Whacked and Back: Restoration of Wholeness
The print edition of this article in the Summer 2012 Networker was abbreviated. Here is the complete article as written by James O. Smith.
James O. Smith is a long-time Perry Countian who leads meditation groups for prison inmates through the Triple Gem Prison Ministry, Gettysburg. He is also an Official Visitor through The Pennsylvania Prison Society, and is a lifelong learner.
On Friday July 15, 2011, Dan Cozort was bicycling on his usual route around the rural roads outside Carlisle. While riding, he was struck by a motorist and thrown through the air. He was flown by helicopter to the Hershey Medical Center where he underwent surgery to stabilize a bad spinal fracture at the T-12 level. Dan also had several abrasions on his body and a broken clavicle. Since the accident he has been paralyzed from the waist down.
After six months of intensive physical therapy and learning the skills necessary to live a wheelchair bound life, he returned to his position as Professor of Religion at Dickinson College. Along with co-instructor Bonnie Berk, Dan’s first course taught since his accident was entitled Spiritual Dimensions of Healing.
Recently I had the opportunity to audit a session and to sit with him afterwards over chai and hot chocolate. Here is a little Q&A from our time together:
JOS: In your course syllabus, it is mentioned that the holistic paradigm is the guiding principle of traditional systems of medicine for many indigenous cultures including the great civilizations of India and China, “and even the West until the 20th century.” Can you elaborate on what some of these pre 20th century Western notions were which would be regarded as holistic?
Dan: That’s a good question. I’m not such an expert on Western medicine up until the present, but we spent some time on it recently and what we talked about was the system of humors which dominated Western medicine from the time of Hippocrates and Galen up until the 19th century. And it could be argued it still does. The humors were black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood. So the theory was that all diseases and their cure could be explained in terms of the interaction of the four humors. Galen had a system of what were called the “six non-naturals” which were factors affecting the humors. This included things such as diet, exercise, rest, and emotion. I don’t remember all six, but the point is there wasn’t anything about daily life that might not be relevant to the way in which the humors were regulated in the body. So it’s holistic both in terms of looking at the whole person including diet, emotions, movement and so forth and in the sense that there is a grand theory on how things are related to each other, why they might go wrong, and how they might be rebalanced. So that is what I mean by there might be a holistic paradigm. It persisted for a very long time and even in the 19th century people would refer to diseases as being diseases of the blood.
Interestingly enough, Tibetan medicine also employs the humor theory. To them the humors are wind, bile, and phlegm, but it’s sort of a natural thing if you think about it. The body contains fluids and exudes fluids and, at the time you become sick, some things make appearances that don’t otherwise make appearances, like mucus from your nose or vomit or things that you find in your stool. So paying attention to what the fluids look like has always been an important tool of diagnosis, and maybe prevention too, because you notice that if you change your diet, your urine looks different or you don’t have as much mucus and all the rest of it. It makes a lot of sense on a lot of levels but has been superseded by modern medicine which doesn’t define things in terms of fluids.
JOS: Who was Galen?
Dan: Galen was a Greek physician who authored several medical textbooks. Hippocrates was the father of modern medicine, but Galen was the one who synthesized/organized his thoughts. With the model of the humors and six non-naturals, Galen provided this holistic framework which was extremely influential not just in the Mediterranean area, but in the East as well. The humors that are found in Tibetan medicine – they didn’t get that theory from China or India –came from the Greeks. It could have arisen spontaneously in different places, but when Tibetan medicine was being formed there was exposure to Greek ideas. This, I think, came in part because of penetration of Greek civilization into India through Alexander the Great.
JOS: In the context of healing, is “spiritual” defined in specific terms or similar to when someone asked Louis Armstrong what jazz was and he said, ”If you have to ask, you’ll never understand?”
Dan: I always say you don’t have religion unless you have a transcendental element. This means that you affirm the reality of something that cannot be empirically verified. So, in the case of spiritual healing it can mean that you have contact with a spiritual world beyond this mundane world, and it can also mean that there is an ineffable and invisible force that resides in each of us.
In an earlier iteration of the course I used the typology of Edith Turner, an anthropologist, who talked about energy healing, spirit healing, and power healing. The idea of energy healing is that some kind of energy is contained within us which if unbalanced or blocked may result in illness. The energy may also flow from one person to another, but in energy healing there is no idea about an external entity such as a god or spirit who is curing you. It’s just that you have this within yourself. So, for instance, in Chinese medicine there is this idea that we all have “chi” and that the “chi” is blocked and you need to unblock and redirect it through acupuncture and other methods. There is no concept of a spirit world or god involved, but it is spiritual because it is something that is invisible and unverifiable empirically but, nevertheless, is a reality that people experience.
