Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
Well-being : March 12, 2000
Dr. Hiramalini Seshadri
The author is a senior consultant in Internal Medicine at Apollo Hospital, Chennai.
Our ability to think and feel gives us a sense of identity, our ego. That man is essentially ego, is the basic premise of Western Philosophy. Ego is a product of the mind and emotions, which are in turn dependent on the body. The Western concept of the identity of man thus emphasises the sense of separateness and individuality of man. It is clearly body based and the natural corollary to it, therefore, is that after death as the body perishes, one ceases to exist. Modern medicine which is a product of the West also operates from this fundamental assumption - that man is essentially body and ceases to exist at death.
The rishis of India, however, millennia before Descartes, stated the reverse. They declared, "I am; therefore I think." The true identity of man according to the rishis was just "being". Consciousness, God, Existence, Knowledge, Bliss (Sachidananda) and so on are only terms used to try and reduce language to this sense of being which can actually only be experienced rather than communicated; it is something clearly beyond the physical and even beyond mind-stuff. The rishis of yore made this epochal discovery through yoga which includes right thinking, right living and a series of physical and mental exercises which help one get beyond the body-mind-intellect complex into pure consciousness which is what really animates man and makes him the many splendoured creature that he is.
Some of these scientists of consciousness actually succeeded in experiencing that oneness with God or consciousness whose nature, they declared, was ever renewing love and bliss. Having experienced that state, they did not even put down their names as authors of such a landmark discovery; for once they discovered their identity with consciousness, their perception of themselves and others underwent a sea change. To them thereafter, name and form did not matter; all names and forms were their own; even retaliating to an "enemy" seemed to them as absurd as taking a stone to knock out one's tooth that bit one's tongue! Contrast this with the material scientists of today who are so bothered about putting their names down on every paper published.
These scientists of consciousness also made another fantastic discovery - of particular importance to us in the medical world - that pure consciousness could, by merely willing, effect any material or energy change. The "miracle cures" effected by Siddhas, Avalias, Sufis, Christian saints, Bodhisattwas and so on are therefore but such logical cures of consciousness! Modern physics is fast vindicating these discoveries of the rishis. From Max Plank and Schrodinger in the Thirties to Wald, Geoffrey Chew, Prigogine and others, the world's leading physicists and biologists are veering towards the view that all that exists is really one Consciousness and that we are all parts of that whole and are therefore inter-connected, inter-dependent and mutually influenced. The throes of even one tiny atom echo throughout the universe; or as the Christian saints put it, "Not a sparrow falls out of the sky without the Heavenly Father knowing about it." Wald goes to the extent of saying, "The material universe is the materialisation of the primal mind" - echoes of the Vedas!
It is a quantum leap indeed from the narrow medieval western view of a body's limited existence in separateness to the modern vedic view that we are all but parts of a whole; that all we see as "Solid" are but changing vortices of energy in time and space, played out on the unchanging matrix of consciousness. Thus the concepts of life, birth, death and our very identity are undergoing a paradigm shift in the modern world of science, and we in the medical world would do well to pay heed; for it has profound implications in our perception of life, well-being and disease.
For a start, it is heartening to know that we and the patients we treat are all really Consciousness and therefore beyond the sting of death. It is strange how the simplest of truths are often overlooked, for logically, we experience the fact that man is consciousness, with every death. "He / she has gone!" we lament, though the body is there right in front of our eyes. So it is indeed that thing that animates the body that we really are. A second humbling truth is that we doctors realise how exactly our various treatments work. It is that force that enables all our tablets, injections and what not to be digested, circulated, reach the target organs and work; for all our treatment is of no use whatsoever, to a dead man! So it seems logical to invoke the grace of that one, our "Partner" in the healing process, before beginning treatment.
The traditional practitioners of Indian medicine always began their treatments after prayers to God or Consciousness, in fact, both doctor and patient had to pray and only then begin treatment. In contrast, western physicians traditionally believed only in the logical use of matter and energy by a discerning intellect to fight disease; the human doctor reigned supreme. But at the turn of the millennium we are discovering that the rishis were probably right. Double blind studies have proved that patients in intensive care units who were prayed for did significantly better than patients who were not prayed for.
Side by side, research into death and near death experiences (NDE) is fast providing evidence that man is Consciousness and does exist after departure from the body. A wonderful aside from these studies is that subjects who have experienced an NDE generally lose all fear of death thereafter, for they know and have experienced, albeit briefly, that existence which death cannot touch.
