In part 2 we looked at energetic strategies. Now I’d like to jump to physical strategies. Honestly, most people seek out physical strategies for what they perceive as pain anyway.

Both Western and Eastern approaches to physical medicine can be profoundly restorative. Western medicine has brought a laser-like focus to the conditions of disease. It takes an aggressive, almost military approach to healing. We engage in wars on conditions and eradicate them with chemical warfare (how we treat cancer), biological warfare (how we fight diseases), and conventional or surgical warfare (we cut things out). Western medicine is also very good at medical engineering. We invasively repair and replace. But to be so good at these things, Western medicine has had to discount or ignore the relationship between the more subtle bodies (mental, emotional, energetic). This means that things like diet, breathing, physical vitality, emotional resilience, and energetic balance are not part of the therapeutic picture. That means that it is not so good at dealing with pain and conditions caused by stress. Most people assume that pain causes suffering. I would argue that more often it is chronic suffering that is causing the pain and Western medicine does not have a great track record for the diseases that result from the lifestyle of suffering.

Eastern medicine tends to be more holistic and places more emphasis on rebalancing the system and is, therefore, more impactful when dealing with the pain caused by suffering. For many physical conditions, eastern approaches may be superior. Yogic exercise, mediation, breath work, and attention to diet is a far better approach to dealing with heart disease, but it isn’t the go to strategy when you’re having severe chest pains. It takes time and practice. Things to which we in the West are often reluctant to commit. Just give me a pill and don’t ask me to change. This is the voice of the ego whose job it is to resist change at all costs. Where Eastern medicine has the potential to be more impactful is in the tradition of mindfulness that is deeply embedded in many of its therapies. Meditation itself is obvious, but the mindfulness embedded in yoga, tai-chi, or qi-gong exercises or in breath work or even careful attention to diet mean that these long, slow therapies are much more likely to have an impact on the mental body, which is where suffering lives.

In practice, however, these Eastern approaches have sometimes been less than effective for those of us in the West. I think this is the fault of our culture rather than any inherent weakness in the systems themselves. We sometimes embrace these practices faddishly, practicing one for 6 months or a year and then dropping it for something “new.” We expect instant results (and are often disappointed) from something that is designed to make long, slow, lasting change. We embrace them superficially in the hopes they will make us skinnier, cooler, more attractive, more spiritual, or more interesting but reject any deep change in how we relate to the world (like the irony of getting a speeding ticket on my way to a yoga retreat center). Finally, and most specifically, the ego self, whose kingdom is the mental body, is a master at coopting anything that is truly threatening to its status quo. Unfortunately, despite the great press these approaches often get, I know too many people who have meditated or practiced yoga or done breath work or chanting for years without it impacting their tendency to suffer needlessly. What the Buddha discovered is that it is possible to meditate and practice ascetic disciplines for years and still suffer. You just get really good at meditating and ascetic practices. Something else is necessary for suffering to end.

Continued in the Biophysics of Suffering: Part 4—Mental and Emotional Strategies for Healing