What the Brain Isn’t – Mind or Love

Neurobiologist Dr. Dan Siegel is astounded that neither scientists, including psychiatrists, nor philosophers nor academicians have come up with a good working definition of mind; nor, can they describe what thinking is.

Mind is clearly not the same as a brain firing electrical impulses through neurons, according to Siegel. No one even knows how much brain and mind overlap. He has come to believe that subjective experience is real, consciousness is real, but the challenge that arises for those in his field is: how can a scientist address what is real when it can’t necessarily be measured in the laboratory?

And, therein resides the biggest challenge also for those who are currently researching the role prayer and spirituality play in health. As studies increasingly show that someone can experience improved health by  expressing spiritual qualities such as forgiveness and compassion and recipients of these qualities can also be healed or reduce susceptibility to illness, our current laboratory based research has come up wanting. What is the connection between each of us with the Divine and with each other? How does it heal?

I’ve found that the key is understanding we are all connected through a higher being that some call Allah, Yahweh or God, and which I like to think of as divine Mind. My compassion, forgiveness and empathy for others has greater power to heal when it is an expression of the connection we all have with the Divine.

According to Siegel, science has made great strides in measuring the brain, but love cannot be found as one of its functions. Nor can our greater connection to others be measured. He uses the term “mindful” to describe the many subjective elements of consciousness – such as love, compassion, fear – that can’t necessarily be seen in brain study or scientific data.

Though elusive for brain scientists, subjective experience cannot be ignored. Nor can mind, which possibly is the source of consciousness and perhaps the vehicle by which we’re all connected.

The Bible has long offered this guidance for healthier living:  “…be of one mind, having compassion for one another; love as brothers, be tenderhearted, be courteous;…” It seems to me that this is the kind of consciousness and connection that heals.

One day science will fully authenticate healthier and longer lives when these qualities and connections are lived.  But it may not be through measuring brain activity.

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Here’s How To Leave Despair For Resilience

A 19th century woman loses her husband after only months of marriage. In ill health, her young child is taken away when family members adopt him out. Her second husband is imprisoned in the civil war, then deserts her. Nearly penniless and in precarious health, she has a life threatening accident. Yet, at the darkest hour she finds a way back to health and later, even thrives. What is the quality that allowed her to bounce back after extreme challenges?

In the 1970‘s, biologists began using the term resilience to describe how ecosystems recover from disturbance and damage. Not long after it was applied to community, social, and psychological conditions as well.  According to Psychology Today resilience is the “ineffable quality that allows some people to be knocked down by life and come back stronger than ever.”

Today, “[i]n the United States, an estimated 50–60% of people will experience a traumatic event at some point in their lives, whether through military combat, assault, a serious car accident or a natural disaster.”

Surviving these events and becoming even stronger, in other words, responding with resiliency, is a life saver.

In physics a rubber band inherently possesses the elasticity to return to its original state.  When an individual suffers from trauma or long term stress, returning to normalcy can seem more complicated.

That 19th century woman, Mary Baker Eddy, found strength and resilience to put her life back together through a new insight from her Bible. She not only cheated death but went on to discover a spiritually based method of healing, founded a movement and even established an award winning international newspaper that is still read today.

Speaking of the spiritual method of healing she discovered she says that it:

“….enhances … endurance and mental powers, enlarges … perception of character, gives … acuteness and comprehensiveness and an ability to exceed … ordinary capacity. The human mind, imbued with this spiritual understanding, becomes more elastic, is capable of greater endurance, escapes somewhat from itself, and requires less repose.”

Many have found that spiritual practices are very important to healing.  Leo Hollis, in describing how urban areas survive and return to normalcy after catastrophic events, points out that it’s not technology and urban systems, but trust in our fellow man, and their altruism and compassion — what I see as spiritual qualities, that pull a city through economic or environmental devastation like hurricane Sandy.  He found technology useful but not the main solution.

Likewise, healing deep trauma and disruption require powerful support and for me, it’s trust in a higher being that I can connect to and feel as a palpable presence that gets me out of life’s deep valleys. A deep spiritual reservoir to draw from can be the tipping point for healing.  It certainly was for Eddy.

Resilience and trust in a divine power. These old fashioned “technologies” will help anyone come out of the adversities of life even stronger than before.


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Can We Define Quality Health Care?

Are we always approaching improvements in health care in the right way? Sometimes our efforts to make things better actually have the opposite result.

Dr. H. Gilbert Welch, MD makes this point in his book Over-diagnosed – Making People Sick in the Pursuit of Health. Welch looks at how our pursuit of health, with the aid of improved technologies, has resulted in new standards for what is considered “sick”. Unfortunately the newly defined abnormalities are being treated unnecessarily, resulting in consequences worse than the condition that was treated.

