Mind-body medicine has been a popular topic in allopathy for many decades. During this time, it has gone from a fringe idea to a practice featured by nearly all academic medical centers, including leading institutions like Harvard, Johns Hopkins, and Stanford.
Research into mind-body medicine continues to grow. A recent search on PubMed for the term "mind-body medicine" yielded almost 50,000 results. Surely with this much accumulated research over decades, we must have discovered key insights into how the mind influences the body, right?
Well, yes and no.
On one hand, we do know that practices such as meditation and yoga offer measurable benefits (see the PubMed search). On the other hand, we still haven't been able to clearly define the bridge that connects the mind with the body. We are still seeing the mind and body through the lens of dualism as a mind plus a body—not because it's the right understanding, but because it's the popular view that medical researchers, professors, and doctors are implicitly taught long before their professional education began.
The dualism of mind and body is often traced back four centuries to the French philosopher and mathematician Rene Descartes, though he was in no way the first to offer a dualistic perspective. Descartes explained that the mind is immaterial and doesn't extend in space while the body is material and does extend in space. He apparently saw an invisible barrier between mind and body—one that seemed to fit everyday experience, yet still didn't explain how the mind and body influence each other.
If mind and body are indeed different, how does our will (mind) manage to move our legs (body)? How does a pin prick on our foot (body) cause us suffering (mind)? How does the feeling of happiness (mind) cause a smile on our faces (body)? What is the bridge between the two?
Medicine put this question on the back burner over the last several centuries as Henry Gray gave us detailed insights into physical anatomy, Alexander Fleming gave us penicillin, and Michael DeBakey gave us coronary bypass procedures. Four-hundred years later, the question still hasn't been answered.
This is important to keep in mind (pun intended) when you read articles about mind-body medicine and hear about mind-body therapies. The phrase mind-body is certainly valid—we use it as a communication tool—but at some point we also have to pause and look into what exactly we mean by the mind. We must be able to define our terms if we wish to develop greater clarity.
One way to define mind is to see that mind is experience. Any distinct experience, whether we label it mental, physical, scientific, spiritual, or anything else, is the mind. From this perspective, even what we call the body can be appreciated as a mental experience. Though we have one body, we see that this body is experienced differently depending on what perspective a person takes. The body, in this sense, is subjective, or mental. Even the apparently strictly physical aspects are interpretations of our nervous system, and would be perceived differently by a different species with a different nervous system.
If we can appreciate that even what we call the body is a range of mental experience, then we can move past unexamined, limiting, dualistic thinking by seeing mind and body as a single flow of experience. The body, in this view, is simply the visible, publicly-shared, dense aspect of the mind.
Consider the example of water and ice. Still water by itself is difficult to describe. It's difficult to pick up. It's difficult to share (without a container to hold it). But ice is different. Ice can be described in terms of its shape. It can be picked up. It can easily be given to another person. Yet, ice is not fundamentally different from water. Water that becomes dense and holds its geometric pattern is called ice. Similarly, the aspect of mind that becomes dense through repeated activity, maintaining the same patterns over and over, is called the body. These patterns, when incompletely seen in progressively denser stages, are what we call physiology, biology, body anatomy, and genetics.
Put simply, as the mind flows, so the body appears. This Mind-Body-Flow Theory is consistent with established philosophies like idealism and Advaita, maintains and even upgrades our access to scientific rigor, and is supported by the stories our guests shared on the Healing is Possible podcast, where changes in perspective, feeling, thought, and behavior–all originating in the mind–subsequently change the body. In fact, we all experience this, but it is more powerfully evident in people who have explored the subconscious aspects of mind that hold unseen patterns of experience.
The power of Mind-Body-Flow Theory is clear. If the body is the visible, patterned mind, then new mechanisms of healing become available by exploring the subconscious mind, as our guests have repeatedly demonstrated. Because mental patterns are often subconscious and habitual, it can take time for the body to change, just as it takes time for ice to de-pattern (or simply melt), change, and flow again. This explains why simply trying to think a problem away often doesn't work. The roots of thought run deep and may have "frozen in place" over time. A deep thaw may be needed.
Unfortunately, new ways of thinking about mind and body are often misinterpreted as meaning we are to blame for our suffering, or that we can ignore the body. Let's be clear. Exploring the connection of mind and body is not about blaming someone or pointing fingers, and it’s not about ignoring actions we need to take in hopes of a quick and easy cure. Rather, it’s about opening the door to new possibilities- ones that that still require responsibility and often hard work.
As a caring society, we have a responsibility to ensure that each person has the choice to further investigate these possibilities if they wish. That choice can only happen if we educate ourselves on new, more comprehensive perspectives on mind, body, and healing.
Healing is possible.
A gentle practice:
Investigate your experience in this moment. Note the relationship between the way you feel, the thoughts you think, and how the body represents itself.