Healing is Not the Same as a Cure: A Philosophy of Holistic Medicine for the Compound Human Being

Because the dominant western world view is based on materialism, people who reject that perspective sometimes indiscriminately reject anything having to do with material values, even though such values may be appropriate for certain situations. The attitude toward western medicine of some members of the New Age movement demonstrates this.

Although the movement’s critique of western medicine is desirable, its rush to embrace nonwestern medicine and alternative modes of healing nevertheless needs checks and balances to prevent malpractice by untrained people and to screen out misinformation and pseudoscience. (An example would be the claims for crystal healing, most of which, in my judgment, are founded on magical thinking and haven’t a shred of evidence to support them. Any results are due solely to placebo effect – a subject much more deserving of study than crystals.)

All too often, naive advocates of holistic healing simply reject western medicine altogether, embracing unproven methods and approaches while failing to appreciate the true value of western medicine, which is considerable. Such people make their own version of the mistake they intend to correct. While the western materialistic perspective tends to explain all mental phenomena in physical terms – i.e., it reduces all mind to matter – indiscriminate advocates of holistic health try to explain all matter as mind. Neither perspective is wholly wrong. They are simply incomplete and therefore unbalanced.

This incompleteness and imbalance needs to be corrected; everyone can grow from it. Most of all, a philosophy of holistic medicine for the total human being needs to be articulated for guidance in all situations between physicians and patients, healers and clients, diagnosticians and the ill. It must recognize that conventional medicine knows a lot about the physical domain and that it deserves credit for what it has done with that knowledge to eliminate disease and pain.

Polio, smallpox, yellow fever, bubonic plague, diphtheria, scurvy, rickets, and so forth – the medical establishment merits great respect for ridding the West, if not the world, of these scourges. Likewise, conventional medicine deserves credit for advances such as open heart surgery, prosthetic devices and artificial parts, CAT-scan and magnetic resonance imaging, pharmaceuticals and a host of other inventions and procedures which help restore and maintain health. Finally, a valid philosophy of holistic medicine must also recognize the unfairness of presuming conventional medicine – materia medica – to be accountable for things which simply are not part of its function. Toward that end I offer the following as a contribution to developing an enlightened philosophy of health.

Healing is not always cure. Nor does cure always involve healing. Healing pertains to the spirit, cure pertains to the body-mind. Healing is awakening to God and the Transcendental Domain as Love. That is what the true healer does – and is.

Healing is not a panacea for every human illness and malady. Those conditions might be cured, but that is not the same as healing. Healing removes the state of consciousness which regards illness and malady as problematic – as the basis for suffering and self-contracted emotion and behavior.

Healing may or may not actually cure the physical condition in question; we simply don’t know enough about the human body-mind complex to say with certainty what the outcome of Love/healing will be. On one hand, there have been miraculous cures as a consequence of a person awakening to, and as, Love. For example, when the Dutch psychic-spiritual teacher Jack Schwarz was in a Nazi concentration camp, he lost consciousness during a whipping. At that moment, he had a vision of Christ and felt his radiant love. Upon awakening, Jack said to the guard, “Ich liebe dich,” I love you. The guard was shocked – and even more shocked when he saw the wounds of Jack’s body begin to heal immediately. Jack describes that event as a “re-birthday” for him. He claims he left the camp whole and healthy.

Remarkable as that is, there have been far more instances where awakening to Love hasn’t had noticeable effect upon physical illness. St. Bernadette of Lourdes – she of the healing grotto – had a painful, lingering and fatal case of consumption. Ramana Maharshi, a great yogi-mystic of India, died of cancer; so did another, Ramakrishna. Both yogis were reputed to show such a high degree of divine love that on occasion they literally caused others to swoon in ecstasy. That did not prevent their terminal illness in middle age.

