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Integral Health and the Role of Consciousness

by Elliott Dacher

Ed. Note: Dr. Dacher will be our guide in next month's new teleseminar series, "Optimal Health and Human Flourishing," and it seemed fitting to reproduce this post of his from earlier this year. Information on this program is coming soon. It begins on September 28.

Several years ago I was speaking about my new book, Integral Health, with a friend in Delhi, and remarked that I was not familiar with any previous books with the same title. My friend immediately said, “I’m certain that there is a book by Aurobindo with a similar title.” Shortly after, I headed off to the Aurobindo center hoping to find it. Sure enough, there it was in the bookstore. The actual title was Integral Healing. It was a compilation of his many writings on consciousness and health.

In this book Aurobindo expressed his view that consciousness is more than a mental phenomenon; it actually descends into our cellular structure, inseparable from our physiology. Consciousness is physiology and physiology is consciousness. The mind/body relationship is like the relationship of water and wetness. You cannot put water on one side of the room and wetness on the other side. A harmonious consciousness is a harmonious physiology. An afflictive mental life is a disturbed physiology. Integral healing, according to Aurobindo, relies on the indivisibility of mind and body. And because an awakened consciousness is the peak of human development, it is the critical factor in health and healing.

When I wrote Integral Health in 2006, my intention was to present a comprehensive model of health and healing which included the four central aspects of the human experience – psychospiritual, biological, interpersonal, and social. Each of these aspects of life contributes to health (and can also contribute to the development of disease). According to integral theory, the progressive enhancement of health is achieved by developing each area: growing consciousness, caring for biological needs, shifting from a focus on self to a focus on others, and bringing meaning and service to our social activities. The end result is not merely reducing the risk of chronic disease but progressively attaining optimal well being.

It soon became apparent to me that the driving force underlying the expansive vision of integral health and healing was psychospiritual development – the awakening and development of consciousness. There are two reasons for this. First, in modern times we have denied and devalued inner development. As a result, for most individuals, consciousness remains relatively undeveloped, as compared to traditions and cultures which emphasize inner development. Second, the three other aspects of the integral process – interpersonal, biological, and social – develop in tandem with a growth of consciousness. By necessity, they move together.

Consider the following: You cannot have healthy relationships and selfless loving-kindness without a growth in consciousness. It is likely that further advances in biological health will result from an increasingly subtle capacity for mind/body self regulation, which is similarly driven by a growing consciousness. And finally, the shift from experiencing the world as serving our needs to viewing ourselves as being in service to the world requires a leap in consciousness as well.

An expanding consciousness drives the entire integral process. That was the central observation of Aurobindo – consciousness as the root of integral health and healing.The process of inner development doesn’t mean disregarding other aspects of the human experience, but rather is a shift in emphasis and focus that is compelled by recognizing the pivotal role of an awakened consciousness. Without focusing on the growth of consciousness, other aspects of our lives cannot be fully developed. It is simply not possible.

Inner development can be divided into two main areas – mind training and wisdom teachings. Mind training focuses on ridding the mind of its afflictive and negative emotions and replacing them with healthy mental attitudes. This includes taming the overactive mind, developing mindfulness, promoting the attitude of loving-kindness, and attaining basic insights into the workings of the mind. Wisdom teachings focus on replacing false beliefs, which underlie afflictive emotions, with correct understandings. The latter is the basis for a precise and accurate knowledge of reality. Although these two aspects of inner development may appear separate, they actually evolve together and mutually support each other. The combination of the two decisively and permanently liberates human life from the scourge of all types of suffering.

For the past three years I have been presenting a 10-week program at a local hospital. We have completed 14 sessions with 300 participants. This effort was initiated with the belief that integral health – the alleviation of distress and suffering and the attainment of the qualities of human flourishing – can be best achieved through inner development.

The ten weeks were divided into ten areas of study. These included clearing the mind; identifying the root causes of distress and suffering; addressing the nature and resolution of afflictive emotions; cultivating loving-kindness; experiencing work as a source of service; perceiving adversity as opportunity; knowing what to cultivate and what to abandon in the quest for optimal well being; and other related issues. Participants studied these topics through prepared readings and class handouts. In addition, two kinds of practice were incorporated into the program – a daily sitting practice as well as a variety of other practices including mindfulness, meditative listening, and so on. The point is to create an integral and integrated tapestry of consciousness-based study and practice which utilizes all experience as an opportunity to grow and expand consciousness.

We also introduced a second-level course for those who have developed a stable sitting practice. Although most of the participants in this course had no previous meditation experience, they have exhibited a remarkable enthusiasm and persistence in their efforts, and changes are seen within weeks: a greater presence to momentary experience, diminished reactivity, improved relationships, an increasing sense of well being, greater compassion for others, and, most importantly, a strong commitment to continuing their inner development. We can only assume that these changes will lead to corresponding changes in the physical, relational, and social dimension as well.