Then there is the type of healing that comes from God or that comes through contact with spirits in the spirit world. Here you have Shamanism and conventional religion such as Christianity where you have faith healing and so forth. So, spiritual healing encompasses power from a divine source, spirit, and also energy and the broader definition of what most people would think of as being religious. In fact, Chinese medicine is part of Chinese religion in which the “chi” force within us is also in the entire universe. In Indian religion it’s “prana” which also pervades the entire universe. So these are deeply religious concepts too; it’s just that when you talk about healing you don’t have to talk about God or spirits.
JOS: Also from the syllabus the phrase “restoration of wholeness” can seem a bit squishy and subjective. What does it mean to you?
Dan: It means to get back to optimal functioning. One of the themes of our course is that the body heals itself. Physicians know this. Medicine is for the purpose of allowing the body to have the best chance to restore itself to the best possible state it can be in. Restoration of wholeness means to remove the obstacle to optimum functioning.
JOS: Are the practices and techniques referred to as holistic usually complementary to conventional medicine or do they in some cases stand alone as treatment?
Dan: In the sense they come from longstanding traditions, they were always meant to be freestanding but we know a lot of them can be complementary. For instance, the use of meditation to reduce stress helps not only on the course of illness, but also to prepare people for surgery or to recover from surgery and so on. Acupuncture has been shown to be effective in the relief of arthritis and could be used instead of any biomedical treatment. And you could also use acupuncture in conjunction with biomedical treatment. Biomedicine really can’t do much about arthritis but offer pain relieving, anti-inflammatory pills.
JOS: It seems to me some conditions such as hypertension, migraines, eczema, etc. may be more amenable to holistic methods than, for example, neuromuscular disease, melanoma, breaks and fractures.
Dan: It’s true. I don’t think there is any complementary therapy that has more than an indirect effect on the conditions you mentioned. In the field of psychoneuroimmunology, if the immune system is suppressed, then the complementary therapies can help restore it to a high functioning level and that might help a great deal with a person resisting the course of the disease. However, as far as eliminating the cause, there isn’t any complementary therapy the equivalent of cutting a tumor out or bombing it with radiation or chemotherapy to get rid of it. It is a matter of boosting the immune system which has sometimes been shown to have a dramatic effect.
The book we’re reading starts off with the well-documented case of Mr. Wright, back in the 1950’s, who was told about a miracle drug, krebiozen, that would eliminate the tumors he had in his body. Once he took the drug, the tumors disappeared. This was great until he saw an AMA report that krebiozen had not been effective and his tumors returned. His doctor, in desperation, told him they had come up with a new form of krebiozen which was twice as powerful and would work. He gave him an injection of saline solution and Mr. Wright’s tumors disappeared again until he read another negative report about krebiozen. This time, his tumors returned and he died.
Anyway, with complementary and alternative therapies, even only eliciting the placebo response is nothing to sneeze at. It can be very powerful and in that way may directly get rid of tumors and make all sorts of other changes.
JOS: What do you think made this course appealing to the students who chose to enroll?
Dan: We gave priority to the biology and neuroscience majors so a lot of these kids are people who want to go into the health professions and are intrigued by the idea of this other paradigm. Some of them are really receptive to it; some are deeply skeptical. In any case, they were drawn to the class because it presented a different way of thinking about healing. All they have had so far is pure science and it hasn’t talked about the history of medicine. And, of course, the history of medicine is religious for the most part until very recent times. So they don’t really know anything about the history of medicine without taking a course like this.
JOS: Can you give a few examples of topics students have chosen for their research projects?
Dan: It runs the gamut. I have a student who wants to write a paper on voodoo; several want to do art or music therapy as well as acupuncture, Siberian Shamanism and more.
JOS: I know that prior to your accident you were already planning this course. Has your personal experience influenced the material you selected or how you have presented it?
Dan: It’s affected how I’ve presented it. On the very first day, I told the students that we all get whacked, and that’s a fact, and that the things I learned in this course helped me deal with my pain and heal from it. I enumerated a few of the things they would learn in the course that I thought would help them later on in their lives. Among the things I mentioned was the healing power of community and the absolute importance of maintaining a positive attitude.
I also mentioned something specific that we are going to learn in the next section of the course when we are talking about meditation, the technique whereby you distance yourself from your pain by understanding that pain is sensation. It’s really the mind that turns it into suffering. As the Buddha said, pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional. I have learned through my own experience how I could prevent myself from, number one, labeling the sensation I was feeling as pain and secondly, keep myself from becoming anxious about pain and thereby intensifying it. I learned that from the material in this course.
JOS: In mindfulness practice there can be the sensation and there can be the big mind observing/noting the sensation. Is this what you practiced?
Dan: Exactly! I try to do that instead of taking it personally. There is this sensation - it doesn’t necessarily have to be called pain - and if you just look at it without getting anxious about it, oftentimes it will fade away, but if you get anxious about it, it will intensify.
A long time ago, I read about Jon Kabat-Zinn’s work which is much discussed in Diana Winston’s Fully Present. That is the last book we are going to do in the course and that’s a really good take away.