A Brief Introduction to Integral Medicine: Part Three

Last week I began to explain the five aspects of the philosophical underpinnings of Integral Medicine:

  1. The Integral Worldview
  2. Broad science
  3. An expanded model of a human being
  4. A definition of health
  5. The education metaphor

We got through the first three aspects in Integral Medicine: Part Two. Today I’ll discuss the fourth and fifth aspects.

A Definition of Health

In science, we usually define our terms. Science needs a precise language with which scientists can communicate with each other and the public. If healthcare were to be truly scientific, we’d need a definition of health and the healing process.

In fact, searching for just such a definition has defined the direction of my professional life.

Ever since the sixth grade, when I started wanting to be doctor, I’ve carried this image in my mind that doctors help improve people’s lives. When I was a resident and seeing my own patients in clinic, I was already bumping into the limitations of applying what I’d been taught to help my patients. I didn’t even know at the time what I was expecting to see in my patients’ lives, I just knew I wasn’t seeing it. I was asking myself why it is that people even go to the doctor. There are lots of reasons, but ultimately, I thought they were coming in to heal their lives.

“Heal their lives.” What did that mean? It was then that I was struck with a lightning bolt. There I was, in my seventh year of training in a discipline that prided itself on being scientific, yet no one to that point had defined healing or health. We all just talked like we knew what it was. But upon closer observation, doctors usually only use the word “healing” with respect to fractures or incisions. Not to people’s lives. They might cure an illness or treat a condition, but that’s about as far as it goes.

Why is that? Does it reveal an unspoken belief that healing can’t happen? That healing is too complicated, too capricious, too mysterious? Has the medical profession resigned itself to treating symptoms, thinking that root causes are somehow unfathomable or unreachable? I can’t speak for others, but I do have a difficult time understanding how a physician can really listen carefully to their patients, strive to truly help them and remain conventional at the same time, unless you see yourself as a technician, like a surgeon. (Although I’ve met some surgeons who are surprisingly good at working with their patients on very deep levels.)

Anyway, I thought the whole situation ludicrous, so I started on a search for the definition of healing. Seven years later I started to appreciate why the medical profession had left that question alone.

I started my search with Webster’s, whose definition is actually fairly good, the World Health Organization, the AMA, the American Holistic Medical Association (AHMA) and such. Each had attempted to define healing but relied on words such as “balance” and “harmony”: words which themselves needed defining. I needed a practical, boots-on-the-ground definition I could take into an exam room and actually do with a patient. The AHMA, for example, defined health as a state of balance and harmony with the Cosmos. Now go do that with a patient.

I thought perhaps other systems of healing might have some better answers. I looked into nutrition, herbs, Homeopathy, lay midwifery, Naturopathy, Chinese medicine, Ayurvedic medicine, Native American Shamanism, Buddhism, Chiropractic and some other forms of bodywork. I found they all have pieces to the puzzle that can be brought to the Integral Worldview, but none had what I was looking for.

About this time, I’d integrated much of what I had learned into my Family Practice, in what today would be called an Integrative practice, and I noticed that sometimes one of my patients would heal a bit. Even though I didn’t have a rigorous definition of it, curiously, we can recognize it when we see it. Perhaps that is why we can get by to some degree without defining. I reasoned thusly: “If a symptom is a clue that healing needs to happen, then the resolution of the symptom is a clue the healing has happened (assuming one has not just used a suppressive therapy), it is not the healing itself.”

So I started looking at my patients who healed to see what else, besides the resolution of their condition, had changed in them. What I saw was that they had learned something. And that something usually related to the understanding they had of themselves.

I wondered if that learning was the healing.

So I asked, “What if I define the process of healing as the process of us finding out who we really are and then acting in ways that are consistent with that?

So far, that definition has been holding up pretty well. Ultimately, healing is mysterious and we cannot hope to control all aspects of it. But I think we doctors, as a profession, could do a much better job helping you use your health experiences to deepen your understanding of yourself.

For example, if you look again at Figure 5 below from Part Two, beliefs have creative influence over the body, mind, energy, how we behave in society and in how society and the environment influence us. Therefore, symptoms or imbalances in any of those horizontal aspects are clues to the underlying beliefs. Once limiting beliefs change, an entirely different experience in the body, mind, energy, etc. can be created.

IM_Figure 5_500
IM_Figure 5_500

Each illness you experience has consciousness behind it. You can work with the physical, mental, emotional, social and such aspects of the illness and make some impact. But you can also work with the consciousness of it and make deep and lasting change in the illness.

These approaches are not mutually exclusive. But working with the horizontal aspects of the illness is generally supportive while working with the consciousness behind the illness is curative. Using Integral Medicine, we can work effectively with all aspects of you depicted in Figure 5 above.

Over many years of searching, I’ve developed good, practical ways to work with people on all of these levels at once. And I can teach other practitioners how to do that.

The Education Metaphor

You can generally tell a lot about the underlying assumptions and world view of a discipline by the metaphors it employs.

