Heal Thy Self
Lessons in Mindfulness in Medicine
Crown: New York, 1999
288 pp.; $23 (paper)
Lotus in the Fire:
The Healing Power of Zen
Shambhala: Boston, 1999
TK pp.; $14.95 (paper)
At least two major surveys over the past two years—one by Gallup and the other by Yankelovich—have shown that those who are dying rate spiritual issues of crucial concern. Further, they have a great desire to pray, which Gallup researchers say translates into either traditional prayer or meditation. Astoundingly, given how secular a society we are touted to be, these patients also want their doctors to pray with them.
Problem is, prayer is usually the last thing on doctors’ minds. And, until recently, medical schools have taught doctors little about care of the dying and focused not at all on spirituality, meditation, or prayer. All this might soon be changing, however.
Just this past year, the American Medical Association embarked on an ambitious program to sensitize doctors to the needs of the dying. Similar initiatives have been launched in hospitals, medical schools, and health-care settings nationwide. Luckily, this all comes at a time when a large body of literature exists to guide doctors and patients, including classic spiritual teachings, early work in visualizations for cancer patients by O. Carl Simonton, M.D., and Bernie Siegel, M.D., and research on the physiological impact of meditation and prayer by Herbert Benson, M.D., director of Harvard’s Mind/Body Institute. There is also the healing work of the soul combining Jungian therapy and art work taught by Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D., and the use of mindfulness meditation in the hospital setting, as pioneered by Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D.
Saki Santorelli comes out of this new movement. He is the current director and a longtime affiliate of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the Center for Mindfulness, Medicine, and Health Care at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in Worcester, which Kabat-Zinn started some twenty years ago. Santorelli also runs courses for health care professionals on meditation, based on studies done by Kabat-Zinn, Benson, and others that show meditation’s beneficial impact on everything from heart disease to chronic pain, infertility, and PMS.
The core of Heal Thy Self: Lessons on Mindfulness in Medicine is a walk-through of an eight-week class, open to current or former patients with the terrible illnesses that end up killing most of us today: heart disease, cancer, more cancer. While the course begins with sitting meditation, it also incorporates at-home yoga and visualization exercises. These are not explained in his book, but one assumes that Santorelli is referring to the exercises Kabat-Zinn already described briefly in Full-Catastrophe Living. What is clear, though, is the effect the program has on his patients, on the increasing openness and intimacy of the group, and on Santorelli himself through his understanding of his own life and of the universal process of dying.
This is a dance between the healer and those who want to be healed. Santorelli views meditation as helpful not only for patients’ physical and mental well-being, but also for promoting the physician’s own growth and to ward off burnout as well. In one lovely passage after the next, he shares his view of the doctor/patient relationship as one of mutual transformation. The role of the physician, he writes, is “one of being with rather than working on.” In addition to technical skill, that compassionate presence seems to be just what modern patients want.
One vivid description of the patient’s side of this dance is Jim Bedard’s book, Lotus in the Fire: The Healing Power of Zen. This is a journal of his terrible battle with a virulent form of leukemia, and of his own meditation while traveling his rough life journey. A longtime Zen practitioner and a martial arts teacher, Bedard fought harder than many people would have, enduring painful rounds of chemotherapy, culminating in an excruciating bone marrow transplant. He freely admits he would not have continued had it not been for his teacher, Sensei Sunyana Graef, prodding him not to give up and saying repeatedly that death is too easy a choice.
To me, this was surprising advice, running contrary to many recent books on dying that suggest a more accepting view of death. Bedard did not go gently into any good night, make any peace with his dying, nor say any trendy good-byes. Instead, he held on, and he implies that his practice healed him. Equally important to his recovery, it seemed to me, was his amazingly supportive family - an extraordinarily sympathetic wife and young children, his parents, and a large number of siblings who were all willing and anxious not only to lend help but to volunteer to endure the pain of being a bone marrow transplant donor.
For Bedard, the payoff was life. But for readers, the downside of his story is the inadvertent message that if one meditates diligently enough one needn’t die. This is a dark notion I find embedded in much of the current literature on illness, meditation, and healing. Death is not a failure, though; it happens to all of us. It’s bad enough to be dying without feeling that you’ve failed to heal yourself because of weak meditation practice.
Yet the skill with which Bedard chronicles his battle is enthralling. I do wish, as I had with Santorelli, that he had given more specific practice details, but the worthy and timely message from both writers comes through: It’s time for mainstream medicine to acknowledge the enormous benefits of a spiritual life. It’s also time for doctors to be trained in meditative skills (truly for the benefit of themselves and others!), and for patients to make use of meditation as often as they might take their daily pills.
Marilyn Webb, a longtime student of Buddhism, is the author of The Good Death: The New American Search to Reshape the End of Life (Bantam). She is also the former editor-in-chief of Psychology Today.
Image 1: Saki Santorelli
Image 2: Jim Bedard