I often recommend an inspirational essay to my patients entitled “In The Gray Zone,” written by Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D. A nationally recognized physician and educator, Dr. Remen is a pioneer in the field of mind/body medicine, and has cared for people with cancer for more than 30 years. What makes her work truly inspiring and unique is that she addresses the role of spirit in health and healing—in fact, she regards the practice of medicine as a spiritual path.
Herbal Medicine: How Do We Know It Works?
I often lecture in hospitals or to groups schooled in conventional medical thinking. Although they are intrigued by herbal medicine, one of the first questions they ask is, “How do you know that herbs really work?”
This is a valid question. It’s not enough to say, “Well, this herbal remedy worked for my grandparents, so it will work for me.” Although there may be validity in this way of thinking, it certainly won’t stand up to the scientific, research based approach of modern medicine. First, it’s important to understand that traditional medical systems, such as Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), Ayurveda, or the tradition of American Eclectic Medicine, are based on complex, but practical medical assumptions and theories; they are organized systems, acquired from hundreds, if not thousands of years of development through direct experience with patients.
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The Spirit of True Healing
We live in a progressively fragmented world, and this fragmentation affects every aspect of our lives. Even natural medicine is not immune to the tendency to view cancer and other serious illnesses with a narrow focus, addressing only one type of treatment or concentrating on only one aspect of health (for example, diet, exercise, or chemical exposure). I believe this myopic view is the result of living lives that are chronically stressed, composed of frantic time schedules, fast food, and sedentary work. When we simply go through the motions of daily existence, life can begin to feel robotic, mundane, and meaningless. To live fully, we must wake up to the expansiveness and possibilities of this great gift of life. Sometimes, it takes a significant life crisis to awaken us.
Improve Your Health With Black Pepper
Although it’s often said, “You are what you eat,” it’s more accurate to say, “You are what you absorb.” You may be eating a perfect diet and taking handfuls of supplements, but if you aren’t absorbing what you’re consuming, your body won’t have the raw materials needed for energy, maintenance, and repair. Without proper absorption and assimilation of nutrients, health problems inevitably arise.
One of my favorite botanicals for improving digestion and absorption is black pepper (Piper nigrum), which is the dried fruit of a flowering tropical vine. I find it interesting that black pepper plays such a prominent role in our cuisine, and that so many of us enjoy grinding fresh black pepper onto our food at the table. Along with adding flavor to our plate, we’re taking advantage (perhaps intuitively) of the health promoting benefits of this ancient spice, which include the ability to enhance the absorption of many of the medicinal nutrients in food. Although black pepper is well established in Western cuisine, the use of the spice originates in south India, where it has been appreciated for thousands of years not only for its culinary appeal, but also for its myriad health benefits.
How Music Heals
As a musician, I’m attuned to the transformative power of music. My father was a musician, and I grew up listening to classical and jazz compositions. I was intrigued by the complex rhythms and melodies of jazz, and was inspired to begin playing the bass guitar in my early teens. In my early twenties, I added another dimension of music to my life when I entered a Franciscan monastery and experienced the meditative chants of the monks. I always felt that I both lost and found myself in music, whether it was classical, jazz, or Gregorian chants.
As a researcher, I’m interested in understanding exactly how music affects the body. From the beginning of recorded history, sound and music have played a significant role in healing. Whether through the hypnotic drum rhythms of an African tribe or the sonorous chants of Tibetan monks, music pierces the soul and accesses the power of healing in a way unlike any other.
In the West, there’s a growing interest in music therapy. Studies show that music helps to relieve stress, anxiety, and depression; eases pain and muscle tension; lowers blood pressure; and improves immune function. People with cancer, cardiovascular disease, dementia, anxiety, and depression have all been shown to benefit from music therapy. For example, researchers at the November 2008 American Heart Association Scientific Sessions meeting in New Orleans presented a study showing that emotions aroused by joyful music have a beneficial effect on blood vessel function. Laughter and relaxation are also helpful, but music seems to be the strongest of “medicines” for the heart.
Finding God In Music
One of my favorite musicians is the great jazz saxophonist John Coltrane. It’s not only his consummate skill as a musician that inspires me, but the way that he finds and expresses God through his music.
One evening, as Coltrane performed one of his most well known pieces—“A Love Supreme”, he ascended to new heights of superb musicianship. Everything came together in a transformative experience for Coltrane, and he communicated this transcendent experience to the audience through his saxophone. As he left the stage, his drummer heard him softly say, “Luke 2:22-29.” Coltrane recognized that he had touched heaven, and that he was doing what he was meant to do in this earthly existence.