Speaking from his own experience as a physician, Welch warns that “… more diagnosis leads to excessive treatment—treatment for problems that either aren’t that bothersome or aren’t bothersome at all. Excessive treatment, of course, can really hurt you. Excessive diagnosis may lead to treatment that is worse than the disease.” (p. 11)

Aside from the detrimental physical effects of over-diagnosis and thus over-treatment, there’s the monetary cost of treating what doesn’t need to be treated. And worse yet is the anxiety and fear that is created when we start to call what was once normal, an abnormality or sickness. The resultant stress can actually create or exacerbate ill health.

Often left out of the examination of quality in health care are the less tangible measures of things such as:

  • does the care include treating the patient as a whole person?
  • Does the care include consideration of the patient’s spiritual beliefs and practices?

Quality in any health care system is a must. And, more and more people agree that quality care happens when patients are treated as whole persons in all dimensions, including physical, emotional and spiritual aspects of being.

This understanding isn’t new. More than a century ago, spiritual activist and health writer Mary Baker Eddy noted:

“The calm, strong currents of true spirituality, the manifestations of which are health … must deepen human experience…”.  And, the human experience can certainly be deepened in the pursuit of excellence in any field, but especially in health care.

We can all appreciate the value of quality and excellence in medicine. That’s especially true when its achieved through deepening the human experience by honoring the currents of spirituality and seeing and treating the whole person.

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Who Heals the Healers?

Merry N. Miller writes in Medscape News about what we think doctors should be:

Physicians are expected to be healers, available to others whenever a crisis occurs or a medical need arises. They are expected to have unfailing expertise and competence, to be compassionate and concerned, and to provide universally successful care in a cost-effective manner.

But that’s not how Dr. Pamela Wible describes her experience in her book Pet Goats and Pap Smears:

“I felt like a factory worker pushing pills into patients as they flew past me on a conveyor belt. I tried other jobs, but they were all the same—assembly-line medicine. Doctoring was dumbed down to a numbers game with cookbook care if they had no insurance or if they took too long to express themselves.

After ten years on the treadmill, I was tired of being rude to people and neglecting myself—all in the name of health care.”

Too many physicians are perhaps feeling the same as Dr. Wible. Research shows that physicians have high rates of failed marriages, severe depression, substance abuse, and suicide – one of the highest rates of all professions.

These statistics are disconcerting purely for the human cost the physicians and their families bear. And, one wonders what the toll on their practice must be. Some people may argue that doctors don’t have to be healthy themselves to treat patients.

Yet, as Wible so aptly puts it:

“If doctors are victims, patients learn to be victims. If doctors are discouraged, patients learn to be discouraged.”

Wible’s story doesn’t end in tragedy, though. She went through a mental shift and envisioned a different way to practice. And, she began to see how she could use a similar approach to help her patients.

Today, she’s helping patients get healthy by spending time with them, listening to them deeply, and caring about them. She also helps them consider how their thinking impacts their health and what they can do to change their thinking. This approach allows her to get at their real health issues instead of being a pharmaceutical dispensary.

Could it be that by meeting deeper patient needs, Wible has found a way to fulfill the ancient biblical admonition, “…:Physician, heal thyself.” (Luke 4:23)? By putting the patient at the center of compassionate health care, might it help practitioners to be healthier, too?

As author Monica Dougherty puts it: “Compassion is really about loving yourself first and then others. Loving means wanting the best for everyone.”

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Beyond A Materialistic View Of Health

What if everyday we focused on improving our health by focusing on the spiritual aspects of our life rather than focusing on our body and preventing or managing disease.

It’s not a new idea. Jesus taught and proved that when we focus on the Divine in our life, we can expect and experience both mental and physical wellbeing. After studying his theology and works in depth, one Christian healer in the late 19th Century put it this way: “The body improves under the same regimen which spiritualizes the thought;”

Yet, in the last 100 years, the role spirituality plays in our health has been all but lost. Biomedicine and its attendant technologies have resulted in an approach to health, devoid of any consideration of the role our thinking and spirituality play.

Dr. Abdul Rahman Al Awadi,  native of Kuwait and renowned for his work in public health and the environment, put it this way:

“We have stripped man, over the last decades, of his spiritual values, and materialism is now in full control of all aspects of our life to the extent that man feels lost and restless, desperately seeking tranquility and peace of mind. I am quite certain that regardless of what we do to provide health care for the body and the mind, man shall remain lost and restless until we provide for the spiritual aspect of life”.

Fortunately, the tide has begun to turn. Increasingly, research and the practical experiences of many people both show that spirituality does foster good health.

