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From Issue Fourteen, September 2011 « Previous Article Next Article »

Ancient Wisdom and the Perfection of Health

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Ed. Note: Elliott Dacher will be our guide in a new teleseminar series, “Optimal Health and Human Flourishing,” an 8-week intensive that will provide participants with a base of knowledge and time-tested practices that promote integral health. During the sessions, which take place at 5pm PST for eight consecutive Wednesdays beginning September 28 and ending November 16, Elliott will utilize traditional approaches to inner practice, sophisticated study materials, and ongoing mentoring. For more information and to register for the course, go here. His new book is called Aware, Awake, Alive: A Contemporary Guide to the Ancient Science of Integral Health and Human Flourishing.

Several years ago I attended a small gathering of scientists and contemplative practitioners. The topic for the evening was “How People Die.” The presenter was a colleague who spoke to this issue with poignant authenticity; he was at the latter stage of a malignant cancer. As we listened to his presentation and watched his demeanor, we each experienced a presence, a joyfulness, and a vitality that we would all wish for in our own lives. In the midst of life’s greatest challenge, this man exuded profound well-being. Perhaps you have also met such a person whose life force seemed to contradict his or her physical condition.

In the last century, the Indian sage Aurobindo wrote and spoke about the perfectability of the human condition. He specifically referred to what he called the perfection of health. He was not referring to health as we define it in modern times—the absence of the signs and symptoms of physical disease. He was referring to health as a state of being rather than the state of our biology. He did not measure well-being by the fickle materiality of our body but by the character of our human experience. The perfection of health, he wrote, is something that each individual can aspire to and realize through personal effort. It develops when we commit ourselves to a well-defined and time-tested path of inner development that grows consciousness, wisdom, and heart.

Unfortunately, the beliefs and practices of modern medical science have taught us something quite different. We grow up learning that we aren’t healthy unless our body is sound, our physiological markers are normal, and we aren’t at risk for disease—criteria that may not always be achievable. And so, if the state of our biology is the sole measure of health, long-term optimal well-being will be out of reach for many no matter how much effort is made, at least according to current medical science. Fortunately, common sense and personal experience tell us otherwise.

Consider the following. There are two types of ignorance: the first is lack of knowledge; the second is distorted knowledge. The modern vision of health, a vision that relies on biological function alone, lies in the second category, distorted knowledge. It’s distorted because it is partial, incomplete, and inconsistent with what we observe in many people who have transcended their physical condition to achieve a high level of wellness. The human capacity for lifelong well-being was no mystery to wise women and men throughout time and across diverse cultures. In our Western tradition, the ancient Greeks called it eudaimonia, or human flourishing.

Lessons from the Past

If you lived in 500 BC and were ill or troubled, physically or emotionally, you would have journeyed to Cos, Epidaurus, Pergamum, or one of the many temples of the Greek god of healing, Aesclepius. For more than one thousand years, a holistic inner and outer medicine was practiced at these centers, which were located throughout Europe, the Near East, and the Mediterranean. During this period, as attested to by the great philosophers and healers of that time, temple medicine was the foremost source of healing.

Your decision to journey to the healing temple would not be made lightly; healing was a sacred process, a communion with self and the gods. After consulting friends and physician, you would prepare for your departure. During your journey of several days, you would meet others returning from their stay at the center. You would likely hear stories of miracle cures and personal transformations. With rising hope and expectation, you would finally arrive at the temple gates.

Upon your arrival, you would begin the process of purification by cleansing and fasting—a symbolic shedding of toxic attitudes and unhealthy habits of daily life. You were about to become part of a dynamic and diverse healing environment. After settling in to your dormitory, you would explore the temple grounds, enjoying the beautiful gardens and the graceful and serene statues of the great Greek sculptors Phidias and Praxiteles. Roaming minstrels would lift your spirit, and you would participate in lively philosophical dialogues, which would stimulate your intellect and challenge you to consider alternative perspectives to your current life situation.

You might attend dramatic performances, such as the tragedies of Aeschylus, Euripides, or Sophocles—an ancient form of psychodrama—which portray the cycles and rhythms of human life. Or you might have a massage, participate in athletic competitions, or consult the temple priests regarding diet or the use of herbs or pharmaceuticals.

Each evening, dressed in your ceremonial white robes, you would gather with others in the sacred temple to leave offerings to the healing god Aesclepius, bidding him to visit you at night with a healing dream. In the morning, you or some other petitioner might awaken healed. Others might relate the content of their dreams to priests, who would assist with interpretation and provide further instruction regarding nutrition and the use of medicinals. Night after night, you would go inward to seek insight into the nature of your life. The ancient Greeks called this incubation. In our time, we more commonly use the term meditation.

