03/19/2014 01:29 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Mindful Medicine


During my mindfulness workshops I often ask three sets of rhetorical questions to raise consciousness about the tacit paradigm behind Western medicine. The dialogue I have aloud with myself goes something as follows:

"What does it mean when you have a fever?"
"It means that there are toxic cells in your body that cannot live above 98.6 degrees and your body is trying to burn them off."
"What do we do?"
"Take Tylenol to lower the fever."
"What does this do?"
"Helps keep the toxins alive in our bodies longer."

"What does it mean when you have diarrhea?"
"It means that there are toxins in your colon that your body is trying to get out."
"What do we do?"
"Take Imodium."
"What does this do?"
"Shuts down our elimination system so that the toxins stay in our bodies longer."

"What does it mean when you have a runny nose?"
"It means that there are toxins in your head which is producing mucus to get them out."
"What do we do?'
"Take antihistamines."
"What does this do?"
"Dries up our noses and keeps the toxins in our bodies longer."

Western medicine is awesome for treating symptoms such as fevers, diarrhea, and runny noses; it is also wonderful for breaking down our bodies into separate components and treating them individually.

But have you ever imagined that this might be missing the forest for the trees? For the human body can also be seen as an integral system, a holistic organism. Western medicine is nonpareil regarding organ transplants, bone marrow transplants, and analyzing body parts such as brains down to their minutest details. But this is still only one way of envisioning the human body and its scope and depth are constantly being updated and revised. However, omniscience remains elusive. For instance, Western science cannot explain how the moon influences the tides or how acupuncture needles in ears or feet move energy through an invisible meridian system and rebalance "chi" in the liver or kidneys.

Did you know that until around 150 years ago surgery was performed in barber shops and the anesthesia was whiskey? Personally I believe that in 150 years people will look back on some of our contemporary procedures such as root canals the way we look back on leeching - namely, as barbaric.

Parallel to physical health, if you analyze the bible of mental health - the DSM - you will quickly find that the barometer for mental wellness in our society is "Can you show up for work, be a productive member of society, and earn a living?" Or more specifically, "Can you do your 'job?'" And if you cannot, then the pharmaceutical corporations have remedies for whatever ails you from working, whether it is insomnia, an inability to concentrate, a broken heart, sundry afflictions, worries, erratic moods, obsessive behavior, or bereavement. But did you know that according to the New York Times over 50% of the psychiatrists who wrote the DSM received money at some time from pharmaceutical corporations? Are you beginning to see a possible conflict of interest in our definition(s) of mental illness?

Similarly, regarding physical well-being, we dislike fevers, diarrhea, and runny noses because they impede us from working or doing things. But could these symptoms not also be interpreted holistically to mean, "Hey, slow down, you're not taking care of yourself, you're not eating correctly, you're not sleeping enough, you're so stressed out that your immune system is on overload... are you really sure you were put on earth to work 80 hours per week???."

This is what Mindful Medicine is: looking at the big picture, regarding the body as a holistic mechanism and interpreting symptoms on a grander scale. That doesn't mean that we should not treat our ailments; it just means that having expanded perspectives on how our entire organisms are functioning might keep us healthy longer. Tylenol, Imodium, and antihistamines are highly effective pharmaceuticals, but just like Band-Aids they don't solve the underlying problems; they just cover them up.