The trouble with Dr. Oz?

IMG_1356The New Yorker is my favorite magazine.  Every once in awhile, though, I encounter an article that really makes me scratch my head:  Actually a couple of these have been written by Michael Specter, including his recent “The Operator,” subtitle (in the contents), “The Trouble with Doctor Oz,” February 4, 2013.  (Specter is also the Author of Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives.)

I think Specter, along with some other Oz critics, is right to question the unbridled and hyped up promotion of herbs or foods, like raspberry ketones to burn fat, or green coffee beans for weight-loss, or red palm oil for Alzheimer’s disease, though I do think its helpful to bring attention to these things:  In my mind the hype and overemphasis is problem.

On the other hand, I strongly part ways with Specter when it comes to Oz’s showcasing of some “alternative” approaches to healing.  I am like Oz in not needing scientific proof that these approaches work.  If one thinks physicians should stick within the scientific, Specter’s argument is understandable.  But medicine is also an art.  In addition, science has shown us that sometimes placebos work as treatment.  Specter says that Oz’s practice of mixing “sensible” and scientifically proven information with unproven information is hard to understand—IS IT?  Science, after all, is sometimes used in specious ways to promote pharmaceutical drugs.

These are old questions representing two camps, the Western scientific and Eastern, the rationalist and the mystic, the chemical and surgical with the natural (the latter has not been studied as extensively).  Here’s where I come from.  The two major health conditions that have affected my wellbeing have been untreatable by modern medicine.  If they progress to cancer or blindness or an autoimmune condition, medicine will have an “answer” or treatment, but I have used alternative methods to reverse or stop the problem in their tracks.  These modalities, ayurveda, acupuncture, and herbal medicine, were off the radar of modern medicine, and science would not have given me reinforcement for pursuing them.

My experiences with keratoconus, an eye disorder, and candida/gluten intolerance, a digestive disorder, taught me how to address illness from a system, organic, natural, and energetic  angle.   Arresting of the keratoconus and resolving the candida issue involved processes that took quite a long time and a commitment to my health at emotional, spiritual, physical, social, and environmental levels.  I may not have healed had I not meditated, prayed, dropped unhealthy friendships, actually adjusted my way of exercising to a more gentle one focused on yoga and walking outdoors in the sunshine.   Without all these angles of approach, I would have become sicker and repeatedly visited my physician, who could only have given me temporary measures and helped me manage chronic illness.

Western science and medicine exist in one realm while some of the healing arts tap into another.  We have to acknowledge the limitations of our mechanistic medical sciences, to realize there is a realm of healing, of energy, that we do not understand with our rational minds.  We need a practice of mindfulness, of openness, of listening to the body, emotions, spirit, and chi, to old traumas and the need for radical self-care on all these levels.

This approach is not easy.  It requires time, energy, and an ability to go through upheaval and reorientation.  It demands an openness to uncertainty and to life changes.  It means loosening dependence on the rational, analytical intellect and paying attention to the body and its sensations.  I think the process also leads to examination of our culture, to a reengagement with our selves, and to a new relationship with the fruits of the earth, the herbs and natural foods. Not many of us will engage in such a process, particularly if we are working hard and are engaged with a profession of status, busy in our day-to-day lives.  It is easier to turn instead to the scientific, the prescription, the surgery.  Valid too, but sometimes not enough.

Specter quotes Oz:  “All I’m trying to do is put a couple of road signs out there.  I sit on that set every day, and that is what I am focusing on.  The road signs.”  Oz says he wants to erase barriers between patients and medicine, wants to raise issues that remain undiscussed, wants to walk the line that divides conventional medicine and alternative cures.   I am glad for his efforts.

Specter also says of Oz, “He describes modern medicine as a “civil war” waged between conventional physicians and those who are open to alternative cures for maladies ranging from anxiety to cancer; he considers it his mission to walk the line that divides them.  But more often his show seems to erase that line completely, with results that may be less benign than Oz and his many viewers realize.”

