e-mail us
Wellness boosters seek mind-body unity

NCR Staff
Hilton Head Island, S.C.

In the darkness the steady, shallow waves that lap the sand reflected no moon, just starlight. Barely enough light to detect the shadowy grouping close to the water’s edge, five -- maybe six -- figures seated in a close circle on the sand under their robes and blankets, as still as clay sculptures.

Spiritual meditation. And, possibly, therapy.

Ten hours away by car, on a cancer floor at the NIH (National Institutes of Health) in Bethesda in urban Maryland, four patients relax in “musical chairs,” high-tech vibro-acoustic chairs that provide soothing sounds accompanied by a massaging vibration.

Therapy. And, possibly, spiritual meditation.

Increasingly the rigid lines that once confined spiritual disciplines and medical therapy are blurring. Those attending the ninth annual National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine Conference at the Hilton Head resort would be further erasing those lines and highlighting the points at which spiritual disciplines and health care intersect.

The connection between spiritual health and physical and emotional health -- wellness -- is currently grabbing national attention, raising hopes, some probably illusory.

“Could spirituality be health care’s savior?” The Washington Times recently asked, and then added, “Belief’s healing power cuts costs, too.” The Washington Post’s Health section, slightly more circumspect, though with health costs in mind, wondered, “Can the power of prayer be measured?”

Both stories were sparked by a recent survey of 300 HMO executives presented at a December Harvard Medical School conference on “Spirituality and Healing.” Ninety-four percent said medical treatment of sick people was improved when people believed in personal prayer, meditation and other spiritual practices.

At Hilton Head, gleeful line dancing was going on inside the luxury hotel, a dark, looming megalith behind palms illuminated by lighted hot tubs.

The conference spanned the distance between such sentiments as “time is money” and “everything in its time” and the parallel -- the distance between sickness and wellness.

One of the presenters, a tall, thin, angular monk in Trappist habit took the microphone in Ballroom J and attempted to insert Christian contemplative heritage into the late 20th century equation.

In a world obsessed with time and doing, Cistercian Fr. Thomas Keating has a simple, single goal. He wants to stop the clock. Have people do nothing. With God in mind. Keating had focused his talk on the healing potential of contemplative prayer.

Yale graduate Keating belonged to the OCSO -- Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance -- in among the MDs, PhDs, gurus and Zen and Tai Chi masters. “The human family as a whole and individually is very sick,” he would say later, during an interview.

‘Divine therapy’

The Trappist knows the dispiriting effects of personal illness. For six years, he said, he has been battling chronic fatigue syndrome, an immunological disorder. Keating was at the conference in part because “all the healing arts are starting points on the spiritual journey -- if the practitioners choose to use them as such. Healing touches on human energies from the unconscious. Jesus said, ‘I am the physician’ -- but because divine therapy is free we don’t value it as much as we should,” he said.

“Divine Therapy: the Method, Practice and Understanding of Centering Prayer” was the title of a Keating post-conference workshop that introduced centering prayer to several hundred attendees.

Most people now know that most of the therapies making headlines today -- from acupuncture to Tai Chi -- are not recent and are mainline practice in their cultural homes.

But will anything happen in the foreseeable future to bring these “new” therapies into more general practice and prescription?

NCR put that question to another Hilton Head speaker, Bernie Siegel, a physician and author of Love, Medicine and Miracles; Peace, Love and Healing; and How to Live Between Office Visits.

Twenty years ago Siegel retired as a practicing surgeon in order to promote the connection between spiritual health and physical health in the face of a hostile medical community. He predicts it may take another generation before the “alternative” therapies become part of the American medical mainstream.

Today, he said, medical education is still struggling with these concepts. “Despite article after article,” said Siegel, “doctors still won’t prescribe (other therapies) because they haven’t had the training to do so.

“Plus,” he continued, “health plans have to wake up to the fact that wellness is cost-effective. Government regulations, the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) limit us. We need to have more flexibility. That’s beginning to happen.” Two decades ago Siegel wanted music piped into operating rooms even though the patient was under anesthesia. The idea was disparaged. Not anymore.

At that time, too, Siegel established Exceptional Cancer Patients, an individual and group therapy program using patients’ drawings, dreams, images and feelings. “Carefrontation,” he calls it, “a safe, loving, therapeutic confrontation that facilitates personal lifestyle changes, personal empowerment and healing.”

But no one would fund studies of these ideas. Back then, said Siegel, the National Institutes of Health and the Cancer Society told him, “You’re crazy. This is not something we would be interested in or give money to.”

“The only people who wanted to listen to me were the patients,” he said. “They were saying, ‘We need your help, and it’s important coming from a doctor.’ I retired from surgery because I felt I could help most by reaching more health professionals.” Now a significant number of health professionals were among the more than 1,000 attendees at this conference.

Making the connection

One mainstay attendee is George Patrick, National Institutes of Health chief of recreational therapy. The National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine is nine years old -- Patrick’s first conference was seven years ago.

