According to the organizers of "The Healing Arts in American and Asian Cultures," this year's Mansfield Conference at the University of Montana, illness may not stem solely from faulty biomechanics and viral and bacterial infections. If this is the case, they say, American and European doctors should begin to consider how the body and mind can be brought into harmony with their surroundings and the Universe at large, rather than prescribing antibiotics and the like.
Of course, some discount such beliefs as medical hooey, paying scant attention to the implication of the various ways medicine is practiced around the globe. But it's a question taken seriously by the professionals gathering in Missoula for UM's annual conference, which runs from Friday, October 16, through Tuesday, October 20.
Marjorie Kagawa-Singer, UCLA professor of public health and Asian studies, will be the keynote speaker Friday night. In an interview this week, Kagawa-Singer said that physicians in this country are just beginning to realize that a holistic approach to healing provides opportunities to increase patients' quality of life.
"Western bio-medicine views illness in mechanical terms. The body is separated from its environment and emotions. Humankind is separate from nature, and there's a sense of mastery," she says. "But in Eastern bio-medicine, illness is part of a greater whole, and health is the result of being in harmony with the universe."
Conference organizer Jack Rowan points out that despite the fact that many medical techniques practiced in the East are contrary to those in the west, consumers on both sides of the globe are taking increased interest in the other. "Integration is what we're aiming for, not to promote one over the other," Rowan says, noting that such opposites can also be considered complementary.
Rowan, who has a degree in anthropology, believes that with industrialization came a reduction in the collective esteem for non-scientific healing practitioners, and feels the population at large is now responding better to the idea of alternative medicine.
Conference speaker Walt Hollow, director of the Native American Center for Excellence for the University of Washington's School of Medicine, also takes a social and historical view. Hollow says that since the Dawes Act of 1887, which forbade the practice of traditional native medicine, was overturned in 1978, the number of Native Americans incorporating traditional healing into their health care has risen to as much as 90 percent on some reservations.
Noting that traditional, alternative treatments are practiced side-by-side with Western methods in some U.S. tribal communities, Hollow emphasizes that Indian medicine goes beyond herbs, and strongly utilizes what he calls spiritual aspects.
Lucien Wulsin, founder of the Naropa Institute's Gerontology Program in Colorado, says the growth of hospice, which encourages emotional acceptance of dying and a dignified, painless death, is another sign that healing options previously considered outside of the mainstream are gaining acceptance.
Wulsin assists elderly patients with telling their life stories, whether through writing or speech, so that the transmission acts as a necessary end of life reflection. "Deep in the subconscious, we have myths of culture and background," he says. "Many of our stories reflect these myths. Telling them is a form of life review-we try to make sense of it. People who don't engage in this have a hard time at the end of life."
Lobsang Rapgay, a Tibetan Buddhist monk and a staff psychiatrist at UCLA specializing in end of life issues, says some universal tenants of Tibetan Buddhism can be modified to Western psychological terms, assisting terminally ill patients to deal with impending death.
"The Buddhist tradition tries to articulate the nameless dread dying people have to live with, giving it some kind of form or mental picture," Rapgay says. "This thing that is nameless and dark, sucking you into a void, is much more tolerable if you can picture it mentally.... If you strip away the cultural components of Tibetan Buddhism, it's quite consistent with basic Western psychological constructs."
Barbara Spring, executive director of the Missoula Demonstration Project's Quality of Life's End, which co-sponsors this year's conference, says that cross-cultural lessons in living and dying well are coming into their own. "We can learn from the Buddhist thoughts of dying well, which accepts that the reality of life is facing death, Spring says "The ability to live in the present and journey through it without fear makes the dying process a part of life."
Rowan adds that this is precisely why these subjects are being discussed, and calls Missoula a unique forum, in part due to the fact that the hospice movement here is strong and the level of interest towards alternative medicine in the mainstream medical community is high.
For a partial schedule of the Mansfield Center's "The Healing Arts in American and Asian Cultures," from October 16 through 20, see this week's a&e calendar, 8 Days a Week, or call 243-2988 for details.