Cover story -- Spiritual Health
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Issue Date:  May 6, 2005

-- KRT/Alan Berner

A yoga class in Seattle
Searchers follow ancient traditions


In the past year 36 percent of all Americans age 18 and over used some form of complementary and alternative medicine to deal with illness.

These therapies range from acupuncture to herbs, from stress relieving meditation to botanical products, and have in common that they are not presently considered part of conventional medicine.

The recent survey of 31,000 Americans conducted by the Center for Disease Control and the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (National Institutes of Health) stated that when prayer said for health reasons was added to the realm of complementary and alternative medicine, then the number rises to 62 percent of all Americans adding alternative methods to mainstream medicine.

The entire complementary and alternative interface with conventional medicine is still somewhat inchoate as modern medicine looks to the spiritual side and religious traditions turn to their earliest healers. To provide a sense of the perspectives of researchers and searchers alike, NCR offers the following snapshots of some spiritual and intellectual and wellness-oriented descendants of the Greek healers, fathers of modern medicine, Eastern mysticism and the Christian monastic tradition.

Sleep disorders authority Sat Bir S. Khalsa was raised in an American Catholic family. In the 1970s he became interested in altered states of consciousness, particularly higher states of consciousness. Through yoga he became a Sikh, studied physiology, neuroscience, biological rhythms and sleep. Today he teaches at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and at Harvard Medical School. Khalsa is a complementary and alternative medicine explorer who acknowledges, “We’re just starting to enter the arena. We are at the rim of the crater, just peeking into it.”

To Khalsa, yoga is a therapeutic intervention. Yoga techniques -- meditation, regulating breathing, physical exercises, postures and stretches -- “induce a coordinated psychophysiological response that is the antithesis of the ‘stress response.’ ” There has been research into yoga’s benefits since the 1920s, but only in recent decades has the type of analysis Khalsa undertakes sought to bring scientific rigor to general understanding.

On the practical level, Khalsa’s work on the treatment of chronic insomnia with yoga has posted “significant improvements, and in general, most participants found the yoga intervention easy to learn and tolerable to perform.”

The man who brought modern Western medicine to “the rim of the crater” is Harvard’s Dr. Herbert Benson, founder of the Mind Body Medical Institute at Harvard and a Harvard Medical School professor. His pioneering research into transcendental meditation that produced his book, The Relaxation Response, focused a generation of clinical researchers toward concentration on the harmful effects of stress.

“I’ve followed Dr. Benson from his first explorations into transcendental meditation,” said Dominican Fr. Richard Woods, a theologian who teaches a course in Christian spirituality at Chicago’s Dominican University. The course “draws on most ancient traditions, using mind/body paradigms.”

“What I find generally,” said Woods, “whether it’s Meister Eckhart [1260-1328], or any of the great spiritual writers, is they were balanced and had a healthy respect for the body. And that to me is crucial for understanding spirituality. There is a golden thread in Christian spirituality,” he said, “that can be traced back to the author of 1 Timothy who says, ‘Take some wine for your stomach.’

“My own rule is that all spirituality begins with the body. So health is not something that can be identified with either physical health or mental health or spiritual health -- health is a property of the person.”

Woods said the great healers look first to ensure that people are not abusing their body. The Cloud of Unknowing, by an anonymous 14th-century English mystic, “is remarkably balanced in this regard. He advised his followers to avoid severe fasts and forms of asceticism that were unhealthy: Treat the body with reverence and respect,” said Woods. “Healthy spirituality is perfectly consonant with the finest insights of the health/medical community today.”

Hildegard of Bingen reached “the rim of the crater” quite early. According to the introduction to Bingen’s Holistic Healing published by Liturgical Press in 1994, between 1151 and 1158 Hildegard wrote two works that linked the study of nature and the art of healing: Physica and Causae et cureae (Holistic Health). Though she was plagued by illness for much of her life, Hildegard was as active in caring for the sick and weak as she was in her various studies and writings on theological, ecclesiastical and political issues. Her writings on healing, though not scientific in the modern sense, dealt with nature, plants, animals and medicines. Hers was the popular medicine based on medicinal herbs. Yet her scope was unlimited. To Hildegard, nature’s cures, the herbal medicaments she lists for the dozens of ailments, herbs that remain the basis for much modern medicine, “were prescribed by God.”

There’s an obvious spiritual connection between Hildegard and people like Vonda Limpy, a grandmother who lives in the Cheyenne country of Montana. Limpy told NCR, “Health is all connected. It is respect. If your mind is healthy your body is healthy. You respect it. … You have to take care of your spirit, that’s the main thing. If you take care of your spirit, that means your mind is on positive things, and on your prayer. If our mind is well, our body is well if we take care of it. That means no alcohol, drugs and stuff like that. Then we have a more healthy body. Everything is interrelated. It’s all connected to living in the best way you can.”

On the Cheyenne Reservation in Montana, Franciscan Sr. Marya Grathwohl operates the Prayer Lodge, a center for Native American women sponsored by her Franciscan community, which is based in Indiana. As a child in Cincinnati, the nun’s dad prepared his garden organically, her mother warned against the evils of factory pollution, and young Marya grew up accepting that there is not just earth health and human health, but that “it’s all one living community.”