The world of modern medicine can no longer ignore these advances made by the rest of the world. Indeed, modern medicine has to redefine its role and approach to well being and disease in this new light of the real identity of man; our very concepts of well-being and disease may need to be redefined. But before we go to the practical steps in this direction, it is necessary to have some understanding of the corollaries of the theory that man is essentially Consciousness i.e., rebirth and karma; and for that we need to understand something of the Why and How of creation. Why did Consciousness create us all? As the Rishis explain, Consciousness indulged in creation only because of love. In order to love itself, Consciousness separated Itself from Itself and created all creation and all that the Creator or God or Consciousness seeks from creation is love. Creation occurred so that the Creator could give and receive love. So in a nutshell we all come but from God and go back to God when our love for the Lord is intense enough.
What of the How of creation? The Rishis reveal that all of us, bits of consciousness, make this journey from God to God, packaged in matter. From the mineral through the plant and animal we move in time over successive births and finally merge back into God. Lives of selfishness and separateness lived based on mistaken identity result in rebirth; and therefore it may take several births before merger with God takes place. What scientific evidence is there that there is rebirth?
Thanks to modern methods of communication today we have well documented and corroborated cases of individuals who have been able to recollect their past lives in various parts of the world. A well known exercise in the theory of reincarnation is the process by which reincarnating Dalai Lamas are identified. Going into reincarnation in depth is beyond the scope of this article but suffice to say that in the new millennium, world wide, opinion polls say that 75 per cent of the western world and 90 per cent of the rest of the world believe in reincarnation. It is not surprising in hindsight that all the religions of the world including Christianity used to believe in reincarnation at various points in history.
A natural corollary to the theory of reincarnation is the theory of karma. Indeed it is only the theory of Karma that can help us understand the illogical and seemingly unfair inequities of life. Why should a two-year-old get leukaemia? Why should the good suffer so? Why do the corrupt and wicked win accolades? In fact events just seem to happen in life. We cannot choose our parents, our time and place of arrival, our physical characteristics, our education and marks, our spouses and children, our position in society, our "houses and vehicles" as astrologers are apt to say; not even our departure, life goes on as a series of pluses and minuses. In Indian terms we say it all happens according to the karma of lives gone by.
From the medical point of view, what is interesting is that health also, thus has karmic roots. But, and this is the wonderful loop-hole that the Lord has provided for us - Karma is only high court. God is supreme court. The supreme court can quash, reverse of commute a high court order. Likewise, no karma can stand in front of God's grace. But, as I tell my patients, the supreme court does not come to us on its own; one has to go on appeal. Likewise one has to pray in total surrender and then God responds. The grace of God makes even the binds of Karmic ill health fall away. A powerful corollary of the theory of Karma is that while our past is responsible for the present, in the living present we have within us the power to alter our Karma and shape our future by surrendering to God or consciousness in prayer; and mind you, that consciousness with all its powers is latent right within us.
This has terrific connotations from the medical angle for it holds out the hope that in truth no disease is incurable if we can activate that consciousness within, which is all-healing. The ancients tell us that there is nothing to be added to consciousness for it is fullness itself. Yet, just as clear skies transmit sunlight while clouds block it, just as clear glass transmits a lamp's light while soot blocks it, our mind-stuff i.e., our thoughts and emotions, can block the healing light of consciousness. The quality of our mind-stuff can therefore lead to well-being or disease. What scientific proof do we have for this?
Studies done at Harvard showed that people with cold, non-loving, hostile relationships with their parents, when followed up for over three decades, developed much more serious illness than controls matched for all other factors. In a study of medical students which involved prospective follow up for half a century, a John's Hopkins study revealed that loneliness, sadness and lack of love were significantly associated with the development of cancers in later life. It has been scientifically proved that "hurry, worry and curry" - are the main causes of ischaemic heart disease. Fear, anxiety, depression and hostility can cause, precipitate and aggravate diseases such as peptic ulcer, arthritis and asthma. Diabetes mellitus, a disease where India has the dubious distinction of being a world leader, is again precipitated and aggravated by stress. Besides these non-infectious diseases, even in the realm of infectious diseases those with negative thoughts and emotions seem to be more vulnerable to illness. Our mindstuff modulates our immune system! Decades ago studies done showed that lonely, depressed people were more prone to developing tuberculosis even if they were rich. More recently studies on healthy volunteers infected by the common cold virus, have shown that those who had many happy positive relationships did not develop illness, while those who scored negatively on the mind stuff scale, developed disease.
Do we have evidence that a happy, contented, loved - and loving, caring, sharing mindset can prevent disease? The Ni-Honsan study is a classic example. Japanese in Japan who had close - supportive families and sound family, religious, social and community interactions had significantly less heart disease than Japanese immigrants in Honolulu who were rapidly losing these ties. Further, Japanese immigrants in San Francisco whose family lives had fragmented into the Western style had the highest levels of heart disease; and this even though the Japanese seemed to be smoking more and had higher cholesterol levels. So powerful was the protective effect of loving and caring homes and communities. In a landmark study, now famous as the Tecumseh study, researchers proved that those who participated in selfless "Seva" activities by volunteering to work for various service organisations had significantly less disease and lived longer. Those who helped others lived longer themselves! Loving and giving seems to hold the key to longevity.
