Ecology of Mind: Consciousness & Healing Research
Pioneering research on connections between consciousness and healing has begun this summer with a study focused on Buddhist indigenous healers. The ground is well prepared as mind-body medicine has been undergoing rapid growth in the past 20 years. The first significant breakthrough was the development of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), an intervention using traditional mindfulness techniques to recalibrate the body’s response to stress. MBSR weaves together secular mindfulness practices, yoga and cognitive-behavioral psychological approaches into a protocol that has been adapted around the world. Thus, many research studies have been done on Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction and the closely related therapeutic intervention of Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT).
MBCT runs closely parallel to MBSR in that it teaches clients to change their relationship to unwanted thought patterns. Rather than avoiding or identifying with them, clients are taught to respond in a skillful way (Ma, Teasdale, 2004). Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy has been conclusively shown to be successful in the treatment of depression (Mason and Hargraves, 2001, Finucane and Mercer, 2006) and effective in the treatment of early onset recurrent depression, which may be linked to an adverse childhood (Ma and Teasdale, 2004). A MBSR inner city intervention showed statistically significant gains in self-reported assessments of general health, vitality, emotional wellbeing and social functioning (Roth and Robbins, 2004).
The authors also noted a correlation between self-reports of health status and use of healthcare services (Kravitz as cited in Roth and Robbins, 2004). In Roth’s 1997 study, Spanish speakers made fewer health center visits the year following their MBSR program. Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction is also an effective intervention in the treatment of psoriasis (Kabat-Zinn, Wheeler, Light and Cropley,1998), chronic pain (Kabat-Zinn, 1982, Kabat-Zinn, Lipworth and Burney,1985) and bromyalgia (Kaplan, Goldberg and Galvin-Nadeau, 1993). In addition, it supports development of the cognitive skills of attention and information processing, and helps build stress resilience and adaptive interpersonal capacities (Shapiro, Brown and Astin, 2008).
Within the field of MBSR research, several studies have focused on its effect on those in the healing professions. Healthcare professionals receiving an eight-week MBSR intervention showed significant decreases in perceived stress as well as increases in self-compassion (Astin, Bishop, Cordova and Shapiro, 2005). In addition, a qualitative study of MBSR interventions established five core themes when administered to counseling psychology students: 1.) physical changes, 2.) emotional changes, 3.) attitudinal or mental changes, 4.) spiritual awareness and 5.) interpersonal changes (Shure, Christopher and Christopher, 2008).
This suggests that mindfulness in tandem with other practices may provide solutions to dilemmas facing modern medicine in the three following areas: 1.) discovery that effective treatment benefits from engagement of emotional and relational elements in healing, 2.) treatment of the client as a whole person in context of society and environment rather than as a closed materialistic system and 3.) definition and location of illness and wellness (Wilber, 2005). As Wilber notes, “An integrally informed medical practice changes the practitioners first. . . . their own map of human possibilities – this map that has dramatically expanded from organic interventions to caring for a human being in all of his or her extraordinary richness” (Wilber, 2005 p.xxxi). Schlitz underscores this point as a tenet of integral medicine:
The need for physicians and other healing professionals to become conversant in models of illness and wellness that address inner dimensions of both client and healer is reinforced by Santorelli (2000), Astin and Astin (2005), Benda (2005), Remen (2005) and George (2005). In addition, Schlitz and Harman note that “the role of the mind and intentionality represents one of the key features of most alternative health systems and is an important challenge to Western scientific epistemology” (Schlitz, 2005, p.366).
It is evident that much research has been done on contemporary adaptations of mindfulness and healing due to groundbreaking MBSR work. However, comparatively little research is available on traditional healers who integrate Buddhist practice with traditional medicine towards development of a healing wholeness (Micozzi, 2011, Skorupski, 1999, Subramanian, 2002). With regard to the implication and potential applications of the effect of the healer’s epistemology and intentionality upon the healing process, a study of Buddhist healing across cultures may yield significant findings.
