When it comes to health and healing, Americans are living in a difficult but interesting time. As we imagine new ways to heal ourselves and create healthy communities, two timely books—A Mind at Home With Itself by Byron Katie and Stephen Mitchell, and Slow Medicine: The Way to Healing by Victoria Sweet—are helping to light the way.
Katie knows a lot about healing. Emerging from a depression that almost consumed her, she developed a system of self-inquiry called “The Work,” designed to help alleviate the suffering that comes with anxiety, fear, depression and anger. A Mind at Home with Itself proposes that asking four simple questions can shatter our damaging beliefs.
“The Work is experiential,” she says. “Sometimes I refer to it as ‘checkmate,’ because those four questions are deadly to the ego, yet it works for anyone whose mind is open to it. The more we question what we believe, the more open our minds become.”
A Mind at Home with Itself explores the common thread between the Work and The Diamond Sutra, one of the most important ancient Buddhist texts. Mitchell—a writer and scholar who is also Katie’s husband—lays out the nature of mind to be found in both. “The more you realize that there is no such thing as the separate self, the more you become naturally generous,” he says. “This is something that Katie has lived out.”
Katie believes that a kinder way of living and more compassionate point of view come when we cut through the hypnotic spell of our own beliefs. “Most of us take the thoughts that come rushing at us for granted,” she says. “If we slow down with an open mind and contemplate the thoughts arising within us, they can become different. That’s a state of grace as far as I’m concerned. An open mind is a privilege.”
As a physician at San Francisco’s Laguna Honda Hospital for more than 20 years, Victoria Sweet came to understand that the intrinsic nature of medicine is slow and personal, an experience she wrote about in her book, God’s Hotel: A Doctor, a Hospital, and a Pilgrimage to the Heart of Medicine. In her new book, Slow Medicine: The Way to Healing, she offers an alternative to the tyranny of efficiency at the expense of healing. In a recent conversation, I asked her to flesh out her ideas.
What do you mean when you say slow medicine?
VICTORIA SWEET: I mean that the doctor, nurse or therapist spends a certain kind of time with you. It’s focused, attentive, and slow in terms of its pace. Slow medicine is a counterpart to the slow food movement, with everything that it implies—as in, the way to something is the way of it. You can’t have a beautiful meal unless it’s prepared in a certain way. The same applies to medicine.
You consider the term “health care” to be problematic. Why?
We didn’t have “health care” when I was in medical school. Doctors practiced medicine. Suddenly this weird concept emerged of “providing health care,” which prompted economists to ask how much we spend on medical care, nursing care, hospitals, medicine, advertising, etc., and put it all in a box. I’m like the retail clerk who will provide you with health care for the least amount of money, but I can’t give you health. Doctors take care of sick people. If you’re not sick, but you just don’t feel right, there’s not a lot I can do on my own. What you eat and drink, your activity level, temperament, mood, stance toward life—these are things that you control.
I like your analogy of the human body being more like a plant than a machine. What’s the benefit of thinking like that as a doctor?
Both concepts are useful, as long as they’re applied at the right time for the right reasons. When you get acutely ill, it’s most helpful to find out what’s broken. That places me in the role of mechanic. But once the appendix comes out or the cancer is removed, a shift takes place. The body moves into self-repair and healing. Then my job is as a gardener. Now I ask myself, how can I nourish the patient’s power of healing and remove whatever is in its way?
Can slow medicine be cost effective in a fast-paced, high-tech world?
Trying to fix health care has only made it more expensive, because they took out the crucial piece, which is getting the right diagnosis. The best way for a doctor to get the right diagnosis is to see you, talk to you, listen to you and examine you. When doctors can take the time necessary to get the right diagnosis and treatment, there are fewer ER visits, fewer hospital admissions, fewer medications. It’s just better all around.
You talk about medicine as a spiritual pursuit. How have you found it to be spiritual?
My patients give me a sense of deep connection. When I can sit with them and hang out, it’s incredibly moving—the way it’s supposed to be. I would not be the same person if I hadn’t become a doctor and been able to experience this a lot.
Byron Katie will discuss ‘A Mind at Home with Itself’ at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 18, and Victoria Sweet will talk about ‘Slow Medicine: The Way to Healing at 7 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 23. Both events are at Bookshop Santa Cruz, 1520 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz, 423-0900. Free.