Medicine East and West: Integrating Two Traditions
by Dr. Bruce Epperly
Today, we are on the verge of a truly global medicine, embracing the insights of both East and West. Twenty-five years ago, when I began teaching spirituality and medicine at a major medical school, my students chuckled when they viewed films on acupuncture, Qigong, and healing touch. They couldn’t imagine a creative synthesis of East and West in the practice of medicine. Today, they ask me for referrals to acupuncturists and reiki healing touch practitioners. I believe that Whiteheadian philosophy can provide the intellectual and practical foundation for the emerging holistic and global medicine of our time.
Whiteheadian philosophy sees the universe in terms of interdependence, creativity, energy, choice, and possibility. Divine energy (chi, prana, pneuma) flows through each entity, constantly providing possibilities and the energy to achieve them. The dualism of mind and body that shaped Western medicine until recently is an abstraction; rather, mind and body exist in continuum of energy, experience, and creativity. Moreover, no person or moment of experience can be separated from its environment. Health and illness are a matter of environment as well as choice. In fact, a person’s current health condition is the result of many factors, including immediate environment, economics, family of origin, DNA and physical condition, personal choices, and spiritual life. In the following paragraphs, I will outline the resources of Whiteheadian philosophy for a truly integrative East-West medicine.
First, Whiteheadian philosophy affirms that the universe is energetic in nature. The primary realities from which all things are constituted are lively and energetic. In contrast to Western materialism and materialistic medicine, Whiteheadian philosophy asserts that existence involves experience and energy. From the point of view of Traditional Chinese Medicine, this energy can be described as chi, universal, life-giving, and interdependent. Chi flows through all things: our health condition is determined, in part, by the balance and flow of this vital energy in our lives.
The body is not inert or passive; the body is sentient and, as researchers such as Candace Pert point out, permeated by mentality and emotion at every level.
Second, Whiteheadian philosophy affirms the interdependence of all life. Health and illness can never be isolated from our environment and relationships. This same insight is at the heart of Traditional Chinese Medicine’s recognition that chi flows from, in, and through us. No organism can be separated from its environment: as Whitehead notes, it is virtually impossible to determine where the body ends and nature begins. All medicine is environmental and communal in nature. Individual choice is essential for health and well-being, but it is shaped by and conversely shapes the environment from which it emerges.
Third, Whiteheadian philosophy sees choice and creativity as essential to health and well-being. We are not passive victims of DNA, our health condition, or environment. Rather, we always have an element of choice in determining our overall well-being. At the very least, we can choose how we respond to illness and that choice can transform the quality of our lives, making it possible both to live and die well. Our spiritual values and practices, will to live, and sense of agency can be the tipping point between health and disease, and life and death.
Fourth, Whiteheadian philosophy allows us to consider the positive values of spirituality and religious commitment in persons’ overall health. Western science is now studying the sacred and has discovered the following: meditation promotes well-being and reduces stress; religious practices and beliefs enable people to respond more creatively to illness and enhance overall well-being; and traditional East-West energy practices (acupuncture, reiki healing touch), all of which have broadly speaking a spiritual component, are associated with pain relief and stress reduction. While such studies are still in their first stages, they open the door to seeing religion as a partner, rather than adversary, to contemporary medicine. Further, recent studies point out that the placebo effect, the ability of beliefs to promote positive health conditions, should be taken seriously as an adjunct to medical care.
Finally, Whiteheadian philosophy affirms a universal movement toward health and healing that cuts across culture and ethnicity. Wise people recognize a variety of approaches to health care, ranging from surgery, pharmaceuticals, energy medicine, herbal medicine, to spiritual practices. These practices, from many cultures, can be coordinated to promote the overall well-being of persons and response to serious illness. Accordingly, a many-faceted medical practice is more effective and helpful to patients than a purely monolithic approach. Because persons are multidimensional, a truly adequate medical approach includes meditation and meditation, energy work (acupuncture, reiki) and, when necessary, surgical procedures, chemotherapy and natural remedies.
Bruce Epperly is a theologian, author, spiritual teacher, and reiki master-teacher. He is the author of nineteen books, including God’s Touch: Faith, Wholeness, and the Healing Miracles of Jesus, Reiki Healing Touch and the Way of Jesus, and Holy Adventure. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.