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Why are Eastern and Western Treatments so Different?

Eastern medicines  may seem strange, even far-fetched.  They did to me. And their treatments can appear labor-intensive, imprecise, and low-tech, the opposite of what we consider “advanced.”  In India, I received an Ayurveda massage by two women for two hours. Amber oils spilled out from glass jugs and rained on me.  Can this be a therapy?  How do we begin to grasp the validity of these approaches and what they accomplish?

We can begin by realizing that  medical science is, in some ways, a product of our culture.  It does not represent absolute truth.   Non-Western ancient  countries, such as China or Japan for example, have evolved very different understandings of health and sickness. For me, it’s only by looking at other cultures that can we see our own more clearly. And like other cultures, ours comes with assumptions which may or may not hold up under our  scrutiny.  It is by understanding what Western Medicine can and can’t address well that we can make intelligent choices about alternative treatments.

EAST: MIND-BODY IS ONE  and WEST: MIND/BODY  SPLIT

Western Medicine sees the mind and body as “split,” meaning two separate entities. Eastern traditions see the mind and body as coming from the same energy (source). This is more than a philosophical issue.  In the West, this disconnect between the mind and body has directed the clinical evolution of Western Medicine and also effected how patients are perceived and are treated.

For example, the Western split has led to implied moral judgments about the person who gets sick.    Only the body gets to have unchallenged “real” illnesses, such as a broken leg.  If the problem is about one’s mental state, like depression in “the head”, the illness is often seen as less real and more the result of character flaws.  In the East, depression and a broken leg are both real and happen to the same unified mind /body.  One’s responsibility for a condition has nothing to do with its validity.  In fact, in the Eastern view,  one is as responsible for managing one’s emotions as one’s physical body.

The Western mind/body split is not scientific fact, but a simplification based on cultural assumptions.   Nature does not appear to recognize this split. When someone gets sick, the whole being “feels” it.  “Emotional Disorders” are “holistic” experiences. If you have panic attacks, the dread usually comes with a racing heart, shortness of breath and even chest pain – all physical events. Western researchers have identified heart valve issues associated with panic attacks. Chinese medical doctors have theorized that excess energy in the physical heart and chest will cause anxiety. This syndrome is often accompanied by a physical “mid-line crack” in the tongue.  So are panic attacks physical or emotional events?

Biological categories (like mind/body) that propose “either-or” explanations are generally not realistic.  Nature does not read our text books. Today, many Western doctors recognize this “split” as a simplification.   Over the past decade, research has focused on how the mind and body are connected. But this does not translate easily or quickly into office practice.

In my view, we have paid a price for this simplification.  Already mentioned is what happens to those who “own” the “mind” illness.   Those who  “own” the “physical,” which translates into  “real” illness,  may have trouble getting  emotional issues treated.  Instead, these people may be told, “Why shouldn’t you be depressed?  Anyone with your disease would be depressed.”    Whether one has a  life-event “reason” or not, depression happens and reflects several particular mind-body dysfunctional states.  Our being able to explain or justify a depression does not impact whether it exists or not.  If only we could absorb the wisdom of what now has become a cliche: “It is what it is.”   Depression in pain patients is often not recognized, even by the patient himself.  His pain may “legitamize” his “right” to depression so that he doesn’t get the second condition treated.

My impression is that  this split  has led to overvaluing  what’s seen as physical, objective  information ( test results) and discounting what is judged to be not objective  (patients’ reports and physicians observations). But why should we give more credibility to instruments than humans, the inventors of the instruments?  For example, a patient’s report of not thinking clearly and a physician’s observation that something has changed with that person’s demeanor can be  far more sensitive “instruments”   than lab data or scans.  Our brain remains far more sophisticated that what has been invented by them.  But this over-reliance on tests has encouraged two opposite, and what can be mistaken, conclusions. One is that if the test is normal, “nothing is wrong.”  Also, if the test shows something unexpected, it must be abnormal. (Since we are constantly examining the body with more refined instruments, we are constantly in state of learning about what are asymptomatic variations of normal. )

We forget our ignorance which leads us to overstate what we learn from any study.  Laboratory tests are invented, improved on and later replaced by even better tests, all the time.  How could today’s version and its result be absolute, then?  Unfortunately, those who have prolonged, undiagnosed symptoms with “normal tests” may begin to feel invalidated and that they must be  “imagining things.” Many illnesses are “felt” long before the body has sufficient dysfunction to “produce” gross structural abnormalities.  Some conditions, like fibromyalgia, show minimal, if any.   Just because we don’t have tests to measure a change in the body does not mean there has been no change.

EAST – SUBTLE BODY and WEST-PHYSICAL BODY

Western and Eastern medicines identify and treat different “bodies.”  Which one needs the treatment?  That depends on the problem.

Western Medicine treats the physical body.  It does not acknowledge energy fields as clinically significant for diagnosis or treatment. Just diagnosing and treating the physical body can be effective, especially when dealing with  traumas, infections, and cancers. But many of today’s “stress” illnesses do not start out or become a significant physical change in the body. Rather these “stress” conditions mean the body is not working efficiently and effectively. Medications have a place, but they usually don’t cure. They are meant to reduce symptoms.

Eastern traditions treat the physical body and its surrounding energy fields, called the subtle bodies.  These traditions maintain that illness begins in the energy (subtle) bodies that surround the physical body and is ultimately expressed in the physical body. Energy field dysfunction explains some puzzling pain conditions for which there are no anatomic explanations. “Stress” illnesses, like irritable bowel, esophageal reflux, asthma are just a few of the many signs that  the body is needing a serious functional “tune-up.”

EAST: INDUCE MIND-BODY SELF-HEALING   and WEST: GIVE MIND/BODY WHAT IT LACKS

Not surprisingly, the goals of these medicines are as different as the cultures they come from.  Based on a culture that focuses on the physical world, Western Medicine’s approach to the mind/body is to “fix” the physical body.  (Here, the mind is seen as an organ, the brain and therefore physical.) If the body is missing a substance, the Western approach is to supply it.  Medical science has evolved to further refine the fixing with better drugs and surgical technology.  The limitations come with medication side effects and the number of medicines someone can tolerate without burdening an already impaired body.

The Eastern approach is to engage the mind/body’s self-healing mechanisms. This is largely done by balancing the body’s energy fields and ridding it of energetic blockages. If the mind/body is missing a substance, the Eastern approach is to stimulate the body to heal and be able to make it. The limitation comes with trauma and severe illnesses that undermine the mind/body capacity to heal.

Currently, our integrative medical research involves legitimizing Eastern treatments with Western criteria, the “double blind study.”  In my (and others’) view, this “Westernization” of non-Western treatments limits what we can learn.   Another approach would be to recognize the validity and strengths of different medical cultures, understand them in their own terms, and apply what fits the needs of that person’s condition.  To do that, we would need to be open to truths discovered by those outside our own tradition.

(See Published Articles: ) Exploring  Eastern similarities with Western technology may suggest very different and perhaps more effective treatments.