For the past 18 years these concepts have been reinforced for Grathwohl by her neighbors around Lone Deer, Mont., some 5,000-plus Northern Cheyenne and 10,000 Crow Indians. They come to the Prayer Lodge, “a place where people can integrate their Christianity with their traditional spirituality,” she said. “We have a sweat lodge, and a greenhouse. And small business loans. We’re working to establish organic gardening and collaborate with an organic coop. We have prayer days, retreat times. Sometimes people just come to talk and pray.”

Cofounder of the Friends of God urban ashram in Kenosha, Wis., Dominican Fr. Donald Goergen comments: “The energy of the spirit flows in and out and throughout who we are.” Then he wryly added, “Looking at the health problems of us in the ashram, because we’ve all had them, that’s easier said than documented.”

Goergen said, “It’s difficult to say how the life of the spirit permeates the body.” Indian mystic and philosopher Sri Aurobindo (1872-1950) “had this sense in his integral yoga, of the integration of the physical, the mental, the emotional, the psyche and the spiritual. People use words differently for some of those levels. My sense of this is that if in our innermost spirit we are grounded in the life divine, or in the life of the Holy Spirit, that flows through or affects the psyche, the heart, the mind -- and all of that can have certain repercussions in the body.”

For Fr. Edward Hayes, who founded a rural ashram, Shantivanum, in Kansas, the Christian roots are obvious. In the early centuries “the desert was a cure. That’s why Jesus went into the desert,” he said. Hayes’ latest work, The Lenten Pharmacy, due for publication next year, takes “pharmacy,” from the Greek for “purging,” as its starting point. That’s because, said Hayes, “Lent is one time when we purge ourselves of those things that are making us sick. Quite simply with body and soul, what happens to one affects the other.”

Among the searchers, too, is Daniel Longo. In 2002, the Benedictine Oblate, who has a doctorate in health policy research, presented a paper on “The relationship of spirituality and health in the modern age: spiritual food in the desert of modern life” to the 50th anniversary symposium of the Instituto Monasticio, Pontifical Athenaenum of St. Anselm in Rome.

For Longo the paper was a kind of way station in his own journey. “I examined the Rule [of Benedict] in terms of healthy lifestyle. It’s balance. The essence is that work and prayer is a balanced lifestyle,” he said. Longo pointed to the numerous health-related references in the Rule “that are positive directions from Benedict as to how the monks were to live in order to live a productive life.”

Because he “needed to delve into that Rule more deeply,” Longo produced his symposium paper. And the result of his research? “I believed it’s saved my soul, to be honest. Probably it saved my health as well.”

When Donald Moss, then president of the Association for Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback, prepared his 2002 address to the organization, he was aware that what was happening with the mind/body medicine movement “is we’re bringing together some of the old spiritual disciplines in new forms.”

Moss, a clinical psychologist and psychophysiologist at Saybrook Graduate School in San Francisco, explained, “I am a Christian but I also spent a year studying Buddhism at a temple. And I’ve found that while concepts of theology may divide people, our spiritual traditions take us closer again. That when we go inside and find quiet, I have more in common with the Buddhist who is contemplating than with the Christian who is not.”

Overcome the divisions of theology by focusing on spirituality and the possibility of healing suddenly exists on a different plane between global religions.

Those are fresh insights into the oneness of religion and belief, insights possibly beyond anything envisioned currently by ecumenists or those at the forefront of interfaith dialogue. So much so that perhaps mind/body medicine will one day add an appendage and become mind/body/belief.

Researcher delves into ‘the quiet space’

In the 1960s, Dr. Herbert Benson hadn’t long graduated from Harvard Medical School when he became intrigued by “the white coat syndrome,” the fact one’s blood pressure usually goes up during a doctor’s office visit. Cardiologist Benson developed a model, conditioning monkeys to develop high blood pressure, and delved into stress-induced high blood pressure issues.

“People came to me and said, ‘Why are you fooling around with monkeys? Please study us. We practice transcendental meditation.’ ” They convinced him to inaugurate a study of meditation and its physiological changes, exactly opposite to those of stress. Out of that came his first book, The Relaxation Response, and the Mind Body Medical Institute.

“I’ve discovered nothing new,” Benson recently told NCR. “All I am doing is putting numbers on what people have been practicing for millennia, going back 2,000 years in the Western Christian world; to the fourth to fifth century B.C., the time of the Second Temple in Judaism; and the seventh to eigth century B.C. in Hinduism.

“In the very room at Harvard Medical School where I was doing my transcendental meditation studies, Walter B. Cannon had discovered the ‘fight or flight’ response 60 years before. And good heavens, this is the opposite.

“So what I did was define two basic components of transcendental meditation: One was repetition -- it can be a word, a sound, a prayer, a praise or a movement. The second is, another thought comes to mind, you simply return to the repetition. Every single culture had this within it,” said Benson, “normally within a religious concept.”

Said Benson, “I’m of the Jewish faith, but I’ve had the good fortune to work with many religious leaders. When I spent an hour with Cardinal John O’Connor [the late New York archbishop], what I was saying was universal. He swore I was a Catholic, that what I was saying was part of Catholicism, whereas I find it part of every religion, this quiet space. One could argue it has nothing to do with religion, that it is evolutionarily derived. But from my point of view, it’s God-given.”

-- Arthur Jones

National Catholic Reporter, May 6, 2005

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