– Joanna Rogers Macy
Within the cultural context of Buddhism, healing is described as a somato-emotional integrative process that restores wholeness to both individuals and communities. This integration is supported by the practice of presence, resting the mind in its natural state, which is referred to as samatha. The healing effects of samatha, pure presence, have been seen to reduce afflictive emotions within the context of MBSR. While these findings indicate that samatha and other Buddhist meditation practices strengthen and deepen the field of consciousness, no studies exist that examine the healing effect of samatha in tandem with an active ontology of interdependence. This active ontology of interdependence is described within ancient Buddhist texts as paticca samudpadda, the law of dependent arising. This teaching is often described within the Pali Canon with a four line verse:
This teaching expresses a causal paradigm that is profoundly relational. Macy has described this well: “The subject of thought and action is in actuality a dynamic pattern of activity in interaction with its environment and inseparable from existence” (Macy, 1978, p.112). The law of paticca samupadda lifts the nature of the relationship of mind and body into the light of interdependence. Consciousness and name-and-form (the physical world and the body) are compared to “two sheaves of reeds, resting upon each other” (Bodhi, 2000, p.602). So, a natural and profound respect for the physical world and the human body exists; they are not separate from the mind or the spirit. This interdependent connection also carries deep-reaching ethical implications. A person’s own behavior and physical actions shape his/her consciousness. Through these descriptions of interdependence between form and consciousness, humanity knows it comes into being through its interactions with the physical world, which not only is shaped by consciousness but also shapes consciousness. Therefore, it follows that a person with insight will treat the body and the physical world with care and reverence.
The self and the physical world depend upon each other. Implicit within this interdependence is both love and responsibility. This brings humanity to the wider implications of paticca samupadda: The self and society are interdependent. In the light of paticca samupadda,
In this light, compassion is not an intended action; it is a natural action – a recognition that humanity is both part of a greater whole that is the web of life and the world around it. The combination of samadhi and this worldview of interdependence could be described as a kind of “ecology of mind” – an active way of seeing and working with the wholeness within oneself and within ones’ clients that brings about a state of integration and wellbeing both within oneself and within the community.
As long ago as the 7th Century, Taoist physician Sun Ssu- miao remarked in Prescriptions of Great Value, his classic treatise on medicine, that knowledge of Buddhism was necessary in order to be a good physician – to be able to see and serve the greater wholeness within all clients (Tatz, 1985, pp.94-95). Given these developments in the research of integral medicine and MBSR, the time has arrived to explore the effects of the healer’s active epistemology and intention upon healing praxis through the lens of Buddhist traditional healing across cultures.
The problems to be addressed by this research study on Buddhist indigenous healers are a void in the literature and a lack of understanding about how these healers understand connections between their meaning-making with regard to healing and their praxis.
This study offers the opportunity to expand and enrich the understanding of healing within contemporary psychotherapeutic contexts by lifting up the stories of these healers’ experiences. The purpose of this study is to tell stories of Buddhist indigenous healers and to explore ways in which their relational worldview and presence (consciousness) creates an environment supporting deep healing grounded in an experience of wholeness. In particular, this research may illuminate the following: 1.) the effect of relational elements in healing, 2.) the treatment of the client as a whole person in context with environment and 3.) definitions of wholeness, illness and wellness. Traditional and integrative medicine practitioners will benefit from seeing such work within a wider context, especially with regard to themes found across healing modalities, dynamics that strengthen healing work and connections between personal healing and community wellbeing. Primary research questions that will be explored are:
- What, if any, are the connections between meaning-making and practices of intention and presence expressed through traditional healers’ work, and if so, how?
- What stories do traditional healers have to tell about their knowledge and practices?
- What is the common ground across traditional healing practices?
Researchers will perform a qualitative study using a narrative approach. Narrative-based research is particularly relevant because it is culturally congruent with Buddhist and traditional healing praxis. The Buddhist teachings and traditional healing practices both originated as oral histories. Each Buddhist sutra (teaching) begins with the phrase, “Thus have I heard. . .” Using a narrative approach, the direct experience of healer participants can be expressed with the fullness of their particularity and depth.
In the development of mindfulness-based stress reduction, Kabat-Zinn has translated ancient teachings on wholeness into the modern languages of psychology and medicine noting that, paradoxically, it is through acceptance of the present moment and nonattachment to outcome that the healing wisdom of the mind/body is often activated (Kabat- Zinn, 2003). Through the power of presence, a healing attention naturally extends from the personal dimension of being through all relationships; it reaches everywhere. In this way, Kabat- Zinn’s pioneering work on consciousness and healing is congruent with adaptive and integrative approaches to healing used by Buddhist practitioners across millennia. The time has arrived to rediscover those integrative approaches in order to revitalize contemporary healing practices. Within all healing waters is one taste – the freedom of an essential wholeness present within each moment. To contribute to this groundbreaking research, please visit its profile on Fundageek, the research crowdfunding site, at www.fundageek.com/project/detail/747/Consciousness-and-Healing.