of these third type of health care?
- Some practitioners of ‘healing work,’ such as acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine, though also osteopathic or chiropractic manipulation, and a wide variety of bodywork and various types of ‘healing work’ — talent, training, and cultivation…and it’s not just about the practitioner; his or her ‘fit’ with a particular client/patient can be very important.
- Specialized exercise practices, such as yoga, qìgōng (氣功), and tàijíquán (太極拳), or “T’ai Chi Ch’uan” in the older Wade-Giles system of romanization.
- Instances of psychotherapy, where the participant experiences some cathartic (somatic) release
- Almost any experience can stimulate a person to release or otherwise resolve some long held and central block.
This third category faces another challenge due to being so poorly understood. People who haven’t experienced it, don’t believe it. Further, people generally believe it for what they’ve experienced, though generally not for other afflictions or conditions. This ‘localization’ of benefits may or may not be accurate. There are so many individual differences — in practitioners, teachers, and participants/patients. Perhaps the most important thing to understand about healing is that it is not the responsibility of the practitioner; the embodied spirit can ‘heal’ almost anything, and it is up to the individual to follow through with any changes any healing session stimulates. Healing work can be pivotal, and it cannot do the entire job. The person must heal, and that process is not facilitated by their “healer’s” potentially bloated ego.
Now for the Bad News!
- Healing is individual, so it cannot be standardized into protocols.
- Thus, healing work will always be a service rather than a product.
- While there are several ways to cultivate advancement within Chinese medicine, they all require considerable time and attention — I can think of three immediately, cultivating:
- presence — especially through meditation to grow more like the great spiritual leaders of any era
- technique — the skills of acupuncture, including ‘regular’ ones like needling techniques and ‘extraordinary’ ones like projecting qì (氣) through one hands or needles
- understanding — penetrating into the mysteries of Dào (道) in the microcosm of individual life
- any combination of those three, and quite likely other, paths ‘up the mountain’
- Healing depends on the ‘patient’ far more than on the practitioner — Healing is NOT a Spectator Sport!
- Almost all individuals exhibit substantial ‘internal pathogenic factors,’ which are that person’s unresolved emotional struggles with experience; these become even more significant for the growth of somatic diseases when they are suppressed or repressed.
Oh well, tough luck for the capitalists, though so far capitalism has been REALLY bad luck for healing work. Now that I have some experience with the healing process, I can’t say I’m surprised. For many people, especially with chronic, degenerative, or progressive conditions, healing is hard work. At the very least, these ‘patients’ generally need to make some fundamental changes in their lives. Well, that runs a little contrary to our “consumer culture,” but imagine how healing might penetrate through our culture, if there were substantial financial returns to be made, and of course if individuals didn’t have to take responsibility for their own progress (because healing was being done to them). Well, there won’t be returns for investors, but there would be for individuals and may well be for the society.
What might our society be able to do with a healthy chunk of the resources we are currently devoting to the hopeless goal of controlling pathology? How much richer might individual lives be, if people used their diseases as feedback about how they’ve been living, and consequently an invitation to change, rather than just taking a pill and acting as before? Healing may not be the best type of health care to support capitalism, because it often doesn’t return workers with ‘serious’ diseases to their full productivity as quickly as western medicine might. However, what is the personal cost to the humanity of those people with serious diseases? On the other hand, I’ve seen MANY people avoid various surgeries, especially for musculoskeletal pains, and eliminate the ill effects of their pharmaceuticals, which had been aimed at maintaining their pathologies in a relatively inert state. When it comes to surgery, even western medicine is growing more circumspect about the need for many surgeries, and surgical technology has made such astounding progress that those procedures aren’t nearly as traumatic as they were twenty years ago. Yet, healing work could still have an important role.
It turns out ‘a picture ISN’T worth a thousand words,’ when it comes to human health. There are just too many mysteries. Human life isn’t simply a very complex biochemical mechanism. The human body is inspirited, and consequently has access to the ‘magic’ of profound healing. It is far more interesting than is dreamed of by modern science!
Yet, these key questions remain:
- How and why do people choose to devote time, energy, and especially willingness to the ‘messy’ work of healing?
- How might healing become a more common choice, at least as long as the society can make believe it can afford to support the disease maintenance industry?