The Art of Life

(Originally published for The Dragontree)

Several years ago, an old friend of our family from Germany became a proud graduate of medical school. She worked at several hospitals in Europe and Israel and then was awarded a residency at a prestigious medical center in the U.S. I was very curious to hear about how her experience at this American facility compared to those on the other side of the Atlantic.

I expected that she was probably awed by the cutting edge equipment and the level of training and care that can be bought for the huge sums we spend on healthcare in this country. But that wasn’t exactly her experience. No, instead she was rather disappointed. She explained that the doctors she had worked with previously (like early American physicians) had spent their careers developing their senses, perfecting their bedside manner and the art of rapport, and honing their skills of observation. In contrast, she felt that the doctors at this renowned facility didn’t seem to trust their own diagnostic abilities, nor did they appear driven to hone these skills. Instead, they relied heavily on their technology. It all came down to interpreting tests and following protocols, and there was little consideration of the person upon whom these tests were being conducted – or the innumerable individual factors that no test can perceive.

It reminded me of how new modern medicine really is – and of how effective the American Medical Association was at discrediting nearly all other forms of medicine in the 1900s. Its youth doesn’t make it less brilliant, but neither does the age of certain older systems of medicine make them archaic.

Twenty years ago, I had a terrible cold and I missed a week of important college classes – including organic chemistry, which was one of those subjects I couldn’t just learn from a textbook. I needed to get better fast, or else I’d fall way behind. I had recently acquired a book on Ayurveda – India’s traditional system of medicine – and I was keen to put it to use. I made a cup of warm, salty water and snorted it up my nose, spitting it – and a lot of other gunk – out my mouth. (Mind you, this was before commercially available neti pots.) Then I spent half an hour chanting certain tones that are meant to resonate in the skull to decongest the sinuses. At this point, I felt about 75 percent better. Next, I searched around Northampton for some Ayurvedic herbs, found them, prepared them, drank the tea and went to bed. The next day I woke up feeling great.

This was one of the early experiences that got me interested in traditional systems of medicine. Age doesn’t necessarily make something wise, as can be seen by the many useless medical practices we’ve abandoned (many of the most atrocious are found in the history of our own Western medicine). But some systems, such as Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda, have been “living” and in continuous use for thousands of years, because they work. Unlike Western medicine, these systems began with foundational texts more than 2000 years ago, and they’ve built upon these foundations ever since.

The fundamental work of Ayurveda is called the Charaka Samhita. It consists of eight books with 120 chapters, detailing pathology, diagnosis, nursing, hygiene, the preparation and use of drugs, diet, the duties of a physician, and many other facets of medicine. It was written at least a few centuries BCE. I think it’s safe to say it was ahead of its time.

One of the things that stands out about Ayurveda as a medical system is that, unlike modern medicine, it’s not particularly focused on disease. The word Ayurveda comes from the Sanskrit terms ayus (life) and veda (science or art), and so it means the science or art of life. Consider how different “the art of life” feels in contrast to the Western medical paradigm: “the obliteration of disease.” It concerns itself with all of the factors that contribute to the attainment of a good life, rather than the specific elimination of illness. A huge portion of its wisdom thus pertains to the routine things we do to maintain health and happiness – things that we’re so prone to overlook if we put all of our eggs into the Western medicine basket, ignore self-care, and hope for the best.

As a philosophical cornerstone in the development of our treatments, the principles and practices of Ayurveda will be our focus in this series. To start, Ayurveda emphasizes the consumption of good food. Food that feels vital, nourishing, and constructive. The Charaka Samhita says, “The life of all beings is food, and all the world seeks food. Complexion, clarity, good voice, long life, understanding, happiness, satisfaction, growth, strength, and intelligence are all established in food. Whatever is beneficial for worldly happiness … and whatever action leads to spiritual salvation is said to be established in food.” With that, I dedicate the coming week to a special awareness around food selection, preparation, and consumption. Imagine that you’re selecting from the finest offerings of the world to incorporate these offerings into yourself.

Continue on to Does Karma Bite Asses?

Be well,

Dr. Peter Borten