I tend to think the marriage of pharmaceutical companies and medicine is also less benign than many realize.  I for one think that Oz is doing important work inhabiting that zone between medicine and holistic health, between science and energy healing.  Many of us are grateful that he’s talking about these things, engaging with people out there seeking healing.  Medicine does not have all of the answers, and we need people like Oz to ask the questions and to present other sides so we might actively engage in our own healing in ways that involve our bodies, minds, and spirits.  I believe we need just such a wizard to catalyze a transformation.

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Hakomi homies

I have been interested in models for mental health care for many years, beginning in college where the approach was behavioral and not to my taste.  At that time I asked one professor if he could recommend some books on the history of psychology so I could learn more about where the field had come from as well as about other schools of thought within it.   Later I worked as a writer for the American Counseling Association, the American Psychiatric Association, and for Common Boundary, a magazine on transpersonal psychology.  And now I work in independent living, which is akin to the clubhouse model in mental health.  This model emphasizes connecting individuals with community and a range of practical resources to help them live the lives they wish given their disability or disorder.

Shortly before this stop on my journey, I joined an experiential training in hakomi body-centered psychotherapy.  This is a mindfulness-based approach sometimes called “assisted meditation.”  During a two-year training I traveled through new territory of emotion, psyche, and community.   With two excellent teachers and 22 brave cohorts, I left the achievement-oriented world and explored inner terrain I hadn’t known was there.

Hakomi drew me like a magnet.  As a yoga teacher and meditator interested in the emotional and spiritual effects of practice, it rang true for me as a method for freeing oneself of some reactivity, old beliefs, and behavioral patterns.  Observing the sensations of the body and the responses to statements and “experiments” in social interaction seemed a practical way to heal, to develop “new neural pathways” and to lighten up on the old ingrained ones.

The training was extraordinary but challenging for this introverted writer.  I had resisted group interaction most of my life, yet there I was, sitting in a very large circle “talking about my feelings” or someone else’s feelings. It was downright scary at times, but I was also awed.  The blend of teaching, experimenting, and sharing perceptions with others amazed me.  Where else, I wondered, would you find a group so willing to put their psyches on display and learn with others how us humans work, with all of our ingrained beliefs and perceptions and reactivity?  Where else would people be willing to let down old responses in the presence of others and make room for new ones?

Hakomi, which was created by therapist Ron Kurtz and is influenced by Buddhism, Taoism and even psychoanalysis, is a way of being with others, usually a therapist, in a mindful state, and noticing the sensations in one’s body as well as the thoughts and images that emerge.  Sometimes these things poke their heads up on their own, sometimes they arise as reactions to a statement or “experiment” designed by the therapist.  In this experience we begin to see how we are “organized” and what our core beliefs are.

The beauty in it is the principle of compassion for ourselves, the respecting of those resistances we have, and just observing them.  The gentle acceptance of the therapist allows all kinds of beliefs and reactions to arise and be “studied.”  Sometimes the noticing itself brings a shift in the belief.  In bringing mindfulness and compassion to one’s patterns, we see how they work, and we see the possibility of different conclusions and more choice in responding.

I often felt insecure and flawed sitting in a big circle and having to “share” my experience, but I learned, particularly I learned to give myself a break.  I learned from others that they all have their own patterns, that even those who seem most together have insecurities that motivate much of their behavior.  Forcing myself to talk, feeling analytical and scared, I watched myself perform, became more able to admit my discomfort to the group, and gradually to express a feeling or thought more spontaneously, with less analysis.

I loved the teaching and the one-on-one process. I gratefully soaked up words of wisdom about how we organize around our early experiences, about the dynamics and intricacies of anger.  Mostly I absorbed a capacity to be sloppy, to connect with others in the chaos and the tossing up of our fears and shames as just part of the human canvas.  To explore with others our childlike needs and how we manage them.  To dance without self-consciousness when we turned on some music and let ourselves move.

Ultimately, I came away more solid, more engaged with the world, and freer.  Being a hakomi therapist wasn’t for me, but hakomi infuses my yoga teaching, my writing, my meditation, and my interactions with others.  It changed me just like a year in a far-off land would: It pulled away my assumptions, my frame of reference, and let me experiment.  It gave me a more flexible sense of myself.  An invaluable trip, I’d say, this one with my “hakomi homies.”

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