In the '70's, Harvard cardiologist Herbert Benson, author of "The Relaxation Response" and founder of the Mind-Body Medical Institute, was the first physician to scientifically document the physiological benefits of meditation through his studies with experienced Transcendental Meditators.
At a conference in 1988, I asked him if he had discovered any evidence for the other reported benefits of meditation in terms of spiritual experience. He said he could not make a scientific evaluation since they had not found a satisfactory way to quantify spirituality. Three years later Benson responded differently, indicating that they had made significant academic progress in this area and had just written a paper documenting the spiritual benefits of meditation.
In January 1993, physician David Eisenberg, head of Harvard medical exchange programs with China and director of the Center for Alternative Medicine Research, published a landmark paper in the New England Journal of Medicine that estimated that unconventional therapies such as meditation were used by a third of the general population, with expenditures of over 13 billion dollars a year.
Synchronistically, one month after his article was published he was seen by millions of PBS viewers as the lead speaker on one of the most popular public television series in history, "Healing and the Mind," with Bill Moyers. Subsequently, in April 1995, Eisenberg arranged for Harvard Medical School to sponsor the first major academic symposium on Alternative Medicine, drawing 500 participants from all over the country.
Not to be outdone by his younger colleague, in December 1995 Benson convinced Harvard to sponsor the first conference on Spirituality and Healing in Medicine. The response was overwhelming, and the original registration of 500 had to be expanded to over 900 to accommodate the demand. The conference was partially funded by Sir John Templeton of mutual funds fame who has contributed a substantial portion of his fortune to furthering research into the relationship between spirituality and science.
In July 1996 at the Templeton Conference on Scientific Progress in Spiritual Research, Duke Chancellor Ralph Snyderman was featured as a keynote speaker.
In October 1996, members of the Duke Mind-Body Medicine Study Group organized the first "Integrating Mind, Body and Spirit in Medical Practice" meeting held at the Omni Europa. The conference, also partially funded by the Templeton Foundation, sold out two weeks in advance, and several hundred potential registrants had to be turned away. The meeting showcased the many ongoing clinical, educational and research programs at the Medical Center devoted to this emerging holistic approach to medicine.
What are we to make of this rapid paradigm shift that has coincided with the drastic changes in medicine brought about by managed care? One ironic side effect of managed care is that healthcare consumers are becoming so frustrated with the new system that they are finally recognizing the need to start assuming responsibility for their own health. In fact, for the entire system to survive economically there must be a significant shift toward patient empowerment with consumers becoming active participants in their own care.
Paradoxically, while most HMO's are taking steps to limit access to services, there is an increasing variety of medical information available via the Internet, and the educated consumer is confronted by a bewildering array of therapeutic options. A reasonable approach to the process of integrating all this information was provided by the closing speaker at the Duke conference, general practitioner Elliott Dacher, author of "Whole Healing." In his book he describes the following four complementary systems of healing which need to be utilized in a balanced fashion.
The homeostatic system maintains health through physiological checks and balances in a series of autoregulatory feedback loops. The treatment system, which includes allopathic techniques such as surgery as well as alternative approaches like acupuncture, utilizes external resources to restore function when the equilibrium state is overloaded by stressors.
The mind-body system consists of internal self-regulatory techniques like meditation and imagery that are used for adaptive transformation in response to life's challenges. The spiritual system invokes unifying intuitive mechanisms of consciousness, such as myth and symbol, to complete the journey of integration to wholeness.
Any one of the four healing systems is incomplete without the others. This holistic vision is summarized metaphorically by scientist/mystic Pierre Teilhard de Chardin in "The Phenomenon of Man": "Like the meridians as they approach the poles, science, philosophy and religion are bound to converge as they draw nearer to the whole."
Larry Burk is an associate professor of radiology.