Day after day, removed from the stress and pulls of daily life, focusing on diet, fitness, relaxation, and self-examination, you would experience a slow return of energy and vitality. Finally, the day would arrive when you felt a restored sense of wholeness, balance, and harmony. Immersed in activities of body, mind, and spirit, you would have begun the process of an integral health and healing, which over time leads to human flourishing and the perfection of health.

Upon your departure, if you had the financial resources, you would likely leave a testimonial etched in stone for others to read. Here is one written in 360 BC:

Believe me, men, I have been dead all the years I have been alive. The beautiful, the good, the holy, the evil were all the same to me; such it seems was the darkness that formerly enveloped my understanding and concealed and hid from me all these things. But now that I have come here, I have become alive, as if I had lain down in the temple of Aesclepius and been saved. I walk, I talk, I think. The sun, so great, so beautiful. I have now discovered men, for the first time: now I see the clear sky, you, the air, the acropolis, the theater.

Close your eyes for a moment and imagine this multidimensional inner and outer approach to healing body, mind, and spirit. Imagine yourself separated from your day-to-day life, roaming around the healing temple, participating in its activities, and going inward for guidance each evening. This was the experience of a medicine aimed at human flourishing. It existed in a culture that had access to and valued both the inner and outer aspects of life and that understood the nature of a profound health and well-being.

Ancient Wisdom and a Modern-Day Experiment

I suggest we each undertake an experiment that has been conducted throughout the ages by individuals like you and me. We are fortunate because we can draw from the guidance and wisdom of wise healers from times past. The potential for human flourishing comes with our genes, but its realization requires intention and commitment. No one can do it for us. Butter, like our own hidden potential for a larger health, lies unseen in milk. To transform milk into butter we need to churn it. To transform the seed and possibility of optimal well-being into a life of exceptional health, happiness, and wholeness, we need to similarly “work” our life.

Here’s what we are going to do in our experiment. The sages have told us that human flourishing is the result of both inner and outer development. We are going to test their assertions in our own life. We are going to discover for ourselves whether this claim is true or false.

This is not a complex experiment. We simply begin the process of developing our inner life and monitor the results of our efforts. However, we will need some benchmarks to measure our progress. Here again we don’t have to make it difficult. Although we can chart our progress in a variety of ways, it’s best to simply rely upon our own experience. As you progress with your experiment, you will observe your life carefully as an “inner” scientist. Are you becoming more peaceful and less reactive? Do you have less of a tendency to get thrown by difficult circumstances? Is your mind quieter and more still? Are you happier? Are your relationships improving? Has the overall quality of your life improved?

If you’re committed to this experiment, you will see some of these changes within weeks. At first there will be movement back and forth, moments when you experience progress and harmony and others that seem flat. But over time you will notice more consistency in the results. Eventually you’ll be certain that your life is changing, and if we are correct, these changes will be in the direction of a richer and larger life. So that is our experiment. We start with the vision of human flourishing left to us by our ancestors, and then follow the path they recommended as a way to attain this result. If they were correct, we’ll discover what they discovered. If they were wrong, we’ll discover that as well.

Study, Reflection, and Practice

The path they recommended has three elements: study, reflection, and practice. Study refers to reading pertinent information and attending seminars and workshops where skilled practitioners share their knowledge for achieving inner development and human flourishing. Reflection is carefully considering what you have learned from study. We want to get below the words to the deeper meanings. We want to consider what we have learned to see if it makes sense to us. Study and reflection, then, are the basis of practice. There are two aspects to practice. The first is a formal routine undertaken to tame, train, and develop our mind. The second extends our practice into daily life, where we use routine activities as opportunities to further our learning. In this way, our entire life becomes the ground of our experiment.

These two aspects of inner development are referred to as wisdom teachings and mind training. The first relies on a daily practice of meditation that progressively develops through three stages: calming the mind, resting in the nondistracted mind, and resting in the settled essence of the mind. The objective is to gain an accurate understanding of the nature of the self and thus undercut excessive thinking, distorted understandings, and secondary emotional afflictions. This reduces stress, distress, and suffering. The second aspect of inner development, mind training, relies on a series of specific practices that are integrated into daily life, progressively transforming afflictive mental habits and a closed heart into mental peace, clarity, and loving-kindness. Together, these traditional and time-tested approaches are central to our experiment.