According to Neera Dhar et al:

“Empirical evidence is available to indicate a direct relation between religious involvement, spirituality and positive health outcomes….”

As one of those people with years of practical experience in keeping my body healthy by focusing on my relationship with God, I spend time each day spiritualizing my thinking. This can be as simple as affirming God’s goodness in my life and rededicating myself to forgiveness or serving my fellow man better. This regimen has resulted for many years in peace and consistently good health.

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Pathways To Health Beyond Allopathic Medicine

One might say Dr. Andrew Elliott is not your run of the mill MD. Before he sees any patient, Dr. Elliott says a prayer. He then begins each patient visit thinking about the importance of his own intentions in relationship to working with that individual. These steps alone push the time he spends with each patient beyond standard practices.

But, standard practices are different in the practice of holistic medicine – treating the whole person rather than isolated symptoms – such as Dr. Elliott practices. His practice is built on a fourfold conceptual model. It includes :

Physical; Energy; Soul; and Spiritual.

Though it’s been practiced in some form for hundreds, if not thousands of years, Holistic medicine emerged in Western thought in the 1920s. Medical thinkers began to view sickness and healing as having mental roots, rather than just being physical issues, according to Anne Harrington of Harvard University in her book The Cure Within.

Yet, it wasn’t until the 1970s, according to the history of holistic medicine in the US, that it gained significant foothold. Though not universally seen as a viable form of health care, holistic medicine has gained some acceptance within mainstream medicine.

Still, lots of things are changing in mainstream medicine, including the incorporation of prayer as a key healing agent. For example, Dr. Elliott sees the Lord’s Prayer, common to the Christian tradition, as a profound healing prayer because it begins with Our Father, which is an acknowledgement that all of creation shares a common relationship with the Divine.

Even before the development of holistic medicine, spiritual thinker and healer Mary Baker Eddy made the same observation in her book Science and Health:

“Only as we rise above all material sensuousness …, can we reach the heaven-born aspiration and spiritual consciousness, which is indicated in the Lord’s Prayer and which instantaneously heals the sick.”

She also acknowledges that “The recuperative action of the system, when mentally sustained by Truth [God], goes on naturally.”

The spiritual underpinnings of health have deep roots in ancient times as recorded in the Bible. Hebrew prophets, Jesus, and his disciples and followers since then, practiced this natural form of health care over many centuries, with sure results.

This new/old practice of medicine, acknowledging wholeness and the spiritual nature of man, can upgrade health care from mere mechanistic treatment to a sense of connectedness to powerful recuperative energies, including divine Love.

It’s great to know that there are many health practitioners reaching beyond a mechanistic model and working to serve the fuller health needs of their patients.

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Do We Really Need All The Health Information We Constantly Seek?

What if our obsession for information isn’t always good for us?

Everywhere we go, information is at our fingertips through the ubiquitous Internet. We seem to have an insatiable desire to access data at any instant, in any location. Everywhere I go I see people staring at their laptops, tablets, and smartphones, searching for important tidbits. The latest information gadget is the digital wristwatch that can give us information about our body and health, and download it to our phone apps or computer.

The technology explosion, though presumed to be a benefit to mankind, may not actually be helpful for the common citizen, fearful about his or her health.  If the information we find is good, we’re happy.  And if it’s not good, then we can become anxious which can cause more health problems.

On the Internet you can find descriptions of every conceivable disease or body malfunction known to humanity. You can also find recommendations on possible remedies. And, finally, you can find all the possible negative side effects that go along with many of the suggested remedies. This information only adds to the fear one may be harboring about their health. Research says it can also lead to errors in self-diagnosis, followed by unnecessary treatments.

It seems to me that constantly looking at the body to see if it’s healthy, and researching the findings on the internet and in other sources, only looks at the result of a causal factor rather than at that factor itself – i.e. my own thinking.  In fact, as health researcher Mary Baker Eddy points out in her writings,  it may well serve our interests better to exercise wisdom and discernment when looking to the body for a report of health or sickness, or exposing ourselves to the latest descriptions of disease or drug side effects.

It’s my experience that spending more time examining my thought and focusing my attention on my relationship with a supreme being will bring better health and less anxiety.

As a bumper sticker recently advised, “Don’t believe everything you think.” And I might add, “or read.”

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Key Ingredients To A Healthy Heart

Ah, the heart. Though considered the engine that runs the body, it’s metaphorically the very center of a person’s concept of themselves. It’s as if that’s where soul, intelligence, courage, emotion, and intention are found. It’s the “place” from which we love.

The heart is more than just a vital organ; it also represents spiritual character.