Why hasn’t Love been all-protecting in these instances? Sri Aurobindo, yet another great Indian yogi-mystic, provides the answer. He once broke his knee after a fall. The physician who attended him asked, “How is it that you, a mahatma, could not foresee and prevent this accident?” Aurobindo replied, “I still have to carry this human body about me and it is subject to ordinary human limitations and physical laws.”

On the other hand, there have been miraculous cures due to the operation of Love through a healer which nevertheless left the “cured” person unchanged in consciousness. The story in Luke 17:12ff illustrates this:

And as [Jesus] entered a village, he was met by ten lepers, who stood at a distance and lifted up their voices and said, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” When he saw them he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went they were cleansed. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice; and he fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving him thanks. Now he was a Samaritan. Then said Jesus, “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” And he said to him, “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.”

Ten lepers were cured, but only one was healed. That is, only one took the treatment to heart; only one responded to the healer with gratitude and changed behavior. The other nine went their way physically cleansed but still in the self-centered state of awareness which blocks mental and spiritual development and which sullies relationships. Insofar as leprosy is a manifestation of a spiritual condition – for such as Jesus’s and the biblical view – the nine would probably develop other kinds of disease because their spiritual malaise still festered.

All too often the practice of medicine is, as was taught in many medical schools, to “aggressively treat the body in the bed.” That is fine as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough. It is not so much wrong as incomplete, and that incompleteness is based on a view of the human being as simply a body. Mind and spirit are unrecognized or ignored, to the detriment of patient and medical practitioner alike, and to society at large.

In simplest terms: cure removes illness; healing promotes health. “Heal” comes from the Old English hal, meaning “whole.” From it also comes “hale” (as in “hale and hearty”) and “health.” (Incidentally, it’s a delightful irony that the name of the crazy computer in 2001 is Hal.)

But wholeness is not to be found in the physical realm by itself. Humans are compound individuals, as transpersonal psychologist Ken Wilber phrases it – compounded from the mental and spiritual realms as well. All realms are aspects or manifestations of the One which is Ultimate Wholeness. The One transcends all creation and is prior to all creation, yet paradoxically also is all creation. Transcendence does not merely negate. Rather, it includes that which is transcended in a larger context, correcting imbalances and bringing completeness to it. Thus, healing practice which focuses simply on one realm or another and ignores the rest is incomplete practice.

To state the situation generally, each of the three great realms of manifest existence has its lawful operations which we must learn and adapt to as we ascend in consciousness to the Transcendental Domain. The mental realm is “higher” than the physical and the spiritual realm is “higher” than the mental. Although there is interchange between and among them, it is clear that physical medications are inherently incapable of curing mental and/or spiritual maladies because the latter are senior to the physical realm. The higher contains the lower but cannot be reduced to the lower.

Healing, rooted in the Transcendental Domain which enfolds all creation, must be understood, first, to recognize the reality of the lower realms which it embraces and, second, to include the curative principles and practices which are inherent to them.

Some materialists may object to this perspective on grounds of the evidence of psychosomatic medicine, claiming that it shows an equivalence of body and mind. So I hasten to clarify: symptoms can indeed be treated through physical means, usually quite effectively, but causes are another condition altogether. It is clear, of course, that physical malfunctions can have physical causes and thus should be treated physically. A broken leg doesn’t require psychotherapy; poisoning calls for a stomach pump, not meditation; and kwashiakor indicates the need for proper nutrition, not laying-on of hands. Some chemical compounds (psychoactive drugs) are useful for restoring the mentally disturbed to relatively normal psychophysical functioning by relieving or suppressing symptoms, but only effective therapy can uncover the life-situations which stressfully generated the biochemical imbalance in the first place. On the other hand, no amount of vitamin B12, trace elements or special diets will make such a person more compassionate or even more rational. They may bring that person’s nervous system to finer functioning and boost his energy level, but they are not capable of opening the mental “eye of reason,” let alone the spiritual “eye of contemplation,” which are founded in domains beyond the reach of nutrition, medication and any other physical, electrochemical or “energy medicine” means of treatment.