It’s important to emphasize that our personal experiment with inner development not only relates to the mind and the spirit but to the body as well. Our mind plays a significant role in shaping biology, but our biology isn’t sculpted in stone. The body is quite plastic and responds to the choices we make. For over a century, we have known about the powerful relationship of body, mind, and spirit. Psychosomatic medicine, biofeedback, psychoneuroimmunology, and more recently neuroscience and the concept of neuroplasticity have extended our understanding of the mind-body interface and demonstrated the intricate subtleties of self-regulation. But because our understanding of mind and consciousness is relatively undeveloped, we’ve been unable to fully use this knowledge to promote optimal well-being. A comprehensive approach to our inner development will reverse this modern-day dilemma.

The experiment I’m suggesting provides the quicker path to human flourishing rather than the slower path of trial and error. Trial and error takes a long time because it’s not a direct path. Misunderstandings, beliefs, and behaviors that linger from the past obscure a clear vision of our goal. So we try one thing and then another and then another to improve our situation. It’s a tedious and time-intensive process. We are unaware of or reluctant to use the perennial wisdom of the ages, and even if we do, we rarely have access to highly trained people whose personal presence and deep knowledge can help bring to our effort the necessary perseverance, discipline, and commitment.

A Glimpse of the Treasure

It will be helpful in this process to recall a sense of what human flourishing feels like, to taste its radical aliveness and its ease, peace, and delight. Fortunately we experience many such moments—when communing with nature, enthralled with great beauty, at the peak of sexual intimacy, in the free flow of dance, music, or athletic activity. Imagine such a moment, when your sense of “self” drops away, when your usual mind is suspended. You are in a state of full presence, without any mental commentary. You are fully present in the now. You are fully alive in the dance of moment-to-moment life.

At times this moment is completely still, and at others you experience intense perceptions. There is a profound sense of ease. Everything is okay. Everything is complete. You are in the center of your being, in the center of life, not separate but one. And perhaps in such a moment, you gain a deep insight, experience a profound sense of love, or even feel transformed, and everything around you is bathed in beauty and grace. There is no fear and no hope, no grasping and no attachment, neither a sense of past nor future, nothing to change and nothing to do. It’s all there in the radical aliveness of the moment, a state of complete well-being.

In ancient Greek tradition, human flourishing is called the true, the good, and the beautiful—an unchanging knowledge of the truth of life, the goodness of heart, and the beauty of existence. In the Christian tradition, it’s called divine love and agape. In the Buddhist tradition, it is called wisdom and compassion. The Hindus call it satchidananda—awareness, knowledge, bliss. The Oriental tradition refers to it as the tao. Life lived in our deepest self has many names, but it is one. It is the flourishing of our deepest nature. It is the perfection of health. It is the capacity to sustain an optimal and stable well-being through all our adversities.

Universal Responsibility

Gandhi extolled us to “be the change you want to see happen in the world.” That is what we will be doing in this process. By taking on this life experiment, this journey to human flourishing, we commit ourselves to being this change. We begin by taking responsibility for our own well-being. By progressing toward human flourishing in our personal life, we start to become finely tuned instruments that we can apply to the creation of a better world. Human flourishing is the only sound foundation for an authentic and a sustainable society, culture, and environment. That is why our quest for human flourishing is so essential.

This call to human flourishing and the perfection of health is not a new call. It’s an old one, found in the West, the East, and in every culture and age where visionaries sought to explore the unique nature and potential of human life. The wise ones know that humanity is still an unfinished project, a work in progress. They seek to elevate the quality of our existence by urging us toward the fulfillment of our unique possibilities. They tell us that sustained health, happiness, and serenity are natural to the human condition. Unfold your nature, they say. Become what a human is capable of becoming. Look within for the authentic source of an enduring health, happiness, and serenity.

These words bring me back years ago to that evening when I witnessed the perfectability of health and the human condition in one human being. Our presenter had achieved, through rigorous personal effort, a state of well-being and optimal health that sustained itself through one of life’s most difficult challenges. We were each reminded that we can prosper and flourish irrespective of what we’re facing, inspired to go beyond our limited vision of health and to reach toward the fullness of our potential. The choice is ours.

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  • jmysin1 Sep 12, 2011

    As a physician being asked to provide cure to all of those who seek my services I am always struck that when I walk into the exam room and ask how the patient is, they often look at the report in my hands and say "I don't know, you tell me". These are simply lab or x-ray results and certainly don't tell the whole story. I explain that just because a result is "too low or too high" doesn't mean they are ill. I appreciate the true meaning of healing and aspire to reach it with all of my patients.


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