He chronicles the changes in the group and in public and professional perspectives on the connection between spirituality and healing.

“First, the understanding of the mind-body relationship is becoming more scientific. There is a growing database,” said Patrick, “and the information presented here now is much more empirical and scientific, whereas it was conceptual, anecdotal and philosophical” in the past.

Patrick pointed to the conference’s two enormous workbooks. “Some presentations have no data whatsoever; others are based on facts and studies -- and the percentage of those gets higher each year.”

Society’s perceptions are changing, too. “If it happens on TV it’s real in our society,” said Patrick. “The Bill Moyers PBS series, the letters, the follow-ups -- that helped. Material comes out in the New England Journal of Medicine -- about cancer survivors living five times longer than expected because of group support, meditation instruction and the like. That’s on TV the next day, and three months later you’ll see follow-up stories.”

The medical profession’s changes can be tracked through Patrick’s own efforts. In his National Institutes of Health office, with photographs showing him in his motorcycling heyday, he explained that when he arrived at NIH 10 years ago “people didn’t mind you working with patients, explaining about complementary medicine (Patrick’s phrase for alternative therapies), but they didn’t want it up on bulletin boards.”

Now the bulletin boards near the chapel advise that Dr. Ge offers Tai Chi to patients and their visitors, that education and treatment groups include “the art of relaxation,” “healthy cooking,” “personal fitness,” “look good, feel better,” and “animal-assisted therapy.”

The board declares that “the Rehabilitation Medical Department mission is to improve the quality of life for clinical center patients and participate in research.”

Patrick explains it this way.

“Patient comfort is not just pillows.” Of patients, the Ph.D. therapist said, “some keep busy, some escape -- watching videos, some like to talk, socialize; some seek information (they can go online into the world’s leading medical libraries for information on their illness and treatment). And close to 70 percent of our patients are using alternative medicine in some form before they come here. That’s big numbers.”

While NIH is regarded by some as a last hope -- this is a research center for experimental medicines, drugs and procedures -- Patrick counters that “these patients are volunteering themselves in the best sense, volunteering their body, their time -- sometimes up against a relatively finite lifeline -- to help us learn more about the disease. Yes they may benefit, but again they may not be the person to benefit. It might be someone two years from now. These kinds of people are very aggressive in finding out what’s available.” Even the government is catching on. Congress created and financed NIH’s Office of Alternative Medicine, which is already holding medical seminars on acupuncture and non-pharmacological pain relief.

Patrick favors the new relaxation chairs -- he tries to get a few minutes in them himself at midday. He approaches them scientifically. “We know they’re effective, but we don’t know how much is due to the music, how much to the vibration and how much to the placebo effect.” Studies are underway. And don’t knock the placebo effect. Studies suggest the placebo effect is between 30 and 50 percent effective, which raises again the fact that the mind and the inner spirit, that hope and conviction have curative powers.

Intimacy with God

Another point, too, is that when the medical shares the podium with the spiritual -- as at Hilton Head -- it is not just the healing arts that are redefining themselves. The spiritual, too, has been metamorphosing, which is what Keating’s work, contemplative prayer, is all about.

“Intimacy with God is what’s missing in everybody’s (religious) education. In returning that dimension of life to people as a conscious experience,” said Trappist Keating, “health in the deepest sense of the word becomes possible.” Keating expands that beyond the purely medical to the extremely personal: “You can take an antibiotic” to get over an illness, he said, “but you’ll never be happy unless you change the roots of the tendency to find substitutes for God.”

Almost two decades ago, Keating and fellow Trappists Fr. William Meninger and Fr. Basil Pennington began reaching back into Christianity’s and their own contemplative and monastic traditions in an attempt to restore the spiritual dimension in everyday life. They reached back, too, into the works and world of the mystics and saints -- St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, St. Francis de Sales -- and they were also influenced by meetings with Eastern spiritual teachers establishing themselves in the United States in the 1970s.

The phrase that emerged to describe their immediate goal was “centering prayer,” but that easy description belies what in fact is taking place -- the transformation of the ancient contemplative monastic heritage into something readily accessible to all on a daily basis (see accompanying story).

Keating explains its promise and utility. “Without the interior source of union with God that comes through the development of contemplative prayer,” he said, “we won’t be able to maintain our strength of commitment in the face of the enormous difficulties of ministering to one another today.”

The point of the centering prayer, for Keating, is not just to show us how to pray, but how to live.

The medical world is beginning to listen -- at least 19 of the nation’s 126 medical schools now teach future doctors about the role of religion in health care. That reflects, said Dr. David Larson, National Institute for Health Research president, “a significant movement within academic medicine to train future physicians in the treatment of the whole person -- body, mind and spirit.”

Not everyone can spend hours at the water’s edge. But as NIH’s relaxation chairs, Keating’s retreats, individual prayer moments and ancient therapy routines suggest, help and health is at hand. And much of it is spiritual.