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Shapeshifting: The Evolution Of A Post-Modern Integral Medicine

Our unceasing and innate longing for health, happiness and wholeness is embodied in our continuing efforts to better our lives. Blessed with the therapies and remedies of modern science, informed by cross-cultural approaches to healing, and endowed with a unique and expansive human consciousness, we stand on the threshold of a new medicine, one that transcends our previous preoccupation with survival and longevity and beckons us to live our greatest potential. This is a noble challenge, one that we have been well prepared for. In Western culture the rituals of healing are learned early in life.

Our parents carry us to our first visit with the doctor. From then on, we progressively incorporate the values, practices, and customs of Western healing into day-to-day life. If we seek a broader view of health, we may choose to move beyond a symptom-oriented biological approach. We may explore health promotion strategies, develop new psychological understandings, practice mind/body skills, and consider alternative therapies. With these steps we extend our perspective, becoming more personally involved in the healing process. To go this far is itself a major achievement. Yet there are a rare few who will have the curiosity, courage and capacity to explore the farther reaches of health, the more subtle and profound aspects of inner healing.

The problem for most of us is that we stop too soon and settle for the conventional view of health. As individuals and as a culture, we become accustomed to having others take charge of our health, habituated to outer remedies—conventional and alternative—content with a very limited notion of health, and paralyzed by intellectual laziness. Conventional medicine is where we start and end. We may rearrange it, add to it and expand it, but we do not grow beyond it. We settle for the best our culture can offer. Our fate becomes one of an ordinary life, an ordinary health and a sedated soul.

To go further requires a broader view of health which honors both the inner and outer aspects of healing. From this more accurate and comprehensive perspective, it becomes apparent that all past and current approaches to healing were merely stepping stones toward a vision of optimal well-being and human flourishing that reflects our true potential. The key element in the maturation of our understanding and practice of health and well-being is the development and expansion of consciousness.

The Development of Consciousness

Through the continued development of consciousness, we have progressively grown in capacity from the primitive mind’s rudimentary efforts at survival to the magical, mythical, philosophical, theological and, finally, scientific approaches to healing. With each advancement in consciousness there has been a corresponding expansion of our healing capacities, freeing us from the limitations of the past and propelling us into the future. Past achievements were never abandoned. They were embraced, improved upon, and ultimately transcended. What at any one time appeared to be our highest level of achievement, when seen from a broader perspective, can be recognized as a further step in our movement toward a larger consciousness, life and health. And this includes scientific medicine.

The more primitive mind lacked our capacity for observation and analysis. Our ancestors used their close contact with nature to shape an empirical healing that largely relied on plants and other available natural remedies. Their ancient knowledge and practices continue to influence our modern-day pharmacopeia.

As consciousness further developed into what has been called “magical thinking,” amulets, incantations and other methods were added to healing. These shamanistic approaches persist today in the form of mind/body strategies, retreats and vision quests, and meditation and prayer.

The continued development of human consciousness gave rise to the philosophic mind and its systematic paradigms. Whether expressed as Hippocratic, Ayurvedic or Tibetan medicine, these philosophies shared the vision of a dynamic, self-balancing physiology encompassing body and mind. The corresponding approach to healing reflected this more complex and holistic perspective.

The development of the religious aspects of the mind emphasized the role of love, compassion and faith in the healing process. And finally, the 500 years of the modern era has led to the full application of our intellectual capacities to the development of a comprehensive scientific medicine.

With each leap in consciousness our approach to healing has shapeshifted. It has become larger in scope and more capable of realizing the fully evolved dream of health and healing. With each leap in consciousness there has been growth in our understanding and capacity that has both incorporated and yet gone beyond all previous approaches. Each new shift has resulted in a new mixture of inner and outer healing that was more effective and complete than its predecessors. In each instance when the shapeshifting took place, fundamental change occurred—a larger mind, a larger consciousness, a larger life and a larger healing.

The last great leap in consciousness occurred when the philosopher René Descartes in the 17th century gave us the philosophic gift of “splitting” the mind into its spiritual and intellectual aspects, giving the former to the church and the latter to mankind. By unlinking the exploration of the physical universe from the domination of the spiritual perspectives of the church, he provided an acceptable social compromise that enabled the great scientists to fully develop the intellectual capacities of the mind in their quest to understand the workings of nature. From this evolved our current approach to healing—a modern, scientific, outer medicine. A larger consciousness, a larger medicine—albeit one limited by the reach of the physical senses.

The Modern Evolution of Health

Because evolution can be a bit of a messy business, the past 500 years has been dominated by the gifts of this leap in consciousness as well as its many limitations, which include the loss of self-reliance, the suppression of the inner dimensions of healing, and the richness of a more comprehensive view of health. We are now slowly moving toward the next level of development, a corrective response to the limiting perspectives and practices of an exclusively biological medicine.

In the past several decades we have begun to explore new ways to advance a more broad-based and comprehensive approach to health and healing. These initiatives have come in waves. They include: health promotion, wellness, mind/body healing, holism and the exploration of alternative therapies and healing systems. It is important to consider these one at a time so that we can understand the contributions of these efforts and also understand why they have each failed to fundamentally advance the great dream of healing. Only then can we direct ourselves toward the real issue, the key to the next great leap: a further growth in consciousness.

Health promotion and wellness can be taken together as they both refer to proactive, personal efforts to improve one’s health and wellbeing. The wellness movement has its origins in the work of Dr. John Travis in the 1970s. He envisioned a physical/psychological/spiritual process through which individuals would proactively engage in activities that would promote health rather than merely waiting until the onset of disease. In their original intent and form, wellness and health promotion included a large scope of activities, including nutrition, physical fitness, smoking cessation, psychological exploration and, to a lesser extent, meditation. Its intention and vision were correct for the time.

As the wellness movement was popularized and taken up by traditional medical and corporate institutions, it was largely reduced to its most physical outer components: fitness, nutrition and smoking cessation. What was previously a broad-based vision became a narrow one made to fit into the outer view of modern science and medicine. The psychological and spiritual aspects of the wellness movement, its most significant inner contributions, were quickly jettisoned. When wellness hit the mainstream of modern medicine, it was changed. It became one more outer approach to healing, and as such, it was shaped by the prevailing viewpoint to conform to contemporary medicine. It contributed to an expansion of outer healing, but did not fundamentally change it or advance us toward the next level of healing.