Wednesday, October 1, 2008

One Doctor's View of Health

There was a revealing essay in the New York Times the other day. It's by an M.D., and the subject is the definition of health. The author shows that, despite modern integrative medicine bringing Western and Eastern models of health closer together, there is still a wide gap in how we view the body.
Women who get a diagnosis of breast cancer, for example, are usually quite healthy. It is the appendage that is sick. After they lose the appendage, they must take treatment that makes them very sick, so they can stay healthy. But, of course, some never quite make it back to that shore, for the terror of recurrent illness can itself negate health.

Rub your eyes and read it again: women who get a diagnosis of breast cancer are usually quite healthy. It's the "appendage" that is sick, so it follows that all you have to do is lop off the offending appendage and the problem is solved. This quote illustrates what Efrem Korngold and Harriet Beinfield call the "mechanistic" view of the body.
The findings of the early anatomists validated the mechanistic view that the body is made out of distinct and separate parts, connected and yet autonomous... for the mechanic, it is best if the parts of the machine are standardized and uniform. That way the parts are interchangeable, easily replaced, and the ways in which they break down become predictable from one body to the next. Standardized diseases develop from established causes, and protocols of treatment are fixed. Uniform parts sit on the shelf. This view focuses entirely on the ways in which all people are alike and tends to overlook the ways in which people are unique and dissimilar. When a group of people receives the same diagnosis, they receive the same treatment. Science and industry have enabled medicine to be practiced on a mass basis. The same mechanistic philosophy that inspired mass production in industry also inspired mass medicine and health care. --Between Heaven and Earth

By comparison, the Chinese medicine doctor views the body as a garden, an innate part of nature. This view both simplifies and complicates treatment.

On the simple side, if your garden isn't doing well, what is the first thing you think of, even if you've never done any gardening? Water and sun. Is the plant getting enough water and sun? Is it getting too much? Each plant is different - some like the shade and some like blazing heat. Almost all of your plant problems can be traced back to water and sun. It's the same with people: nearly all of our problems can be found in our immediate environment, in what we take in on a daily basis, whether that be food, air, water or emotions.

Then again, nature is an incredibly complex subject, and if knowledge of the body requires knowledge of nature, we are all far behind. For all of humanity's great achievements and machines, there is little we can do when faced with the tremendous power of nature. We still can't predict earthquakes or hurricanes.

Gardening is one of those "a little bit every day" kind of disciplines. If you take the time to weed a little every day, water a little every day, talk to your plants and tell them that you love them, your garden will be fine. You can't wait until the blackberry bush has taken over the entire fence before you start trimming - at that point the fence itself may have toppled over. You can't save up all your watering and do it all at the end of the month - some plants will have died already, and watering dead plants only gets you mud. So tend the garden of your body with a little bit of exercise every day, fresh food (maybe some vegetables from your actual garden, eh?) and clean water. Tend the garden of your mind with meditation to quiet the mental garbage you accumulate. And tend the garden of your soul with good friends, good music, and whatever spiritual or religious tradition you connect with. Don't wait until your fence needs to be torn out and rebuilt.

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