From East to West: Toward Holistic Well-Being

In the not-so-distant past, if you became sick there was a high likelihood that your moral character would be called into question. Physical illness, in all its mystery, was often attributed to some sort of supernatural punishment for sins. And since, in the course of normal human life, it is quite common for people to become ill; various political, religious, and social institutions have at various times found it convenient to use this phenomenon as evidence of the truth of their moral philosophy. Did one of your family members contract an incurable virus while others were spared? Clearly there was some reason. Perhaps it was because they did not attend a religious service that everyone else did? Perhaps they attracted evil spirits that made them sick by not adhering to social customs? Or, in recent decades, perhaps they contracted AIDS as some kind of punishment for being gay? This moralization of illness, from the superstitious to the supercilious, adds insult to injury in a literal sense.

It is comforting to believe that in the modern world we have matured beyond the point of assigning moral judgment to the appearance of physical illness. As much as this is true it is largely thanks to the advancement of a scientific understanding about the nature of the body and illness. Health care has become, for better or worse, a more scientific field. The benefits are plain to see. The drawbacks are, naturally, slightly less obvious, but can be seen most clearly in the field of mental health.

Until very recently it was standard practice to lock the mentally ill in prison-like cells, treat them with violent procedures and programs, and generally make them social outcasts. To this day the mentally ill are often treated with neglect, suspicion, and resentment. But mental illness is not a rare occurrence. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, roughly 19 percent of the American population suffers from some type of mental illness each year. About 4 percent suffers from debilitating mental illnesses, like schizophrenia. So why is there so much stigma around mental illness?

Dr. David B. Feldman, writing in Psychology Today, states that mental illness is diagnosed very differently from physical illness. Mental illnesses are primarily diagnosed according to the symptoms they present, whereas physical illnesses are diagnosed according to (testable) biological causes. In short, mental illness is harder to diagnose, and the diagnoses when they are made are less descriptive of actual illness and more of a collection of symptoms. This has led to heated debate over whether mental illnesses should be considered “real” at all. Of course, the symptoms are real, but are they the result of something like a disease where pathogens invade the body? Or is mental illness more like a bad habit? If we cannot verifiably discover biological causes for mental illnesses, then how do we treat them? Are cognitive and behavioral therapies our only options? And even if we do discover biological underpinning of mental illness, where does the patient — the person, him or herself — fit into the healing process?

The biggest difference between mental and physical illness is, obviously, that we cannot test and treat the mind in the same way we do the body. The body is tangible, observable, and relatively predictable. The mind is, essentially, very different. It is intangible, unobservable, and infinitely complex. But the modern perspective on the mind, often described as “dualistic,” in that there is a profound split between the physical and mental realities, is not universally held. The dualistic view is historically a Western perspective, not based on objective evidence as much as cultural tradition. “I think therefore I am,” as Descartes famously wrote, sums up the notion that the self exists with the mind, in a mysterious and intangible realm. And this perspective informs much of our approach to dealing with mental illness.

In the East, however, the mind-body relationship has traditionally been thought of very differently. Mind and body are intimately linked by a system of energy — long studied and practiced — that has predictable and verifiable effects on both mental and physical health. In the same way that Western science has provided profound understanding of the physical body, Eastern practices provide profound insights into the nature of the mind in relation to the body. By combining the best of both fields of study we may be able to greatly improve our care for the mentally ill. But doing so will involve rethinking the nature of the mind itself.

One of the great insights of Eastern energy practices is that the mind is not “me,” but rather it is a thing that I have — much in the same way that I have a body. Therefore it can be said that — the mind is not me, it is mine. To a Westerner, this cryptic statement is often confusing: “How could I not be my mind? I feel like I am my mind … ” But through energy practices that build awareness we begin to see that there is a “me,” which is separate from the thoughts and emotions, and which can observe these mental phenomena.

It is this insight into the nature of the mind — I am not my mind, but it is mine — that has the potential to revolutionize mental health care in the Western world. The mind-body energy system explains mental disturbances as being caused by energetic blockages or imbalances. The treatments for these blockages can be anything from massage, acupuncture, and herbs, to exercise, breathing, and meditation, and much more. Eastern practices of energy healing and exercise provide useful avenues towards the compassionate treatment of mental illness, and they mesh surprisingly well with modern Western medical techniques.

The next step in our evolution as compassionate, responsible, and enlightened beings is to realize that the mind is much more closely connected to the body than we previously thought. In dealing with mental illness, “disidentification” with the mind provides the space we need to better understand and support healing. Strangely, our dualistic perspective, in which the mind is separate and intangible, has created a great attachment to mental processes.

And this attachment means that, while intellectually we promote the idea of equality, in practice we are not all seen as equal due to age, illness, and education. Mental illness naturally elicits a sense of contempt — if I am my mind, and you are your mind — then your illness of the mind naturally makes you somehow less of a person. But there is hope. In the same way that we know that our value as human beings is not based upon the health of our physical bodies, so too it is not based on the condition of our minds. By taking a step back from analysis and emotion, understanding that energetically — the mind is not me, but mine — we become capable of seeing deeper into who we really are and how that self relates to the mind.

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