When asked what role mind-body medicine plays in maintaining our mental and physical well-being, the response from Dr. James Gordon is unequivocal: “Fundamental!”
“I think [mind-body medicine] is still regarded as a complementary therapy,” he said during a recent visit to San Francisco, “but what I’m saying is that it’s fundamental. It’s not complementary at all.”
Gordon, the founder and director of The Center for Mind-Body Medicine (CMBM) in Washington, D.C. and former chair of the White House Commission on Complementary and Alternative Medicine Policy, has been repeating this mantra for years, most recently in a New York Times “Sunday Dialogue” in which he extols the virtue of what he calls “self-care,” including nutrition, exercise and various mind-body techniques like biofeedback, guided imagery and meditation.
“We spend about twice as much as many other industrialized nations on health care, often with inferior outcomes,” he wrote. “Three-quarters of that spending is on chronic conditions, including heart disease, diabetes, cancer, arthritis, depression and chronic pain – exactly the ones for which self-care is best suited.”
Although these statistics may be reason enough for a revised strategy going forward, Gordon was quick to point out the many barriers that remain.
“I think the biggest obstacle is our persistent fear of looking at and understanding ourselves,” he said. “We don’t want to look inside because we might see things that may trouble us.” But he also pointed out the resistance that comes from a medical model that, as he puts it, “believes in, as much as any religious belief does, its own objectivity.”
“Part of the role of any physician should be to help people develop [their] capacity to become more aware, become more relaxed, become more present, become more sensitive to all the connections that are there every moment between our thinking and feeling and our physical functioning.”
Unfortunately these two obstacles tend to feed on one another, with patients all too eager to hand over the reins of their own health to someone else.
“I think most people don’t understand they have the capacity to make a difference,” said Gordon. “They think, ‘Who am I? This is a medical issue. I can’t do anything here. This is not part of my job description.’”
One aspect of self-care that might be more readily accepted than others as “part of our job description” – something that many consider to be innate and that can have an immediate and lasting impact on our health – is our capacity to be spiritual or “manifest the spirit,” as Gordon puts it.
“To me spirituality is the quality that we bring to everything that we do in our lives,” he said. “It has to do with the way we are with each other, the way we treat each other.”
Encouraging people to be kinder, more compassionate, more forgiving and more loving is just part of the work Gordon does at CMBM, an organization that teaches health professionals around the world how to utilize mind-body techniques to help those living in traumatized communities in places like Gaza, Israel, Kosovo and Haiti. “We’re teaching thousands to heal millions,” the tag line reads on their website.
This is also a theme highlighted in his latest book, “Unstuck: Your Guide to the Seven Stage Journey Out of Depression,” in which Gordon stresses the importance being “called” – not forced – to up the spirituality ante as a means of maintaining our health.
“People have to come to this on their own,” he said. “Preaching is not going to make any difference. Even though in ‘Unstuck’ I’m focusing on depression, the principle is the same everywhere.”
One thing those who do “come to this on their own” are likely to discover – something that goes well beyond the more obvious connection between better thinking and better bodies – is a deeper understanding of whatever divine influence inspires such uplifted and uplifting qualities of thought as kindness and compassion. For Mary Baker Eddy, an early pioneer in the field of mind-body medicine, this included the realization that in order to achieve lasting health, “the first and fundamental rule of Science must be understood and adhered to; namely, the oft-repeated declaration in Scripture that God is good; hence, good is omnipotent and omnipresent.”
So where are such provocative pursuits leading us? According to Gordon, to the very heart of our being.
“We’re tapping into the basic vocabulary and grammar of how the mind works and how the human being functions, and we’ve got to understand this,” he said. “This has to be central to what we teach children, what we teach health professionals, how we help people to live their lives. This is a way of living, a way of being, that’s our birthright.”
Eric Nelson’s columns on the link between consciousness and health appear regularly in a number of local and national online publications. He also serves as the media and legislative spokesperson for Christian Science in Northern California. Follow him on Twitter @norcalcs.