In the Bible and other religious texts, the heart expresses mental and spiritual attributes. Jesus said:

“Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.” (Matt 5:8)

Does the process of purifying our heart so that we can see God also change how we see ourselves and others? You bet. And, what proceeds from that process might give us a clue about how to keep the heart healthy.

Medical science has gone to great lengths to find ways to maintain heart health. The problem is that research, experts’ theories and outcomes aren’t always consistent, especially over periods of time.

In a recent change, guidelines from the American Heart Association and American College of Cardiology suggest that cholesterol numbers – touted for years as the key to heart health – are, in fact, not a good determinant of the risk of heart disease. They suggest that, rather than focusing on physical statistics, it is the whole person that matters – how we think and feel, and our lifestyle.

Current wisdom has described a three-legged stool for heart health: don’t smoke, eat healthy, and get moderate exercise.

But I’m thinking that there’s a very important fourth leg of the stool and that’s what comes from “within the heart.”

Many doctors agree that negative emotions and stress are hard on the heart. But positive attributes like helping others, being “light hearted” and fun loving make for a healthy heart. For example, loving your spouse is more likely, according to research, to give your heart a stronger and longer life.

Some go even farther and suggest that connecting with the Divine can cause a “change of heart” that has powerful health benefits. Mary Baker Eddy, a prominent 20th century healer puts it this way:

“…there must be a change from human affections, desires, and aims, to the divine standard, … This change of heart would deliver man from heart-disease, and advance Christianity a hundredfold.” (Miscellaneous Writings, 50)

The divine standard of loving and giving selflessly is the essential, unchanging ingredient to a healthy heart.

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You Can Reduce Stress Through Prayer

Have you ever heard someone say, “I’m stressed out and it’s awesome”? Probably not.

And, while some research identifies certain types of stress as beneficial – the kind that comes from being excited about positive things or that helps us survive certain events – too many of us live in a perpetual state of feeling out of control and enduring more pressure than we should.  And, that doesn’t feel good; nor is it healthy.

I’ve definitely experienced times in my life where I didn’t pay attention to how I was reacting to events that seemed to be “too much”. Being aware of stress per se and what causes us to feel this way is fine, but I found it doesn’t go far enough. We need more than just awareness or ways to “manage” the stress.

Since stress is simply the way we react to certain events – not the events themselves – I’ve organized my life in a way that starts with stress-reducing activities, especially quite moments of prayer. As the prophet Isaiah puts it:

Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on thee: because he trusteth in thee. (Isa 26:3)

To have more of this perfect peace in my life, I’ve learned to keep my thinking focused on, and trusting, the Divine. When I can enter into the calming atmosphere of prayer, that place where I affirm all that I know to be good and where I experience a Divine presence, I am more productive, more relaxed, and unstressed. This equips me to put the challenges of life into their proper perspective and to calmly develop solutions.

Reducing stress is about more than just feeling less pressured. According to Dr. Bruce S. McEwen, director of the neuroendocrinology laboratory at Rockefeller University, research suggests that “prolonged or severe stress has been shown to weaken the immune system, strain the heart, and damage memory cells in the brain. Stress has been implicated in aging, depression, and heart disease.”

It is important to take proactive steps to reduce chronic stress. And, a daily dose of prayer is a good first step in this direction.

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Can Words And Labels Affect Our Health?

It would be a rare person who could navigate through life completely unaware of expectations placed upon him by others or himself.

One way that expectations are powerfully conveyed is in the words we choose and how we use them.  As my wife and I found in raising our children, word choices, or labels, as well as our thoughts about the kids, clearly affected their behavior.

Last year, the mental health field updated the manual it uses to aid psychologists and psychiatrists in diagnosing and treating mental disorders. The DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual) includes an expansion of diagnoses that can be treated with drugs and therapies, which up to now have been considered “normal” according to Dr. Allen Frances, M.D, professor emeritus at Duke.

The DSM, however, is not universally accepted. Marilyn Wedge, Ph.D. reports that France doesn’t use the DSM. In France, ADHD is viewed as an environmental and social problem rather than a biological one to be treated with drugs. The diagnosis of ADHD in France applies to 0.5% of all children whereas in the United States it’s 9%.

Pioneer researcher in the science of connecting thought and health, Mary Baker Eddy, points out that seeing others as innately good and perfect, and treating them that way, results in better health. To me, this sense of perfection means blameless.

I’ve found that when I assign labels to others, positive or negative, they tend to reinforce my expectation. I’ve learned that when I identify only good in others, and expect only the best from them, that’s what I get. Similarly, when we all see ourselves without negative labels, it allows us to be more normal and healthy too.

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    John Clague

    John Clague explores and writes about the relationship between thought, spirituality and health. A retired Lane County Sheriff's Department captain, he is now a Christian Science media and legislative liaison. Read Full
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