At present, we in the West have health specialists to whom society conventionally assigns the research and development functions for the three great realms of existence. The specialists are called physicians (for the physical realm), psychiatrists/psychotherapists (for the mental) and clerics/religious (for the spiritual). Now, there is nothing wrong with being a specialist, so long as there is recognition that, first, the human being is multidimensional or compound and, second, there is a hierarchical ordering of those realms or elements from which the person is compounded, with each requiring its own mode of treatment. Advocates of holistic health who criticize conventional medical education and practice because it doesn’t accomplish the things which psychology/psychiatry and religion do, make an irrelevant criticism. If your car needs repairs, you have a garage mechanic work on it; you don’t go to a psychotherapist, shaman or preacher.

Conversely, you don’t go to a mechanic for spiritual counseling or midlife crisis guidance. By and large, conventional medical practice is not wrong; it is merely incomplete – and that is a great difference. There’s no need for holistic health advocates to throw out the baby with the bath water.

The life of the twelfth century Tibetan saint Milarepa offers an instructive example of the hierarchical nature of the compound individual and of the strengths inherent in each realm which are to be cultivated in the name of wholeness. Milarepa spent years meditating alone in a cave. He had forsaken all worldly contact and possessions. He lived as a naked yogi almost without any food except nettles, which he subsisted on for years. In fact, his skin had turned green from the unvarying diet. Yet he remained steadfast and determined to attain the jewel in the lotus – enlightenment. A song he composed to describe the situation says:

Even though my bones have pierced my flesh on this cold stone floor,
I have persevered.
My body, inside and outside, has become like a nettle;
It will never lose its greenness.
In the solitary cave, in the wilderness,
The recluse knows much loneliness.
But my faithful heart never separates
From the Lama-Buddha of the Three Ages.
By the force of meditation arising from my efforts,
Without doubt I will achieve self-realization.1

From whence comes such force of will? Not from even the most healthy diet and exercise program, nor from scholarly study of philosophy and sacred texts. It comes from “awakening at the heart” to the possibility of enlightenment. Of course, Milarepa later learned moderation from such austerity, just as the Buddha had 1,600 years earlier. After all, wholeness is wholeness – not just supreme cultivation of the spiritual realm alone.

Proper care should be given to the requirements of body and mind also; the properties and limitations of each should be recognized and respected, without mistaking any of them – including the spiritual – as ultimate. Wholeness, ultimate wholeness, consists of the manifest and the unmanifest. As Ramana Maharshi put it paradoxically: “The world is illusion; Brahman alone is real; Brahman is the world.” Thus, healing – as distinguished from cure – must properly diagnose the cause of an illness or disturbance and address it, as well as the symptoms.

It is commonly said that the body is the temple of the spirit. True – but again, incomplete. A Course in Miracles adds another dimension to the concept of temple by declaring that relationships are the temple of the spirit. That declaration brings balance and completeness to the body-as-temple concept because all too often, the body is wrongly worshipped by narcissists and spiritual materialists who leap aboard the latest food fad or health product craze as the key to salvation. But neither spirulina nor snake gall bladder, wheat grass juice nor ayurvedic herbal compounds, flower essences nor crystals can restore health to bad relationships.

As Swami Sivananda Radha of Canada puts it succinctly, pure food does not produce a pure mind. The body of relationships is the mystical body of Christ. Only open, honest and loving relationships based on freedom and equality can bring health to that body.

The final obstacle to health is death – or so the materialist believes (whether he is a genuine materialist or a spiritual materialist). But this view is not necessarily true. In fact, it is totally challenged in various quarters ranging from ancient spiritual traditions to contemporary trends in health care, as I show in A Practical Guide to Death and Dying.

