So energetic approaches to healing, while undeniably beneficial, often bring only temporary relief and usually don’t move far enough down the chain of physicality to affect the body in a lasting way. Western approaches are great for trauma and the alleviation of certain painful conditions and Eastern approaches are more holistic and satisfying for creating a more balanced system that can sometimes impact up the chain of more subtle bodies.

For my money, if it’s physical pain that is life-threatening, give me Western medicine. If it’s physical pain that is chronic and life-style based, give me Eastern medicine. But if it’s mental or emotional suffering that is masquerading as pain or causing physical constriction that is causing pain, this needs to be addressed at the mental and emotional levels. While physical therapies and energetic therapies may have some impact on the mental and emotional bodies, the ego’s ability to cling to and rationalize and justify suffering is just too powerful to not address it head on.

At the mental and emotional level we also have two choices. Western medicine pioneered various forms of talk therapy that are actually good at moving someone from dysfunctionality to functionality. Unfortunately they accomplish this without ever really challenging the ego. In fact the goal is often to have a stronger, healthier ego. This is especially useful when the goal is really less about happiness and more about socialization and fitting in. So after years of talk therapy we may be more functional in our lives and suffer a little less, but we are still dissatisfied and often far from at peace. More recently Western medicine has promoted chemical solutions to mental challenges. While genuinely helpful to many people, I wonder if the chemical path to functionality is also more at the service of socialization and fitting in as well. I think that Eastern approaches to mind-body health are more successful in the long run, but they do take time and a commitment to change that is sometimes more than some people can handle. I think some people who look for spiritual answers to mental and emotional challenges might actually benefit from Western talk therapy and even pharmaceutical interventions, especially if it brings them enough stability to engage in a mind-body practice.

When it comes to suffering, the best way to take on the ego itself is through some combination of meditation or mindfulness practice and the process popularized by Eastern Advaita known as inquiry. Inquiry is a relentless and persistent look inward at who we actually are and what is causing us to suffer. Where Western talk therapy is focused on improving functionality, inquiry is based on undermining the sense of self that is at the root of the problem. It is actually transfunctional. Inquiry can work well with anyone, though it seems to work best with people who have been tempered by some years of meditation experience (enabling them to step back and recognize that they are not their thoughts) or people who are in the midst of the kind of crisis that leads to breakthrough rather than breakdown.

Traditional forms of inquiry can be found in things like Zen Koans—puzzles designed to confound the ego—and Eastern teachers of Advaita Vedanta and Buddhism. Modern forms of inquiry-based approaches have been popularized by Dennis Genpo Merzel’s “Big Mind/Big Heart Process,” Byron Katie’s “The Work” and books and presentations by Eckhart Tolle, Gangaji, and Adyashanti. In these contemporary versions, and a good example is the work of Jeff Foster, there is little reliance on spiritual dogma, religious tradition, lineage teachings, and time-worn spiritual cliches. Some teachers, like Scott Kiloby have applied the discipline of inquiry to the challenge of addiction with wonderful results.

Inquiry can work through questioning that can at once feel gentle and confrontational as it addresses ego at the mental body level. It can also be more gentle in simply asking individuals to return attention to those primal emotions—the felt sensations experienced in and around the body prior to naming, labeling, judging, and claiming. The important thing though is that this kind of work is the only work that seems to really address suffering head on in a clean and lasting way.

Continued in The Biophysics of Suffering: Part 5