Conventional medicine uses two dominant metaphors: the war metaphor and the machine metaphor. In the war metaphor, the illness is the enemy to be fought and either vanquished or you become a victim of it. We develop new drugs in our armamentarium against cancer, for example. Your body is the battle ground, often trampled and scarred and even destroyed during the battle. The doctors delusionally think they are the Generals in the battle, but actually they are just the foot soldiers. The CEO’s of the large medical corporations such as the drug and insurance companies are the real Generals. The soldiers just do as they are told or they are dishonorably discharged.

Very early in my search for a definition of healing I observed that healing is not about war. No one actually wins a war. There are always casualties on both sides. One cannot heal if they are at war with themselves and one has a very difficult time (not impossible) healing if they are at war with others or the environment.

One of my first jobs when a new patient starts seeing me is helping them stop the war that they are having with themselves.

The machine metaphor likens your body to a machine. Your heart is a pump, your brain a computer, your joints are hinges, your lungs bellows and so forth. But, as the Vedic model points out, we are more than machines. Our bodies have consciousness, intelligence, wisdom and loving compassion. We do not just have to order our bodies around. We can develop a more collegial relationship with it: listening, dialoguing, working things out.

Natural medicines of several types often use a garden metaphor for health and the body. You prepare the soil, plant seeds, pull the weeds, avoid toxins, nurture and support and Nature does the rest. This metaphor is much gentler than the war metaphor but a garden is still a controlled, human-ego created environment. It does not have the same Spirit and sustainability as does deep wilderness. Many of the greatest teachers in human history gained their critical insights while in wilderness. Is that just a coincidence? If you listen to the stories of people who have experienced spontaneous remissions from cancer or HIV, for example, many of their critical insights happened when they were with Nature. What is that about?

Integral Medicine uses what I call “The Education Metaphor.” If healing is the process of us finding out who we truly are and then living in a way that is congruent with who we are, that is a learning process. Seeing all of life as a chance to learn helps that process.

In the Education Metaphor, the “student” is you…your conscious sense of who you are. By definition in psychology, this is your ego: whatever comes to mind when you say the word “I” to yourself. The teacher, then, is pure consciousness, your Atman, God, your Higher Self, whatever concept of your deeper wisdom that works for you. The classroom is all of creation, the curriculum is all of your experiences, both conscious and non-conscious, and the learning objective is answering the question: “Who am I?”

This is and has been the perennial question in mythology, literature and the arts.

In ancient Greece, the famous seer the Oracle of Delphi used to hang out in the temple of Apollo. On a column leading to the door of the temple there was a plaque with an inscription on it that explained everything you needed to know in order to accurately interpret what the Oracle told you. It said, “Know Thyself.” Some of the best Greek tragedies that survive today are about what happened to people who mis-interpreted what the Oracle told them because they did not know themselves well enough.

As your education proceeds, who you think you are (your ego) gradually starts to look more and more like who you really are (your deep wisdom) until they become indistinguishable. Spiritual traditions have a name for this: enlightenment.

So you don’t want to kill your ego (as some misdirected people talk about), that’s pretty stupid and uncompassionate. Good teachers don’t generally kill their students during their education. But if the student learns well, they can grow up to be teachers in their own right.

From this perspective, your health challenges can be viewed as stepping stones on your path to deeper understanding of yourself, on your path to enlightenment. Suppressive therapies and other therapies that just treat symptoms – that just shut the body up-bind and gag the teacher and throw her in the closet. This generally impedes the progress of the class. Most of what conventional and alternative medicines do today actually slows down your learning, in reality prolonging your suffering.

How do you think your inner teacher feels about you? Is s/he going to give up on you if you don’t learn the lesson the first time? That’s not been my observation. Lessons not learned in one relationship show up in the next. Lessons not learned in one health crisis show up in the next, usually with louder volume.

The converse is also often true: once you learn a lesson, the teacher doesn’t have to keep presenting it to you over and over, you can move on to the next lesson. (The lessons seem to keep coming as long as we’re breathing.)

No matter what is happening to us, potentially we can learn from it. Therefore, I believe healing is always possible.

We want our bodies to work well, our minds to be sharp, our energy to be abundant, our relationships to be loving and supportive and our environment to be non-toxic, but we are bound by the laws of physics in this: I’ve not yet witnessed someone grow back an amputated leg, for example. But healing in a higher sense is always possible. I like to always leave the door open for miracles, but it may be true that while there is always a possible relief to suffering, there may not always be relief of pain. But I don’t know this for a fact yet.

Keep Searching

Remember, healing has very little if anything to do with the functioning of your body, the workings of your mind, the robustness of your energy and such. But before you start thinking that I’m a therapeutic nihilist, remember that we barely have an inkling of who we really are and how powerful we are as divine beings. The creativity that we have potential access to is limitless. In fact, it is only limited by our own imagination, and much more is possible along the lines of physical, mental and energetic balancing than we yet understand.

For these reasons, never give up.

Keep searching for answers to your questions, to solutions to your health problems. Search outside yourself in the world around you for therapies, treatments, supplements and such that are helpful.

But also search inside yourself for the opinion of your own wisdom. How does it want you to be with yourself, with your problems and challenges? What is the consciousness creating your illness and is that the only consciousness you have access to? What are the beliefs that are allowing that illness-consciousness to flow into your life and are they really true? If need be, find a practitioner, friend or some other person who can help you explore questions like these.

Copyright 2012 Steven M. Hall, MD