The fact that many medical practitioners have such a hard time dealing with is this: death is inevitable. So much of the medical community’s sense of purpose and identity is bound up in a struggle to overcome death. If one’s self-image and self-esteem as a health practitioner are based on staving off death for patients or clients, it is a losing game because death cannot be cured. That is not to deny the value of biomedical research into life extension; I am strongly in favor of it and the immortalist movement. But, as a growing number of medical care providers are coming to recognize, death need not be viewed as The Enemy. In fact, that view leads, ironically, to poorer medical care than a view which acknowledges death’s place in the scheme of things and the need to honestly and caringly help terminal patients deal with their impending demise.

This is precisely the thrust of the hospice movement and certain lines of thantological work. Death may end a life, but it doesn’t end a relationship. From a psychological point of view, that relationship continues among the living, for better or for worse. (Think of how many people still carry a deceased Mommy or Daddy around inside themselves as a heavy load of nagging guilt or scolding self-defeat.) From a parapsychological point of view, it continues between the living and the dead, for better or for worse. (Crisis apparitions are examples of it continuing for the better; emergency aid is extended to the living by the departed.)

Beyond the hospice movement’s perspective is that offered by people such as Ram Dass and Steven Levine, who declare that dying is an opportunity for spiritual practice and that death can be a vehicle of awakening. (To be fair, it should be recognized that many hospice staff members share this perspective and have worked extensively with it.)

The changes of consciousness which the dying go through can lead to tremendous healing of relationships. Instances of deathbed reconciliation among fallen-out family members and friends are not infrequent and they can lead to positively changed lives for those who are left behind. When such transformations of consciousness are deliberately cultivated during the dying process (by oneself or through trained practitioners), dying can indeed be a healing. Furthermore, it can have some degree of healing – through inspiration – on others who simply hear about such experiences.

The most inspiring examples of “dying the good death” come from the final moments of saints and holy people. I recount some of them in A Practical Guide to Death and Dying. Perhaps the ultimate healing-through-death was that offered compassionately by Jesus. As he died on the cross, he said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” – and the world has never been the same. At that moment, the wall of the temple was rent in twain; symbolically speaking, the true nature of the human being and of relationships was revealed through the redemptive act of Jesus, which tore the “veil of maya” or delusion from our eyes to let Reality shine through.

Body, mind and spirit: any practice of healing must recognize that there are three great realms in creation and that ultimately the three are one – that is, manifestations of the One. Insofar as healing treats disease (dis-ease), it must be understood that there is no ease, no rest, until we rest in God. The leper who turned back to thank Jesus understood this. The lesson of that biblical passage, then, is this: patients/clients must be dealt with in the context of ultimate wholeness and healing practitioners should seek to be whole themselves. “Physician, heal thyself.” (That applies to psychiatrists/psychotherapists and clerics/religious as well.) In the context of ultimate wholeness, conventional healing is not always cure, nor does cure always involve conventional healing.

So long as there is embodied existence, there will be some degree of illness and malady, even for enlightened sages. But the Awakened Heart frees us of the egoic tendency to identify that illness or malady as problematic; it allows us to experience it as Grace or the Play of Consciousness. When someone accidentally bumped into Ramana Maharshi, who was terminally ill with cancer, everyone near him saw a look of great agony flash across his face. His ravaged flesh was extremely sensitive; the pain from the contact was obviously enormous. Yet he made no comment until someone, thinking he was using yogic control, said to him, “Perhaps you don’t feel the pain?” Maharshi replied, “There is pain, but there is no suffering.” His biological functioning was “doing its thing” by producing pain; so was his consciousness’ transcendental perspective on existence, including his own fleshly life, by eliminating the egoic response to pain.

Paul Brunton puts it wisely in his Notebooks series (Perspectives, p. 131): “To pray for a bodily cure and nothing more is a limited and limiting procedure. Pray also to be enlightened as to why this sickness fell upon you. Ask also what you can do to remove its cause. And above all, ask for the Water of Life, as Jesus bade the woman at the well to ask.”

This article was published in New Dawn 44.
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1. The Life of Milarepa, Lobsang P. Lhalungpa, E.P. Dutton: New York, 1977, p. 124

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