Not just that, we also have plenty of evidence today that positive thinking and emotions can help restore health in disease. Prospective studies of women with breast cancer have proved conclusively that those who received in addition to conventional therapy, group support therapy once a week for a year, had double the five-year survival rates of matched controls who received conventional therapy alone. Similar reports are coming in from the studies of many other types of cancers as well. Coming to the bane of the Nineties in India, ischaemic heart disease, Dean Ornish has conclusively proved by repeat angiograms that sharing, caring, praying and singing together regularly, can along with a common sense regime of vegetarian diet, exercise and medicines open out clogged coronary arteries.
The rishis of yore seem to have known all this for they evolved a practical way of emotionally and mentally immunising us against disease; Satsangh Sankirtan they called it, what is called group support therapy in its Western avatar. Both the Satsangh and the Sankirtan aspect are important. We meet as groups in many situations; as doctors, as teachers, club-members and so on. But in all these groups we meet with labels on; so it becomes more an exercise in ego.
In Satsangh we meet as mere human-beings praying for a way out of the problems of life. It is an exercise in sharing, caring and reaching out to the one in the many. This has a powerful healing effect. Sankirtan which is group devotional singing has curative properties too. Music is the language of the soul and when one sings in ecstatic surrender one contacts consciousness; and that has a profound healing effect. The clapping of hands, the attendant muscle relaxation, tension relief and simple joy of group singing add to therapeutic benefit. Meeting with the same group regularly seems to be important.
Satsangh Sankirtan has today become a regular coprescription of mine; and at least half a dozen patients with ischaemic heart disease who did not undergo bypass surgery for various reasons but instead were put on this simple medicine - diet-exercise - Satsangh-Sankirtan and so on, are over the years well and treadmill test negative now. If the patient is a Christian, I recommend joining the church choir. If Muslim I ask them to recite the suras daily. If Jain or Buddhist I ask them to participate in the congregational chanting of mantras. If Hindu I ask them to attend any Bhajan of their choice.
Mental housekeeping is a second practical technique I adopt for well being. Today we know that it is chronic or longstanding negativity that breeds disease. Negative emotions and thoughts affect the chemicals produced by our nervous system, our hormones and our immune systems and lead to disease. How does one reduce negativity? By checking for it and cleaning it out daily.
Mental housekeeping which takes about ten minutes and has to be done in solitude involves a daily analysis of the previous 24 hours and a chat with one's own self. The check-list includes anger, irritability, envy, greed, sadness, If-Only-I-had feelings, pride, fear and so on. If any of these are present, one then reasons out with one's self and gets them out of the system. Do regular mental housekeeping for a year and you will find that you are a changed person; a much nicer and healthier one.
A third recommendation I make while treating the chronically ill, is adding to the "good Karma account." I insist that the patient start on some service activity if she/he is well enough, even during treatment. Both the rishis of yore and modern medical research have proved conclusively the healing power of helping others. In helping others we help ourselves most - no statement could be more true! Yoga and meditation are other valuable aids. Even the deep-sea divers have discovered the benefits of yoga in reducing blood-pressure and pulse rate. It is sad that we modern doctors in India - the home of yoga - are yet to use it. Indeed Reiki, pranic healing and many such new-age therapies are but facets of yoga rediscovered. In all these non-pharmacological therapies the fundamental belief is that man is in essence consciousness and therefore he has within him the power to heal himself. To the extent that we are successful in tapping that inner force these therapies can aid standard pharamacological treatment.
For over five years now, in my routine work, the final outpatient review of patients has become a special session to integrate these non pharamacological modalities of therapy with conventional medical management, to the considerable benefit and advantage of my patients. One smart patient, a rich beneficiary of this system wanted to know if he could fly down his entire clan for a consultation. Not because they were ill, but because he felt this session that he got for a mere doctor's consultation fee had benefited him far more than the ten-thousand-rupee workshop on how to live that he had undergone with a new-age guru! The reason why we doctors succeed where others may not is because of the heightened receptivity of patients to suggestions when they come to us. When you are down and out you are willing to listen, and even the strongest are down and out when ill, Disease itself is thus one of the greatest of teachers. But let me not digress.
Modern medicine is indeed the Gold Standard for treatment of diseases. But non-pharamacological therapies as those outlined in this article with a logical commonsense basis can be used to compliment conventional medical management to the benefit of patients. It will probably take a decade or more for the facts mentioned here to become accepted principles of therapy in testbooks of medicine. But a wise one who is convinced would act even now.
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