03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

What Spirituality Has To Do With The Health Care Debate

As a practically minded psychiatrist, I have developed a great tolerance and deep sympathy for human foibles. Even when our choices don't make sense to anyone else but us and cause us great pain, we still don't change them very easily. Yet, despite this level of understanding, I still can't help being at times amazed, enraged and disgusted when I hear the healthcare debate. I am even more amazed about how we, the public, have come to accept such flagrant displays of irrationality with resignation as the normal state of affairs and elect people who choose to carry on like this year after year.

Why do we so value our passions and self-interest in areas where reason should prevail? What gives us the hubris to so openly defend our self-interest above that of the common good? What can be done about this aspect of human nature?

Since taking a more rational approach to spirituality is my great passion, I would like to offer my thoughts as to how it would make us less prone to emotional logic in all areas of life and even raise the bar in the healthcare debates. The reason is that for those of us who strongly believe in another dimension to life -- and the vast majority of Americans do, we have only been taught to approach spiritual life through inspiration, emotion and blind faith. This makes us more positively predisposed to the same kind of logic in other areas of life. A greater reliance on evidence can counter our natural tendency toward self-serving thinking in all its forms. Taking such a radically rational approach to knowing more about what was previously considered unknowable automatically raises the bar in debates of issues like healthcare and the debates with those close to us about who should take out the garbage or clean up a certain mess around the house.

Since greater attention to evidence is so crucial to our coming up with better solutions to conflicts of interest, let me give you an example of the role evidence plays in decision making in healthcare before turning to the role it can play in making spirituality into the medicine of the soul and solidifying the grasp of reason in the very foundations of our thinking. If you look at the controversy over mammograms, you can see a good example of how evidence informs a discussion but can't make the final decision. When new evidence raised the question as to whether or not mammograms are justified in women under 50, it caused an uproar. Other experts rushed forward with other evidence. Consumers were shocked that they or their loved ones might die because of being denied a test. We consumers add up the risks and the benefits far differently from experts. Yet, the new evidence cited raised the level of the debate so that individual women could be aware of the conflicting opinions based on the evidence and make better informed decisions for themselves. It makes us all more aware of what evidence can and cannot do so that we will weigh our healthcare decisions differently--as long as this incident remains fresh in our minds.

As I was raised as most of us to think that anything spiritual was beyond understanding, I carried out a kind of pilot study that proved to me the possibility of an evidence-based medicine of the soul so that would make healthcare truly holistic. Drawing on my forty years of practice as a psychiatrist and twenty five years of decoding my own spiritual experiences, I collected the spiritual experiences on which several hundred people's beliefs were based. What seemed like random acts of help and guidance now seemed more like the results of a system of feedback -- spiritual reactions to our thoughts feelings and actions -- that were different from the kind of influences my common sense and experience as a psychiatrist had taught me to expect. I called this feedback spiritual messages because it also affects our thinking in ways that convey a deeper level of information that only now are we in a position to decode by using the modern scientific methods of psychology to define basic laws of human nature that govern our highly personal and unique interactions with material reality.

I realized from my pilot study that although each of our experiences is very limited our collective knowledge of the spiritual dimension is actually quite vast. No matter what question a person might have there were thousands of people around the world who had already faced and resolved that same issue -- albeit in the highly personal terms of his or her own life circumstances. Similarly if someone had learned something in his or her life, then there were thousands of others who could benefit from it. If we could use the internet to formulate our collective wisdom in resource centers that would be freely accessible to all, then progress could be made far faster than was possible in the past. Such resource centers could function as advocacy groups do in medicine today, pulling together our experiences and our concerns in one or another facet's of our spiritual health so that it could be used to prod the religious and spiritual institutions that we are involved with to be more attentive to our collective evidence.

If words like data or evidence seem a bit scary to you, let me give an example of the kind of common sense thinking that will begin a revolution that we can all be a part of and benefit from. When our body feels weak and we can't get ourselves to do what we want to do, we might wonder if the cause is that we are hungry, malnourished, overweight, out of shape, tired, sick, weak, depressed, or preoccupied. We draw on all we know from past experience to come up with the right diagnosis and treatment. So when we are feeling weak spiritually and can't keep our attention on what we know is important or find ourselves doing things that we wish we hadn't, we can start to wonder why. Is our soul in some way hungry, malnourished, overweight, out of shape, tired, sick, weak, depressed, or preoccupied? We can think about which remedies work well with which diagnosis. Each time we act on a given plan and observe the results, whether they be what we anticipated or not we gain a more concrete understanding of our own soul.

When we integrate our experiments with those of thousands of others who diagnose, treat and observe the outcome of their own lapses in a similar way by analogy to common everyday experiences, our own treatments will become better -- and our overall appreciation of the value of evidence increase. We learn in this way to make adjustments for the nature of our own soul, doing the equivalent of comparing the diet and how many calories per day others found were necessary to maintain their weight to orient us to what might be a good diet for us but adapting it to the actual needs and preferences of our own body.

Bits of evidence become meaningful and useful as we understand how it informs us about an aspect of a far larger coherent system. That's why I think of spirituality as the medicine of the soul, for just as we organize the experiences of our body as parts of a larger physical ecosystem so we do better organizing our experiences of our soul by thinking of it as being a part of a larger spiritual ecosystem. It's far more useful than thinking of it this way than as a nebulous blob of infini-potential energy living in a dimension beyond understanding. As we gather more and more evidence of the effects of our soul and the spiritual dimension in general on us, I am confident that it will bear out initial data suggesting that the material and spiritual dimensions of life are two aspects of a larger system that are well integrated and in constant interaction. Then our understanding of how things work in the material dimension will provide the basis of systematic analogies that help us make even better sense of spiritual experiences.

This kind of evidence-based approach to spirituality will have, I maintain, a ripple effect that will positively influence both the healthcare debate and debates with my wife over who does what at home. The more our spiritual approach is based on evidence the stronger our investment in spiritual values will become. It will thus help us to be more honest and help others. It will decrease our tolerance for greed and self-centeredness. This will make us even less susceptible to the kind of self-serving emotional logic that politicians, those close to us and even ourselves use to say blatantly false things with complete conviction that we have a right to do so.

Peeling the more irrational elements from our way of thinking has very positive effects on our emotional life as well--both psychologically and spiritually. You can see it clearly in our close relationships where a good understanding of the other's position and good communication skills are now more necessary than ever before. And just as keeping our body healthy makes us able to love someone better, so keeping our soul healthy helps our spiritual love life as well. By being attentive to evidence, one can enter the twenty-first century with the faith and love of a scientist who is so confident in his spiritual beliefs that he is determined to prove their validity rather than the faith and love of a pilgrim who follows his spiritual path without trying to understand.

Let's bring spirituality into the twenty-first century and change the way we think about everything that is important to us. Let's move the debate to a whole new level. It won't be heaven on earth, but it will be a start.

However, since everyone else seems intent on getting what they want packaged into healthcare reform and the change I am thinking of is long term, I'm going to withhold my vote for the reform package until several billions of dollars of funding for research in the medicine of the soul is included.