The respiritualization of medicine could go even further: Commentary on Barbara Prainsack

- Frank J. Leavitt, Ph.D.

Chairman, The Centre for International Bioethics
Faculty of Health Sciences
Ben Gurion University of the Negev, Beer Sheva, Israel

Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 12 (2002), 132.
I highly agree with Barbara's approach. Western, conventional physicians, will of course object that in spite of its spirituality, alternative medicine is backed by much less evidence than is conventional medicine. But such an objection is becoming out of date as more and more clinical trials are being carried out on alternative therapies (as can be found through any standard medical search engine.) Some therapies will be rejected, others will be refined and improved. I expect that we shall gradually acquire a highly evidence based corpus of alternative therapies, which will not ignore the spiritual.

But there is a point about Asian, alternative or complementary medicine, perhaps especially their spiritual aspects, which I would like to try to bring it out in a somewhat different way from Barbara's. . There is an aspect in which I think that almost all forms of medicine, conventional and alternative, are identical. This is in the idea that the patient (the word's similarity to passive is not accidental) hands one's soul and body over to the care of the doctor, relieving oneself of responsibility and control over one's life. I actually started thinking about this when I went to a highly respected acupuncturist for a skin rash, which nobody else seemed to know how to cure. I asked her if perhaps the cause was in my diet, or lifestyle. She said: "Absolutely not", and then proceeded to examine me according to Chinese methods. Then, when she was busy sticking needles into me, I asked her if there were any books which she could recommend, about Chinese medicine. She answered: "I can tell you, but you'd be wasting your time. You wouldn't understand the books anyway."

I ignored her arrogance, complied with her instructions, took the medicine she prescribed me, and returned for the prescribed number of acupuncture sessions. The treatment was nearly useless, as the symptoms persisted, although perhaps slightly reduced. I am in the habit of trying to pay close attention to how I live, drink and eat. During this period, I made a visit to Japan, and noticed that the symptoms disappeared when I was in Japan, but returned upon my return to Israel. In those days I used to like to drink an extremely dry Israeli red wine. I reflected on the fact that in Japan I drank only sake and beer. I decided to try switching to a sweeter wine. The skin rash disappeared almost immediately. It has never returned.

This is one of many, many examples where I have personally ignored doctor's advice, and taken care of my health according to my own understanding of my body from the inside. To recite all the examples would mean writing a treatise rather than a brief editorial commentary. Of course one must use judgment and recognize that often the doctors know more than we do. When a terrorist broke half my head several years ago, the maxillo-facial surgeons knew how to put me back together. I could not have done it myself. But in many, many cases, careful judgment based upon one's awareness of one's own body, lifestyle, thoughts and diet, can work better than either conventional or alternative medicine. This would be the real autonomy In bioethics, we tend to talk too much about autonomy in the pathological situation: it is pretty much limited to the patient's right to decide when the doctors should let one die. But there is also autonomy for health.

Asian and alternative medicine may indeed be respiritualizing medicine. But they can go further. Asian spirituality, perhaps especially yoga and Japanese martial arts, are teaching the world about uniting soul and body, about "being here now", about being calmly aware of our bodies and our environments. I do not believe in regretting anything. But if I were to regret anything, I would regret all the years I used to walk around with my head in philosophical riddles, while I ignored the beauty around me. More than one girlfriend told me, in those days, that I was capable of analyzing a flower in such detail, that I would never notice that it was beautiful. Nowadays, however, I tend to think that really being aware of the experience of watching a single drop of rainwater fall from a twig can be more profound than the most subtle philosophical speculation. I also ignored, in my western philosophical days, what my body was doing and what I was doing to it. And when illness intruded itself upon my mind, I would go to a doctor and take whatever pills were prescribed, hardly caring about what was inside the pills or what they did to me. Eastern spirituality, especially martial art, has taught me a new awareness, a new vitality. Nowadays, I feel sorry for people who pay no attention to how they eat or live, and then go running to the gastro clinic to get them out of trouble.

This aspect of eastern spirituality, being here and now, being aware of one's body and environment, should be having more of an impulse on health. Rather than just giving us another pill -- which might be more organic or more diluted than the western, allopathic pill -- Asian healing should be doing more to help us become aware of ourselves and to look, autonomously, after our own health. Doctors should be teaching us how not to need doctors. I do not think that I differ very much from Barbara, but I did want to suggest an aspect of the respiritualization of medicine (a term which I think is original to Barbara), which might deserve attention in the future.

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