IN “HEALING AND THE MIND,” a new five-part PBS series scheduled to air beginning February 22,1993, Bill Moyers travels to China and throughout the United States on a quest to understand how our thoughts and feelings influence health. What he discovers is scientific evidence for our grandparents’ common sense: tales of those who died of a broken heart. Until recently Western medicine insisted that the immune system was an island unto itself, one that dispatched or denied aid to the body according to remote and imperturbable laws. Here, Buddhists and nonBuddhists alike will be provoked by recent Western discoveries about how the immune system listens to the mind and the emotions by way of molecular messengers-the neuropeptides. Any audience will be moved as well by five dying people gathered in a house in northern California, helping each other to discover psychic health as they prepare for death. From a Buddhist perspective, what is missing in this series (aside from a brief look at Tibetan Buddhist medicine) are questions about the source of suffering or about our ultimate nature. Moyers never challenges us to ponder the way in which scientists and journalists set out to capture the substance of reality. As Thinley Norbu writes in White Sail, “Even if we think that a fundamental and ultimate constituent of substance can be found, nothing can be found by finding. By being found, the pure fundamental nature of original mind automatically escapes, so whatever is found will never be the source of phenomena. It will just be an additional concept that comes and goes.” That there is an original mind which is the source of all phenomena never appears as even a possibility. Still, Moyers’ “Healing and the Mind” is a window on the strengths and limitations of television as an instrument of knowledge.
Just as in his Joseph Campbell series, Moyers plays the gentle East Texas knight of the New Age, on a crusade to the frontiers of knowledge for the folks back home. In the end, however, most Buddhist viewers will be left with the impression that there is too much essential material that can’t be captured in his analytical net. For example, Moyers visits Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D., founder and director of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in Worcester, and watches him teach meditation to a diverse crowd of people suffering from chronic pain. Kabat-Zinn, a Buddhist, is concerned with the urgent need for change in the Western health care system: “We need to take what’s most valuable from all the various consciousness traditions, integrate them into Western behavioral science and mainstream medicine, and study them as best we can in terms of the most sophisticated and stringent scientific methodologies. We need to ask, What is it about these ancient traditions that tells us something valuable about healing and the mind?” Many Buddhists agree with Kabat-Zinn and applaud his efforts to relieve pain. At the same time, what is most valuable about Buddhist meditation, from the uncompromising view of Thinley Norbu, may not be detectable by even the most sophisticated scientific means.
In the segment called “The Mind-Body Connection,” Moyers interviews Dr. David Felton, who together with his wife Suzanne Felton discovered the nerve fibers that physically link the nervous system and the immune system. Since that time the Feltons have discovered a host of communication molecules—the neurotransmitters, or neuropeptides—that talk to many different kinds of cells. Simply put, the connection of our thoughts and feelings to our immune system is both hardwired and chemical. Felton, who is a professor of neurobiology and anatomy at the University of Rochester Medical School, admits that such discoveries are “reinventing the wheel from a much more mechanistic point of view.” Now, according to Felton, scientists can see the particular neurotransmitters that may be needed to respond to a particular stressor, like loneliness or fear. Such an extraordinary view into the interconnections of our body, speech, and mind—glimpses of the instantaneous impact of our intellectual and emotional reactions—could become powerful images in an American Buddhist medicine.
Dr. Candace Pert, the pioneering scientist who invented the means for discovering the opiate receptor, calls the neuropeptides the “biochemical correlate” of the emotions and suggests to Moyers, “Emotions might actually be the link between body and mind.” Pert, a visiting professor for Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience at Rutgers University, even allows herself to speculate that “the ultimate source of connection for the mind, emotions, and body is a higher energy—a form of energy that appears to leave the body when the body dies.” From a Buddhist perspective, such a speculation is dazzlingly suggestive, but will it be a physicist, as she suggests, who grasps this original energy?
Again and again in the series, doctors talk about how loneliness and isolation—our peculiarly American diseases—diminish immune response and increase our sufferings. Some of the most thought-provoking moments in the series have to do with new evidence that admitting feelings—breaking through habitual isolation and repression—can help the healing process. At Stanford University, for example, Moyers listens as eight women with metastatic breast cancer share some of their deepest fears and hopes under the quiet direction of psychiatrist David Spiegel, ‘”who seeks to help them accept the normalcy of their reactions so that they won’t feel “so removed from the course of human life.” Spiegel, a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University School of Medicine, conducted a landmark study on the effect of just such “psychosocial treatment” on patients with metastatic breast cancer. The study revealed that adding group support to the ordinary regimen of medical care extended the lives of the women by two years.
In another segment Moyers interviews Dr. Dean Ornish, the author of a study that proved that a combination of meditation, vegetarian diet, exercise, and group support could reverse the damage of heart disease. Pressed by Moyers to name the “major determinant in the reversal of heart disease,” Ornish, an assistant clinical professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, answers: “I would say it is dealing with the deeper issues of what really motivates us, and what brings us a sense of contentment and peace and well-being.”
In the “Mystery of Ch’i” episode, some three thousand Chinese in People’s Park in Shanghai practice the ancient, cloudlike movements of T’ai Chi Ch’uan. Moyers’ guide for this episode, David Eisenberg, M.D., explains that every day at dawn people practice this or other forms of moving meditation all over China. Eisenberg, the first Western medical exchange student to the People’s Republic of China, explains that they are sensing their ch’i or life energy. Various T’ai Chi masters and Chinese doctors try to explain this mysterious ch’i: it is a ubiquitous primordial energy that animates every living creature and gives rise to the ever-exchanging dance between the forces of yin and yang; it can’t be detected by any instrument, yet it is governed by our awareness. Again and again, Moyers tries to nail down ch’i. Again and again, he is told there is something important that he does not understand. Moyers cocks his head and looks bewildered, almost vulnerable. A gap seems to open up between Moyers and the Chinese, and the atmosphere comes alive. The same atmosphere of real questioning resonates through the last segment of the series. At Commonweal, a retreat north of San Francisco for people with cancer, Moyers learns from the group around him that just learning to pay attention can bring meaning and grace. At such moments, “Healing and the Mind” begins to show us how it is that the etymological root of healing means “to be made whole.'”
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