What we have learned from this informal experiment is that it is possible to drive the entire process through consciousness-based studies. A fully integrated program aimed at inner development can establish the foundation for a progressive reduction in distress and suffering and a simultaneous enhancement of the quality of life. Over time these changes become irreversible, like a fruit that ripens and can no longer return to its unripened state.

A consciousness-based integral approach taps into the last uncharted frontier in health and healing: It builds on the pivotal realization that the expansion of consciousness is the driving force underlying a comprehensive and integral health and healing. By focusing on inner development we gain the most from our time and effort. We undertake the most important step towards assuring a larger life and optimal well being.

We cannot let this opportunity slip away. The individual who masters his own life becomes the finely tuned instrument which serves to benefit others and care for the fate of our imperiled planet. The stakes are very high. The time is now.

Inner Wisdom
  • Anonymous Icon

    cyouhanna7 Jan 06, 2011

    "the shift from experiencing the world as serving our needs to viewing ourselves as being in service to the world requires a leap in consciousness as well".....

    " the alleviation of distress and suffering and the attainment of the qualities of human flourishing – can be best achieved through inner development.."

    This could be in a different context away from healing and the conscious but I have this idea that the next step in human evolution is nothing physical but the idea that humans will develop a higher thought process moving away from selfish motives which alludes to the second quote and more towards an understanding of sustained growth in a positive direction for the human race alluding to your first quote without harming this planet and learning as much as we can. I know this is a little broad but essentially is this what you are getting to? I've always had this idea and if we look back throughout history the central theme is attaining power, influence, and resources. Are you suggesting that the next step is to move away from that and more towards attaining knowledge. Would you also argue that because there are just so many more people the disparity is there and we have already began that move?.


  • Anonymous Icon

    ameliorate Jan 08, 2011

    "Integral health" seems to have many resonances to the new, pioneering book "Conscious Medicine" by Gill Edwards. This is broadly about the role that energy plays in our health, notably just how influential our thoughts and emotions are to our overall health and how they can adversely initiate ensuing ailments. I practice positive thinking and have developed awareness in the mind/body connection.
    Gill Edwards is well qualified to write such a book - I find it empowering. Have you read it? Your thoughts?

  • Anonymous Icon

    Victoria Hamman Jan 20, 2011

    ". . . expansion of conciousness is the driving force underlying a comprehensive and integral health and healing." As a naturopathic medical doctor, I have tried to relay this principle to my patients, but I did not really comprehend it's truth until I buckled down to an hour of my own meditation practice every day. After several months, I experienced a dramatic shift in the symptoms of my rheumatoid arthritis - an autoimmune disease. Expanding my conciousness (through daily chanting in my case) led to measurable physical benefits in reduction in pain and swelling. Now I focus on really trying to motivate virtually all of my patients to discipline themselves to a daily (or twice daily) meditative practice of some sort.

  • jmysin1 Apr 09, 2011

    It appears medicine is evolving from allopathic to integrative to integral. I would agree with everyone that a routine contemplative/mindful practice is vital to move this process along in our lifetime.

  • Elliott Dacher, MD May 04, 2011

    Dear Ions Friends;

    Thank you for your comments .. some thoughts on your questions ...

    From cyouhanna7: "I've always had this idea and if we look back throughout history the central theme is attaining power, influence, and resources. Are you suggesting that the next step is to move away from that and more towards attaining knowledge." >> In both the Eastern traditions and the pre-classical Western tradition there has been a strong emphasis on inner development and access to higher states of consciousness. The method was called meditation in the East, and the result was a non-cognitive penetrating wisdom. In the West the same method was called "incubation," and Plato described the result of the knowledge gained as an apprehension of "the true, the good, and the beautiful." The dominant orientation of cultures shifts over time, from inner to outer and back again. The longing for inner development and the longing for "power, influence, and resources" have had their ebb and flow over time. Hopefully we are entering a time of balance when the inner and outer support each other in a full knowing and being.

    ameliorate: Thanks ... I haven't read it, but I will check it out.

    Victoria: Thanks for your sharing. I think it becomes apparent to any practitioner who does their own inner work that an expansion of consciousness is the key to an open heart, the transition from self-cherishing to other-cherishing, the shift towards selfless service, and the capacity to develop the subtle levels of self-regulation of mind/body. Your patients are fortunate to have you.

    jmysin1: Than you for your sharing.

    I want to thank Dr. Vandana of the Sri Aurobindo Society for bringing to my attention another book on Integral Health by y Dr Soumitra Bas. I'll certainly take a look at it.

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