Can you succinctly define what "a beautiful medicine" is?
A beautiful medicine is a perspective on the nature of health, healing, and medicine that sees the search for love, beauty, and wholeness as the context for both the patient’s condition and a health practitioner’s ultimate intent.
As with holistic or integrative medicine, it suggests that health is far more than the absence of disease. It’s the flourishing of the human body, mind, and spirit that results from not just from a great exercise program, a balanced lifestyle, and an excellent diet, but also from competence in the art of living. The purpose of medicine, in this context, is not only to repair broken systems or parts of the body. It’s also to support each human being and each community—with all their hopes and dreams, fears and sorrows, and untapped human possibility—in their journeys toward the full expression of their potential, their humanity, their wholeheartedness.
While we have many tactics to improve our lives, including methods in both integrative and conventional medicine, the strategy in the end makes sense to me only when we consider the deep humanity that lies within the heart and soul of each individual. We want to be healthy not just for its own sake, but in order to pursue our dreams and fulfill the longings of our souls. The failures to fully live in self-affirmation often contribute to our physical illnesses. And in contrast, when we can achieve that sense of beauty – the heartfelt experience in the soul of being profoundly connected to ourselves and to others, (what Martin Buber called the I-You connection)– then we have helped strengthen the innate healing potential of the body-mind.
A beautiful medicine sees the evolution of each individual’s heart-mind-soul as the ultimate and primary purpose of health and healing.
Why is there such a great divide between science and spirituality these days?
Compared to jets and skyscrapers, conversations about spiritual matters seem like flights of fancy. It takes reflection and discipline to see through the surface layers of the physical world. I see the divide as a failure of consciousness: the inability to see past the veils of the material surfaces of life. Judy Garland wrote, “T’was not my lips you kissed, but my soul,” hinting that what’s ultimately real and true in human experience is invisible, an idea found in Plato, many spiritual traditions, and quantum physics. The Hindu traditions refer to this failure of consciousness as maya, a trick, an illusion. Artists, musicians, writers, (and quantum physicists), are better positioned than most to see that what move, shake, and shape physical reality are unseen currents of energy. This failure to be conscious enough, to have the perspicacity to penetrate the outer skin of the material world, is expressed in consumerism and in scientific materialism, the idea that the physical dimensions of existence are the primary reality. The accomplishments of scientific materialism and money are dazzling. And the seduction of that dazzle and glitter hooks the more primitive impulses in human consciousness, which then hijack that part of consciousness and the brain that can keep the spiritual dimensions of the life at the forefront.
You've been inspired by artists, writers, and musicians as well as spiritual leaders. Why are these other perspectives important for well-being?
There are countless studies pointing to the impact of belief and emotion on health and illness, and it’s now a widely accepted idea. The fertility of the aesthetic experience has its correlates in flesh and blood. And in that light, the arts help fulfill the soul’s hunger for meaning, beauty, and connection. When that hunger is assuaged, the body is supported in thriving.
Just having normal blood chemistry is an insufficient condition for those who want to flourish. There needs to be a fullness, a richness, in the soul as well. And the arts can help bring that about—even when the art puts in touch with our pain. This points to the subjective dimensions of the human experience: what we feel is the subjective flip side of what the objective measures of human physiology tell us. Defining health as being only a physical condition is inherently incomplete. The arts, and the feeling, aesthetic aspects of the human experience provide for a richness and an effulgence of the soul that can then influence our neurochemistry for the better. Which would we rather hear from another— “Your consciousness affects my physiology,” or “It was not my lips you kissed, but my soul”?
What do playing guitar, studying to become a monk, and practicing acupuncture have in common?
For me, they are all exercises in the search for beauty, connection, and wholeness.
What do you read for insight and inspiration?
I enjoy George Saunders for his ability to say a lot with the fewest of words, James Joyce for his reverent tones and a rhythmicity that would make many of his lines work in a rap song, Ramana Maharshi for his amazing wisdom, Marianne Williamson for her ability to remind me to love, Rainer Maria Rilke for his mystical power, Stanislav Grof and Ken Wilber for pointing to the higher reaches of human consciousness.
Who's your favorite guitarist? Why?
Pat Metheny often creates pictures of transcendent beauty. The evocative nature of much of his work is, to me, a leap beyond the mundane and prosaic to a place where it often borders on the mystical (Did you know there’s a St. John Coltrane Church in San Francisco?). His music tugs at the soul without being sentimental—a rare feat, I think— and often gives me the feeling that I’m in a place that’s good, right, and true. It seems to give better shape to the contours of my identity—or to put it more simply, if I were a song, I’d be a Pat Metheny piece.