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Physical and Spiritual Anatomy – A Challenge to Western Medicine

Physical and Spiritual Anatomy - A Challenge to Western Medicine

by Robert Volkmann, M.D.

When I think of Health—of a healthy human being—my image is influenced by what I understand to be the anatomy of who we are. What is this anatomy?

In medical school, one of our first and most important classes was called Gross Anatomy—the bones, muscles, nerves and organs of the human body. That view of us, as a collection of physical organs, has dominated western medicine. What was strikingly absent in that anatomy class, and what is still absent from western medicine, are all the non-physical aspects of our being—our minds, our emotions, our sexuality, our very dreams, our gift to love and to be loved, and, finally, and most profoundly, the sacred aspect of ourselves that connects us to our spirituality.

Western medicine’s emphasis on "physical" anatomy is a profound mistake of materialism. By so defining ourselves—as a group of physical organs (brains, kidneys, lungs, heart, intestines)—we unintentionally exclude those afore mentioned and truly defining characteristics of our humanity, and we do this at great cost to our patients, our culture, and ourselves.

As anyone knows who has lost a leg or a kidney, who is overweight or has bad acne, the loss of a body part or its disfigurement does not make us less than human. Rather, what makes us less than human is when our heart or spirit is absent from our lives. Our true anatomy includes all of ourselves. To work and to be effective in the field of health and healing, we must be learned in all this anatomy.

Ideally, physicians are partners with their patients, acting as guides in health. We are consultants, educating and empowering our patients. Such a relationship is, of course, beneficial for our patients. But it goes more deeply than that. I submit that incorporating this more complete view of our true anatomy is vital if we are to experience our own wholeness—as physicians and as healers.

Now it is argued that doctors must remain objective and scientific, i.e. “professional.” In medical school, we are instructed that doctors should not be involved with the emotions, the heart and spirit, that these domains are properly left to priests and counselors.

I see my profession differently. I would argue that to not treat the whole person is to not respect the whole person. In our western medicine, when we reduce people solely to their physical anatomy and its associated diseases, we diminish them to a status of less than human. It defiles those non-physical aspects that I spoke of earlier, those attributes that truly define our humanity. The consequences of this behavior extend beyond the truncated care we dispense to our patients, for when we doctors do this, we defile our own heart and spirit and, consequently, become less than human ourselves.

I would propose that additions be made to our basic medical curriculum. How about adding in those subjects that make us whole human beings? For example, the mind is more than just the intellect, or IQ. Rather, the mind is the whole web of our thinking, our attitudes and our beliefs—together these constitute our mental beingness. Attitudes and beliefs affect choices in life, and directly affect health. This is fertile ground for a true teacher and healer to work.

With regards to our emotions and our sexuality, we could offer more than anger management and birth control. How about honoring these fertile aspects of self without which life has so little passion or worth, as our depressed patients so often affirm?

With our heart, we enter into our very soul, the core of our beingness. It is the ‘heart of the matter,’ as our language so poetically puts it. Our heart is who we are at the very center of our being.

And with spirit, we enter into our connection with the rest of the world around us, the people, our fellow creatures, the planet we live on. Beyond these, our spirit connects us to the greater world that we are a part of—life, death, birth, and those reaches of the sacred that draw out from us our best and greatest potentials, as individuals and as a people.

To remove these aspects from our life is to diminish ourselves. Similarly, when we, as physicians, ignore or neglect these aspects in our patients, we diminish the patients themselves, much to our great detriment. I believe that, just as racism or child pornography reduces all of us in our essential humanity, so are we diminished when we do not honor the totality of who our patients are. They are like us, we are like them. How we treat them reflects on us and affects us, just as how we are whole in ourselves affects how we treat our patients.

In a birthday dream a few years ago, I was trying to talk to some adults about God, but they would not hear me as they were too busy talking to each other. So I told a child about God, how God was in everyone, in him, and in all those other children playing nearby, speaking as I pointed to them. In the dream, I went on to say that a part of him was in each of them and that a part of each of them was in him. He started to cry. I woke up with tears in my own eyes.

This dream is special and very moving to me for it speaks powerfully of our connection to one another. That connection suggests a standard for how we can relate to one another. We can enter into the world of the Sacred. The Sacred honors and respects all aspects of ourselves. The Sacred understands all aspects of us as one thing, not divisible according to organ systems or the physical versus the rest of our life.

I would propose this new understanding of our duties and responsibilities as physicians. We need to take the time to see the patient as a person in all of her/his wholeness. We can get to know who they are, the life story they are living, where their heart is, what their mind is doing and what their feelings are, all those aspects of being that make them just like us. We can allow ourselves to do this, without shame, but with a deep knowing of our own heart. When we fully honor our patients, we will more fully honor who we are—as individuals and as physician healers.

Robert Volkmann, M.D., is a physician in private practice in Salem, Oregon. His passion is for meditation and the sacred. He can be reached at (503) 588-0734, or by email.