Meditation or Medication, That is the Question

I spent a fascinating weekend in Killarney at a very special and innovative Conference on Mindfulness and Palliative Care. The idea of such a conference being held in Ireland, even within the last five years, would not have been envisaged. There were interesting speakers at the conference, most notably Sogyal Rinpoche, author of The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying and Jon Kabat Zinn, author of several books, most notably Fully Catastrophe Living. Our own Tony Bates also brought a special presence and maturity to the conference as did several other Irish speakers.

Over 450 healthcare professionals attended the conference and I felt, alongside myself, that they were inspired, not only by what was being said, but by the energy of presence and of love that radiated, not only from the presenters but from the participants.

Jon Kabat Zinn made a crucial reference to the latter experience when he said: ‘You risk losing professional credibility with your colleagues when you mention love.’ Taking Jon Kabat Zinn’s statement a step further, those who recoil at the mention of ‘love’ are more in need of help than the individuals they are helping. The deepest need of each and every human being is to be unconditionally loved and the ignoring and dismissal of that fundamental need lies at the root of much that is dis-eased within our health service system and within other social, work and educational systems. When a medical professional does not therapeutically respond to the whole person, he is operating from a disconnection from his own amazing and unique nature. Without the above considerations, Jon Kabat Zinn did say that it is often the case that ‘the healthcare professionals need more help than their patients!’

One of the central themes of the conference was the practice of meditation and the research findings demonstrate that for many ‘medical’ conditions ‘meditation is four times more effective than medication! There was also the enlightening point made by Sogyal Rinpoche ‘when medicine is ineffective, compassion is always effective.’

It appears to me that there are two kinds of meditation – one is the kind you practice alone, in private and the other is the one we bring to our therapeutic and medical practice. My most profound experiences have arisen from being totally present to the person seeking my help. Being totally present to the person’s presence is truly meditation as a living and loving practice. Such a powerful meeting with the other person’s presence embraces not only total focus and love, but also compassion for the pain, illness or misery that the person is enduring. It would seem that many health care professionals would benefit enormously from meditation and compassionate practice. This echoes the words of the French philosopher, Pascale, ‘all man’s problems arise from the inability to sit in a room by himself.’ The words of Francis W. Peabody, Harvard Medical School, add further weight to the foregoing when he wrote: ‘The secret of the care of the patient is in caring for the patient.’ Actually, Peabody could have added that ‘the secret of the care of the patient is in the health practitioner caring for Self so that he can more effectively care for the patient.’ Even the term ‘patient’ needs to be dropped and replaced by the word ‘person.’ The word ‘patient’ depersonalises, deindividualises and disempowers individuals and, I believe, only exacerbates the very difficulties for which they are seeking help. Given, too, that everything we say is about ourselves, at an unconscious level, the label ‘patient’ used by health practitioners, may indeed, symbolically represent the need to be ‘patient’ with self and with those individuals who seek our help! Curiously, ‘patience’, a virtue that is critical to parenting, teaching, child-minding, psychological counselling, psychotherapy, psychoanalysis, managing, medical and social work practices, is a word or practice rarely mentioned in relevant professional literature.

Of course, charity and compassion begin at home and the nature and caring of another is totally determined by a professional’s inner relationship with self. There is also the dire necessity that the culture of the health service is of a nature that actively promotes the compassionate care of each individual staff member and that fiscal and system’s pressures do not jeopardise that essential relating. The present recession has highlighted how the powerful emotional forces of depersonalisation and de-individualisaton, coupled with a profit target fixated mentality and loss of trust led to blind greed, avarice and an absence of dignifying relationships with staff, clients, shareholders and communities.

Politicians have a critical role to play in this development of compassionate care. It is going to be a very hard lesson for individuals who head health, fiscal, industrial and service organisations to value themselves and others before profits, but, I do believe, it is the only way forward.

Dr. Tony Humphreys practices as a clinical psychologist and is author of several books including The Mature Manager.