Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
Well-being : March 12, 2000
Being well, becoming better
The author is a consultant in child development and education and lives in Chennai.
Well-being is listening to Gregorian chants on a December morning, while the dappled sunlight falls gently on one's writing desk. Seeing the kingfisher perch boldly on the tree stump outside the kitchen window, then flash its brilliant blue plumage as it flies away - that is well-being. Well-being is a cold shower on a hot day, recalling for one, the Tungabhadra of one's childhood. It is not the stimulus, per se, auditory, visual or tactile, but the relishing of the sensory input that makes for a marvellous sense of feeling good, feeling well.
Well-being has a self-propagating quality to it: feeling good predisposes one to respond to beauty, warmth of feeling or cerebral challenge in a positive way. This enhances the original mindset. A sense of well-being makes for more of the same, just as its absence tends to result in feeling low. One is tempted to use the metaphor of an upward spiral for the rising movement (and a downward spiral for the converse), but even a curvilinear model is inadequate to capture the essence of the concept. Well-being is at once pervasive and encompassing: it fills the interstices of one's self, pervading every cell; simultaneously, it enlarges the scope of the relevant other, bringing plant, animal and person into resonance.
Physical health is, of course, basic. Searing pain, a malfunctioning organ or a parasitical invasion can so overwhelm the system, that it is difficult, at that moment, even to construe good health. Nevertheless, it is a core sense of well-being that generates the immune system and equips the body with a well constituted army to fight the disease. Hope, optimism and a strong desire to get better bolsters the defences of the body. There are many variations on this theme; but it is a general observation that a person's positive attitude leads to a quicker recovery.
There is a substantial amount of research by doctors on the placebo effect. The placebo could be a pill or injection with no active pharmacological ingredient, but this is not known to the patient. Quite often, the patient believes that he has been treated and feels better and even gets better. This means that the person's belief that treatment has been given is sometimes as effective as the treatment itself. This even happens in cases of surgery. I know of a person with a malignant tumour in the brain for whom a surgery was planned, to take four or five hours. However, after opening up, the surgeon found it impossible to operate and the patient returned to his bed in an hour. He was given six months of life at the utmost. The family knew but were sworn to secrecy and everyone acted as if the surgery had been completed. The patient survived beyond his "life sentence" and a year later, the scan showed a total remission of the tumour. The power of the mind over the body is indisputable.
For the last few centuries, especially since the writings of the 17th Century philosopher, Rene Descartes became popular, body and mind have been conceptualised as separate in structure and function. Descartes' aphorism "I think, therefore I am" became the most famous statement in the history of philosophy. It celebrates the separation of mind, the "thinking thing" (res cogitans), from the non-thinking body, that which has extension and mechanical parts (res extensa).
However, research on the human brain of the last two decades provides convincing evidence that the entire organism rather than the mind alone or the body alone, interacts with the environment. When we see, hear, touch, taste or smell something, body and mind participate together. The separation of the most refined operations of the mind from the structure and operation of the biological organism is no longer considered tenable. One cannot accept the validity of the model that "the mind" is the software programme run in a piece of computer called "the brain."
The comprehensive understanding of the human mind requires that it must be related to the whole organism possessed of integrated body and brain and be fully interactive with a physical and social environment. The Cartesian dichotomy is now being added to the archives of the history of Western philosophy.
Modern science has the material world as its arena, the experimental method as armoury and empirical data as product. Soul, mind, consciousness - these are outside the scope of science as they are invisible and intangible. A 19th Century wag made up the following dialogue:
"What is mind?" "No matter".
"What is matter?" "Never mind!"
For the last three centuries, the aim of biological and medical studies has been the understanding of the physiology and pathology of the body.
The mind was not included and was left as a concern for religion and philosophy. Even when the discipline of Psychology emerged, with psyche (mind) as the focus of study, it was not included in medical studies until recently. In fact, the discipline of psychology itself had an identity crisis; in its keenness to gain entry into the citadel of the sciences, it selected methods that would resemble those of physics. The closer its methods to those of standard science, the greater its acceptability. For two or three decades the dominant branch of psychology was concerned only with problems that could be experimented on in laboratories, with white rats and sophomores!
The practitioners of medicine, have on the whole, been slow to realise that how people feel about their health condition could be a major factor in the outcome of treatment. Psychological disturbances, mild or strong, can cause and aggravate disease in the body; this fact is finally being accepted in academic medicine. At a common sense level, we always knew it. Even popular journalism tells us that worry, hurry and curry will result in ulcers, hypertension or cardiac problems. Today, in many clinics across the world, counselling about lifestyle is part of the treatment package. Nevertheless, the focus is on the body diet, sleep and medication, rather than on the whole person. There are many in North America and Western Europe who have begun to turn to alternative forms of medicine, preferably those that have a holistic approach to the human condition and are rooted in non-Western traditions. In India too, executives from the corporate world, normally absorbed in brand equity, market share and stock options, are beginning to seek guidance from Yoga teachers and Indian group therapists.
It is known that India has had a continuing tradition of over three millenia, of meditation, Yoga and Ayurveda. So for most of us, it is just a question of returning to valued and time-tested beliefs and practices, to our traditions, in other words. But at a time when the connotation of the term "tradition" is layered with archaic meanings as well, the turning to or returning to the tradition of holistic health will perforce be slow and gradual. There is a spurt, however in the alternative treatment systems: Naturopathy, Reiki and Pranic healing have become household words in many families today.
In Ayurvedic diagnosis and treatment, both Ahara (food) and Vihara (ways of living) are investigated and prescribed along with the medication. Further, the treatment has to be individualised: it is the person that is treated, not the disease. Tibetan medicine, known to have branched out from Ayurveda a few centuries ago, shares its fundamentals. For an understanding of the person-centred nature of the medical system, one may consider the reply of a Tibetan physician to the question, "In your view, are there any incurable diseases?" "No, but sometimes there are people who cannot be cured." This paradigm shift is one reason for Ayurveda to be classified as an alternative to allopathy, rather than as a supplementary system to be used for chronic and non-life-threatening situations and conditions.
A principle intrinsic to all the ancient Indian prescriptions for wellbeing is that of balance and moderation. There is an unwritten code for how an emotion can be felt and expressed. Any emotion, pushed to the extreme, becomes the source point of a variety of problems. When annoyance becomes rage, pleasure becomes addiction or desire becomes obsession, there is acute discomfort, disease.
Well-being is good health and its pervading awareness, vested in the individual. What is also salient is the social context in which the individual is embedded. The human being comes at the culmination of a long evolutionary process and carries the species label of "homo sapiens" translated from the Latin as "wise man," giving due recognition to the complex functions of the cerebral cortex. But the human being is also "homo gregariens" ("man, with other people"), a person who needs close relationships with at least a few and group membership of a larger community. Good interpersonal relationships are of the essence for a sense of well-being, starting with intimate ties in the immediate family and extending in number, space and time to include others.
Thakur Dalip Singh/Fotomedia
Well-being is the warm handshake of a good friend; it is also the tenderness one feels, when the four-year-old cuddles up for a bedtime story. There is well-being in laughing heartily, in making others laugh.
People who have had the bad luck of dysfunctional families and unhappy experiences in their early life, need to make a tremendous effort to establish an inner balance and to develop personally rewarding relationships. Fortunately, human beings are endowed with resilience which enables self-repair, self-renewal, even transformation. There is almost no lacuna that cannot be filled, no wound that cannot be healed. Early deficits and distortions can be compensated and reversed.
Everyone has family, a circle of friends and a large spectrum of others who are related in different contexts. One's happiness does not necessarily depend on the size of the circle or the colours in the spectrum, but it is the feeling of connectedness that is vital for vitality itself! The solitary sage in a Himalayan cave is alone, but he also says a prayer for the well-being of his people, all the people in the world, this world, all the worlds in a vast universe.
When the Dalai Lama talks of compassion, he refers to the fellow feeling he has for the people who tilled the soil, sowed the rice and laboured to provide the food that he could eat. When one meets the Dalai Lama, one is encompassed in his brilliant aura that lightens and enlightens. One comes away with such a wonderful feeling about one's own existence, the "is-ness" and the "now-ness" of life!
Generally, as fellow feeling and compassion get extended to people who are beyond one's vicinity and the necessary circle of living routines and everyday concerns, one feels an upsurge in life force. Well-being is the intersect of several sets; good physical health, sound mental health, happy interpersonal relationships, concern for a larger good, connectedness to all living things and an awareness of the Space beyond.
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